A little baby thing…

baby-jesus-sleepingOne of the blessings that has been mine as a consequence of being somewhat housebound over the last month or so has been an opportunity to step back from all the busyness of Christmas. In my quiet time each day I have been able to reflect upon the significance of that first Christmas without being  distracted by carolling and mince pies!

One of my favourite poems is found in our carol book and comes from the pen of George MacDonald (1824-1905):

“They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes, and lift them high
Thou cam’st a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
O son of man, to right my lot
Nought but thy presence can avail
Yet on the road thy wheels are not
Nor on the sea thy sail
My fancied ways why shouldst thou heed
Thou com’st down thine own secret stair
Com’st down to answer all my need,
Yea, every bygone prayer!”

In his simple but effective poem MacDonald reminds us that Jesus doesn’t always come to us in the way we expect or even in the way we are hoping that he will appear. Jesus, along with the good news that he brings us, is often full of surprises, unexpected twists and turns, usually with a sacrificial sting in the tail. The same is true of personal holiness, holiness looks like Jesus, it is, as people often say, being ‘like Jesus.’ The apostle Paul goes even further reminding us that holiness isn’t simply being ‘like Jesus’ but holiness is actually being Jesus —‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20)

But what was Jesus really like?

Christ was gentle, kind, slow to anger, meek and mild but to show this side of his character only is as bad as presenting him with long blonde hair and blue eyes. Jesus was poor, nomadic and homeless he was also angry (on one occasion even violent), frustrated, a party goer, a friend of sinners, someone who turned water into wine, a man who indulged himself at great expense when he allowed a woman of dubious character to massage expensive perfume into his feet and he was also (by the standards of the religious leaders of his day) a law breaker. All in all, to many of his contemporaries, Jesus appeared to be an unpredictable rebel.

If the first Christmas took place today then just as he did 2000 years ago Christ would come down his own ‘secret stair…’ and his character and presence might not be what we expect or even want.

Christ’s actions can be traced to several clear motives, the most obvious being love. This love was characterised by an on-going three-way transaction between himself, his Father and those around him. It was his relationship with the father that provided Christ with the priorities which directed and governed his interaction with the world.

Christ couldn’t abide pride or hypocrisy and what a person thought about themselves often determined how he dealt with them and what he expected of them. The rich young ruler thought he was righteous and was commanded to give ‘all’ of his honourably acquired wealth away. Zacchaeus knew he was bad and only had to part with a fraction of his ill-gotten gains. The Pharisee, Nicodemus, who approached Christ at night with the question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’ was told he must be ‘born again’, whereas the woman caught in adultery Jesus refused to condemn.

Jesus possessed a ravenous hunger for social justice – he saw people for what they were. Christ was totally unmoved by the labels society placed on them, he looked beyond a person’s self-image or social status. This gift was never more obvious than in the case of people he considered to be victims. Jesus often saw those who were traditionally depicted as sinners, not as bad people but as victims.

Jesus had an open association with sinners – he deliberately went out of his way to connect with those whom he came to save. He was literally a ‘friend’ to sinners not in the sentimental way we sometimes apply that phrase but in the literal sense – he sought out and befriended those who deliberately disobeyed God. He hung out with them, went to their parties and even employed them. When Jesus called Matthew he was (by the standards of his day) an active sinner, sitting in his booth collecting taxes. Matthew was, at the time of his calling, an unrepentant and deliberate collaborator with the Romans who would have undoubtedly been using his position to further his own material wealth and social standing.

This is what Jesus looked like 2000 years ago and we have no reason to suspect that he would look any different today. Where would we find him? We would find him in the company of unbelievers, at the movies, at the football game, going to parties, in night clubs – enjoying their company – not for his own pleasure alone but in order that he might save them. On a Sunday I have no doubt that he would be at Church but his main mission field would be outside the building in the real world . Sunday might be a time for recharging his batteries but his real work would take place between Monday and Saturday.

Holiness like this does not set us free from the demands of sacrifice quite the contrary. How can I safely wander among ‘the sites that dazzle’ and ‘the tempting sounds’, how can I have my feet massaged by a prostitute and attend all night parties and keep myself pure? Only when I have made a definite, heartfelt, Gethsemane-like surrender of my will, when I have made a blood-sweated commitment to resist temptation, when I am determined to wear the full of armour of God and only when these actions are motivated by selfless love can I move safely in such dangerous territory.  Like David against Goliath my courage and ultimate victory must be motivated and sustained by love. To attempt Christian ministry without meeting these conditions will lead to total failure and certain damnation.

Being a Christian in 2016 is about love and obedience, about being like Jesus (although as we have said not perhaps in the way we might have imagined). Has our devotion driven us to the point where we are able to say we have emptied ourselves ‘of all but love’, have we crucified ourselves in order that Christ, in all his unpredictable and controversial glory, might live instead of us? Have we ‘gone beyond the brook?’ If the answer’s yes, then we may well find ourselves this Christmas standing at the foot of Christ’s ‘secret stair’ ready to greet the one ‘born this happy morning!’

