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Grounding

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  • Your head is spinning with a thousand thoughts and fears.
  • You are in transition, experiencing cultural jet lag, unsure what is right and wrong or up and down.
  • You are at a crossroads of decision without a signpost.
  • You are overwhelmed with emotions and hormones.
  • You are tired and weary but restless and tense.
  • Do you know that feeling? That slightly dizzy feeling? You can’t think clearly. The world is spinning (or maybe it is your head that is spinning) and you just want to get off.

Grounding

When you are travel sick (in a bus or a boat), they tell you to look at the horizon. Look at something fixed and stable. When you are having a panic attack or you are feeling faint they tell you to get down on the ground or hold onto something solid. Look into the eyes of someone you trust and keep eye contact with them.

I think there is a Christian version of grounding. Sometimes it is a simple as one precious verse repeated until it gets from our mouth into our heart:

I have set the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. (Psalm 16:8)

A more elaborate grounding exercise is to rehearse to ourselves the Apostles’ Creed, the 10 Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the ancient pattern of Christian catechisms. Evidence from the early church (50-250 AD) suggests that catechesis involved teaching the 10 commandments and the Lord’s Prayer (Weinrich). The bulk of Cyril’s Catechetical Sermons delivered in Jerusalem in 348 AD are expositions of successive lines of the Apostles’ Creed. Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) unpacks the 10 commandments then the Apostles’ Creed then the Lord’s Prayer. The much longer Heidelberg (1563) goes through the creed (Q23-58), the commandments (Q92-113) and the prayer (Q118-129) while the later Westminster basically follows the same pattern. [For more on the development and value of catechesis see ‘Considering catechism for suspicious Protestants’ by Daniel Williams.]

Catechesis was obviously developed for children and enquirers to get them ready for baptism or a public profession of faith. But in the Christian life the way in is the way on. There is a tremendous stabilising effect in going over the foundations and essentials of our faith again. [This is presumably why Cranmer designed the regular order of Morning Prayer (1552) to include the public declaration of the Apostles’ Creed and the corporate praying of the Lord’s Prayer while the Communion Order includes the 10 Commandments, the Nicaean Creed and the corporate Lord’s Prayer.]

So try this is as a grounding exercise:

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Notice first this is about faith not works. There is nothing of me here. Nothing about my emotional or mental or spiritual or moral state, only that I believe; I look outside myself and openhanded grasp what is True. I take my eyes off myself and look to God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I shift my weight from the unstable confused little mess that is me and onto the great Rock and the rock solid unchangeable truths about Him.

Though my head (and life) might seem to be spinning out of control there is an almighty Creator God. He has everything in his hand.

Then there are the historical facts of the gospel – Christ came, suffered, died, was buried, rose, ascended. That happened. Long before I was born. Historical fact. It doesn’t depend on me. And yet he went through hell instead of me.

There is the presence of God with me right now in this moment. I believe in the Holy Spirit. There is the communion of the saints. Even if all other family desert me there is the rich fellowship of the new family. There is the forgiveness of sins. Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin – not in part but the whole, Is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more; Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul.

And wonderfully I can know the future. Perhaps the short term future is very uncertain but the ultimate future is very clear: Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, we will all be raised bodily, we will truly live eternally with him who is Life.

Whatever is happening right now, these things are true.
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The 10 Commandments

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.

  2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

  4. Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

  5. Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

  6. You shall not murder.

  7. You shall not commit adultery.

  8. You shall not steal.

  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

First and foremost these are commands to convict us, to cut us down, to show us that we are helpless foul sinners in desperate need of saving by and from a holy God. And that will probably be a key part of our grounding. We need to be like Job on the ground in the dust and ashes to truly see things rightly. This is where the gospel hits me afresh as the greatest news in the world.

And then, as Luther said, the gospel takes the Law from being a stick to beat us and gives it to us as a staff to lean on. We get up from the ground and the Law becomes the royal law of Christ, our guide to grateful living along the way.

