Philadelphia

I must confess to being a ‘word nerd’. When the preacher last Sunday at church referenced ‘philadelphios’ as a word describing brotherly love in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the logical part of my brain immediately began a cross-search coming up with other cultural references.

 

The city of Philadelphia in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is the first capital of what was then the new country of the United States of America. From the time of the First Continental Congress, there have in fact been nine capitals where Congress have met. Washington D.C. isn’t even sloppy seconds, but merely the final home of Congress.

 

https://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_item/Nine_Capitals_of_the_United_States.htm

 

Congress signing the Declaration of Independence is memorialised by Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell as depicted in the 2004 movie ‘National Treasure’.

 

Philadelphia’s less genteel side is depicted by one of her pugilist sons in the award-winning 1976 movie, ‘Rocky’.

 

Back to Thessalonica: Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians acknowledges that the Christian community there was taught by God how to love one another. Christ also specifically taught that Christians are recognized by their mutual love.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Thessalonians+4%3A9+-+12&version=NIVUK

 

That’s supposed to be a mark of Christians in world full of darkness. That everyone will know that we are disciples by way of our love for one another.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+13%3A35&version=NIVUK

 

I briefly squirmed when the preacher suggested that non-Christians are studying the lives of Christians to see whether they are any different.

 

Who might possibly be studying my life? What difference could it possibly make that I live the best I can for Him? At least as far as those who are not following God are concerned? I know they may shake their heads and tsk tsk when I stumble, but could the converse be true?

 

Perhaps it’s not even about me as I tend to be reductionist and bring things down to a personal level. Perhaps its about the Christian community as a whole; the relationships that we have with each other, that work, that are practical and sacrificial.

 

Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community like that? Perhaps, without trying to look like it, the non-Christians are studying us. Twirling their moustaches, squinting to see and studying us.

 

We are all part of intersecting communities. My particular ‘spider-web’ map includes my nuclear family, my extended family, my team back at corporate, Sharks supporters, Durbanites, my ministry family at Ambassadors, my home group on Monday nights.

 

And of supreme importance: part of a family of Believers, amongst whom we all are to function in brotherly love.

 

Philadelphios.

Community snapshots

We should know how to love one another. I must confess that my nature is to be solitary, or at the least very limited and discriminating in the lengths that I go to in being part of gatherings of people. In being hesitant I may miss out on both giving and receiving encouragement.  Check out this list that John Piper put together showing in what ways we are to love each other:

 

(A mere sampling)

 

We are to

  • Love one another with brotherly affection
  • Outdo one another in showing honor
  • Instruct one another
  • Bear one another’s burdens (this is a meaty one)
  • Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ
  • Encourage one another

 

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/treasuring-christ-together-part-2

 

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians acknowledges that they know how to love one another, but just to add that little bit extra in. Almost to make sure.

 

Brotherly love amongst Believers is like heat. You can measure an absolute zero (minus 273 Kelvin) but there is no such thing as a maximum amount of heat (that I’m aware of). It can always get a little bit hotter.

 

We can always go that extra degree in loving one another.

 

I’ve come to a realization that as Christians we can ‘phone it in’. In other words we can be remote and say all the right things and ‘do community’ without really engaging.

 

An example: in the 1986 movie Highlander, Sean Connery was asked to record the voiceover to the beginning of the movie and apparently recorded it in a bathroom. It sounded fine to the producers over the phone and they signed off on it. Connery only even spent seven days on set and the movie doesn’t suffer for it, I suppose because some classic Bond charm and a Scots accent can cover a multitude of production sins.

 

http://mentalfloss.com/article/66939/15-immortal-facts-about-highlander

 

The church is a far more lasting and important endeavour than mere entertainment, so it’s good to take it seriously. What stands out to me is the idea of us bearing one another’s burdens, the type of things that only families are – or supposed – to do.

Artillery

Monday was a day of battle.

