In a cabin on a windswept mountain top in the sticks outside McGregor, the wind blows incessantly in gusts that evoke a great lung. The only respite is indoors.
The sun stabs the eyes as it peeks over the near horizon and the shadows are stark.
A person can easily wonder what it may have been like on top of Mount Horeb when Moses ascended to meet with G-d.
It feels like danger is ever present, getting to this remote place on winding roads, the hiking trails that creep close to an edge.
Perhaps it is the proximity to sudden death that focuses the mind on staying alive by being careful.
One thing Moses did not have to concern himself with is kids on the mountain with him. Not having to worry about kids on a mountain would make it 70 times easier to quiet the mind and get in touch with G-d.
Connectivity to a network is unreliable, the cares of Washington D.C., New York, the goings on in a Saudi consulate in Turkey don’t flood the device. Its more of a trickle.
Without a television set, you sort of have to look at the mountains all around. Without meaning to, your thoughts do tend to vector upward:
G-d who made the mountains, but for whom the mountains are not at all intimidating.
First thing on this Saturday morning I have my devotion and the Writer is asking questions:
From a spiritual standpoint, what are you hungry for? I’m hungry for my existence to have significance within the Kingdom. I’m hungry to find G-d in the situations where I wouldn’t ordinarily be looking for Him, or even receptive to Him.
Do you think G-d is able to fill that hunger daily? The question presumes the answer. Of course He can. Its apparent that I will always be the weak link. I have an intention to connect with G-d as I traverse the parking lot at work, and then before I realise it its 15h00 and the working day is drawing to a close. Where did all the thinking about G-d go?
Why is it important to read G-d’s word daily? Without it, our souls would be starving.
My eyes keep on running over the contours of the mountains before me, like my tongue runs over my teeth to check the dental geography. The giant lung starts up again after 20 minutes of relative peace before. Looking at the mountains, I feel small, as I should.
If we were in Pretoria, October would be described in a poem by C. Louis Leipoldt as the prettiest month of the year, “die mooiste maand”.
The second month of spring, flowers would be in bloom and South Africa’s capital city would be full of colour.
For those with sensitive noses and hay fever, October in Pretoria would probably not be the most awesome time of the year.
October saw the 1917 revolution in Russia, led by Vladimir Lenin which was ultimately responsible for untold human misery and suffering. Not all seeds bloom into something good.
The idea of a seed germinating and sprouting into a mature plant is in keeping with a phrase in prayer that has emerged lately as I seek Him: that He would send out workers into the harvest field. The harvest field is out there and the fields are ripe for harvest, souls that are ready to believe in Him.
In the U.S. this past month, I have closely followed the Senate confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh and it all came to a dramatic conclusion last Saturday with a narrow vote to confirm. In the Twitterverse, everyone was talking about it.
At the same time this was happening, Franklin Graham was in Monterey, Mexico holding a rally and sending out an invitation to the unsaved.
I would guess very few were paying attention. All eyes were on Washington D.C. And yet, this was where the action was really happening.
It is proper for the Believer to pray for all those in authority who rule over him or her, whether in the legislative, executive or judiciary:
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:1 – 2, NIV)
This is a matter of being able to live in peace, on earth. Of more importance however are eternal concerns, and Franklin Graham was right in the thick of it:
“Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:38, NIV).
I was backing Justice Kavanaugh – I thought he was sand-bagged pretty badly by the Democrats, and I just don’t buy that he did what he was accused of. The truth, whatever it may be, always comes out.
However in church on Sunday following the Senate vote, I was reminded that the Supreme Court and the constitution – of any country – is a temporary thing in the light of eternity.
I watched the protesting mobs wailing like banshees and howling like lunatics, a picture for me of people who seek a judge to rule the way they want. Boy, would they be surprised on meeting the absolute Judge.
Our Judge is also the architect of our salvation, something for which we will be eternally grateful.
This past Sunday the sermon was built around the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians, and Paul’s exploration of the role of the Christian as God’s new creation and ambassador.
The idea of being an ambassador is part of a long-standing journey on my part: I was part of a year-of-your-life ministry outreach called ‘Ambassadors’ based on this very passage that Paul wrote.