I think it was the late Elizabeth Elliot who used to say, “Trust in God, obey him, and do the next thing.” Her point was that when you are in the midst of confusion and/or busyness and/or romantic turmoil and/or competing demands, the thing you need to do is simply to obey what God has set before you: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God; to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.

Matt Perman says a similar thing in What’s Best Next: if you lose all your complex productivity tools and calendars and lists and planners then all is not lost; you can move forward just asking What is the best thing to do next? And the key to answering that question is God’s commands.

So amid the confusion of an endless email inbox or multiple to-do lists there are actually only 10 things to do today (Trust, Listen, Hallow, Rest, Honour, Love, Cherish, Give, Witness, Rejoice) that all hang on 2 (love the Lord and your neighbour) which are really one. We can get up and put one foot in front of the other.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who is in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
now and forever. Amen.

Just remember – you have a Father who is in heaven. A Father who has sent his Son to die for you and the Spirit of sonship that you can call him Abba. A Father who is high and holy and yet dwells with the contrite and lowly (Isa. 57:15). A Father who controls the universe and yet is intimately concerned with every detail of your life. A Father far more keen to give than we are to ask. A Father so keen to bless us and commune with us that he has given us this prayer template so we would know what he would love us to ask him for and that we might have confidence to approach him.

As we pray the Lord’s Prayer we’re re-centred on the things that are most important – your kingdom come, your will be done – and we ask for what we will need as pilgrims on our way to the celestial city – manna, armour, leading.

We come as sinners to a holy Father and find forgiveness while simultaneously acknowledging there is a horizontal outworking of grace – as we forgive those who sin against us – a turn of the heart to peace and reconciliation (that may be a key part of our grounding).

And finally we acknowledge that the power, the kingdom and the glory belong to Him (cf. Rev. 4:11; 12:10). The power is not ultimately with us, with politicians or persecutors. There is only One who says, ‘I make known the end from the beginning… my purpose will stand and I will do all that I please’ (Isa. 46:10). He can and will work out all things for the glory of the Father and Son.

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“who has destroyed death” (2 Tim. 1:10)

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We were looking at Hebrews 2:5-18 about the Lord God becoming fully man, sharing our flesh, being family, so that he might taste death for us, disarm the jailer of the dungeon and free us from the bondage of the fear of death. It reminded me of the classic Easter sermons by Pastor Dev Menon on death [Part 1, Part 2] and of my two favourite movie illustrations of Jesus entering into death and blowing up the monster from the inside. Apologies for some rough language at the beginning of the first one:

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A pastor pointed out to me some time ago a rising trend in the pulpit of preaching that puts the hearer ‘on the couch’. The tone is cool, reflective, sophisticated, non-confrontational. The content is psychological and analytical, a diagnosis of the workings of your heart and mind.

I want to suggest some concerns with this approach but also an insight worth holding onto and a way to do it which might mitigate many of the dangers.

