I was sent home from hospital a month ago with strict instructions not to do anything – well nothing strenuous that is – in case it triggered another heart attack!? Now to be honest, at first, I though that this was rather a jolly good whiz! All I was allowed to do – and Julia was adamant on this – was either stay in bed or sit on a comfy chair, and let her wait on me hand and foot?! Now I know that some of you are already thinking – ‘So nothing much has changed there, then?!’ This of course is far from the truth – I actually normally do quite a lot around the house such as all the washing up, a lot of the maintenance jobs, working in the garden, carrying the shopping, etc. But, having now justified my existence, back to the point of this blog. Although there are times when I honestly feel incapable of doing anything – when the various drugs I am on ‘kick in’ or my breathing gets somewhat ‘laboured’ – it is against my nature to be lazy and do nothing. And after a few days of ‘doing nothing’ I began to get really bored and somewhat frustrated with not being allowed to do anything.
Julia, and her mother Olivia, were constantly hovering over me to make sure I ‘behaved’. Olivia took over the washing up, Tom (our gardener/handyman was left to look after the garden on his own and took on some of the practical jobs around the house that needed doing, and Olivia helped Julia with the weekly supermarket shop each week. Now I know that some of you will be suggesting that we should ‘shop over the internet’ but to be honest our weekly visit to Morrison’s (and a coffee afterwards) is part of our weekly ritual – an ‘escape from the country’ if you like?! At first I went with them to Morrison’s but stopped when I realised that people kept looking at me and thinking ‘Why doesn’t that big, strong guy help those poor ladies with pushing the trolley or carrying the shopping!?’ You can’t always see that someone has a dodgy heart like you can if he or she has a broken leg?! In reality, of course, everyone ‘in the know’ is being really kind and helpful. Other members of staff at Spurgeon’s College have taken over my marking responsibilities, friends at Dorchester Baptist Church are ‘filling in’ for me on the coffee rota, and the mid-week Prayer Meeting and Communion Service roster, and various other responsibilities I have within the Baptist Denomination are being ‘farmed out’ to others as well. But even so, although there are times when I really don’t feel at all like doing anything, there are other times – maybe the majority of times – when I feel really frustrated at not being able or allowed to do anything?!
Reflecting on this, I recalled an article I wrote several years ago entitled: ‘Don’t just do something … stand there!’ In this article I suggested that, in the first instance, ‘being’ was more important than ‘doing’ in the Christian life – that our service for God and others stemmed from our relationship with God, rather than the other way around? I even went as far as to suggest that if some Christians actually stopped all their ‘activity for God’ for a time they might discover that they actually didn’t have a real relationship with God at all?! I meant it kindly. It was not meant to be critical but rather to encourage Christians to discover a meaningful relationship with the living God in Christ, and enjoy the purposeful service in both the Church and the world that stems from such a meaningful relationship. Anyway, it proved to be quite controversial at the time, and I recall one Christian lady having ‘a right go’ at me ‘because the whole of my relationship with God is defined by what I do for him!’ Interestingly, this same lady came back to me some moths later to apologise for what she had said to me earlier. Almost immediately after her original outburst her personal circumstances radically changed in a way that meant that she had been forced to lay to one side all her ‘church activities’ … and in the period of time that followed she had come to realise that she did not have a meaningful relationship with God. This, in turn, led to a renewal of her commitment to Christ and, when her circumstances changed once again, a more limited but much more profitable period of service for Christ and others!
Anyway, back to the point, this period of enforced inactivity brought my own words back to haunt me – ‘Don’t just do something … stand there!’ Whether I like it or not, all I can do at the moment is primarily just be?! I can pray, of course, but prayer has never been a problem for me as it is for others seemingly. I am constantly praying – not always in the formal sense of getting down on my knees – but in the Brother Lawrence sense of Practicing the Presence of God moment by moment and day by day. I find myself, more and more, keeping one eye open towards God to see what he sees, and one ear open to hear what he has to say, as I observe what is going on around me and listen to the multitude of voices around us on any given day. I can read – interesting books, the Bible, the newspaper, stimulating articles on the internet. I can write – reflections on what I have read, or see around me, or experience – things like this ‘blog’ and all the other ‘blogs’ that remain half written on my computer but never see the light of day because they are the ‘fruit of my frustrations’ and far too explosive to publish!? But all of this is far different from the active life I lived, especially when I was in the Pastorate. But just how helpful was all that ‘activity’ – for me and for others – in terms of the ‘kingdom of God’?
