Enduring in Smyrna

This is a guest appearence by my wife Judith Witt.

In this talk we look at the Letter to the persecuted chruch in Smyrna, Revelation 2:8-11. Endurance and overcoming fear are key messages to the church in Smyrna, that was not only poor but also persecuted. We can learn important lessons from their example today.

This podcast was recorded at South Church, Mkushi, Zambia 14th August 2016

© Copyright, Jon Paul Witt and Judith Karen Witt, 2016

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Off Message?

We live in a world that is more inter-connected than ever. The internet, instant messaging and communications make it possible for us to envisage a life that is truly international in nature. I’m currently sitting in the hamlet of Cwm Penmachno in North Wales and I’ve just been on the phone to Williams, a translator in Northern Zambia. I’ve also just messaged a friend some 40 miles away. Even a generation ago, this type of communication, at this speed simply wasn’t possible.

As we have understood the world in a more intimate and immediate way, we have questioned the way the world has been portrayed to us and new orthodoxies of belief have emerged. We have become an ever questioning people, the younger we are, the more true this is of us. Beliefs that are seen as older, more ancient are increasingly questioned as valid in this increasingly connected world.

Beliefs that are seen as older, more ancient are increasingly questioned

Within those that are Christian, there has been a shift towards defining who we are in terms of the prevailing ‘spirit of the age’. Christianity becomes about being nice, doing good and personal development. Mission is solely about confronting injustice and practical help alone. I think in some ways we are trying to simply ‘communicate’ well. For me though, there is an issue of losing the distinctive powerful message of Christianity, the message of Jesus himself.

Standing for nothing in particular?

Within the UK I’ve been listening to the election debates that have been broadcast. Of particular note for me has been the performance of Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales. Historically the party stands for and would like independence for Wales and yet on that front, in this election, there has been nothing of the kind said. They seem to agree with everyone else and importantly for me, have lost or are not stating their distinctive position. Not so with the Scottish National Party, they stand for the independence they crave. Not wanting to turn this into a political debate, I believe that Plaid Cymru have faded almost to insignificance, precisely because for whatever reason, they have omitted their central message. Yes people will still vote for them because they are welsh but I believe they could have so much more of a say. Have we in the Church done exactly the same?

The True Message of Jesus

As important as love, acts of righteousness and social justice are, they are not the key part of the Gospel. In fact anything we do is not the key part of the gospel. It is God’s sacrifice f his son to save us that is the key message. Mission in the bible was seen as pretty much exclusively the task of carrying the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, an evangelistic message. The message was about transformation of individuals, communities and the earth through the acceptance and worship of Jesus in lives everywhere.

Today, mission is simply a ‘helping out’ exercise, dare I say it, one that omits the powerful message of redemption and forgiveness that Jesus brings to us. Have we become so earthly minded to not be of any heavenly use?

Christianity only makes sense if the power of God transforms people and then transforms communities. To try and transform a community without the message of the cross is madness surely? Yet, that is what a lot of mission has become. Why? It simply isn’t ‘done’ to talk of Jesus and so we have retreated in the face of some very real opposition. We often talk and stand for everything Christianity is, except Jesus.

Going Full Tilt…..

Please don’t hear me wrong. It’s important to love people. It is very important to serve them. All of the faceless tasks that Christian’s do from day to day in humility and without boasting are a powerful testament to the power of God working through everyday lives. There are people who without this would be dead, suffering or still in lives wrecked by circumstances beyond their control. That’s powerful stuff.

Yet I believe we need to make sure we go the whole way. We need to be open and share Jesus with everyone that we meet. I’m not saying get out a bible and batter someone with it, but have your life open to everyone so He can be seen and don’t be afraid to speak of him when it is right for you to do so. The ultimate expression of love and respect for someone is to introduce them to the Saviour that we know. To not do so, is surely an incomplete act?

If for the sake of fear we hold back, when the time comes to truly confront injustice we will be afraid to do so. What about the fate of Libyan migrants who are drowning? What about climate change that threatens us all? What about the elderly lady who is ignored by her family and they need to be confronted? In the power and through the message of Jesus, all of these situations come down to the transformation of individuals, groups and communities making decisions and taking actions that affect their fellow people. Some people with God need to initiate that change.

I come across many Christian organisations and people who separate themselves from Jesus to make themselves more palatable. Whether it be personal fear or institutional fear, the effect is the same. We lose our distinctive, we lose who we are. That is needless and such a great shame.

I come across many Christian organisations and people who separate themselves from Jesus to make themselves more palatable…..That is….. such a great shame”.

Will we stand relevantly, passionately for Jesus and the Gospel or will we simply blend into the background like everyone else. The questions of this age, the hunger for justice and love that all of us share, have an answer. We know the answer and yet are afraid to show it.

The question for all of us is will we relevantly present Jesus to this world in ways that people will understand? Will we confront the issues of this world with the love and power of the Cross in a spirit of humility?

Let’s not lose our distinctiveness in the ever more connected and busy world.

A Rural Future?