Some concerns

  • Individual rather than corporate. Preaching should normally be inclined towards a corporate address. The preacher is speaking to the whole church as a church. Like most of the NT epistles, there should be far more plural (“Sisi” na “Nyinyi”) than singular (“Mimi” na “Wewe”). It is so easy to slip into making all the applications to the individual rather than thinking how a particular Bible text should move us as a church. The ‘on the couch’ style of preaching tends to be directed to the individual.
  • Therapy culture rather than repentance call. The seated/recumbent posture just looks wrong. Preaching is supposed to be a heralding of salvation, beseeching sinners to come to Christ, a publishing of the command of God to all men to repent (Acts 17:30). There is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching loses entirely that tone of urgency, boldness and ‘speaking the very words of God’ and instead buys into a consumerist, me-centred, victim culture that wants God only so far as he affirms and soothes and helps me feel better about myself.
  • Knowing rather than doing. The theme of obedience is massive in the Bible (I don’t know how I never noticed it till recently!). Adam and Eve failed to obey. In Genesis 22 we are told nothing of Abraham’s psychology as he climbs Mt Moriah but what is emphasised is that he did it. Gospel ministry aims at bringing the nations to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20). James tells us not to deceive ourselves that listening to the Word is a substitute for doing it (James 1:22). Of course we need to avoid moralistic ‘just do it’ exhortations but there is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching is descriptive without being prescriptive; giving us the intellectual stimulation and catharsis of knowing ourselves better without ever getting to the confrontational gospel imperatives.
  • Looking within rather than looking to Christ. The great news of the gospel is of salvation coming from outside, an alien righteousness, wisdom we would never have guessed, a God who stoops down, breaks in, rescues us. The call of the NT is “Behold the Lamb!” “Fix your eyes on Christ.” The danger with ‘on the couch’ preaching is that it can pander to an overly introspective, obsessive, narcissistic navel gazing. Even if it doesn’t do that it can start to make us think that just as the problem lies in us (idolatry, disordered loves) so the solution lies in us (rooting out idols, purifying worship) rather than looking to Jesus.

An insight worth holding onto

Having said all this, the practitioners of ‘on the couch’ preaching have got something very right and alerted us to something very important. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. We are passion-driven more than purpose-driven. Idolatry and the waywardness of the human heart is an enormous issue in the Bible. And it is helpful to think through how exactly sin and idolatry and sanctification work at the level of our heads and hearts. Rather than simply knowing what we must do and having a very vague idea that ‘God changes us’, perhaps it is rather important to see how exactly ‘the grace of God teaches us to say No to ungodliness.’ How do we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ? How does a good thing become a god-thing in our lives? How best can we counsel people going through the complexities of grief? How do we best motivate ourselves to obedience? How do our hearts work? We do we preach in a way that opens and engages hearts? The puritans, at their best, were masters of this kind of care of souls.

A way forward: let the Bible speak

How can we take that major insight of heart focus and heart analysis without slipping into the dangers mentioned above? I wonder whether, as it often the case, the best way forward is simply to preach the Word. Preach through the Bible. Preach what is in the passage you have this week. Preach with the tone of the passage. With the balance of the passage. With the cutting edge of the passage.

This sort of preaching will keep us from hobby horses, keep us from being dull, keep us from getting locked into a particular style or structure or mood or approach. We take our cue each time from the Bible passage itself. And, most importantly, preaching through the Bible, feeling the changing atmosphere, staying very close to the detail and flow of the texts will keep us from getting me-centred because we’ll be constantly pushed back up against the Lord of Glory himself.

By way of example here are some rough study notes on Isaiah 57:8-13.

Verse 8 – deserting me you have uncovered your bed… Forsaking the LORD leads to opening our hearts wide to any other lovers (idols) that will have us. We are beings desperate for love and yet we perversely, bizarrely, run from the love of our soul. you have looked on… We are visual beings and our hearts are captured by what we see.

Verse 10 – You wearied yourself by such going about… The pursuit of idols is a lengthy, stressful, strenuous, tiring pursuit. But you would not say, “It is hopeless.” Despite the high physical, emotional and financial costs of running after idols, we refuse to give up the chase. Idolators may be without true hope but they are not necessarily hopeless, depressed individuals. They may actually be very hopeful people, constantly expecting their idol to come through for them or to find a better world round the corner. You found renewal of your strength… We know that the LORD renews the strength of those who hope in him (Isa. 40:31), He revives the contrite (Isa. 57:15), but it is possible for idolators to find renewal of strength in their idolatry. Idolatry is hope-creating and energising. Look at the world without Christ and you see a huge amount of energy and industry.

Verse 11 – Whom have you so dreaded and feared do not fear me? One of the drivers of spiritual unfaithfulness is a fear of things and people greater than our fear of the LORD. Such fears are often vague and unconscious, we don’t face them directly, but we are challenged here to identify them.