Have a God glorifying and happy Christmas.

 

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One person at a time…

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The terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin is wrong in so many ways, some more obvious than others.

  • The families and friends of 12 individuals who are now facing Christmas with the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one. This of course being just the first Christmas that they will experience this loss, every Christmas from now on will compel them to relive this awful even
  • Those who are critically ill in hospital and their families whose Christmas will now be dominated by hospital visits and medical reports.
  • Those who will recover but who have received life changing injuries and will spend 2017 in residential rehabilitation as they adjust to the physical limitations placed upon them by this monstrous act. 
  • The emergency services who had to attend the sick and dying who will find it difficult to enjoy anything for some time to come.

These are the most obvious and significant negative outcomes but there are others, less obvious, but still part of the chaos and confusion the terrorist sought to perpetuate.

  • Children for whom the magic of Christmas has been forever removed.
  • Businesses that will now fold as they are no longer able to trade during this busiest of periods.
  • The disappointment of those who had planned to visit the Christmas market this week.
  • The fear and uncertainty which will now be felt by any large public gathering of people who could become the next target.
  • The negative impact it will have upon the lives and hopes of genuine refugees and asylum seekers throughout Western Europe.

As a Christian, there is another incomprehensible evil associated with this act and that is the fact that it has been done in the name of my God – the God of Abraham. It is hard to understand what can motivate a 23-year-old man to drive an articulated lorry at high speed into an area crowded with innocent members of the public. He had no idea whether the victims of his crime would be children or babies in pushchairs, some of his victims could have conceivably been Muslims. His act was indiscriminate and cowardly in the extreme. The fact that this act has been motivated by religion will give further ammunition to those who want to eradicate all forms of spiritual faith from our society. Even though the terrorist’s actions were completely at odds with the teaching contained within the Koran those who have a passionate dislike for religion will not be presenting this individual as a maverick. Once again religion will be painted as the real murderer.

The Koran, along with the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament teaches tolerance, hospitality to the alien, nonviolence, mercy and compassion. It is only when verses are taken out of their historical context that they become justification for arbitrary acts of violence. Whether it is white supremacists, those blowing up the cars of doctors who carry out abortions, those campaigning for the castration of homosexuals or individuals driving articulated lorries at high speed into a crowded market — there will always be those who have neither the desire nor the time to properly understand the tenets of their own faith. There will always be those looking for divine permission to molest, maim and murder.

Although there are times when we feel overwhelmed by the influence and impact of evil within our world we still have a responsibility (regardless of whether that responsibility is motivated by spiritual faith or human compassion) to lead by example. Although it seems trite and hackneyed there can only be peace on earth if it begins with me. In my workplace, in my family, in my community and in my church peace must begin with me. The greatest tool I have at my disposal is my life, my words, my actions and reactions. Whether it’s in conversation with a colleague, whether driving the car, whether encouraging one of my children to tidy up after themselves… Whatever the context peace on earth must begin with me. Cancer attacks the body one cell at a time and in the same way is eradicated one cell at a time. Society is not a single entity but a collection of individuals and the world can only become a better place if it does so one person at a time and that process needs to begin with me.

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Holiness (3)

God loves mankind with a perfect love. Regardless of whether we’re sinful or righteous, his love is constant. He loved the world so much that he sent his son to die for us. As the bible says

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

The giving of Jesus as a gift was an attempt on God’s part to focus his love for us. He wanted us to be able to see in a practical and moving way just how much he loved us and he did this for us “while we were still sinners”. As we are told in Romans chapter five verses six and eight

“”When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus was often accused of spending too much time with sinners. Do you remember the parable of the lost sheep and the context in which it was told?

 Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:)

Jesus didn’t only associate with sinners he used them and even called them to be his disciples. Matthew was a tax collector and when Jesus called him he was actually sitting at his tax collectors booth.

“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth.”Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and `sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not sacrifice. ‘For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13).

In the time in which Jesus lived tax collectors were seen as no better than sinners. They were people who not only assisted the occupying Roman forces, but they lined their own pockets at the same time. When Jesus called Matthew he didn’t call a repentant sinner he called an active one!

