Back to Basics
In 1993, John Major, the then Conservative Prime Minister who was limping along with a negative majority in the Commons and had trouble at both home and abroad, launched a re-branding of government. It was designed to appeal to people who were longing for the way things used to be – a nostalgic look forward, you might say. Of course, history tells us that Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ policy failed to convince anyone, least of all the electorate, who deposed him and the Tories in 1997. But, before I write off Major’s optimistic approach completely, I pause for thought. You see, there was nothing wrong with the sentiment of going back to basics. And there still isn’t.
For a while I have been examining the way I conduct myself with God. I became aware just how easy it is to become almost nonchalant in my approach toward Him. It is very easy for me to justify myself in my attitudes – we quote scripture at ourselves that encourages us to be bold with Him. And it’s true, we can be bold when approaching the throne of grace. But, I sense that there is something basic we are missing.
After several months of praying about something in particular to do with Cornerstone, and there appearing to be no tangible progress, we decided to take stock. It was becoming clear that we had got distracted. In obedience, we retraced our steps and got back to what we were called to do. It wasn’t an easy decision. Nor, as it turns out, was it a popular one. But then, following Christ is never the popular choice. We are not ashamed to admit we got it wrong. We could have carried on with what we were doing…for years, probably. But we would have had to come back to the beginning at some point. So, we went back to basics – back to the place where we knew God had spoken; where we knew we were being obedient to Him.
It has taught us a great many things, this going back. We have started to learn what it really means to be joyful in suffering; to see trials and tests for what they are; to hold firm to what God has said regardless of what is going on all around us. And, still we learn. It is ongoing. The unfinished symphony of our lives.
This all got me to thinking, as I mentioned earlier, about how I conducted myself around God. I realised that I would often demand things from Him as if I deserved them, like some petulant child. Or I would casually ignore the simple things He taught us about prayer and make it all about me. I noticed that I was inconsistent; double-minded; proud; arrogant; prone to shaking my fist at Him and loads more. And all this bad fruit added up to a general lack of discipline. A lack of faith. A lack of trust.
It would have been easy at this point to beat myself over the head and allow these shortcomings to get the better of me. But, because of the things I was taught when I first became a Christian, my default setting wasn’t to let it all get on top of me. Instead I had been taught another way. That of discipline.
When I first came to grasp the gospel in a way that meant something to me I was 20 years old. On the day I admitted to God that I had screwed everything up and asked Him to help me with my life, I was sent to prison. It wasn’t a good start. Nor was it what I had expected. I had prayed the prayer I had found in a tract and had fully expected God to sort it so I didn’t go to prison. I figured that if God was happy to forgive me for the crimes I had committed, so too would the magistrates at Cambridge. It turned out that the magistrates hadn’t read the memo from God about my absolution because they remanded me in custody to await sentencing on a string of offences.
Those first few weeks were vital for me…for any new Christian. All I had was a small NIV Bible and a desire to know more about this Jesus who had taken the punishment of God that was due to me. So I read. Thankfully, when I returned to court the magistrates, who had now read the memo from God, deferred my sentence to allow me time to find a drug rehabilitation centre. Within a couple of weeks I found myself at a Christian rehabilitation centre called Yeldall Manor in the beautiful Berkshire countryside. Yeldall taught me something fantastic, something that I rely upon every day. It taught me discipline. Not the corporal punishment type that you will find in many institutions but, instead, true discipleship. You see, to the guys that ran the centre, it didn’t matter that they were dealing with drunks and junkies, they still had a commission to fulfil – to make disciples. It is worth remembering that in whatever field God calls you to, making disciples is part of the job description.
For a while some of these posts have focused upon things we do in church that have no real basis in the New Testament. But on this occasion I am going to suggest that discipleship is the one thing we don’t do nearly enough of. It appears to have fallen out of fashion. In fact, I might go as far as to say that the idea of discipling new Christians has almost disappeared completely. Discipleship doesn’t really fit in with our plan to be relevant to the world. The irony of that kind of thinking is that were we to be advocating discipleship for all new Christians, their testimony alone would bring more and more people looking for something authentic in a world where nothing seems real anymore.