Verse 12 – your righteousness and your deedswill not profit you… The answer does not come from within us. We cannot work our own salvation. Our religiosity is filthy rags. We tend to think like the ancient Egyptians that our good will outweigh our bad and save us but we are wrong.

Verse 13 – let your collection of idols save you… We gather not just one or two idols but a collection, putting our eggs in many baskets. But the strategy will not work, idols cannot save. As we mock the LORD (v4) he will mock us (v13a). But he who takes refuge in me… There is salvation outside of us. There is refuge in the very One we have forsaken and insulted. In Him we are safe on the day of judgment and are (astonishingly) turned from sons of the sorceress (v3) into heirs of the living God (v13b).

What we see in these verses is that there is quite a lot about the workings of the human heart but it is not a cool discourse – it is a passionate, confrontational declaration. It is a prophetic condemnation so there is quite a lot about ‘You’ (N.B. plural), describing the ways in which God’s people have forsaken him and analyzing the reasons for their betrayal. But it is not leading us to an introspective dead end. We are given the big gospel truth that there is no salvation in us and we need instead to run to hide ourselves in the LORD himself.

  • Have you heard good examples recently of preaching which brings out the heart analysis of the passage while turning us as a people to the Lord? How can we get better at this?

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As a landscape can look quite different at different times of day or in different weather as the varying angles and hues of light on a terrain make different parts of that landscape stand out in sharp relief, so reading the Bible in a different cultural setting can highlight and bring out things you’d never seen before. I mentioned a few examples of this in an earlier post and here are a few more features of the Bible landscape that the preaching of Kenyan brothers has helped me see and appreciate in a new way.

Shame

It is sometimes said that African and Asian cultures are shame cultures (concerned about issues of public face and community rejection) whereas Western culture is a guilt culture (concerned about individual objective transgression of the law). Perhaps there is some truth in that but actually I think Western culture is a shame culture too just in a different way. Some things that would not be shameful in Kenya are shameful in the UK and vice versa. I’ll try to explore that more in another post. But what is certainly true is that when you are away from your home culture you notice the shame issue more.

When Ken Irungu was giving us an overview of 2 Timothy and preaching through the first chapter, one of the things that really struck me was how he brought out the theme of shame and being unashamed. In his time of trial Paul has been deserted (2 Tim. 4:16) and he calls Timothy ‘not to be ashamed of the gospel or of me his prisoner’ (1:8) but rather to be like Onesiphorus who was ‘not ashamed of my chains’ (1:16).

Challenging convention, being different, being outspoken can often be taken as shameful in a communal culture. To undergo arrest or punishment by the authorities, even when undeserved, will be seen as shameful. Even to suffer through illness, bereavement or some calamity can suggest that you under some sort of cloud of curse of misfortune. So for Paul to be suffering, and particularly suffering institutional persecution for the sake of his preaching, is a shameful thing and people will naturally respond by dissociating themselves and distancing themselves from him so as not to share the shame or pick the contagion. He will be rejected by the community, in itself a shameful thing, making him even more a figure of shame.

Being shown this theme has made the letter of 2 Timothy stand out in sharper relief for me. And I have also started to notice it all over the New Testament – the words ‘shame’ or ‘ashamed’ coming about 40 times. The death of Christ was a shameful thing (Heb. 12:2). The call of Jesus is to take up our cross (i.e. be willing to be shamed) and not be ashamed of me or my words else the Son of Man will be ashamed of him (Mk. 8:34-38). “Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Heb. 13:13).

Elder brother

In African cultures the role of the firstborn is well understood. I remember being in a Bible study in the Gambia looking at Colossians 1:15 and the African brothers there had no problem understanding the significance of Jesus being the ‘firstborn’. They didn’t get distracted by the JW misunderstanding that this means that Jesus is a created being, they understood that just as the firstborn in a house is next to the father and has all the rights and authority and status of the father (particularly when the father is away), so Jesus is next to the Father and has delegated to him all the functions and power of the Father.