The Ambassador program was simultaneously awkward and awesome and provided a valuable lesson: that my calling was not to the hinterlands of Africa. At least not at that time or since, with the caveat that He may call anyone (including me) anywhere at any time in the future.
That was 1997 and a lot of proverbial water has churned its way under the bridge. I’ve come to realise that it doesn’t have to be in darkest Africa, that every Believer is called to be an ambassador wherever they are. Imagine being a Christian trying to minister to the swamp creatures in Washington D.C. now as the Kavanaugh-Ford debacle is unfolding…D.C. seems way darker than Africa right now, and it’s more of a crucible and seems infinitely more difficult to walk the narrow path in the back-stabbing halls and conspiratorial ante-rooms of the Senate.
And so to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians:
“17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:” (2 Corinthians 5; NIV)
We are new creations and no longer simply citizens of earthly countries: we are citizens of God’s kingdom. He is our King; we are His subjects, His people. Not merely in terms of our citizenship, we are new beings in a way we never were before. Where we were naturally alive, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we are also now spiritually alive.
The King desires that all men are reconciled and so He has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
I got to thinking about the word ‘ministry’. It denotes something serious, an undertaking of an organisational body like a government that proposes a way to run an aspect of society. There are ministries of serious things like foreign affairs, health, education, trade and industry, and agriculture.
There is a British record label that imitates an official government office: the Ministry of Sound:
We have been given a ministry, not with strictly earthly parameters, but with a view to eternity, a ministry of reconciliation. A sermon by Stephen Funderburk I found online distills the whole idea as follows:
“Paul sees the work of Jesus Christ on the cross as a mandate for all believers to share this good news. He defines it as a ministry of reconciliation. We have the call to share Christ where people who are the enemies of God, can now through Christ be made the friends of God through Jesus.”
“…we don’t see ourselves as just church folks, members or weekend warriors. We see ourselves as constantly on the mission field. Everywhere we go we have this treasure in earthen vessels. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world, but across the street, on the jobsite, at school or anywhere you have the opportunity to share the message of salvation. Freely you have received, freely give.”
Paul continues: “20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5; NIV)
Chris Patton proposes a definition of an ambassador that I like and I think is accurate:
“An ambassador is a dignitary whose full-time job is to live for a period (usually years) in a foreign land, intentionally building relationships with the people native to that land and purposefully representing to those people the desires of his king.”
I think of those who if they saw the Lord walking down the street, would cross the road to walk on the other side, pretending that they didn’t see Him; those living in sexual sin, Islamic ignorance, atheist apathy. It isn’t hatred to make the observation that people need to repent and leave ignorance, sin and apathy behind. It’s an invitation to grace.
That is the very serious and very necessary ministry of reconciliation that we are tasked with as Christians.
To those who crossed the road to avoid Him: with Paul, I say, ‘be reconciled to God!’
To my fellow believers: stand strong in these days, be deliberate as an ambassador.
We have a pharmacy at home, a cupboard devoted to treating and minimising childhood aches, pains, and ailments.
We as adults, we take the hits, scowl as we down the medicine, suffer in as much stoic silence as possible, soldiering on.
Unless we’re men, and we revert to babies, longing for matronly attention.
Or so it is believed by the world of women.
There comes a point in the tail end of winter when colds and flu hit, and one of the kids ends up with a cough that just won’t go away.
And the week is long. And the week after that. We go back to institutional memory and try recall what worked last time. And the recovery is not instant.
In fact, there comes an evening where the coughing is so extreme that the kid yacks over the covers, cheeks pink with exertion, a look of unfocus in the eyes.
In fact, there comes a moment when the coughing becomes unbearable. Cough upon cough upon horrible cough. And just in the moment between hacking coughs, there is a great sucking wheeze as air is forced into the lungs.
It’s that moment that I think of later, listening to Matt Redman’s song about grace…
“There in the very breath we breathe
Your great grace…”
The apostle Paul is one of the most extreme Christians whose writings I have ever read.