Today’s society is becoming more and more fragmented. Our towns and cities are full of single-mums trying to raise children without the influence of a decent male role model. The net result is young adults who respect no one and behave as if the world owes them a living. You only have to watch a couple of episodes of Jeremy Kyle to see this. Before Christ, that’s just how I was – feral. But, because of what I was taught when I first believed, I was able to change. To re-domesticate myself. And, I am still able to change. There is no coincidence in anything that Jesus said. None whatsoever. He said to go and make disciples. We’ve stopped doing that on the whole. We make clones nowadays. We teach new Christians how to come to church on Sundays and what tithing is. Jesus taught His disciples about life. On-the-job training. Three years of it too. And if it took Jesus three years to train up those who followed Him, how much more time should we invest in doing the same?
The Strong’s Concordance of the Bible describes the word mathetes, which is where we get the word disciple from, as a pupil or learner. For me, clearly, it is a life-long occupation. I will never stop being a pupil ready to learn while I still have breath. But we don’t teach this discipline in churches really – at least not in the way we should be.
One of the things we believe that God would have us do here at Cornerstone is to start a discipleship school. Not right now, but in the future. The vision we have for such an enterprise is that we would invite churches from across the country to send someone to live with us and work with us at Cornerstone. To be involved with everything from food bank to the job club. To learn that on-the-job-training that Christ saw as vital to His disciples. Then, when they had learnt how to make disciples of others, they would be ready to return to their own church and set up something similar to Cornerstone where they lived. Not as a franchise or anything – this is no business model or out-of-the-box instant formula church – but as a response to the needs of the local people. That’s how it worked in the book of Acts – a response. If we teach people how to make disciples of others instead of teaching them to sit in a church building and leave it all to the guy at the front to make disciples, then we will be more like the church that Jesus intended. When we leave the guy at the front to do all the work, we allow ourselves to become lazy and ill-disciplined. I should know, I sat at the back and let the guy at the front do it all for years.
Those guys who are privileged to be called by God to shepherd people should be making discipleship their top priority. Teach the disciples how to make disciples. The current model is that we get non-believers to the building so that the guy at the front can evangelise them. If that works, there is a vacuum. Just another bum on another seat. Now, I might be wrong about this. It could be that ultimately all God is interested in is numbers. Bums on seats. But, I don’t think so. I believe that God is interested in each and every one of us and that He has not only the good news of salvation but an individually-tailored life plan for each of us that starts the moment we choose to follow Him. But, like all worthwhile things, it requires discipline to get the best out of it and out of ourselves. Like athletes, or soldiers, or musicians. Discipline. Discipleship.
If our churches are not teaching true discipleship then not only do we fail at Christ’s Great Commission but we also let down those whom the Holy Spirit has opened their ears to hear the message. And if we let down those new believers, how can we possibly expect their own crop to be any good. The Parable of the Sower is really important. Read it carefully.
People will argue over what discipleship means but it is best not to make it too complicated. Many have written books on it, but few of the books that I have seen keep it simple. So here is some basic, simple principles that I use:
1. Start the day with God – This is vital for me. At Yeldall Manor there was a daily timetable and built into it was ‘Quiet Time’ – a twenty minute slot between breakfast and the start of the working day, where you were in your own room, alone with God. Now twenty minutes might seem a long time for some people but I have to tell you that if you want a deeper walk with God you will find yourself needing to spend more and more time alone with Him. Look at Jesus. He frequently withdrew to lonely places that He might be alone with the Father.
Set aside a regular time to be alone with God. If you have to get up early to do so then be disciplined to do it. It is like all things, you need to work at it until it comes naturally. Use the time wisely. Find what works for you. I tend to follow a pattern. I start with praising God, even if I don’t feel like it. I give thanks for the things He has done for me. I thank Him for rescuing me from myself; from drugs and drink; and for everything that I have now. If you keep a journal now is a good time to write in it anything that is troubling you. You can then take these things to God in prayer. When I pray I tend to follow the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer. I acknowledge that God is God. He is in charge of everything. Be humble before Him. Ask that His will is done in your life, and be prepared to accept that whatever comes at you that day, He is right there with you. Ask Him to provide the things you need for that day. He will. He always does. Do not worry about tomorrow’s things. Just present Him with your concerns for today. Ask for His protection as you go about your day. Thank Him in advance as if you have already received all you have asked of Him.