 

Artillery shells were getting lobbed my way. Fired at different intervals but all causing shock waves converging on Monday morning:
CRACK! The reverberation from a member at church who died in her prime…
…WHAM! The four learners killed tragically at Hoerskool Driehoek, out of the blue…
…BOOM! I sat through a viewing of the newly released drama about what Kermit Gosnell did to babies born alive, part court-case drama, part documentary, all horror…
In quick succession…report after report of bad news and evil going unpunished…State Capture…Eskom playing silly games with the public.
It’s a litany of HE (High Explosive) shells, very much like Billy Joel evoked in his song protesting that we (the human race) didn’t start the fire, that it was always burning since the world’s been turning. For the record, Billy was wrong; we sure did start the fire.
It’s been a long time since I’ve so much as thought of the term ‘spiritual warfare’, but I sure felt like I was in the midst of warfare on Monday morning. But, you may ask, why are disparate events, especially random accidents, evidence of spiritual warfare instead of simple chance?
I look at some of the things getting to me, and yes, they are things which the enemy didn’t necessarily cause. Tragedy happens all the time and there may be no spiritual component to it.

  • A walkway collapses in Vanderbijlpark.
  • A movie chronicles the banality of evil disguised as reproductive choice.
  • A government entity is playing chicken with the public after the money has by all accounts been squandered on a stunning level.
  • A corrupt family of businessmen buy off a country and wield their influence for all to see, for years without consequence.

But I know the enemy is able to weaponize these things and lob them at Believers. If the imperative behind bad things happening is the intent to steal, kill or destroy, I also know where it comes from.

 

Cranberry cooler by candlelight…thanks to the corruption in Eskom

Scripture clearly teaches that the Christian is on the front lines. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians references the reality of the battle we are in.
‘Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes’ (6:11, NIV). In other words, there is something we can do about it.
Our struggle is against ‘the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (6:12, NIV). In other words, the way to perceive the battle, or do something about it, is spiritually.
Our enemy flings ‘flaming arrows’ at us (6:16, NIV). Like something out of The Guns of Navorone.
Paul’s instruction to the Christian references our weapons, worn on our bodies as Roman armour.
The sword as the word of God. Praying in the spirit. Precisely the model of spiritual warfare that Jesus used to resist the enemy. He was always quoting Scripture, always in prayer. And the enemy could not overcome Him. I think of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray and among many other things to pray about, we are to pray daily that He would ‘deliver us from evil’. I’m certain we have heavenly back-up we often know nothing about, hampering the ability of our enemy to harm us.
Practically speaking, we’re constantly thinking under pressure. Instead of acting, we’re reacting. The enemy attacks using hellish artillery with little warning, taking the initiative and forcing the Christian to scramble for a response. In theory, the longer we’re engaged in battle, the better at it we become. Veterans.
https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/never-give-in-never-make-peace

 

I must confess I get confused and bewildered with the campaign. God is in control of – and the originator of  – the overall plan. I’m responsible for my particular area of operations and must simply execute the tactics (the means to obtain the objective) and leave the planning up to Him.

 

Typically I don’t get it right.

 

I get overwhelmed with the emotional investment that is inherent in the idea that we are in a campaign with eternal consequences. I cannot feel what He feels, but He must feel deeper about it than me. I cannot understand His battle plan, especially in a larger context, but without question He understands His plans, better than I ever could.

 

I just have to follow my orders.
The strategy is to save the lost and preserve Christians for heaven.

The tactics are spreading the message and resisting evil.

The strategy, the state of this eternal, spiritual war, is up to Him.

 

If I were to give myself a pep-talk shaped like a boomerang I would say the following:
You utilise what you know (which is little) to buttress against the unknown to present the imperfect (yourself) for battle whose victory and end is perfection.

 

I frequently ask whether my concern for the lost – those who need to believe the message – is conceit on my part. Or is it half-hearted obedience? Or posturing? A kind of virtue signalling where I text my reputation of caring for everyone to see?

