Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A time to serve - Fully and truthfully

I write as the wind and rain lashes our snug cabin. I shudder and our youngest son tells me that he is cold. With him wrapped up and cosy under a blanket, I also relax. They are still so much like a part of me, that I can often feel their discomfort, pain and anxiety as if it where my own.

Over the last few days I have come to realise that the the last blog I posted - A time to serve - was not quite complete.

Just to glimpse back: In Christ we have the perfect example of servanthood both in his sacrifice and as He rules over all things for the benefit of the church. The mystery of being part of the body of Christ opens up the beautiful reality of having the fullness and power of the "Godhead" rest in me. Having every spiritual gift available as He longs to lavish it on me and I long to receive it. I have been raised with Him from death through faith. I am also part of the bride of Christ (the church), whom he cares for and loves passionately. We may serve Him and each other in love, according to His perfect will and pleasure.

But I realised that I left out a crucial aspect of why we serve each other. As the church, the bride is one body made up of many members, and essentially one with the body of Christ.

If one part of a physical body hurts, doesn't the rest of the body suffer also?

The truth is, there is a large part of the spiritual body of Christ, which is hurting and suffering deeply. There are Christians world-wide who are being persecuted for their faith. I hear the word "persecuted" and too often it brings up images of martyrs of Biblical and ancient times, who suffered and where put to death for loving and serving Jesus.

persecute: to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs.

The FACTS that I have had to face are:

Christians are the most persecuted religious group worldwide. An average of at least 180 Christians around the world are killed each month for their faith. Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbours simply because of their belief in Christ.

  • More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined.
  • It is claimed that 105,000 Christians are martyred for their faith each year.
  • Currently over 100 million Christians are being persecuted worldwide.
  • 70 percent of the world's population lives in a religiously intolerant environment.
  • North Korea: In 2014 it continues to be the worst country in the world for persecution.
  • Nigeria: In 2010 Christians suffered terror from Muslim extremists. Whole villages were massacred.
  • Iran: Its parliament believes Muslims who change their faith should be put to death.
  • India: up to 70,000 in Orissa have been forced to flee their homes in riots against Christians.
  • Indonesia: Between 2000-2002 Muslims slaughtered 10,000 Christians.
  • Iraq: half of Iraq's Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
  • Egypt: Under Islamist pressure, Coptic Christians are being forced from their homes.
  • Syria: By 2012, most of the 80,000 Christians in Homs had been 'cleansed' from their homes.
  • Europe: persecution is coming in by stealth through EU equality directives.
  • Many Christians in Israel today live free of persecution. But those who share their faith and witness on the front lines of the nation's spiritual battleground face an altogether different experience.
Photographs of students killed in Kenya

These are certainly not the most recent or complete statistics. Persecution of Christians is also increasing in Africa. Recently 140 students at a university in Kenya were shot in cold blood by an Islamic terrorist group from Somalia, while attending a prayer meeting. 2014 will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era, and current conditions suggest the worst is yet to come.

Religious persecution can be defined as the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group simply because of their belief. In other words, the persecution is unwarranted. Christians have been persecuted from earliest times (e.g. Acts 8.1) and believers were told to expect it:

'If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you ...' (Jn 15.20)

'All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted' (2 Tim 3.12)

Why persecution?

The root cause of persecution is spiritual, not ideological. Satan hates and wages war upon both God's chosen people Israel, as well as Gentile believers whom have been taken in as a part of the bride of Christ through faith. (Rev 12.17). Since he is still ruler of this world (until Christ comes, Jn 12.31) he uses the world e.g. humanistic law in Europe, or extremists of other faiths, to carry out his aims.

But Jesus saw such hatred as an opportunity. Just as His undeserved death on the cross is still a powerful witness of love, truth and grace today, so it is and will be when believers are persecuted. In Jesus' words:

"It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony." (Lk 21.13)

Like Christ, a person who suffers unwarranted mistreatment for their faith gives a powerful message that their belief is worth suffering for. It is solid. It is true. It is reality. This will be evidenced when believers are brought before Councils and Courts; at these times they will be given supernatural speech and wisdom which will confound their accusers (Lk 21.15).

We still have relative freedom in our faith, which is not to be taken for granted. For it may not be this way always. The body hurts. And if I am truly part of that body, I will hurt also.

But then I thought, what is there that I can do, if Jesus himself said that persecution is inevitable?