I always read from the Bible at this time. The Bible contains God’s written word and it is one way that we can get to know Him and His will for our lives. Expect that whatever you are reading will speak to you about your day or some aspect of your walk with God. Think about whatever you have read that morning throughout the day. Meditate on it. To meditate simply means to think about. I prefer to have a systematic plan for reading in the mornings. I take one chapter from the Old Testament and one from the New. For example, this morning I read Psalm 52 and 1 Corinthians 10. Tomorrow will be Psalm 53 and 1 Corinthians 11. Take your time when reading. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal anything you don’t fully understand. He will. He wrote it in the first place.
Always make sure you spent some time in silence, just listening. God may speak. Learn to discern what is your own imagination speaking from that of God. He will show you how. His Holy Spirit is there to help us. God speaks in many ways. With me it sometimes is just an idea that presents itself to me. At other times I have experienced a voice that is not audible but just appears to be there. It is hard to explain but you simply know it is not your own voice. Only once I have heard an audible voice. Sometimes you will see visions. Treasure these. Treasure every moment you spend with the Father. Being in His presence is the most essential part of our day. He is with us always but when we purpose to be alone with Him you will experience His presence. He is our peace.
2. The Word of God – As well as spending time at the start of the day with small sections of scripture, try to get some time to spend reading and studying the Word of God. For me this is essential. Instead of watching the telly in the evening, spend an hour studying scripture. Try learning key verses or passages. Immerse yourself in it. Jesus clearly knew scripture because He studied it. If we are to follow Him we need to do so too. How can we possibly comment on scripture if we don’t study it? Purpose to read the entire Bible from cover to cover. And when you finish, start over again. There is always something new to learn about God, about life from reading His word. It happens to me every day. Get to know what God is really like through scripture. And not just God either. From scripture we can understand human nature and the nature of our enemy too. It is all there. We can learn from real people like David and Gideon and Caleb. It is our handbook for life. Learn it. Treasure it. The wisdom that is contained within its pages is as relevant today as it ever was.
We are privileged in a country that we can freely buy and possess a Bible. In many countries it is illegal to own a Bible. Don’t take this freedom for granted.
3. Live life by the Spirit, not by the flesh – Choose not to rely upon your feelings. Instead, choose to rely upon God. I used to live entirely on gut-feelings or emotions. If it feels good, do it – that sort of thing. Now I choose to live by what God has shown us to be a better way. Learn to master the fleshy part of yourself. Just as Jesus did. Back in The Garden, Adam and Eve gave into the fleshy part of themselves and did their will instead of God’s. Jesus, in another garden, ended that cycle when He chose to do His Father’s will instead of His own fleshy will.
Jesus was entirely a man. He knew and experienced the same temptations that we do every day. He learnt to subdue them. He fasted for forty days before taking on Satan so that His flesh was subdued and obedient. I am not suggesting that you fast for forty days but I use short periods of fasting for that same purpose – to subdue my flesh; to make it obedient. Read Paul’s letter to the Romans. He also struggled with fleshy things but we can overcome them. To live by the Spirit of God instead of our own feelings or emotions is where true freedom is. But it is a discipline that needs attention and continued practice. Perhaps one that none of us will full master this side of eternity.
For me it means to trust solely in God. Psalm 46 says:
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear. though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…”
It is a choice. Just like Adam and Eve in their garden. Just like Jesus in his own. I make the choice each day to trust in God. If He has spoken to you or called you to do something, that will come to pass. Just trust Him. Don’t trust what you see in front of you. The Bible teaches us to fix our eyes on not what is seen, but what is unseen.
To be good at something requires discipline. The closer you get to God, the better your walk with Him will be. It takes time getting to know anyone. Take time to get to know God. At first, these things I have suggested will seem like they’re not working, but as you practice them, you will see them help to change your approach to God and to life.
I see a greater need for these disciplines now than I did back when I first believed. They are all about choices. Choose discipleship. Choose life. Jesus said “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life”. Follow Him.
Just stick to the basic things. Pray, read, choose.