Then Stanley Wandeto was preaching on Luke 15 – the parable of the two sons – and he showed me something that I had never seen about the elder brother there. It’s a parable full of shocking (shameful) behaviour (e.g. the younger son asking for his inheritance, the old man running, the father begging his son) but the one I hadn’t seen was that the elder brother is shocking in that he doesn’t go looking for the younger son. Traditionally a responsibility of the firstborn is to look after his younger siblings, to keep watch over them, to care for them and keep them in line. When the younger son insults his father and goes off into a life of recklessness, it is the job of the firstborn (not the father) to run after his brother and plead with him to come back.

Now I think of it, I realise that this is the godly concern that many of my Kenyan friends and colleagues have within their own families, particularly those who are firstborns, to pursue and win back straying siblings.

This gives another level and depth to the characterisation of the elder brother in the parable. His hatred towards his younger brother does not start when he comes home and a party is thrown for him, it starts much earlier in his failure to search for him. The self-righteous Pharisees (who are the target of the parable) are at fault not only for their failure to welcome sinners but their failure to go out looking for sinners (cf. Jesus who welcomes and seeks the lost).

Dead dog

Before I came to Kenya I’m not sure I’d seen a dead dog before. Now I see one almost every time I go to the office, lying in the road. Africa is full of stray dogs. Mostly a yellow-brown colour, small to medium size, thin, feral, searching for scraps. They have a hard pathetic life and then they get hit by a truck or starve.

In most African cultures, for a person to be compared to a dog is an extremely insulting and shameful thing. For one thing the distinction between animals and humans is much sharper than in the West (where pets are part of the family and people get very upset over a gorilla being shot) and for another thing dogs are a particularly dirty and ignoble animal (in contrast to something more noble like a lion or a rhino).

So when Fidel Nyikuri preached Mark 7:27 to us and also reminded us of Mephibosheth in 2 Kings 9, it came home very powerfully what it means for us to be a dead dog – pathetic, despised, dirty, base, in the lowest place. And yet – the wonder of the gospel – we who are not entitled to anything are invited to eat at the king’s table and share the children’s bread (Mk. 8:1-9).

Water and milk

In parts of the world where water comes clean, clear, pure and cold straight from the tap and is basically never cut off, it is difficult to appreciate the preciousness of water. In parts of the world where milk is delivered to the door and is always there when you open the fridge, alongside three or four other beverages and fifteen food items, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of milk.

However in places where the climate is hot and dry and water is scarce, where it has to be searched for or brought up from the ground with effort, then there is much more impact when we read in Isaiah of drawing ‘water from the wells of salvation’ (Isa. 12:3), a ruler and renewal which is ‘like streams of water in the desert’ (Isa. 32:2; 35:6; 41:18; 43:20; 44:3), a shepherd God who leads his people ‘beside springs of water’ (Isa. 49:10). Similarly, in a community where milk (drawn by hand from your own animals) is a key part of the diet (in some pastoralist communities people survive purely on milk for days a time and even down-country in many villages the one animal you will own is a cow), then the land flowing with milk and honey is very meaningful picture.

Preaching from Isaiah 55 Gerald Mwangi helped us imagine working all morning on the farm, digging in the sun, drinking nothing, and then finishing your work in the early afternoon desperate for… water. Then to think of what we take from childhood onwards to make us strong, to give us energy, to build us up… milk.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.”

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Augustine of Hippo is a towering figure in church history and theology. All agree that he was born a Berber in what is now Algeria. But there is quite some debate about how African Augustine really was. Some of this surrounds the question of how dark his skin was – something that was almost irrelevant to the understanding of ethnicity in the Ancient world (ethnicity was understood much more in terms of place, language, customs and kinship). Some have suggested that since Roman north Africa was part of the Roman empire and since Augustine was skilled in Latin rhetoric, spent several years in Italy and was heavily influenced by the classical philosophers, he is more Roman than African.