I found this quote from a Christian on line publication relevant and encouraging:

While others compromise, the remnant (the true church) remain separated; while others are polluting themselves with the world, the remnant remain unstained by the world; while others give lip service to God, the remnant have their lives bathed in prayer and in God’s Word, and are anointed by the Holy Spirit. While others are clamouring for change and a new direction, the remnant cry for the unchanging God, the unchanging truth, and the unchanging way of the biblical Christ. While others are trying to conform to the world in order to alleviate persecution and defamation, the remnant still believe they are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. They know that persecution awaits them.

May God help us to be part of the true church at this time in history. If we don't see this truth about the remnant, we will get discouraged. He will always keep to Himself a true people of God, amidst the professing people of God.

Paul, as messenger of God wrote:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph 4:11-13)

We cant all be physically active in serving the church, but I can go on my knees in prayer for His bride, as a whole and for individual members. And especially for the part which is suffering beyond our worst imagination. Prayer is not passive. I am convinced that if we could have a glimpse into the spiritual realm to see what happens when children of the living God lift their hearts in prayer and call on the name of Jesus on behalf of others, we would be astounded and never doubt it's power again. 

Philippians 4:1-9 is helpful to know how to pray for the church and yourself as part of it, when you do not have words.

To be able to:

1) Stand fast in the faith, 2) Be of the same mind, 3) Labour in the gospel, 4) Rejoice in the Lord,
5) Be gentle, 6) Be anxious for nothing, 7) Guard our minds, 8) Meditate on the Word of God, 9) Be an example and witness.

To try and summarise what is in my heart, and looking back over what it means to serve truthfully:

True leadership is servanthood, and the greatest leader of all time is Jesus Christ. Servanthood is an attitude exemplified by Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). The five words in the New Testament translated to “ministry” generally refer to servanthood or service given in love.

Serving others is the very essence of ministry. Living is giving, in whichever way God asks of us; all else is self-centeredness and boredom.

Jesus hurts when I hurt and He hurts for the part of the body which is being treated so cruelly. But as His suffering, death and resurrection was the most glorious witness of God's grace and mercy, power and omnipotence, the suffering of the church can also be a testimony of this. He rejoices in the unity of His bride (the church) and our compassion (and service) towards each other.

To serve truthfully, I have to embrace what it means to be part of the true church - God's remnant.

How can we demonstrate love for God? Our love for God will be expressed in our love for others.

“For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).

I know this is all quite a mouthful (or an earful), which I can only hope to live out. But being convicted of not living it out is a start. One small step in faith and love at a time, one prayer at a time, that is all Jesus asks of us now.

Friday, 12 June 2015

A time to serve

God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. (Ephesians 1:22 NLT)

Nostalgia returns with the mists and with the smell of milk warming on the stove. My grandmother had a dented saucepan with a spout, in which milk was warmed while her coffee was brewing. It was a ritual, one of many witnessed by a curious little girl in the sanctuary of Oma's kitchen. Her hands were like little birds, small and agile, graceful and focused. When you ate or drank from her "keuken" it tasted of warmth and kindness and an unhurried type of care. Outside the back door a tall tree whispered in the breezes on summer days, and it's leafy canopy was a place of refuge and secrets. My grandma would nervously try to coax me from this lofty playground with treats, and needless to say, it always worked. Where my mother's cooking was wholesome and simple, my grandmother's kitchen was a place of delights. As a young woman she worked in the kitchen of an affluent Dutch family. Later in life, with a family of her own, she and my grandfather packed what they could of their meagre belongings, along with their doubts and memories, and set sail for the land of opportunity - South Africa.

In the home where I came to know them, these memories regained a life of their own again, and one could sense, smell, taste and feel the things they missed of their gentle homeland. My "Opa" painted pastoral Dutch landscapes in his small studio set at the back of their terraced garden. A soft spongy lawn covered the gentle slope above the house, flanked by standard rose bushes and flowering shrubs, my grandfather's delight. As small children we loved to lie down right at the top of the slope and then simply let ourselves roll to the bottom of it, where we would lay in heaps of giggles and watch the clouds drift by. It was a time when everything seemed so simple to define. Shared times were unhurried and meals where hour-long affairs around a table that could be extended to accommodate three generations. Everyone seemed to talk at the same time with Oma hurrying to and fro with platters and dishes of our favourite foods. It was like sitting in a tree full of Mynah birds, among a cacophony of chatter and laughter.

