My late mother had a favourite pair of spectacles. She had had them for years. They were so scratched that they were like opaque glass and I’m quite sure that she couldn’t see much out of them at all. But she loved them. They were her very favourites. Worried about her inability to see anything at all through them we finally persuaded her to have an eye test and purchase some new spectacles. Some weeks later I went to see her only to discover that the new spectacles remained in their case and she was back wearing her old spectacles. ‘Why aren’t you wearing your new specs?’ I asked her. ‘Well the new ones are very nice’ she replied, ‘but I still prefer my old ones!’
This story sadly illustrates the struggle that many churches are going through as they face the challenge to transition from an old fashioned, outdated way of being church to something more relevant that not only continues to honour God but impacts society around us. Something that is edgy, something that is ‘where the rubber hits the road’, something that ‘scratches where people itch’. By this I don’t mean change for the sake of change or compromising on Biblical truth or watering down the essential Gospel message. I simply mean recovering the cutting-edge lifestyle and missional impact that characterised the New Testament Church. The secret of success, it has been said, is to discern what God is doing in our day and get into it. We know all this as Church – we know that we need to change, to grasp the nettle, to experience a fresh anointing of God’s Spirit – but many of us struggle with all this because we remain attached to the past in the wrong way. We need to recognise that there is a big difference between possessing a godly heritage and being stuck in a dead tradition. Ray Hughes aptly sums up this struggle to transition (for both individuals and churches) when he speaks of the inner battle ‘when old knowings are still alive and are whispering their dying breath while the new day is already born but unable to speak clearly enough to be understood’.
In his sermon to the masses in Jerusalem on that first Day of Pentecost in the Christian era, the Apostle Peter quotes the Prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17,18). Essentially ‘seeing visions’ and ‘dreaming dreams’ are the same thing here. It is all about having prophetic insight into the way forward for God’s people. The Apostle Paul is clear that God has a plan, a purpose for each one of us. To the Ephesians he speaks of the fact that ‘[God] has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago’ (Ephesians 2:10 NLT) and to the Romans of the fact that we ‘are called according to [God’s] purpose for [us]’ (Romans 8:28 NLT). So, at the beginning of yet another year we all need to resolve (both as individuals and churches) to prayerfully discern God’s plans and purposes for us and engage with them in a meaningful and progressive way. And … just one final note … let’s not procrastinate over the doing of this. Habakkuk encourages us that ‘If [the vision] seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place (Habakkuk 2:3) and by this he means wait patiently and prayerfully on God not procrastinate once God has showed us the way we should go and has given us the green light to get on with things. Too many of us, individuals and churches, are guilty of the wrong kind of delay here. I have to confess that I am never at a loss to know what God is saying to me, or knowing what he requires of me … my problem is doing it! I am sure that I am not alone in this.
Some time ago I was in conversation with a church and the fact that they had received a vision from God came up in the conversation. The church in question was set at the top of the town and seemingly God had spoken to them about rivers of living water (see John 7:38) welling up within the church and flowing out from the church building down into the town, along the High Street, and blessing the whole community. The people telling me the story were very excited about this vision and were praying fervently for understanding as to what it meant and for it to be fulfilled. I confess that I got excited for them thinking that this was something very recent for them. I asked them when they had received this vision. ‘Oh! About 20-25 years ago’ they replied? It was clear that God had put all kinds of ideas into their hearts at that time but instead of ‘putting feet to their prayers’ they had sat on this prophetic vision and missed out on so much.
Contrast this with the approach and attitude of the famous missionary to China, Gladys Aylward. Born in London c. 1904 Gladys worked for several years as a parlour maid. One evening she attended a revival meeting at which the preacher spoke of dedicating one’s life to the service of God. Gladys responded to the message, and soon became convinced that she was called to preach the Gospel in China. At the age of 26, she became a probationer at the China Inland Mission Centre in London but was deemed unsuitable for missionary work. She worked at other jobs and saved her money. Then she heard of a 73-year-old missionary, Mrs Jeannie Lawson, who was looking for a younger woman to carry on her work. Gladys wrote to Mrs Lawson and was accepted if she could get to China. She did not have enough money for the ship fare, but did have enough for the train fare, and so in October 1930 she set out from London with her passport, her Bible, her tickets, and two pounds ninepence, to travel to China by the Trans-Siberian Railway, despite the fact that China and the Soviet Union were engaged in an undeclared war. She arrived in Vladivostok and sailed from there to Japan and from Japan to Tientsin, and then by train, bus, and mule, to the inland city of Yangchen, in the mountainous province of Shansi, a little south of Peking (Beijing). Most of the residents had seen no Europeans other than Mrs Lawson and now Miss Aylward. They distrusted foreigners and were not disposed to listen to them. Yangchen was an overnight stop for mule caravans that carried coal, raw cotton, pots, and iron goods on six-week or three-month journeys. It occurred to the two women that their most effective way of communicating the Good News of Jesus would be to set up an inn. The building in which they lived had once been an inn, and with a bit of repair work could be used as one again. They laid in a supply of food for mules and men, and when next a caravan came past, Gladys dashed out, grabbed the reins of the lead mule, and turned it into their courtyard. It went willingly, knowing by experience that turning into a courtyard meant food and water and rest for the night. The other mules followed, and the muleteers had no choice. They were given good food and warm beds at the standard price, and their mules were well cared for, and there was free entertainment in the evening – the innkeepers told stories about a man named Jesus. After the first few weeks, Gladys did not need to kidnap customers – they turned in at the inn by preference. Some became Christians, and many of them (both Christians and non-Christians) remembered the stories and retold them more or less accurately to other muleteers at other stops along the caravan trails. Shortly after this Jeannie had a fall and sadly died a few days later but Gladys, in obedience to her God-given vision, carried on with the plan and purpose that God had called her to … and the rest (of Gladys’ story), as they say, is history! Gladys could say, along with the Apostle Paul, ‘I obeyed that vision from heaven’ (Acts 26:19 NLT)!