God doesn’t want to condemn mankind, he doesn’t want to send us all to hell and watch us endure eternal torture he wants us to be with him. Some people have questioned the depth of God’s love; they say how can a God whose love is so great send anyone to hell? The problem is that it is not in God’s nature to be unjust. He can no more be unjust than he could stop loving us. He can’t turn a blind eye towards our disobedience because Satan “the accuser of the brethren” is always there pointing a finger. How can God justify us to his archenemy? How can he present us as just in the eyes of this sadistic accuser who wouldn’t recognise love if it bit him on the nose? God’s answer to this problem is faith! God shows the devil our faith in Jesus. That’s how we live; we live because of our faith. God’s grace exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross saves us, our faith in his sacrifice makes that salvation ours and as a result we are made just through that faith – As the bible says “The just shall live by faith!” Can you recall what Paul said in Galatians chapter two verse twenty

“”I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

This is all well and good but how does it actually work on a practical level? Let’s use a hypothetical example to help us. If I were to go out now and sin, i.e. deliberately disobey God. Say, for example, I gave into the temptation to buy a lottery ticket, which because of the promises I’ve made would be sinful. Then on my way home I crashed the car and died before I had chance to confess my sin, would I go to hell? In other words does my future security depend upon the last bad thing I did? Of course not! If that were so, my salvation would be a salvation of works and not one of faith. As long as I had committed that act (albeit deliberately, selfishly and foolishly) within the ongoing context of spiritual warfare, and if my faith were intact then I am sure that I would go to heaven. Now you might say, oh come on Andrew that means our actions count for nothing. Of course that is not true but it is that sort of thinking that led Paul to repeatedly say

“what then shall we say to this shall we keep on sinning?”

Paul was aware that some might think that the gospel he was preaching was a little bit too accommodating.

Wesley in his famous hymn “O for a thousand tongues to sing” pointed out that “cancelled sin” can still have power, but as he so powerfully reminds us Christ “breaks the power of cancelled sin and sets the prisoner free, his blood can make the foulest clean, his blood avails for me.”

The battle we’re fighting is not a battle between the old man and the new man because the old man is dead. It’s a battle between two mindsets. The old man has left a calling card in our minds. Paul calls that calling card the flesh. The flesh and the spirit are totally incompatible. When we crucify the flesh and walk in the spirit we win that battle and we walk in holiness. When we listen to the enemy and doubt the crucifixion of the flesh and stop walking in the spirit then we cease walking in holiness. Because we are in a constant state of warfare we have a tendency to be falling in and out of “walking in holiness”.

What we must remember at all times is that our status, i.e. whether we’re sinful or righteous is not in question as long as we continue to believe that Christ’s death and his living grace makes it possible for us to “walk in holiness”. As long as God can see in our hearts that righteousness is what we’re seeking and fighting for then we are not only saved but we’re safe too! Hallelujah!

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Holiness (2)

Gideon is one of my favourite biblical characters and I think there are few spiritual problems, which can’t be solved by looking at his story. The story of Gideon portrays a set of circumstances that appear to be real but are actually untrue when compared with reality as God sees it.

Look at the greeting given to Gideon “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12) This is statement of fact, but it is a fact spoken from God’s perspective. Look at Gideon’s response; “But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, `Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6:13).  These are facts seen from Gideon’s perspective. Gideon recognises that God has power but he perceives that as a force that can only be seen and felt in the lives of others – “yes you were with us once but you’re not now.” God dismisses Gideon’s response and doesn’t even grace it with a reply, instead scripture tells us that “The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Judges 6:14)

God tells Gideon to go in the strength that he already has – what strength does Gideon have? He has none. What strength is God talking about then? His own! In verse 15 Gideon responds again with a statement of the facts as seen from his human perspective. “But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

This time God does answer Gideon, he answers him from an entirely different perspective, he says “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.”

Gideon’s reality is based on his circumstances and all of his weaknesses, he can only see the evidence that is immediately in front of him and he makes his judgements based on that information. God ignores Gideon’s limitations and instead sees only his own power and the victory that awaits his servant. This is an excellent metaphor for holiness. The story of Gideon is all about God being with us and us being mighty in his power, it’s got nothing to do with our human position, status or ability.

In chapter 7 verse 2 God weeds out those people with no commitment; he says to Gideon “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, `Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’ ” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained ”

Following this process of selection God then goes on to weed out those who may be tempted to take the credit for themselves;

“But the LORD said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them out for you there. If I say, `This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, `This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink.” Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The LORD said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place.”

To any onlooker this must have appeared a strange method of recruitment.  On the one hand God weeds out those who are uncommitted to the cause and then he removes all of the professional soldiers from Gideon’s ranks. There is a strange contradiction here, yet it is a contradiction that we must consider if we are to discover the power of personal holiness. We are no good to God if we are not committed to his cause. Jesus told his disciples the man who puts his hand to the plough and then looks away is of little use to the kingdom. Yet at the same time no matter how committed we are – the battle remains the Lords. The moment we start to trust in our own skill and judgement is the moment we will begin to fail.  In Gideon’s time the great victories of God were the stuff of folklore and legend. The people had heard stories about what God had done in the past but there was little evidence of his work in the present. It was important to God that the people would see Gideon’s impending  victory as a modern-day miracle.  No one other than God would be allowed to take the credit for defeating the Midianites.

It is exactly the same in our own lives; personal holiness exists to draw people’s attention – not to us – but to God.  Do you remember what Jesus said to his disciples about being “the light of the world” in Matthew chapter 5 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

It was important to Jesus that the good works performed by his disciples were visible. It seems strange to us with our modern understanding of Christianity that this should be his desire. It was the same Christ who said in Matthew Chapter 6 verse 3 “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” This verse is more in line with our contemporary understanding of Christian practice than the thought of parading our good works before men.