Four points in answer:

  1. Augustine clearly understood himself to be an African. He talks of “Pontitianus, our countryman so far as being an African, in high office in the Emperor’s court” (Confessions, Book 8, emphasis added). Admittedly, when Augustine talks of ‘Africa’ (e.g. four times in his Confessions) he is almost certainly speaking of the Roman Province of Africa – central, coastal North Africa excluding Morocco and Egypt and certainly not including sub-Saharan Africa. However Roman ‘Africa’ was a distinctive place in the Empire, one that Augustine identified with and where he spent most of his life serving as a presbyter, preacher and overseer of the church.
  2. No culture is sealed. There is no pure indigenous culture. Every culture has come from somewhere else, is a mixture of influences from different places and is gradually (or speedily) in the process of change. North African cultures had clearly been greatly impacted by the coming of pagan-classical Roman rule and then, a few hundred years later, by the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. But Roman Africa would have been a very different place from Roman Britain or Roman Italy. As recent post-colonial theorists and anthropologists have discovered, colonialism (ancient or modern) does not create monolithic cultural hegemony but rather a complex patchwork of hybrid cultures as different places interact with the colonising culture in different ways. At the same time, the colonising culture turns out to be equally complex, changeable and undergoes its own hybridisation. The fact that Africans like Augustine and Pontitianus were working in Rome, not as slaves but as free men, teaching rhetoric to the elite, shows a different side to the Roman Empire than the one we often see in films like Gladiator, where the only Africans coming into Rome seem to be slaves to be slaughtered in the Colosseum. The Roman Empire was highly multi-cultural. That could be seen in an African man with a Roman name, following an eastern mystery religion (Manichaeism), with a professorship in classical rhetoric in the heart of the Empire and being prompted by tales of Egyptian monastics (especially Anthony) to consider a Palestinian religion (The Way) which has been adopted by the Roman state. The Roman world was highly diverse, interconnected and mobile with people like Augustine and his family quite able to make trips between Italy and Africa. So let us give up the idea of distinct, hermetically sealed ‘African’ and ‘Western’ cultures, either in history or today.
  3. When Augustine describes his family (in Confessions, Book 9) there are some quite African-sounding cultural details. His maternal grandfather, when a baby, was carried on the back of a young village girl “as little ones used to be carried on the backs of elder girls.” Augustine’s mother Monica (a Berber name) was brought up largely by a maid who was very strict with her, including making sure she didn’t drink too much water, a discipline to prevent intemperance. And as Monica comes close to death, Augustine notes how his brother tries to encourage his mother to keep going on the journey back home (from Italy to Africa) “wishing for her, as the happier lot, that she might die, not in a strange place, but in her own land.” Quite an African sensibility.
  4. Despite the complex influences upon him, ultimately Augustine was neither captive to his African culture nor Roman culture because he came to encounter the culture-transcending God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the pages of Scripture. At first the words of the Bible were repulsive to him: “they seemed to me unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of [Cicero]; for my swelling pride shrunk from their lowliness, nor could my sharp wit pierce the interior thereof. Yet were they such as would grow up a little one [child]. But I disdained to be a little one; and swollen with pride, took myself to be a great one.” (Confessions, Book 3). Augustine’s polished classical education prejudiced him against the rough bluntness of the Bible’s language while his pride, and perhaps also his African upbringing which would no doubt have emphasised the importance of transitioning from boy to man, prejudiced him against a reverse rite of passage – transitioning from man to little child. But, despite the cultural offence, he describes how he was slowly, agonisingly, irresistibly drawn by the saving power of God and through these same Scriptures was brought to Christ, crucifying his old nature and putting on Christ. And how then the Scriptures came alive to him, especially the Psalms: “how was I by them kindled towards Thee, and on fire to rehearse them, if possible through the whole world, against the pride of mankind” (Confessions, Book 9). It is these Scriptures which gave Augustine his strong doctrines of the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man – doctrines which are foolish and offensive to the natural man. It is these Scriptures which gave his mother Monica an increasing awareness of the surpassing goodness of the Future Land prepared for her such that by the time of her death she was no longer concerned to be buried on her ancestral land. It is these Scriptures which are the only hope for people from all nations.