Glenelg is one of the most remote settlements in mainland UK. Around 150 people live there and it’s connected to the outside world by a 9 mile single track road. It’s a very seasonal place for some. During the summer tourists use the ferry to the Isle of Skye.

I have a small bit of history with Glenelg. 17 years ago on my honeymoon, I ended up speaking at a local Christian Fellowship there. Initially the 20 or so people present thought I was the replacement Pastor from Inverness. That certainly caught me on the hop! Two weeks ago I visited the Church again on a damp and very windy Sunday evening. After a game of pool at the local pub, Jude, I and the kids went back to see what it was like.

I recognised one of the guys as soon as I walked in, a lovely guy with a very broad Scottish accent. I could even tell him what his job used to be, and still was actually! When I was last in the church he had just become a Christian, now he was the leader. How times change. It was great, but a comment he made stuck with me very forcefully.

“Not just Africa, we need mission work here”

The fact is he is correct. I’ve been thinking the same for a year or so myself. In his county and the Isle of Skye there is a population of about 100000 people. Perhaps around a few hundred people go to church, which is 1% or lower of the population. That is incredibly low, and definitely a situation that demands a response of reaching out.

When I am in the UK, I have more recently made Snowdonia my home and I stay in my cottage in the hamlet of Cwm Penmachno. Over 100 years ago, it was a hotbed of the welsh revivals, more preachers came from Cwm Penmachno per head of population than anywhere else in Wales. An interesting point is that in welsh a vicar is called a preacher, pregethyr, a hark back to the revivalist days. Here, the situation is similar. At best in Snowdonia there are small handfuls of people who attend Church, there is one such group up the valley from where we are. However, I can drive 25 miles North West and 17 miles East and not really pass a church of any note at all, save for the one Anglican Church in Betws-y-Coed. Again, the population of the National Park is around 90000 people. Again, I would estimate around 1% or lower attend church actively.

It isn’t simply just about people knowing Jesus as well. There are profound issues in rural society, that the church would normally contribute to, and yet it doesn’t simply because there are no people. No people equal no money. No money and well it’s difficult to do anything. This of course doesn’t just affect rural areas, it can also be said of cities. My observation is that there are many churches trying to change this in the cities and towns, there are hardly any in the rural areas. The situation away from the odd mega church or tourist area is immeasurably worse.

There’s an entire generation of people that are either disenfranchised from the Church or is completely ignorant to what it is.

Historically we hold onto the fact that the church has been strong, and yet our current situation demands a different response. We can’t do “church” and Christianity the way we have done over many years, the landscape has changed completely. This landscape demands mission. I think you could justifiably state that some rural areas are “practically” unreached at this point toward the start of the 21st century.

This to me all sounds very familiar. For years I have worked in Southern Africa, within remote rural areas of Zambia and surrounding countries. Logistically the situation is actually more difficult, but there are many parallels and I think strategies and lessons that we can use from one ‘live’ mission situation to another.

Within Zambia I rightly or wrongly decided that the existing church structures often presented more of a hindrance to the gospel. That sounds incredibly rebellious and maybe even a little arrogant, I’m aware of that. They were either too settled and focused inwards or were power games where different church structures vied for dominance within an area. We sidestepped all of that and in a very simple fashion planted Life! groups of people to teach Christ in their community and provide a forum, a way of reaching their community. Everyday Christians from all church backgrounds met together and those that were disenfranchised came. Together they reached people and were extremely relevant in their community. At the last count there were around 200 groups, around 3500 people meeting and touching thousands more.

In some ways we have forged a new way, a new representation of Christianity for everyday people.

Whether it is more authentic and proper, I’ll leave for you to decide. However, I know it works and I could never go back to using the old ways. The future is not dominated by singular church leaders or even denominational churches. We need to learn to see the church in a village in its’ entirety and work on that basis. Sooner or later we won’t have a choice, we will die out if we don’t change. That sounds tough, but we are one generation away from that reality.

I have a very strong belief that through everyday Christians, people like you and me, God will reach our villages and that 1% could become 10% and maybe even more. Once we take that view it has to shape our modes of operation and activities to embrace that truth. This belief is also pretty universal for most rural areas wherever in the world I have been, whether they are completely unreached or simply “partially unreached”. The key is everyone aligning themselves with the plans that God has for the village and enacting them. For me it comes down to this.

We need a fresh vibrant Christianity right at the heart of the village for everyone. For the sake of places like Glenelg, are we willing to embrace it?

Don’t be a fool

No FoolsIt can be quite jarring how life’s priorities can be turned upside down in an instant. There I was just thinking I was coming out of a malaise of activity with no time to think. I felt that I was beginning to be able to breathe again. New plans were forming in my mind, new directions were taking shape and BANG! they all didn’t seem to matter.

My wife, Jude, fell down a 6ft car pit and seriously injured herself. Both of us, a long long way from the specialist care she required. Thank God she is OK and definitely on the mend. However there were a few, seemingly long moments where I thought she may not make it. She shared the same thoughts. They are humbling moments.

Our kids left at our place in Zambia not really knowing what had happened. I’m left in a maelstrom of thoughts, emotions and activity, desperately trying to get those first few hours sorted out. Every love and passion you hold falls into insignificance. It’s true place in your life cruelly exposed for the unimportant sham and it really is.