 

I don’t really want an answer as to how selfish I really am, or in other words – how far my heart goes in buying into this battle, this grand strategy of salvation that involves saving lives. That question is like the mythical monster in the closet that creeps out in the dark to scare the child.

 

He has seen the answer to the question. He has laid His hand upon me anyway. God has night-vision.

Applause for all the wrong or right reasons

On the most recent anniversary of the 1973 Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision, the State of New York passed a bill essentially allowing abortion up until birth.

 

https://www.faithwire.com/2019/01/23/new-york-senate-erupts-in-applause-after-passing-horrific-late-term-abortion-bill/

 

The Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian website, imagined a demon applauding with the legislators as this bill was signed.

 

https://babylonbee.com/news/demon-lord-clearly-visible-in-new-york-senate-chamber-applauding-legalization-of-abortion-until-moment-of-birth

 

This bill greenlights what is evil. From a Christian point of view, there is no equivocation. The most shocking part of the whole thing was the applause. Articles online use the modifier of ‘thunderous’ when referring to the applause.

 

To my mind that applause is a direct mockery of God and His work of creation. And one should not mock God. It doesn’t end well.

 

What is His heart like? I look at Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke+15%3A3+-+7&version=TPT

 

What does heaven erupt in applause over? A sinner who repents. A soul who turns to God. And I imagine this presupposes the soul being born in a body. I imagine this applause would be ‘thunderous’ and sustained. God saves. Sinful man destroys.

 

I know which action I’m going to applaud.

Testimony

This past month at church, as they do every now and then, someone was asked to give their testimony.

 

Its systematic and of more interest, it’s personal because everyone’s journey to faith is different and individual. A testimony is a compelling account of how a person came to be a Christian.

 

This latest testimony at church got me wondering what I would say if I were to be asked to deliver it to the congregation. It’s vaguely entertaining to me because it is my story told from my point of view and if nothing else, I do find myself entertaining sometimes.

 

I sarcasm.

 

One of my earliest memories is attending what I think was some kind of youth service at Montclair Methodist church. I looked it up and to my pleasant surprise, the church is still in ministry. There was an altar call (to come forward to accept Christ), and we were siphoned into the kitchen, off the hall, where I remember my sister was there too and I sat on a kitchen counter. There we did business with God. It was long ago and I only remember snippets but I remember it all the same.

 

http://www.mmc.org.za/gallery.php

 

Time passed and I found myself in high school, not having carried that initial commitment into being deliberate and consistent in living as a Christian.

 

I got an invite to watch the ‘Power Team’ at The Lord’s Place in Brickhill road (now Sylvester Ntuli Road) in Durban central. It was 11 October 1991.

 

Yes, I’m one of those guys who remember dates. Those annoying date nerds.

 

The hairstyles were big, the Soviet Union was dismantling. The Power Team were pumping iron, punishing telephone books, wooden beams and handcuffs, and preaching.

 

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/5gkvjn/evangelical-freak-show-the-power-team-were-christian-superstars-of-the-80s-456

 

I remember that the place was a former cinema with a floor sloping down to where the screen used to be. They had taken out the cinema seats and packed it with rows of regular plastic and metal chairs. Actually, all these years later I don’t remember the feats of strength but I remember the syllogism that the speaker used from C.S. Lewis; that Christ could not have been a moral teacher but that he made deeper claims (namely being God) and that given that He could only have been one of three things: liar, Lord or lunatic.

 

I chose Lord and the rest is history. Actually, I rather like movies. Movies have a language that I understand: a beginning, middle and end; plot devices like MacGuffins that move the story forward; Flashbacks that pause the action and give context to broaden the viewer’s emotional connection to the protagonist (the main character). It strikes me as neatly ironic that my faith story starts in a cinema.

Little old ‘moi’

Actually, I’m not the protagonist in this movie, God is. I’m merely a supporting character (if small) in this ensemble in which God is the director of this Meta-narrative.