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Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Tim. 1:14)

We go through 2 Timothy with each new group of apprentices but it is always fresh and cutting. One of the things that’s really jumped out for me this time is the emphasis on both human work and the Spirit’s work. There is fanning of the flame to do but the fire is God’s gift (1:6). We are to suffer… by the power of God (1:8). We need to guard the gospel… with the help of the Holy Spirit (1:14). We are to be strong… in the grace in Christ (2:1). We are to think hard… and the Lord will give the understanding (2:7). We are to instruct opponents… hoping that God will grant repentance (2:25). We are to preach the Word… strengthened by the Lord (4:17).

Some of us may be tempted to speak only of the Spirit and to downplay human effort. In that case the challenge of 2 Timothy is that guarding the gospel will involve a lot of hard work, hard thinking, intentional effort and careful following of the apostolic leadership training strategy (2:2). Others of us (perhaps more of us) are tempted to focus on human activity and practically ignore (or only play lip service to) the work of the Spirit. For us, we need to remember that the gospel cannot be guarded simply through structures and programmes and curricula. As Ken Irungu pointed out, gospel ministry cannot be professionalised. We wholeheartedly believe in 2 Timothy 2:2 – it is one of the iServe Africa straplines – but transmitting good gospel truth to the next generation of Bible teachers for them to proclaim and teach it faithfully to others will not serve to guard and advance the gospel unless there is also a powerful work of the Spirit.

Why?

  1. Only the Spirit can change hearts. Only the Spirit can move the affections from love of the world (4:10) to love Christ and his people (1:7). Only the Spirit can move us from being ashamed of the gospel to unashamed (1:8). Only the Spirit can produce faithful, hardworking, persevering-through-suffering servants who are concerned to please their commanding officer (2:4-6) rather than the crowd.
  2. Only the Spirit can open minds to understand the truths of the gospel (2:7). J.C. Ryle: “The very same person who is quick and clever in worldly things, will often utterly fail to comprehend the simplest truths of Christianity. He will often be unable to take in the plainest reasonings of the Gospel… They will sound to him either foolish or mysterious.”

So please pray for us! Pray for iServe Africa and the young people starting off their ministry apprenticeship year that the Spirit would go out with His Word and change hearts and minds.

I was going to finish the sentence with the word ‘rubbish’ but more recently I’ve been learning (rather too late) that in Kenya, particularly among older generations and those with more sensitive ears, the word ‘rubbish’ (Kiswahili takataka) comes across very strongly to the point of being offensive.

What I’m thinking of is the experience of finding everything just slightly frustrated.

  • When I attempt to put up a shelf in my house and it ends up just slightly off horizontal. Perhaps only I will notice that it is not level, or someone who looks very carefully, but I’m annoyed that it is not right.
  • You’ve proof read the manuscript twenty times but when it’s finally printed there’s a typo on page one.
  • The biscuits/cake/meal you’ve spent an hour preparing stays in the oven or on the stove just five minutes too long. It’s still edible but has that acrid taste round the edges.
  • You drop the new phone that you’ve been saving for and looking forward to for ages and it gets a scratch on the screen on day one.
  • The car has just come back from the mechanics, you’ve spent a lot of money, he’s assured you that everything is sorted but then the next day you hear another funny rattle and grumble under the bonnet.

This is not real suffering – bereavement, pain, trauma – it is just daily frustrations and annoyances. It’s good stuff gone a bit wrong. It’s the sort of thing that Alanis Morissette sung about in her 1995 song ‘Ironic’ (as many people have pointed out, what was genuinely ironic was that the song was not really about ironic things at all but simply about annoying things):

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
A traffic jam when you’re already late
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

Why is it that things are never quite perfect? Even the best things? The most superb athlete has a blister which ruins his performance. The most beautiful house has a crack on the wall and a tap which doesn’t work. The shine is taken off the best works of gospel ministry by imperfections, mistakes and sin.