Mortality has a way of grabbing our attention like nothing else.

Many people have re-assured me that God was there. To be honest, I feel that some of those people are simply re-assuring themselves. An agreement from me, re-enforces what they hope to be true. Such a jarring, shocking event doesn’t simply shock those directly involved, it shocks all around. Maybe that is why I have written this.

Let me tell you something. I know God was there. I’ve been there before. I’ve been in deep trouble that I am powerless to defend myself against, usually in the continent of Africa. You learn to see the signs of His presence. He mobilises people, help, intervenes in the situation. In the middle of the night, people came to give blood, the insurance company didn’t play up, thousands (literally) of people prayed and Jude lived. I know that the story could have been very different.

We don’t fully understand why bad things happen in this world. Maybe we never will. We are however given a choice. Do we have no hope that we are on our own, abandoned in this wide universe? Do we believe there is someone who gives everything sense, direction and security? It’s very easy when life is well to say we don’t believe in God, to say that religion it’s a crutch. It is another thing entirely when the chips are down, maybe you will die…. it’s quite another thing to not believe in God then. You need a crutch then, you will do anything for one. We see and understand just how weak we really are.

Both Jude and I are indebted to the thousands of people who prayed for us, and especially prayed for Jude. We are indebted to the many people that have helped us with practical details in the last two weeks. Sometimes we feel out on a limb when we are in Africa, maybe the last two weeks have taught me just how much the family of God means to us. There are people out there, who if we are in trouble will go to the end of the earth to find us (you may have to one day!). I also never lose my sense of wonder at how God mobilises events and people when it really needs to happen.

Jude is still healing up and will be for a while. It still hurts her to even breathe. Both of our emotions are occasionally a little raw, but we know God is around us, helping us and we will definitely live to fight another day. We are not that easily put off. 🙂

In such times, there are precious viewpoints to be reflected upon. Such events do not come along often, we thank God for that. However, when they do, they give you a viewpoint of your life, your love and your relationships like nothing else. They help you appreciate your place in the order of all things, and the place of the God you say you have a relationship with.

The Bible says such troubles are light and for this moment. How can the Bible say that? In the light of all things, from the beginning till the end of time, they probably are. Yet they are up close and personal and the pain can be searing. Yet that same pain teaches, gives wisdom and helps us to live better. The viewpoints suffered achieve wisdom and correct perspective in life. Evil is somehow turned for our own and this world’s good.

It is the fool that becomes bitter at God at such a time for they ignore the source of life and healing. I don’t intend to be a fool and whatever your pain, maybe you shouldn’t too….

Values

Oscar was on sat on top of the climbing pole, some 13 metres above the ground. “I can’t do it!”, “I can’t do it!” he kept saying to himself. He was being asked to stand upright on a rickety 1ft platform atop a moving pole. Not an easy task.

The chant of, “Yes you can!”, “Yes you can!” went up from the other delegates gathered at the bottom of the pole. Some of them were holding his safety rope, his life depended upon them.

Oscar gingerly got up from his crouched position, his face straining with the effort. Slowly but surely he stood to his feet, his arms open wide in triumph. A smile from ear to ear was across his face. Finally he believed, “Yes he could!”.

I’m listening to Richard Thompson, the leader of Ndubaluba Outdoor Education Centre finish off our Impact Team Training Camp. Every 6 months we gather our impact team members together with prospective new members, to look at examining problems, have fun together, pray and understand the values that motivate us.

As well as traditional sessions, we use challenge and well yes sometimes overcoming fear to teach how Christianity and God can infuse our lives with the correct values to live and work by.

If there is one lesson that I can point to that I have learned is this. If you plant the Spirit of God and the right values in people, the work of community transformation, liberation and the gospel will grow and grow. It is the values that are important.

These values together with God are the engine that is driving our work here in Southern Africa.

3 and a half years after initially planting the work here in Africa, the reach is now, 3 countries, over 3000 community volunteers meeting in groups, the Gospel has been proclaimed in many places and over 110 groups meet week by week across Zambia and even into Angola and Tanzania.

Our impact teams own the work for themselves, it is their work. They visit groups, they help the poor, they proclaim the gospel.

They have internalised the values of Gods Kingdom and are actively pushing it forward. The results affect thousands of people, something that would not be possible any other way.

If you want to create something that will truly change the world, give your own power away so that others will internalise the mission before them. Give your own power away so that they can be free and in turn make others free.

Then what God will do through them will be like a new dawn rising.

Oscar now believes that he can do it, nothing can take away the achievement of overcoming what for him was a significant challenge. That lesson will encourage him, drive him and in turn drive others.

That’s why Dignity works the way it does. We believe that God working through people is the primary way that our world changes for the better. That’s why we invest money donated to us in training, encouraging, proclaiming the gospel and helping people see that there is great hope when they come together Rooted in Jesus to Love their Village.

My friends here will leave today and as they leave will be the hands and feet of Jesus everywhere they go.

They are not simply doing the work, they are the work and that’s a very important difference.