Tag Archives: discipleship

Unless the Lord builds the house…

22 Apr

Over Easter, we had the privilege of receiving a team of eight from our home church, Cottage Lane Mission – thanks guys :-), fantastic job! – to help us do some work on our house. Hence the gap in blogs – just too busy between paint and cement to put virtual pen to paper, I’m afraid. Our house is a hundred year or so old Spanish town house, crumbling a little at the edges, in sore need of a little TLC – which it got over ten days of intense work on all fronts.

The at times frenetic work brought at some point the inevitable jocular reference to the first verse of Psalm 127: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” I am not quite sure what this meant in the context of work on our house, though suspect it is probably some kind of get-out clause – if everything falls down when they have gone, we should blame God, not them! But it did make me think.

Let’s turn that text round a bit. (Yes, I know that reversing syllogisms can produce some interesting fallacies, but bear with me on this one for a moment – this verse is not a syllogism, nor is this a class in Aristotelian rhetoric for that matter…) “Even if the Lord does want to build the house, unless its builders labour, it will all be in vain.” Just as intense human effort divorced of God’s blessing is destined to failure, so also is God’s desire without people prepared to work hard to bring things about. God’s work would appear to always be the product of toil – yes, the Hebrew word ‘amal is that strong – on the part of people who labour under the blessing of God.

Builders labour. Houses simply don’t get built without hard work.

So too God’s house. To believe anything else is to live in a world of magic wands and fairy godmothers, of “with one bound, Jack was free” theology. Deus ex machina finales work well for Rambo films, but belong to the world of fiction; the drama of real life is not the work of Hollywood script writers.

Let’s start with the building of faith in our own lives. Paul is quite clear:

“For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no-one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:9-15).

The foundation of the grace we have received in Christ is in place – what is in question is what and how we build on that. Spiritual disciplines are just that – disciplines – not leisure breaks. Wisdom does not float down from heaven, it is searched for like a buried treasure. We get to know Scripture by engaging directly with the Bible, not merely listening to others’ sermons (though that is a start!); there are no short-cuts to reading, studying, meditating. Sin is resisted, not magicked away. Christian fellowship happens as we forgive and put up with other sinners who God asks us to love as he himself loved us. A mature Christian life does not “just happen”; it is the fruit of a labour of love.

Beyond our individual faith, Christian community is also not built without its own measure of toil. Paul tells the new Ephesian believers that they are:

“built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:20-22).

Built together – to which Peter adds, “as living stones” (1Peter 2:5). I have often observed that it is much easier to build with dead bricks than living stones. Dead bricks fit all neatly together, and stay put. A splodge of cement, a couple of taps with the trowel handle, and done, onto the next brick. Living stones are different. With an infinite variety of shapes and sizes it takes a good dose of creativity to fit them together well. But turn your back to get another one and on returning to the building-in-progress, they have moved. Sigh…

Starting, building, developing churches is hard work. Terribly rewarding, it is true, but extremely hard work nonetheless. From its inception in evangelism through the discipleship process to the formation of mature local fellowships, church is created by patient and dedicated toil. One of the most common New Testament terms used in this respect, kopiao and its cognates, refers to feeling fatigued, and by implication, the hard work that leaves us in that state. Whatever our romantic ideals about Christian ministry, let there be no doubt about it – wherever you see healthy church, you can be sure that someone or someones have sweated a great deal over it.

Even in this, however, the complicity with God as “arch-builder” stands. Speaking of his ministry to see Christ made known amongst the Gentiles, Paul confesses: “To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). We labour, we struggle, but the energy which keeps us going – and the work with us – comes from above. We are never unfeeling robotic channels of divine power. We still labour, pushing our frail humanity forward, of necessity using all the time, energy and abilities that we have at our disposal, at times wearing ourselves thin in the process. But somehow, like the burning bush which “though on fire… did not burn up”, grace keeps us going.

Jesus will build his church, and all that hell can come up with cannot prevent that. The Lord will build the house, the Lord is building the house. Labourer, in your fatigue, know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.

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“Madre, solo hay una” (We only have one mother)

18 Mar

Mother's DayNow this will show my age… If my memory serves me correctly – which as those who know me will tell you is not always the case – the Bill Parkinson song “Mother of Mine” performed by Neil Reid in 1971 is the first “pop” song that I remember. Either that or the bagpipe version of Amazing Grace. Or was it…

But back to mothers. I think that Mother’s Day must be what used to be called a “movable feast”. In different parts of the world, at least, it is celebrated on different days right through the year, from the second Sunday in February in Norway to 22nd December in Indonesia, and pretty much anything in between. The second Sunday in May is by far the most popular day, though in Spain we go for the first Sunday in May.

However, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. So having arrived yesterday afternoon in the UK, where Mother’s Day is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent – today –, a heartfelt “well done” to all mothers out there. First of all to my own mother, of course, and to the mother of my children. ¡Os quiero!

And back in Spain again, Monday is Father’s Day – coinciding with Joseph in the traditional calendar of saints’ days. It’s a shame I will be a thousand miles away from my kids, though I imagine the wonderful presents they will surely have got for me will wait :-)

Mothers, fathers. Where would we be without them? A stupid question, I know, but you get my point…

There is so much more to parenthood than procreation. Upon hearing that he was to be disinherited by his father, so the story goes, Salvador Dalí claims to have handed some of his own sperm over to his father saying: “Take that. I owe you nothing now!” Beyond that initial provision of a solitary gamete from each progenitor, even the loan of a womb for nine months of gestation does not equate with motherhood, as all surrogate mothers know only too well.

Parenting is an art, a craft that demands huge doses of understanding, wisdom, courage, patience, time, far-sightedness. humour and selfless love, to name just some of the requirements of the job. Certainly not for the faint-hearted. Why, I wonder, do we imagine that raising people in Christ is any different?

Presenting people perfect in Christ” is not accomplished in quick-fix remedies, miracle cures, or Bible bombs. The work of bringing others to new birth and then drawing them towards maturity in Christ is the task of spiritual parenting. Do we honestly expect it to be any less demanding than “the real thing”?

In the space of a few short verses, Paul describes the ministry that he, Silas and Timothy exercised amongst the Thessalonians in parenting terms, drawing on the imagery of both mother and father to infant converts.

We were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too. […] And you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children. We pleaded with you, encouraged you, and urged you to live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy. For he called you to share in his Kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12)

Nothing can replace the gentleness of a nursing mother, who, before the days of bottles and formula milk, is all too aware that her child’s very life depends fully on her. Yes, babies have some mighty strong instincts, but these are of little use without the nourishment and tender care that a mother provides. The nurture of the new-born in Christ only comes about through the active sharing of our lives, not the impersonal passing on of God’s Word, however powerful that Word may be.

And a father – interestingly, Paul does not highlight financial provision, education, or discipline and punishment. Rather, he focuses on the relational side of standing alongside another in order to help them fly high, be the best that they can be, reach their God-given potential. This is the father whose child hears the words “This is my dearly loved son, who brings me great joy”. All new to the faith need fathers like this.

Paul aimed to be all of this for those he saw come to Christ through his ministry. He knew that planting and perfecting churches was no “wham, bang, thank-you ma’am” display of power but the patient sowing of his own life into others, the embodiment of the best of motherhood and fatherhood to those he served. Whilst not wishing to put too great an emphasis on first-century gender stereotypes, nothing has changed today; this is still how the church of Christ is built.

To all those who gave into my life as mothers and fathers, thank-you. And may God in turn grant me the grace to be a tender mother and nurturing father to those he entrusts to me.

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