Yet as with many things taught by Jesus, we need to understand the motive behind the action he is looking for. Why did Jesus want his disciples to parade their good works before the World? Was it so that their friends and neighbours would hold them up as good citizens? Was it because their respectability would help to advance the social standing of the young Church? Was it because he wanted the disciples to enjoy the passing and shallow pleasure that comes from being in the limelight? No it was so that “men might see their good works and give glory to the father!”

Before I became a Christian I had something of a reputation, even now many years after my conversion there are still occasions when I meet people who can only remember the “old man” and have yet to have the pleasure of the “new man’s” company.  Once these people have had the opportunity to spend some time with the new Andrew they are amazed at the change in his personality. Such people do not hesitate to give the glory for this change to God.

A man’s testimony will always speak more to the unsaved than his words alone.  The problem with our words is that they are all too easy to fake; it is too easy to look the part and to talk the part without actually being the person God wants. If Gideon had led thousands of well-trained professional soldiers into battle then the nations around would have ascribed his victory to military might and skill. When the nations around saw that an unimportant man from an insignificant clan with no military training had defeated the Midianites with the help of just a few hundred well-meaning amateurs they would have been compelled to look elsewhere for the source of Gideon’s victory.

If we try and live a life of holiness in our own strength, then because we are human it is inevitable that we will fail. No matter how much we try we do not have the strength, or the resources to become holy.  How many times have we seen talented and skilful people fall from grace?

Are we weak? Are we uneducated and unskilled? Do we have limited resources? Do we think of ourselves as insignificant and unimportant? Do we fail to cut a dash in a world where far too much emphasis is placed upon a person’s looks, possessions and social status? If the answer to some or all of these questions is yes, then there is hope for us. The only thing that impresses God is the quality of our personal holiness. If we dedicate ourselves to him and we are committed to his cause then he will use us to bring glory to him. People will look at us and the things that we achieve and give all the glory to God.

Gideon went on to defeat his enemies not because of his skills as a soldier but because he had the faith to see things from God’s perspective. Anybody reading this regardless of their intellectual ability, regardless of their age, regardless of their talents, regardless of their appearance can in God’s eyes be turned into a mighty warrior.

We are holy, we are strong, we are righteous, we are useful, we are effective not because we think we are, or because the world tells us we are, we are all of these things because God the Holy spirit declares it. As the hymn writer puts it:

All my best works are naught,
Please they not thee;
Far past my busy hands
Thine eye doth see
Into the depths of mind,
Searching the plan designed,
Gladdened when thou dost find
First of all, thee.

The writer of the song understands that the hallmark of true holiness is indeed good works, but not good works which have been manufactured by man alone. As I said in my previous post the Bible describes good works as “fruit”. Fruit is not a tree in itself but it does identity the tree from which it came. True Christians can never take credit for the Holy lives they live all they can do is allow their good works to point people to the God who created those good works in them.

The hymn writer continues…

Now is my will resigned,
Struggles are quelled;
Clay on the wheel am I,
Nothing withheld.
Master, I yield to thee,
Crumble, then fashion me
Flawless, and fit to be
Indwelt by thee.

When we come to God he accepts us as we are “warts and all” and then he changes us from “glory into glory” and that happens when we have the faith and courage to see things from his perspective rather than our own.

Grace and peace, Andrew.

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Holiness (1)

Holiness is about being good it’s not about doing good. Some people confuse holiness with Salvation by works. They believe that holiness encourages us to do good in order to win God’s approval but as I have already said holiness is not about doing good it’s about being good. Of course doing good things will always be the result of of holiness, but such good works are the end of holiness and not the means.  That’s why the bible prefers to talk about fruit. Fruit is easily understood as a product.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:21)

“By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them. “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:16-21)

Knowing that holiness is his biggest threat Satan has invented a holiness clone; he call’s this forgery “Salvation by works”. The two are almost identical and to the untrained eye the fake is often mistaken for the real thing. Evangelicals often excel at tearing down “Salvation by works” whilst failing to build up personal holiness.

When a person goes out into the world determined to be good; a good parent, spouse, employer, employee whatever, and sets about achieving his intentions through his own efforts that’s Salvation by works. Salvation can never be earned or won it is a free gift. There is nothing, no motive, no power, and no means within us that can either obtain Salvation or maintain holiness. Some through, self-denial and determination may produce a somehwat distorted and ugly likeness to holiness but it will never be holiness. Holiness is the work of God and comes to us by living in Christ and is activated by belief.

However, if the same person in prayer hears the Holy Spirit come and say to them”go out and be a good parent, spouse, employer, employee whatever” and they set about achieving the Spirit’s intentions in the Spirit’s power because the Spirit told them to do it – that’s salvation by faith.

