Stephen McAlpine: Exile, Evangelism and Ebed-Melech

Steven McAlpine brings glimmers of hope for the church in an age of increasing hostility.

Exile, Evangelism and Ebed-Melech

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While much of the talk is of bunkering down in the face of a coming cultural exile for the traditional church, we might just be in for a surprising gospel harvest at the same time.

Not a harvest instead of exile.

Nor in spite of.

But because of.

Amidst the scandals of rotten in churches that say one thing and do another; amidst the scandalon of the gospel proving to be too much for denominations seeking culture relevance, there’s a growing and genuine interest in the gospel that is translating to people actually becoming Christian.

And they’re not doing so because it’s convenient, or because all their friends are rushing to sign up and they’re getting caught in the hype, or because the media has a love-in with the church.  In fact it’s quite the opposite. To remain a Christian today is quite a challenge in the West.  To become one, well that’s another thing altogether.

Yet that is what I am seeing.  That’s what our network at Providence is seeing, as Rory Shiner reports on The Gospel Coalition site.

In our small church alone we have seen several people become Christian this past few months; one a long time church attendee who was not converted. Another one who was saved out of the blue from an atheist background after starting out on a spiritual search through reading the book of Numbers of all things!

And about five or six young people asking us for baptism.  And all in the face of a peer group outside the church that is increasingly suspicious – hostile even – towards their faith.

Yes I do think we’re headed towards cultural exile at a rate of knots.  Yes I do think that the Benedict Option is a good long term strategy.  But in the midst of all of that God is still saving people, still carrying out his intentions to bless the whole world through the covenant made with Abraham and completed in Christ.

It reminds me of the story of Ebed-Melech in the dark, desperate days of exile and ruin for Jerusalem.  Babylon is in the process of dismantling the city, the temple and God’s people.  More than that, it seems like God is in the process of dismantling His promises to bless Israel and the whole world through her.

And Jeremiah, the weeping, mournful prophet who vainly calls God’s people to turn from their desperate attempts to find security in anyone but God in the midst of it all, is shunned and disdained.  Eventually he’s thrown into a well.  Left to die.

And then we read this in Jeremiah 38:

When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern—the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate—  Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king,  “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.”  Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.”  So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes.  Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. 13 Then they drew Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.

Did you get the idea that Ebed-Melech was an Ethiopian?  It reminds us three times.  Oh, and a eunuch as well.  He’s not ticking too many of the boxes is he?

Yet right at the nadir of Israel’s life, God, through this Ethiopian eunuch, points to the fact that His salvation purposes of blessing the whole world through Abraham’s descendants are still at work.

Someone not of Israel living as a true Israelite, and indeed saving an Israelite from certain death from the hands of unregenerate Israel.

A prototype Good Samaritan perhaps, while Jeremiah’s countrymen not only walk by on the other side, but inflict his wounds.

And  a precursor to another Ethiopian eunuch on the other side of the cross, who hears the good news about Jesus from Philip the evangelist, even in the midst of persecution of God’s people by faithless Jerusalem leaders once again.

In Jeremiah 39, when things have gotten worse in the capital, we read this:

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah while he was shut up in the court of the guard:  “Go, and say to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will fulfill my words against this city for harm and not for good, and they shall be accomplished before you on that day. But I will deliver you on that day, declares the Lord, and you shall not be given into the hand of the men of whom you are afraid.  For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword, but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have put your trust in me, declares the Lord.’”

Here is a true Israelite, as Paul would say in Romans 6.  One circumcised of heart, not just body.   Ebed- Melech finds salvation in God, even as the city is about the be handed over to the Babylonians one final time, and exile proper kicks in.

It’s a gospel moment.  Ebed-Melech is not commended by God for taking Jeremiah out of the well, but for trusting in the LORD.  It was his trust in the LORD, in fact, that led him to taking Jeremiah out of the well.  Here is a picture – albeit a small, fractured picture, of the nations putting their trust in Israel’s God, even in horrendous times, with a faltering witness from Israel, and a looming exile in Babylon.

So both my experience and my theology are demonstrating that something good is going on, not instead of something difficult (a cultural exile will indeed be hard for many Christians), not in spite of something difficult (as if this is pattern is an upset for the books), but because of it of it.

We’ve talked a lot about how God is doing a purifying work in these hard, secular times, burning off some of the dross.  We’ve talked about how this thing has not bottomed out, and that there’s still a falling away to come for many who love the praise of humans more than the praise of God.  We’ve talked about how some of our church growth is simply because people are swimming away from sinking life boats and scrambling on to ours.

And that’s all true.

But at the same time God appears to be taking away, He’s also adding.  Adding people to His kingdom His way.  And many of them are looking at the difficulties that the gospel will bring to their lives, and deciding that for the joy set before them it will be worth it.

I’m looking forward to meeting Ebed-Melech in the new creation. For he is a prototype of all Gentiles such as I, who although not “cut off” physically, were indeed cut off spiritually from the hope of God, but who through Christ are being brought in at a surprisingly healthy rate of knots, despite our present cultural exilic circumstances.