We Christians, especially us ‘evangelicals’, are so activist you know! David Bebbington (the Church Historian) is widely known for his definition of ‘evangelicalism’, referred to as the ‘Bebbington Quadrilateral’. In his 1989 classic study Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Bebbington identifies four main qualities which are to be used in defining evangelical convictions and attitudes: Biblicism (a particular regard for the Bible, e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages); Crucicentrism (a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross); Conversionism (the belief that human beings need to be converted); and Activism (the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort). It is this latter quality that I want to concentrate on here for a few moments.
Now Activism is a quality – over the years I have been immensely grateful for all those people, in the various churches and congregations I have pastored, who have worked tirelessly for the sake of the Kingdom. In the Baptist Church in Dorchester, where Julia and I are members, two of the most successful activities are Messy Church and Kids and Co. Messy Church meets monthly and attracts around 150 people, mostly outsiders, who see this activity as ‘their church’. Messy Church requires a considerable amount of effort to put on – involving a whole variety of things from numerous fun activities around a biblical theme to a full blown meal for everyone to conclude – and the same group of committed helpers turn out month after month to make sure everything runs efficiently and winsomely. Kids and Co operates on weekly basis and is designed for parents, guardians and carers with pre-school children. It attracts up to 200 people every week to either the morning or afternoon session and is a ‘lifeline’ for many of those who attend. Once again its success is dependent upon the small army of dedicated people who fulfill a whole range of responsibilities each week to make sure this activity runs efficiently. Whilst these two activities are ‘front of house’ in Dorchester, there are other more ‘hidden’ activities, such as the Food Bank, that operate on a regular basis and are dependent on a key group of dedicated people who simply ‘get on with the task at hand’ week after week. I am sure that there are many other churches who could tell a similar story. Activism is an undoubted quality!
My concern is not, however, with those actively involved in those ‘good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10), but with the fact that so many Christians (and churches) seem to be rushing around like headless chickens either maintaining organisations and activities that are clearly past their ‘sell-by date’ or massaging their own egos in a vain attempt to ‘appear important’ or even display a ‘martyr spirit’!? Even though we evangelical Christians understand that ‘it is by grace we have been saved, through faith – and this is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8,9) there remains somehow, something within us (probably stemming from our old Adamic nature) that subliminally attributes a place to ‘works’ in order to achieve our salvation?! Now ‘good works’ have their place – they ‘confirm’ the genuineness of our salvation – but not just any kind of good works. As Paul reminds us in the next verse in this passage in his Letter to the Ephesians – a verse already referred to in this paragraph – ‘For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do [those] good works which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (v.10)!
The simple fact of the matter is that human effort or activity alone will never produce anything significant in terms of the Kingdom of God. Even when we have done our very best – and we should seek to do our very best – there is that certain something that remains to be done, something that God alone can introduce. As the Prophet Zechariah came to understand, success in terms of the Kingdom of God is not achieved ‘by might nor by power but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty’ (Zechariah 4:6)! And as Jesus himself reminds us, ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5)! It is vital, therefore, that all our energy and activity is put into doing those ‘good works God has prepared beforehand for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10), those activities that are ‘according to [God’s] purposes’ (Romans 8:28) rather than those activities we take on either because we want to do them, or we are driven to by guilt because ‘no-one else is doing it’?! I wonder just how much activity that goes on in church life is either because, a) the church down the road is doing it so we feel we ought to do it as well, or b) the particular activity in question will die if we don’t keep it going?! The reality, however, is that we really don’t have to ‘ape’ what other churches are doing – that might be their call but not necessarily ours? And honestly ‘the need doesn’t constitute the call’ – if God hasn’t called us to it, it won’t work anyway however much effort we put into it!? And sometimes things do come to the ‘end of their natural life’ and we mustn’t be afraid to let certain activities and organisations ‘die’ – we of all people should believe in death and resurrection – because maybe God has something better to replace that particular activity or organisation we insist on keeping going?!