In its simplest form holiness is about accepting what God says about us! If God says we are righteous – then we are. When we accept that what he says is the truth, then that truth will set us free.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. ” (John 8:32-36)

When we recognise that his promise is more powerful than our habits and desires then our belief will save us. It really is that simple. The Father says “Be holy, as I am holy”  A good father does not give his children impossible tasks. If God says we can be brave, determined, righteous, self-controlled, patient, loving, understanding etc. then we can! Who should we believe God or our past inability to perform? Holiness is about what God promises to do in us and has nothing to do with what we can do for him. As the old gospel song says;

“If you want holiness walk in the light,
If you want victory take part in the fight,
If you want liberty shout and be free,
Enjoying a full salvation.”

Holiness starts the moment we believe and it stalls the moment we doubt. Remember in all things it will always be our faith that makes us well.

Holiness is an experience not a doctrine, it’s not about theology it’s about practice. It can and should be taught but is never fully comprehended unless it is lived. The aim of holiness teaching is to get people to experience holiness not to understand it. Some things will always remain beyond our comprehension. Holiness is about experiencing the full love of God even though it can’t be understood. This is what Paul hopes for;

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:16)

Some people within the church get hung up on trying to define holiness. They want to appreciate its theological framework before they experience its “perfect love”. Very few theologians are militant soul-winners (there are of course exceptions like Wesley, Finney & Mrs Booth). We should not be concerned with whether respected academics feel that the holiness movement has made any contribution to Christian Theology. What should concern us is how many thousands of souls the holiness movement has won for Christ!

C.S.Lewis gives a wonderful picture of theologians in his classic book “The Great Divorce.” The narrative describes a theological debating circle sitting in Lewis’s version of purgatory debating in what way Christ’s views would have developed and matured had his life not ended prematurely!  Theology is all about knowledge and understanding whereas holiness is to do with experience and action.  All the great revivals within the pages of Christian history have been the result of believers rediscovering the joy and power of holiness.

Holiness is about breaking free from strongholds. It’s about clambering over stumbling blocks. Anything that stops us obeying God is a stronghold – holiness demolishes strongholds!

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

It doesn’t matter what that stronghold is, it might be cakes or ice cream, it might be lust, pornography, gambling – it might be gossiping, jealousy or anger. It could be almost anything but if it stops us being useful to God then Holiness will get rid of it.

 The Devil understands what threat holiness poses and therefore tries hard to discredit it with lies.  When God forgave our sins he forgave them all, those we’ve committed and those we will commit. There is only one unforgivable sin and that’s “grieving the Holy Spirit”. How do we upset the Holy Spirit? By disbelieving him and by failing to accept that he can do exactly what he says he is going to do.  This sin isn’t unforgivable because God has decided not to forgive it; it’s unforgivable on the basis that by removing belief we remove God’s ability to forgive.

 If we are truly living in grace through faith and we are led astray God doesn’t see this as sin. As Wesley, the father of modern holiness understood, true sin is the wilful disobedience of a known law of God. Tripping or falling over in our eagerness to run along “the path of duty” is not sin. Such momentary failure has no eternal consequence and not only is Christ standing by waiting to forgive us he already has forgiven us. Look at the position this puts in. No wonder Paul sees us as more than conquerors and John wonders what we will become?

 “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

 “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3)

 The problem is that Satan, the accuser of the brethren rationalises, compromises and teases us into disobedience and then having fooled us has the gall to call our act sin and condemn us. This is a lie and the whole purpose of the truth which Paul and John preach is to set us free from this deception. Holiness is realising that such a state of affairs exists, accepting God’s word, dismissing the enemy’s lie and living accordingly. The enemy has lost and God is eager for his people to realise this fact.

Let’s pursue holiness!

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What does holiness look like today?

What does holiness look like in 2012?

I haven’t blogged for two months. There have been a combination of reasons for this, the major one being other more pressing priorities; however, another reason was that I felt challenged by a question posed around that time by Abraham Garrett ‘what would holiness look like today’.

I wanted to answer this question the next time I blogged but unfortunately a lot of other equally important stuff got in the way.

Now, in that no man’s land that lurks between Christmas and New Year, I have a small window of opportunity in which I can post my thoughts.

What does holiness look like today?

It’s a good question because it is difficult to find very much Wesleyan holiness teaching written in the last 100 years. I offer that time frame deliberately even though it discounts Brengle’s contribution; I do so because Brengle’s understanding of holiness was quite different from that held by people like Wesley, Palmer, Finney et al. I’m also discounting the contribution of people like Ed Read and Allister Smith (probably in their case a little unfairly) because all they really did was reproduce old teachings in a format more acceptable to their day. I’m deliberately discounting the teachings of men like Coutts – saints though they undoubtedly were – the holiness they taught bore little resemblance to that which came out of the holiness movement in the late 19th Century. The point I’m trying to make is that since the early 1900’s there have been no real prophets of holiness clearly championing the cause of entire consecration.