 

Other MacGuffins have moved my story along at vital points.

 

In 1997, I joined a year-of-your-life program called Ambassadors that selected young adults to attend Theology classes and journey around Sothern Africa as missionary trainees, doing ministry. I remember thinking that this would provoke my spiritual maturity into the stratosphere, but it didn’t quite turn out like that as I had a fellow Ambassador on my mind, and she and I were complicated.

 

In spite of this distraction, we did some good and made memories. It was actually a dry season for me but it taught me that we should just focus on the task, the mission and keep going. Looking back on it, it looks better than going through it at the time.

 

I remember being in London on a working holiday in 1999 and seeing everyone else paired up and me still single, but receiving a verse which I believed was meant for me, from Joshua 24:15, … “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD”. I had to wait almost a Biblical 7 year period like Jacob before I met my wife. We married in 2007. This time taught me to wait, although I was not happy in my patience, I had to learn to wait.

 

A major point in my life was 11 June 2011 when my sister died. I had been a presumptuous Christian, believing that God knew how important my family was to me, that He would save them all and we would be raptured simultaneously. This is obviously not what happened.

 

Since that day at Montclair Methodist where we did business with God, my sister had backslidden somewhat but I remember when our congregation was still in the school hall in D’Urbanvale and Bishop Frank Retief had preached and she had gone up afterward to collect a ‘Meet Your New Manager’ booklet.

 

This was after she had already gotten ill in 2009. In one of the long spells in hospital, she told us how he had a dream, more a phrase in a dream, Onward Christian Soldiers. Which is the testament to her that me and my brother now work on: a blog called Onward Christian Soldier.

 

I was very simplistic in my faith when I was younger. Flashback to early 1990s when my Dad was not saved and I had Scripture verses stuck up all over my room and one morning he delivered my morning coffee and read out loud one of the notes on my wall, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and immediately I thought of the verse in Romans 10 where it says that those who confess Jesus with their mouths (and believe in their hearts) will be saved. Around that same time, I remember praying for my unsaved family and once I got so burdened I wept like a crazy chick during a Rom-com, and I realized that God had given me a glimpse of his passion for the lost and his burden for them.

 

Following my sister’s passing, my brother got more serious with God and my parents got saved and went Baptist.

 

I learned that the rapture was not an escape hatch from the troubles of this life. Jesus promised trouble. I confess I developed a nasty habit of f-bombs in the stress of that time, the coming to terms with it and the grieving. I learned that He is still there, that the mission is still on and that holy living is hard.

 

I have flashbacks that remind me of His long-term presence, I suppose you could say His abiding presence in my life. Memories of times when I was not a happy camper and weighed down and then something unexpected and pleasant would happen in the midst of an uncomfortable situation.

 

I remember once I went back to Durban on holiday and wanted to visit with some old school friends. Me mate Angus and I went to find our mate, Lee, this crazy Welshman with a glass eye, but he wasn’t home. We then went to find our mate Clinton and drove out to his house only to find he wasn’t home and had gotten married and didn’t tell us. But Clinton’s brother Wade was there. We were all unemployed and Wade had cabin fever and a guitar and we just hung out and sang worship songs. It taught me that we are family and we need each other deeply.

 

I remember being in a banana plantation in White River while on Ambassadors, alone and feeling down. The missionary aviators were taking off in their silver bird with the other Ambassadors inside it except me and Craig. They couldn’t find me and I missed out on a flight, but I was actually meeting with God in that plantation and more importantly He met with me, as real as anything. I had the better deal. I learned that God is close to His children.

 

I remember being in London on a Saturday morning, alone in the apartment, watching Little House on the Prairie and seeing God’s grace manifest in a simple story about adoption. I learned something of how God sees His adopted children, namely us.

 

God is better than a writer, a filmmaker, and an artist all rolled into one creative mind and I couldn’t make up a story like this.