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“Messy Seniors”

Messy Church was started as a format for families and children, but really it’s for everyone.

‘Messy Seniors’ brings church to the people

The Rev. Heather Liddell shares the story of “Messy Seniors” at the Messy Church Canada Conference October 27 at Wycliffe College in Toronto. Photo: Joelle Kidd

Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Edmonton, Alta., thought Messy Church would be a perfect fit. The largest church in its diocese, Holy Trinity runs large children’s and youth programs and has an active congregation.

It seemed like a good idea. The all-ages monthly service centred around craft activities, storytelling and sharing a meal; kids and grown-ups enjoyed the biblical learning activities. “We built blanket forts in the sanctuary, we packed lunches for our trip with the three Magi,” recalled the Rev. Heather Liddell, associate curate at Holy Trinity, during a workshop she led October 27 at the Messy Church Canada Conference at Wycliffe College in Toronto, Ont.

While kids and families were a target audience of Messy Church, Liddell and her team tried intentionally to include single people, childless adults and seniors in the ministry.

Eventually, they noticed, these groups were far more interested in attending the Messy Church than the young families were. “We realized a traditional Messy wasn’t the best fit for our context when we admitted that every session was a struggle,” Liddell wrote in an email to the Anglican Journal. It was difficult to get volunteers, attendance was low and it was not uncommon for Liddell to be “up until the wee hours prepping crafts, alone…or cleaning up, alone.”

The team at Holy Trinity realized they had launched the program without thinking about who was in their community and who it was designed to serve.

To find out who actually lived in their community, Liddell said, the team pulled census data for the area. They were surprised to find that almost no kids lived nearby. “What we found was a lot of really lonely seniors,” Liddell told conference attendees.

The area is populated with retiree and assisted living homes. “We started asking the question, ‘What would Messy Church look like with them?’ ”

The answer to that question became Canada’s first Messy Church ministry directed toward senior citizens. (“Messy Vintage,” a U.K. initiative, offers something similar.)

“Messy Seniors” is held in a high-needs home for seniors with advanced cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Liddell hopes that other Messy Churches can be started in other seniors’ homes in their community.

Bringing the church into the care home was an exercise in contextualizing. Using the core values of Messy Church—Christ-centred, for all ages, creativity, hospitality and celebration—Liddell and her team adapted the program for a new setting.

The context had its challenges; care home rules prevent bringing in outside food, for example, meaning they were unable to follow the typical Messy Church model of eating a hot meal together. With so many attendees struggling with arthritis or failing eyesight, crafts that require dexterity or heavy reading were not ideal. However, because of Messy Church’s “free-flowing structure,” Liddell says, it was easy to adapt for different needs. What’s more, she says, it brought together children and seniors. “It is precisely that intergenerational piece that is so important and so often missing from our church’s [across the Communion] approaches to care for seniors.”

In fact, at the “Messy Seniors” Church, children lead the service as “trained volunteers.” Empowering children to lead the church activities “gives them the opportunity to interact with someone they wouldn’t have a chance to in their regular lives.”

“Is there any better picture of the kingdom of heaven than a little girl helping a wheelchair-bound man in his 90s—whose family is faraway and too busy to visit very often—tie knots (that his fingers are too arthritic to make) in a simple star mobile while talking about God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants more numerous than the stars?”

One young girl who wasn’t sure she wanted to come because “old people are gross and smell funny,” “left walking on air and asking when she can come back,” Liddell said. “She is by far our best recruiter for volunteers.”

Our society, Liddell says, has “sequestered the aging process,” and children don’t get much chance to spend time with the elderly. “It is mostly a fear of the unknown—once kids start interacting with the elderly, they realize not only how fun they can be, but that they’re people, too.”

The Messy Church model, with its emphasis on hands-on activities and storytelling, is “fun, silly and familiar without being infantilizing,” says Liddell. With many residents in the care home struggling with memory and eyesight loss, hearing a familiar story, lovingly told, is precious.

“Life is messy, and getting older is difficult. It changes our perspectives any time we step out of our comfort zones and encounter a new aspect of life. It’s the same if you’re 6, 10, 25 or 90.”

The Same Sex Marriage Vote

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We had our say, and the nation overwhelmingly voted “Yes” to same sex marriage. I am disappointed but not surprised.

What should Christians make of this?

Firstly, it should be a wake up call for anyone who maintains that Australia is a “Christian country.” It is not, and 60% of the population showed that they are not in favour of a strictly Christian society. Interestingly, the electorates where there was a majority “No” vote were those with a larger than average immigrant population- both Middle East and Asian.

Secondly, it should be a sign to the church that we need to be more intentional in missions. That is, we must take the message of Christ to the streets, to the workplace, to our neighbourhoods. There will be a temptation to withdraw from the public square, to sit in our comfortably padded pews and hope that nobody notices. Instead we need to get out and win hearts, minds and souls to the kingdom.