I think this is because no one has really tried to tackle the question posed by Abraham Garrett – ‘what does holiness look like today?’ We can all paint a picture of holiness in its 19th century guise (at least those who have studied it can) but what does it look like today. If I were to be holy in a way that would be recognisable to Wesley, Booth or Finney the picture painted would be unattractive and dour by today’s standards.

The adoption of their holiness would mean no Nike trainers, no Starbucks Coffee, no Superdry or Hollister T-Shirts, no TV (let alone cable), no movies, no summer holidays, no BBQs on the beach, draconian Sabbath observance, no meals out with friends and so I could go on. Now one might argue that this is the very reason why the church is in decline, that the existence of all of the above in our lives is an indication of worldliness out of control, a sign of apostasy and maybe even in some cases hypocrisy. Some would argue that it is only in outlawing all these fleshly distractions once more that we will see the revival we all so eagerly seek. However such a view seeks to perpetrate a Christianity based on our answer to the question – ‘what would Finney do’ or ‘what would Booth do?’ instead of on the basis of ‘what would Jesus do?’ It is this recognition that leads us into the heart of the answer to the question ‘what does holiness look like today’?

The truth is that holiness always looks like Jesus. Now I am not peddling the watered down holiness that has recently become fashionable, I am not saying that holiness is ‘to be like Jesus’. Far too many people give Christlikeness as a definition of holiness without having any proper perception of what Christ was really like. Yes Christ was gentle, kind, slow to anger, meek and mild but to show this side of his character only is as bad as presenting him with long blonde hair, blue eyes and surrounded by multi-coloured children in contemporary national dress!

Jesus was also poor, nomadic and homeless he was also angry (on one occasion even violent), frustrated, a party goer, a friend of sinners, someone who turned water into wine, a man who indulged himself at great expense when he allowed a woman of disreputable character to massage expensive perfume into his feet and he was also (by the standards of the religious leaders of his day) a law breaker. All in all Jesus was an unpredictable rebel.

So the question ‘what does holiness look like today’ really needs translating into what ‘would Jesus look like today’? And this question needs asking with a full awareness that the answer might not be what we expect.

To properly understand Jesus and thereby understand holiness we need to look not at his actions but at his motives. Holiness is not about works it’s about fruit. It’s never about what we do but it is always about what God produces in and through us. Remember, the devil can produce counterfeit works but he cannot produce counterfeit fruit. The odd healing here and there might well suit his purposes but the Devil has nothing to gain by making a Christian forgiving or patient!

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you, away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:15-23)

Christ’s actions can predominantly be traced to several clear motives the most obvious being love. This love was an on-going three way transaction between himself, his Father and us. This motive manifested itself in a whole series of priorities which directed and governed Christ’s interaction with the world around him. Let’s just pause and consider them for a moment as they are also the hallmarks of contemporary holiness.

A hatred of hypocrisy – Jesus only ever condemned two groups of people according to the bible, paedophiles and hypocrites. Christ couldn’t abide hypocrisy and what a person thought about themselves very often (if not always) predetermined how he judged them and what he expected of them. The rich young ruler thought he was righteous and was commanded to give ‘all’ his wealth away. Zachaeus knew he was bad and only had to part with a fraction of his wealth. The Pharisee, Nicodemus, who approached Christ at night with the question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’ was told he must be ‘born again’, whereas the woman caught in adultery, cast before the feet of Jesus in the daytime, he didn’t just forgive but he actually refused to condemn. This was the Jesus who told the religious authorities of his day (the equivalent of you and me) that ‘tax collectors’ and ‘prostitutes’ (words synonymous with sinner) would enter God’s kingdom first.

A hunger for social justice –Jesus always saw people for what they were. This gift was never more obvious than when the person he beheld was a victim. Jesus often saw those traditionally depicted as sinners, not as bad people but as victims. Sometimes this innate compassion would merge with his hatred of hypocrisy – this was particularly true where God’s name or law was used to manipulate and take advantage of the poor and weak. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cleansing of the temple when righteous anger led to him overturning tables and making a whip.

A visible association with sinners–Jesus socialised with those whom he came to save. He was a ‘friend’ to sinners not in the sentimental way we sometimes apply that phrase but in the literal sense – he actually made friends with those who deliberately disobeyed God. He hung out with them and went to their parties and even employed them. When Jesus called Matthew he was (by the standards of his day) an active sinner, sitting in his booth collecting taxes. Matthew was an unrepentant and deliberate collaborator with the Romans who at the time Jesus called him, was using his position to further his own material wealth and social status.

An eager evangelist – let’s not forget that Jesus did all of this to maximise the opportunities he had for effective evangelism. It was at these parties, in these friendships, with these people that he shared the ‘good news of the kingdom’.

This is what Jesus looked like 2000 years ago and today we have no reason to suspect that he would look any different. Where would we find him? We would find him in the company of unbelievers, at the movies, at the football game, going to parties, in night clubs – enjoying their company – not for his own pleasure alone but in order that he might save them. On a Sunday I have no doubt that he would be at Church but his mission field would be beyond the sanctuary. Sunday might be a time for recharging his batteries but his real work would take place Monday to Saturday.