Even across a time span of more than a millennium, the way he writes can make me feel very small as a Believer:
“16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Paul juxtaposes the inward with the outward, the body with the soul. The body is tactile, present, and measurable. I can gauge different metrics: my weight, height, glasses prescription, muscle tone, % of gray hairs on my head or in my beard.
How do I measure my soul? I may think my spiritual life is on an upward trajectory but how can I know for sure? Without observable indicators, how do I know that inwardly I’m being renewed day by day? Wasn’t Paul being incredibly subjective?
Especially in the context of troubles (verse 17).
On one level I get what Paul is saying: measuring your spiritual life is mostly intuitive; at least that’s how I interpret it. I could easily spend more time in prayer and more time in service but that wouldn’t necessarily mean that I’m further along as a Christian than some time previously.
Unless, what Paul is saying is that it doesn’t really have much to do with me. It’s not as clean cut because Paul does tell us to ‘work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12 NIV). We work things out at the same time as God is.
It’s somewhat mysterious and not easy to quantify by using reductionism with which we can understand physical phenomena by separating them into their constituent parts and putting back together, thereby explaining the whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.
I have no trouble understanding the trajectory of my body. I want to understand the trajectory of my soul.
Thanks to theologians, by reading a commentary, the answer takes shape: every trouble endured for Christ causes the Believer to grow inwardly. We all face trouble, Believers take those troubles to the Lord and wrestle with Him, mourn, cry and engage with Him. Including the question, ‘Why?’
Day by day, trouble by trouble. That’s a lot to take to Him. To ‘bother’ Him with. But He’s big enough.
And if you are still standing as a Christian, that’s a metric.
I liken it to a guy going through BUD/S (SEAL course) and hell-week, still there fixing his eyes on what is unseen, staying the course, seeing himself as a graduated SEAL when it’s not that clear to anyone else. Attrition rates can be as high as 80% in the SEAL program.
All a trainee has to do is ring the ship’s brass bell and he gets to go home. It goes without saying that God wouldn’t institute a church with such a high attrition rate.
The fact that a Believer hasn’t opted out and rung the bell signalling giving up, is a strong indicator that God is keeping him in the fight. All we have to do is fix our eyes on the end.
In the above article, force psychologist for the SEALs, Dr Eric Potterat remarks: “They [SEALS] have a strong purpose, which helps them stay mentally and emotionally resilient.”
If this is true of spec-ops soldiers, this should also be true of us. We have a strong purpose, a reason to stay in the fight.
In the words of an awful advert from the 1980’s: after action comes the satisfaction. After the long night surrounded by the enemy, we will see ‘eternal glory that far outweighs’ the battle we’ve just been through.
I like the picture in Isaiah 35, of Believers walking through a tough place – a desert – while on a highway:
“8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Watching the Springboks fumble their way to a clumsy loss against the Wallabies this past Saturday I realise now that I didn’t really pay attention to the South African anthem. An anthem is meant to symbolise in song the emotion and rhetoric of what it means to be a citizen of a country.
The rugby-watching South African public expects – or used to expect – that the Springboks would give every opposing team a memory. I can recall times past, epic games with indelible moments and I’m sure the opposition does too, even after a few years of water under the bridge.
After every loss or uninspired victory in these familiar lean times, the public has been asking the question as to what the Springboks have lost and how to get it back.
There are many theories.
I have my own and it derives from a small scene from 1995’s ‘Braveheart’ where Robert the Bruce is speaking with William Wallace and explains as follows:
“…from top to bottom this country has no sense of itself. Its nobles share allegiance with England. Its clans war with each other…”
In the words of a screenwriter who penned a movie about Scotland hundreds of years ago, I believe we have as good an answer as we’re ever going to get.
As South Africans we are not united. We have split allegiances, the government has continued to separate us into racial clans, and the top (the elites) are separate from the bottom (the poor). By their own design, and for their own comfort and self-interest.
All of this has the effect of taking the energy, belief, direction and synergy out of all of our endeavours. Especially team sports.
When the anthem is sung, I will admit that the words and melody of Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikieleli Afrika do not stir me at all, because it is a song about Africa, a more general concern that Mzansi – South Africa. In the same way many others will not be stirred at all by the portion of the anthem taken from C.J. Langenhoven’s Die Stem.