What all this boils down to is our need to stop being active for the sake of being active! We need to take time out – as individuals and as churches – to prayerfully seek God as to what it really is he wants us to give our time and energy to. Jesus himself frequently took ‘time out’ to prayerfully wait on his Father for guidance as to what he should be doing during ‘the years of his flesh’. Luke records that on a number of occasions Jesus took himself off to prayerfully wait on God – especially prior to the ‘key decisions’ in his life – his baptism (Luke 3:21,22); his wilderness experience (Luke 5:15,16); before choosing the Twelve (Luke 6:12,13); before eliciting the first disciples’ confession of faith (Luke 9:18-20); prior to his Transfiguration (Luke 9:28,29); prior to teaching those same disciples the art of prayer (Luke 11:1,2); in Gethsemane prior to the Cross (Luke 22:39-46). As individuals we need to resist having our arms twisted to take on any job in church life just because ‘someone needs to do it’! As Leadership Teams and Church Meetings we need to be brave enough to have an honest look at all our church activities and organisations, prayerfully discern just what it really is God wants us to give our time and effort to, and be prepared to scrap that which is ineffective and unnecessary in order to make room for that which truly is of God!
This will not be easy. On two occasions I have persuaded the churches I was pastoring at the time to stop all their activity, apart from Sunday Morning Worship, for a week and wait prayerfully on God for him to reveal just what it was that he really wanted us to be doing as a church. Both attempts ended in failure. In the first church everybody agreed that this was a great idea … until it came to their particular organisation or activity!? “We thought you meant everyone else’s activity” they said, “not ours?!” In the second church I suggested that rather than stopping every activity, each organisation continued to meet but instead of following their usual programme, they devoted the time to prayerfully waiting upon God for him to either tell them it was ‘time to call it a day’ or impart fresh vision to them. “But we have Mrs So-and-So already booked to speak to us about ‘Are You One of God’s Little Rose Bushes”‘ said the leader of the Women’s Own?! “But we have planned to celebrate someone’s insignificant birthday that week!” said the leader of one of our Homegroups?! Even though it will not be easy, it is surely time for us as individuals and churches to get ‘in tune’ with God? To discover that unique ‘work for Jesus, only we can do’!? It is said that ‘The secret of success is to find out what God is doing in your day … and get into it!’ Perhaps, as a corollary to this, I would suggest that when we prayerfully spend time waiting on God for guidance over what we should be doing, we should expect him, more often than not, to be showing us activities that enable us to engage externally with the society we are part of in a meaningful and significant way rather than looking internally. We have been obsessed with self-preservation for too many years, and we need to become once again that ‘salt and light’ that God always wants his people to be (Matthew 5:13-16)!
This period of ‘enforced inactivity’ for me has been both frustrating and exhilarating at one and the same time. I think that, if I was fully fit, I too (in my arrogance) would be ‘pushing a few doors’ trying to give God a helping hand in getting Julia settled in a church, enabling Dorchester Baptist Church to become more like the church I want it to be, sorting out the Baptist denomination along the lines I think it should be going … and so on. As it stands, however, I can literally, virtually ‘do nothing’ without getting breathless and feeling tired – apart from taking a week to write yet another ‘blog’ that is, of course!? Frustrating, in that I long to be able to do more! Exhilarating, in that I am beginning to discover more and more the value of ‘letting go and letting God’ do whatever he wants with and through me … but that is the subject of another blog?!
There’s a work for Jesus, ready at your hand,
‘Tis a task the Master just for you has planned.
Haste to do His bidding, yield Him service true;
There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.
Work for Jesus, day by day,
Serve Him ever, falter never; Christ obey.
Yield Him service loyal, true,
There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.
There’s a work for Jesus, humble though it be,
‘Tis the very service He would ask of thee.
Go where fields are whitened, and the labourers few;
There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.
There’s a work for Jesus, precious souls to bring,
Tell them of His mercies, tell them of your King.
Faint not, nor grow weary, He will strength renew;
There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.
Elsie Duncan Yale (1873-1956)