The book of Ecclesiastes has the answer. It calls it vanity, frustration. It is the curse of Genesis 3. Fallenness, decay, thorns and weeds. A heavy blanket over everything (Eccl. 6:1) frustrating every sphere of life and every human endeavour.

Four ways to respond:

Thanking God for spoiling the world to us

One of the most famous lines in Augustine’s Confessions is the thought that our hearts are restless until they find their true rest in the Lord. But Augustine is well aware that our wayward hearts can find a sort of rest in the pleasures of this world. So a recurring cry in his Confessions is thanks to God for spoiling the things of the world to him (relationships, entertainment, health) so he could not find rest in them:

You [Lord] being the more gracious, the less you allowed anything which was not You to grow sweet to me. (Confessions, Book 6).

Adelaide Procter, the Victorian poet, probably alluding to Augustine, expressed the same thought:

I thank thee more that all our joy is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours, that thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, and not our chain.

I thank thee, Lord, that here our souls, though amply blesses,
Can never find, although they seek, a perfect rest;
Nor ever shall, until they lean on Jesus’ breast.

(From “My God, I thank thee”)

Longing for the better land

As Procter says, the shadows and thorns and frustrations are supposed to be our guide. They should make us long for a better country where there will be no more curse (Rev. 22:3). Romans 8 talks about the creation subjected to frustration (v20) and then gives the great mark of those who have the Spirit as a groaning eager waiting for the resurrection life (v23).

The New Creation is our great Christian Hope (Rom. 8:24). So let every sprained ankle and faulty laptop and dropped cake and torn dress be a little goad turning us to long for the place where there will be no more frustration, no more tarnish, no more thorns only perfection. And then may our thoughts continue on to the very greatest perfection and joy of that Land – the radiant King Jesus.

Courageously conquering the thorns

In the meantime, until we reach the New Creation, we need to be realistic that there will always be frustrations. But the great news is that these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35). Rather, all these things are being used for us – to inflame our longing for the resurrection and for our growth in Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:28, 31-32). And so in this way, as Piper has pointed out, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37) – the thorns and weeds harnessed for our good and growth.

Perhaps this is mostly about a change of perspective. As G K Chesterton observed:

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

I need to see the traffic jam or the papers dropped in a puddle as a faith adventure rather than a useless waste of time. There will be frustrations till we reach the heavenly kingdom but each of these mini-mountains can be scaled and overcome. The wise gardener doesn’t bluster at or get depressed by the ever growing weeds, he simply attacks them with gusto as part of the job.

Moving forward in mission

One problem with everything being a bit… imperfect is that it can paralyze us when it comes to moving forward in gospel ministry. I was talking to a brother a few years ago (now a senior minister of a Nairobi church) about mission trips he had done to S Sudan. He was explaining the frustration in not being able to speak the local language there and particularly the frustration that he suspected one of the translators had not been faithfully translating everything he was saying. This led onto a wider discussion about frustrations in gospel ministry. What do you do when things are not quite right? The church leadership structure is not quite right; the small group leaders are not very well trained; the quality of theological education is not brilliant; the resources are lacking…

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In response this brother gave the illustration of a battered, old, badly-maintained car. It’s wheels are all going in slightly different directions, it’s rattling and stuttering, but it will move. The thing is you can wait until everything is perfect – the perfect training programme, the perfect people, the perfect education, the perfect church, the perfect cross-cultural mission preparation, the perfectly crafted sermon – but it’s not going to happen. We’re in an imperfect world under the curse of frustration. That’s not a recipe for settling for poor quality or ungodliness or theological compromise or slackness or foolishness – we need to keep fighting those things and prepare as well as possible – but it is just to recognise that sometimes you need to say, that’s good enough for now, and put the key in the ignition and move forward with what you’ve got, hopefully improving things as you go.