A clue to the state of our country lies with the One to whom the appeal is made in Nkosi Sikieleli Afrika: God.
When the first free and fair elections took place 27 April 1994, many people feared violence and retribution and it didn’t happen. The general feeling was that this was in part an act of providence, an act of mercy. Since that time, my impression is that in the minds of those in power, God has been asked to step further and further aside.
Why should God bless Africa? He may yet, since there are many people who are living lives of faith. Angus Buchan certainly thinks it’s possible.
Amidst the fierce debate presently about land expropriation where no-one is listening and digging into their ideological trenches, a snapshot emerges of life in the hinterland: a black farmer relates on Twitter how a fire started on his farm and his neighbours all pitched up in their bakkies to help. His white neighbours.
I admit that there seems such hopelessness with every political impasse and word spoken in anger by children in parliament, that it seems difficult to have the heart to pray…
…May I just pray: May God bless South Africa, her people, her leaders and her future. May we the church repent of apathy and seek Him afresh and trust Him.
It’s great to dive into Paul’s theology outlined in the New Testament and Paul was nothing if not practical. So with Paul you get theology and then in the same epistle later on you get practical hints and tips, instructions on how to apply what he’s writing about.
It’s not like the Psalms are impractical or lacking in theology – far from it – however I have a deep appreciation for words, language, and the use of them in poetry and psalms; using language to convey an emotional state of mind as it pertains to the soul’s relationship to God.
I can read a psalm and feel on a gut-level what the psalmist is writing about. For all their derision by the mainstream media in the United States, the people of Russia have a national gut with a taste for poetry (or so I’ve read) and if I use my imagination, it could easily be true that they are into the psalms.
I wondered this week about a psalm of David, Psalm 103:
The author, Professor Griffith, tells us something that we know all too well: “Sin, pain, or sorrow can blind us to God’s present working and, occasionally, even the miraculous ways he’s worked in our lives in the past.”
In seasons of low affection then, when the soul lags behind the imperative to praise God, it behoves the Christian to remember in the same pattern that David does.
Firstly, we should remember redemptive history, all that God has done in the past to redeem everyone – the cross, the empty tomb – and our share in that.
And then, we can remember time-worn, yet timeless, verses that we keep coming back to. As useful as some leather shoes that look for all the world like they’ve walked a thousand miles, but they endure and fit our feet like a glove, and they’re still perfectly fine for walking another thousand miles in.
Or like a classic hymn that never goes out of soul-style. In thinking about this Psalm, and David’s prompt to his soul, I circled back to an oldie but goodie…we have so many reasons to praise:
In 1999’s ‘The Matrix’ from Warner Bros. (yes, the movie is that old) the idea of the mind waking up to truth is presented as a choice between a blue pill and a red pill.
As we know from the movie, Neo chooses the red pill and escapes the matrix. More recently, the idea has entered our lexicon and those who leave the Democrat party and extreme liberalism behind are said to have been red-pilled, invariably via the influence of a conservative on social media, be it YouTube, Twitter or some other platform.
I thought of this as we were going to church this morning and drove past a Landrover Defender. It brought back memories and although white in this case, I was transported back to 1997 and the Ambassadors programme, a year-of-your-life intake training young people in ministry for missions in Africa.
We travelled in Southern Africa, as far north as Zambia, taking the gospel…you might say a red Landy red-pilling the unsaved and extending the kingdom.
The human mind is an awesome aspect of creation: imagine a creature able to partially comprehend an incomprehensible Creator and even interact with Him. We all know the story, the fall and a move from the mind being Adamic, to unregenerate and through faith to regenerate: technical theological terms describing the difference between an unbeliever unable to understand and accept Biblical truth and a Christian.
In Paul’s day, pagans were exposed to ideas, read about them, discussed them and either adopted or discarded them. Knowledge (or the search for truth) was worked through with no hurry. Ideas were tested over the course of time, in the context of daily living.
Mass media provides too much information too fast for the average person to filter correctly. In the age of mass media, facts and opinions reached blizzard proportions: truth was hard to discern. In the age of social media, mass media is in the background and to the foreground is added emotions and activism.