So back to the question – what should holiness look like today? Such a life should be motivated and empowered by God’s love clearly expressed in a selfless love for others. Its hallmarks will always be compassion rather than judgement, forgiveness rather than condemnation, understanding rather than prejudice. Does it wear designer t-shirts and trainers; does it go to Starbucks, hang out at the movies and watch football on a Sunday afternoon? If in doing so it cuts through those demonic barriers designed to separate the evangelist from the unsaved then yes it does! Does it present to the world a self-righteous, supercilious, puritanical and morbid persona or does it express a life ‘lived in all its fullness’?

Holiness like this does not set us free from the demands of sacrifice quite the contrary. How can I safely wander among ‘the sites that dazzle’ and ‘the tempting sounds’, how can I (metaphorically speaking) have my feet massaged by a prostitute and attend all night parties? Only when I have made a definite, heartfelt, Gethsemane-like surrender of my will, only when I have made a blood-sweated commitment not to sin, only when I am determined to wear the full of armour of God can I move safely in such dangerous territory. To attempt to set up a mission without such consecration would lead to abject failure and certain damnation.

Neither does holiness like this set us free from the demands of full consecration for it is only when ‘my all is in the Master’s hands for him to bless and break’ that my life can become ‘a cup overfilled, a table spread’ whereby ‘other souls refreshed and fed may share his life through mine.’

To be holy in 2012 is to be fully ‘in the world’ yet completely and utterly not ‘of it’.

This holiness and its rediscovery will prove to be the salvation of the Salvation Army.

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2 Visions 100 years apart…

Just back from spending some time with Xander Coleman and he reminded me about ‘The Vision’. I hadn’t realised that this was the same ‘Vision’ I’d blogged on back in 2008. It reminded me of some words spoken by William Booth 100 years earlier – for those who never saw it here are the two visions:

2 Visions over 100 years apart and yet strangely similar:

The first is taken from one of William Booth’s lectures at the 1904 International Staff Officers Councils. The second is from the founder of the 24/7 Prayer Network.

I can’t overestimate just how critical I believe these prophetic words are to our generation – aggressive, pure, incarnational holiness – lived out in a simplistic lifestyle is the way forward!

What the world needs now is a George Scott Railton or a St Francis of Assisi or maybe just you and me!

THE FUTURE

Do not limit the possibilities of the future. God has many ways of fulfilling His purposes towards the sons and daughters of men. Here is one, of which I dreamed a dream. The one I am going to mention came to me when thoughtfully wondering, as I so often do, what The Salvation Army of the coming years was likely to be.

In this vision I beheld many things that were novel and fascinating, but nothing that took greater hold of me at the moment than the one I am about to describe. Perhaps the superior interest it excited in my feelings arose out of its intense practicality. It seemed all so natural, so possible, so fruitful, and the results so desirable, that I came almost to feel that the thing was not a dream, but an actual occurrence, literally happening before my eyes.

I thought I was looking at The Salvation Army in its varied future operations, and while I looked I thought I saw a new body of Officers suddenly start into existence. In many respects they strongly resembled the comrades with whom I am familiar to day. In other respects they appeared strangely dissimilar.

I will try to describe them, and while I do so you will be able to judge of the probable usefulness or otherwise of such a class, the possibility of creating it, and whether you would or would not like to belong to it, if it were created.

As I looked at this new people, they appeared to manifest extraordinary signs of earnestness, self-denial, and singleness of purpose; indeed, they had every appearance of being a reckless, daredevil set. On inquiry, I found that they described themselves as “Brothers of Salvation” or “Companions of the Cross of Christ.” They went forth, two and two, strengthening each other’s hands, and comforting each other’s hearts in all the work they had to do, and all the trials they had to bear. They seemed to welcome privations, and to revel in hardships, counting it all joy when they fell into diverse persecutions, and facing opposition and difficulties with meekness, patience, and love.

As I looked, and looked, I wondered more and more, for I observed that they had voluntarily embraced the old-fashioned vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. These vows I observed, further, were regarded as only binding upon them for a term of years, with the option of renewal for a further term at the expiration of that period, or of being able at that time to honourably return to the ordinary ranks of Officership.

As I looked at these new comrades, who had as it were suddenly sprung out of the ground, I saw that they wore a novel kind of uniform of simple shape, but very pronounced, and displaying very prominently the insignia of The Salvation Army. They were evidently proud of their colours.

And then I saw another thing that was peculiar about this new Order – I do not know how else to speak of it. I saw that they refused to accept any money or gifts for themselves, or for their friends, or, at most, not more than was necessary to meet the very humble wants of that particular day; while I saw that they were pledged not to own any goods of any kind, save and except the clothes they wore.