Thirdly we need to prepare for persecution for our beliefs. By that I don’t mean that Christians will be thrown into prison for being Christians. No it will be much more subtle than that. Human Rights Tribunals and other quasi-judicial bodies will prosecute individuals and groups who oppose the dominant narrative. If you dare to state that marriage should be between a man and a woman in any context other than a place of worship you may soon be liable to a complaint. If you think that is unlikely, consider the Bishop of Tasmania who was forced to appear before that state’s tribunal for publishing a booklet explaining the church’s position on marriage and supporting the current legal definition of marriage.

Finally we need to pray as never before. We must pray for our friends and neighbours to receive the gospel. People have been rejecting God for a couple of generations now and that trend is not showing any signs of being reversed. We live in a society that is increasingly narcissistic, because it is made up of people who think they are gods. We must repent of our own self-centredness and give ourselves anew to serving God and God alone.

 

A Different Social Narrative

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Reflecting on rum and beer ads, Stephen McAlpine writes:

Our role is to build such thick communities in the power of God’s Spirit that people steeped in the secular social imaginary look on wistfully and say “Those Christians  know how to have a good time.”

Our role is to build such attractive narratives of meaning that Christians not only know that God’s community is where they should be, but they want to be there too.

And in the midst of what appears to be rapid and dislocating decline in the Western narrative (and for those who pooh-pooh the idea of narratives of decline, my response is “show me the money!”), we have the option of creating counter narratives that locate people in places they’d rather be. Places of safety and refuge.

Places of forgiveness and possibility.  Places where the God who upholds the cause of the weak is honoured, in the face of the cultural gods who oppress the weak and silence the marginalised.

Read the rest here

The Powerful Reason We Keep Getting Out Of Bed

Ann Voskamp captures it with passion and precision to remind us why we get out of bed every morning.

The Powerful Reason Why We All Have To Keep Getting Out of Bed — That Changes a Broken World

When I saw it plastered on a wall somewhere in the city, it brought me up short.

I stepped back a few steps, stood there in front of it like a fool farm hick.

Blazoned across the three panels like a wakeup call:

Why do you get out of bed in the morning? 

Some dare devil’s pictured on the billboard plunges off his surfboard:Fear of Failure 

An astronaut lashes himself in for launch:  The Need to Succeed

Some guy holds a a curling cat:The Love of Your Life

And I mean —

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There’s work towering over you like a toppling avalanche about ready to bury you a couple feet deep, mocking you to go ahead and just try to get of bed. There’s bills stacked up like a deafening demand. There’s people counting on you and you’re counting on someOne stronger than you to get you through.

Why in the world do you get out of bed in the morning? 

Read the rest here

Jonathan Parnell: The Church on the Fringe

The Church on the Fringes

December 15, 2014 

The Church on the Fringes

The church is a community of Christians living as the on-the-ground expression of the supremacy of Jesus by advancing his gospel in distance and depth. As theon-the-ground expression, and since gospel advance happens in distance, the local nature of the church is indispensable. The church is the place — the here and now — of Jesus’s new creation reign in an old creation world.

As the assembly of those made new in Christ, we come together in space and time, and we make Jesus known in those blessed limitations. Advancing the gospel in distance means we cross the street, and the oceans, to tell others the good news. It means we go out there into the darkness with the light of God’s love.

Far As the Curse Is Found

But we also remember that out there isn’t the only darkness. If we know our own hearts, we know it gets dark in here, too. So not only must the gospel advance in distance, it must also advance in depth. Jesus came to make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found,” and that means both the curse out there among the highways and hedges of this world, and the curse in here among the nooks and crannies of our soul.

Read the rest here

Ray Ortlund- It multiplied

It multiplied

 

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up.  And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.  Acts 9:31

I’m not against strategic plans.  I’m for them.  They have their place, as a matter of wise stewardship.  But they cannot generate the astonishing outcomes described in the book of Acts.

I remember hearing Michael Green at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974.  He asked us, Why don’t we see anywhere in the book of Acts a man-made strategic plan for evangelizing the world?  His answer: They didn’t have one.

What then did they have?  Two things, for starters: the fear of the Lord, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

In the fear of the Lord, they were teachable, they were humble, they were listening to the gospel, they were open and grateful and easily bendable.  They did not have a spirit of self-assurance.  They were eager to learn and grow and change in any way the Lord wanted them to.

In the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were gladdened, they felt forgiven, they were reconciled to God and reconciling with one another.  They saw their sins and failures, but they also saw the far greater reality of Jesus crucified for them.  To put it in a secular way, they couldn’t believe their luck.

Openness in a know-it-all world, comfort in an angry world – that ancient world simply could not resist these heaven-sent powers.  So the church didn’t just grow, it multiplied.

Those early churches had no master plan for their future.  But they were walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and it worked.

Church growth takes planning.  Let’s do it.  But church multiplication takes miracle.  Let’s be open to what only God can do.