Modern man has to traverse facts and opinions (of no eternal significance) as well as the added barriers of emotions and activism before truth is even presented for consideration.
Which means that in my humble opinion, the modern generation is the most disadvantaged when it comes to being balanced and spiritual.
The first and primary sin is the sin of not believing in Christ. This is the starting point for anyone who searches for salvation.
“There is only one sin of which the Spirit convicts the unbeliever, and that sin is failure to believe in Christ. This one sin sends the unbeliever to a Christ-less eternity (John 3:36). This is the very sin that the Spirit strives to bring to the unbeliever’s attention. Rather than seeking to morally reform the unsaved, the Spirit seeks to make them aware of their failure to believe in Christ. After a person comes to Christ, then the Spirit will convict them of other sins. But such sanctification cannot transpire until the unbeliever first becomes a Christian.”
Mass media, especially mainstream tends to focus on worldly issues. The Christian is to focus on Christ and the world to come.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your[a] life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (1- 4, NIV).
In my opinion, mass media and social media is a barrier.
Knowledge takes time and is integrated, forming a logical field that intersects with every part of life; mass social media is imparted in electronic ‘bumper sticker’ sized portions, GIFs, short clips and memes that tell consumers what to think. The Gospel becomes the last thing on anybody’s minds.
It becomes a privilege to be used by the Spirit to do what we could never do on our own. And its a mystery how He accomplishes it. And as I remember from my experience in 1997 with the Ambassadors program, it’s pretty cool when you’re there to see it happen.
Dino Paul Crocetti was born 7 June 1917 and died 25 December 1995, his life intersecting with mine for around 21 years, much of it until now only distantly aware of this Italian kid who made a mark on the world of music along with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and other members of the ‘rat pack’.
Suddenly, 100 years after he was born in Steubenville, Ohio, I discovered this musical genius and marvel that people could speak breathlessly of the talents of Lady Gaga and RiRi. Many modern musicians and singers have talent but are completely missing the charm of Dean Martin.
I know a few things about Dean Martin: he had charm, he could really sing, he was an Italian-American, wonderfully and completely embracing both cultures, and he loved the ladies, eventually marrying three of them at different times.
He couldn’t speak English until the age of 5 when he first attended school and was mercilessly mocked for that fact. Personally, I think Italian is rightly called a romantic language and being an Italian-American, Dino rightly sang ‘That’s Amore’, ‘Mambo Italiano’, ‘On an evening in Roma’ and ‘Volare’. And in the middle of all this talk of paisano’s and goombah’s, his repertoire includes a song, ‘Under the bridges of Paris’.
Paris is usually thought of in terms of romance, intimacy, bistros and couples enjoying wine in the summer, boats on the Seine. Who knows how many men and women have romanced and been romanced under the bridges of Paris on the Seine?
What Paris is perhaps not generally known for are catacombs. There may be romance under the bridges of Paris, but there are tombs and tunnels under the streets of Paris. The tunnels were created by mining for stone with which to build and in turn, after cemeteries became full, bones were packed in crypts along subterranean passageways. The city of Rome also has a network of catacombs used for the same purpose.
I can see a picture in my mind’s eye from an Indiana Jones movie, of Jones raiding a catacomb beneath Venice to find a clue to the location of the Holy Grail.
It’s intriguing what lies beneath the streets of cities. There’s as much history below ground as there is above it, because catacombs don’t just house bones, but paintings and information related to those who lived and died hundreds of years ago.
A world below ground reminds me that there is more to anything than can be observed on the surface; this is true for social movements and people.
Catacombs, like regular cemeteries above ground provide an insight into a previous generation and their eccentricities, including jokes, humorous stories and even a recipe:
Listening to music this morning by Tim Timmons, a track titled ‘You Remain’ and I know exactly what he’s signing about.
I’m a Believer and I’m supposed to press in to mysteries in Scripture, supposed to enter freely into worship whether singing in the car or amongst my brethren at church, supposed to listen for the still, small voice, supposed to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
“…I take the wheel and everything starts falling apart. I start to wonder off the road that leads to your heart. Still there you are.”