And then I saw that they were great wanderers, continually travelling from place to place, and that very much on foot, as this gave them the opportunity of visiting the hamlets, cottages, farmhouses, and mansions on the way, and speaking to the people in the streets, market squares, or other open spaces on week-days as well as on Sundays, as they passed along.

I saw that they assisted at the services in The Salvation Halls wherever they came, always working in friendly co-operation with the Officers in Command; visiting the Soldiers, sick or well; hunting up backsliders, and striving to promote the interests of every Corps they visited, to the utmost of their ability.

I saw that they visited and prayed with the people from door to door, in the great cities as well as in the villages; talked to them in the streets, trains, or wherever they had opportunity, about death, judgment, eternity, repentance, Christ, and salvation.

I saw them in my dream addressing the workmen at the dock gates, at the entrances to public works, in the factories at meal hours; indeed, they were talking, praying, and singing with whomsoever they could get to listen to them, singly, or in company wherever they came.

And as I looked, I saw their number, which was very, very small at first, gradually increase until they reached quite a multitude. And the educated and well-to-do, charmed with this simple Christ like life, swelled its numbers, coming from the universities and the money­making institutions and other high places.

Do you ask me about their support? Oh! I answer, so far as I could find out in my dream, they never lacked any really necessary thing, having all the time what was above all and beyond all in worth and desirability – the abundant smile of God, and a great harvest of precious souls.

(International Staff Council Addresses 1904, General William Booth, p144-147)

The Vision

So this guy comes up to me and says “what’s the vision? What’s the big idea?” I open my mouth and words come out like this… The vision? The vision is JESUS – obsessively, dangerously, undeniably Jesus.The vision is an army of young people. You see bones? I see an army. And they are FREE from materialism. They laugh at 9-5 little prisons. They could eat caviar on Monday and crusts on Tuesday. They wouldn’t even notice. They know the meaning of the Matrix, the way the west was won. They are mobile like the wind, they belong to the nations. They need no passport .People write their addresses in pencil and wonder at their strange existence. They are free yet they are slaves of the hurting and dirty and dying. What is the vision? The vision is holiness that hurts the eyes. It makes children laugh and adults angry. It gave up the game of minimum integrity long ago to reach for the stars. It scorns the good and strains for the best. It is dangerously pure.

Light flickers from every secret motive, every private conversation. It loves people away from their suicide leaps, their Satan games. This is an army that will lay down its life for the cause. A million times a day its soldiers choose to loosethat they might one day win the great ‘Well done’ of faithful sons and daughters.Such heroes are as radical on Monday morning as Sunday night. They don’t need fame from names. Instead they grin quietly upwards and hear the crowds chanting again and again:

“COME ON!”

And this is the sound of the underground the whisper of history in the making, foundations shaking, revolutionaries dreaming once again, mystery is scheming in whispers, conspiracy is breathing… This is the sound of the underground and the army is disciplined. Young people who beat their bodies into submission. Every soldier would take a bullet for his comrade at arms. The tattoo on their back boasts “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Sacrifice fuels the fire of victory in their upward eyes.

Winners, Martyrs. Who can stop them? Can hormones hold them back? Can failure succeed? Can fear scare them or death kill them? And the generation prays like a dying man with groans beyond talking with warrior cries, sulphuric tears and with great barrow loads of laughter!

Waiting. Watching: 24 – 7 – 365. Whatever it takes they will give: Breaking the rules. Shaking mediocrity from its cosy little hide. Laying down their rights and their precious little wrongs, laughing at labels, fasting essentials. The advertisers cannot mould them. Hollywood cannot hold them. Peer-pressure is powerless to shake their resolve at late night parties before the cockerel cries.

They are incredibly cool, dangerously attractive inside. On the outside? They hardly care. They wear clothes like costumes to communicate and celebrate but never to hide. Would they surrender their image or their popularity? They would lay down their very lives – swap seats with the man on death row – guilty as hell. A throne for an electric chair.

With blood and sweat and many tears, with sleepless nights and fruitless days, they pray as if it all depends on God and live as if it all depends on them. Their DNA chooses JESUS. (He breathes out, they breathe in.) Their subconscious sings. They had a blood transfusion with Jesus. Their words make demons scream in shopping centres. Don’t you hear them coming? Herald the weirdo’s! Summon the losers and the freaks. Here come the frightened and forgotten with fire in their eyes. They walk tall and trees applaud, skyscrapers bow, mountains are dwarfed by these children of another dimension. Their prayers summon the hounds of heaven and invoke the ancient dream of Eden.

And this vision will be. It will come to pass; it will come easily; it will come soon. How do I know? Because this is the longing of creation itself, the groaning of the Spirit, the very dream of God. My tomorrow is his today. My distant hope is his 3D. And my feeble, whispered, faithless prayer invokes a thunderous, resounding, bone-shaking great ‘Amen!’ from countless angels, from hero’s of the faith, from Christ himself. And he is the original dreamer, the ultimate winner.

Guaranteed.

Grace and peace – A

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