My thoughts have been filled with images and memories from the past of late. Mostly of people and places that have added depth and meaning to my life. What I realised as a result of all these musings is that it is those people who drew least attention to themselves, content to work "backstage", without a fuss or complaint, who's legacies have been imprinted on my mind. There were friends who showed me how to have fun and taught me not to take myself (and life) so seriously, relations whom have at times tested my patience and tolerance, only to melt my heart again with their sincere love. Family members and friends whom have shown me that strength lies in endurance and surrender rather than assertiveness.

I remember a particular encounter with a young woman in the "parkie" behind our home. She was sitting alone on a swing, her long brown hair covering her profile. She seemed so mysterious and aloof, beautiful and slim. I watched her from a distance, my envy growing. I was reaching my teens, rather plump, my skin was a mess, and my self-esteem at a record low. She must have felt someone looking at her, for she stopped her gentle rocking on the swing, tucked the tumble of hair behind her ear and looked up. My breath caught in my throat. Her face was bruised and swollen and tears flowed over her damaged face. I later picked up from family conversation that she was an ex-beauty queen, cruelly beaten by a jealous boyfriend. I have often been reminded of her, when I envy someone who seems to have it all.

There were the martyrs; people with haunted eyes and tight-lipped mouths. Trapped in the past where something went wrong. Their suffering or bitterness a banner for all to see. Serving a cherished hurt and letting all life and joy pass them by. As a young girl, I was too often drawn to these melancholy individuals, hoping that by trying to "fix" them, I could somehow find a way to make sense of the cruelty in the world.

But to come back to those few whom I have counted as "mentors" - who's words and actions I held out as the perfect example to follow. Years went by and one by one the perceived perfection of these beautiful humble people became marred. Strangely enough, it did not diminish my respect for them, only confirmed that one can only follow a human example to the extent of it's imperfection... (I hope that makes sense).

Some time during last week I was reading through Ephesians 1 as part of a Bible study. Paul writes to the Ephesians of all the spiritual blessings and riches and wisdom that we may partake of through Jesus. The verses seem to distill the whole New Testament's teaching on how Jesus was raised from the dead and placed on the heavenly throne, with all power and authority placed under His feet. He is at the most exalted position in the universe. He is there representing believers and governing the universe.

But then I stopped at the end of verse 22. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.

For the benefit of the church. Us. His body. Christ enjoys His position as head over everything for the church. He is there representing us, ruling the universe for the sake of the Kingdom, our inheritance. He turns it all upside down. His authority exists for the sake of service. Jesus' majestically uses His power and authority in the interest of His people.

Is there need to look any further for a faultless example of how to live? After all He endured at the hand of man, He sits at the right hand of God the Father and still longs to serve us. To do it all for our benefit. Would He do anything to harm his own body? I find that a such a beautiful mystery - that we are part of His body. Raised to life with Jesus through faith. 

Which is why I find it so deeply sad when I encounter media (on a daily basis) encouraging people to live in a way which serves the "ME" rather than the great "I AM". To do what brings you happiness, makes you better, richer, more content. Because you deserve it, they say. Truth is, the only thing I truly deserve is death.

But instead here I am, raised with Christ, seated in heavenly places with Him, with all the fullness and authority given to Him, resting in me also. With all spiritual blessings available to me, victory over all earthly battles and spiritual forces. Having all my wrongs buried and forgiven, all the chains and worldly claims broken for eternity. Blessed, favoured, deeply loved.

But I am part of a body, the church. Not referring to the people who gather in churches on Sunday, but the true church of Christ - his bride. Those few humble hearty lovers who have remained faithful to the truth embedded in Christ.

Has there ever been a time when it has been clearer whom we should serve? Even a life of service to others, or dedicated to loved ones, however noble it may appear, only has true meaning if done with love - for the glory of God. He uses His children to serve one another, since it is His good and perfect will. But not if done for the sake of redeeming myself or someone else - this only Christ can do. As part of a body, why would the one limb favour itself over another, when each one is uniquely valuable to the functioning of the whole? 

I am deeply thankful for all the precious people that God has brought into my life. But mostly, I am in awe of the way I see His hand in every detail of the lives of those who truly love, follow and obey Him. Whose threads have been woven carefully with mine, to create a tapestry of rich and varied colours and textures.

We are not able to see this whole glorious tapestry as it gains more lustre with each new colour added. But it thrills me to think that God is looking down and it brings Him such joy. It is our time to shine like stars in a lost and depraved generation, to bring hope, to bring life, to serve.

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. (John 3:15)