Stay Close To Me

My daily bible reading is taking me through the book of Numbers at the moment, courtesy of Wordlive. One particular passage from last week struck a chord with me and has been on my mind ever since. The passage was Numbers 9:15-23, which for those of you who can’t quote it verbatim (honestly!), reads a little like this:

15 On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony. And at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning. 16So it was always: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. 17And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. 18At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. 19Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle many days, the people of Israel kept the charge of the LORD and did not set out. 20Sometimes the cloud was a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the LORD they remained in camp; then according to the command of the LORD they set out. 21And sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning. And when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they set out. 22Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out, but when it lifted they set out. 23At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out. They kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by Moses.

Israelite Health & Safety Officers are said to have "gone tonto" at how close together these tents were situated. And near a naked flame too!

What struck me about the passage were the commentators thoughts on it. The Israelites are stuck out in the middle of the Sinai desert where God is guiding them as a cloud during the day and as a pillar of fire by night. When the cloud/fire moves away from the tabernacle, the people up sticks and follow, only making camp again when the cloud/fire comes to a stop.  They know that ultimately they’re headed for the promised land but they have no idea where God is going to lead them on their journey before they reach their destination.

It’s a passage about guidance, but it challenges the way we tend to ask God to guide us. Our tendency is to ask God for guidance and expect to get a clear answer as to where we should be going or what we should be doing. That’s not the case here. The Israelites look to God for guidance, but there is no clear answer as to where they’re going. Yes they’re ultimately heading for the promised land (insert heaven for us NT believers) but where they’re going before they get there is not made known to them. The one thing required of them is to stay close to God. They don’t need to know where they’re going, they just need to stay close to God. And it’s not like their G.P.S. (God Positioning Satellite: coming to Ship of Fools soon) was untested. This is the same pillar of fire/cloud that led them out of slavery in Egypt and so God had already shown Himself to be someone it might be a good idea to follow.

This is a challenge to all of us, whatever age. We’re constantly looking to God for guidance as to where we should be going next and what’s the next step for us etc. We ask for guidance and then, quite often, we sit and wait for some kind of national lottery-esque hand to emerge from the sky and point us in the right direction. And hey, sometimes God does answer in some spectacular ways. But this passage challenges us by showing that God guides us when we stay close to him. The point isn’t really where we’re going, it’s to keep walking closely with God wherever He takes us. And we know that God is a guidance system that can be trusted. Just as he lead the Israelites out of Egypt by a pillar of fire/cloud, he lead us out of the slavery of sin when we followed Jesus Christ and so we know that God has our best interests at heart. Whether we view the situations he leads us into that way is another matter.

Whilst this challenges all of us, I think this is something our young people really need to hear. I’m always slightly amazed (although I shouldn’t be, it was the same in my day) when I hear young people who aren’t even in their final year of 6th form talking about how their school is pushing to make decisions about universities and courses. Everyone needs to know where they’re going and what they’re doing and they need to know now! And what’s more, everyone needs to make the “right choice.”

The problem is, our schools aren’t really going to help our young people make the “right choice” mostly because the schools idea of what the “right choice” is, quite often doesn’t tie up with the Christian idea. Our judgements as Christians should be made using a completely different value system to that of the world.

So if there are any young people out there are trying to decide what the right choice for them is, whether it’s university places or something far more mundane, I believe the answer is this: The right choice is the one that keeps you walking as closely with God as possible. That choice isn’t always the obvious one, nor the most desirable. I’m sure many of the Israelites could have coped without walking round a desert for 40 years. But they were walking with God. And that was all that really mattered.

The Numbers Game

When a new year rocks up on my doorstep I always fall foul of the same trap – thinking that somehow this year is going to be ‘different.’ All the things that were a problem last year will miraculously disappear and something new and exciting is going to happen. This is at worst naive and wishful thinking at best and I know that, yet somehow I’ve done it again.

One issue that’s been playing on my mind for the last term is numbers. Now I know it’s not about numbers and I’d rather have 5 serious committed Christians than a group of 50 people who just aren’t fussed. But I haven’t been able to shake the fact that the 14-18’s group does seem to be smaller in number than it was when I started. There are some positives here though. Although the numbers have dropped, we’ve all agreed as leaders that what we are left with is a much more solid and committed core than we had when I started. That’s not to say that everyone who comes is a committed Christian, far from it, but we can’t shake the idea that ‘something’ is ‘going on.’ So maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m falling foul of worrying more about the numbers than about whether these kids love Jesus.

I think there are probably a number of reasons it bothers me though. Since I started, we’ve definitely had a heavy focus on our bible study groups and our youth meeting to be times when we gather around the Bible. We come to hear the word of God, to be challenged by it and to be changed by it. The Bible is how God has spoken to us and so that’s what we use as our authority. What can I say, I’m pure bred evangelical and I’m very much of the opinion that it is the gospel that is going to do the work, not me or any flashy gimmicks, and so if the word is taught faithfully then we will see results. That’s not to say that we don’t teach creatively, in fact I actively encourage people not to just get up and talk at the group, but rather to teach it interactively and drawing on the culture we live in. But it has to be faithful to the word, not just a gimmick for the sake of it. It’s great for us to use videos, music, flipcharts, memorable phrases, dramas and anecdotes as long as they are servants to the word and not the other way around. It’s the word that is going to change lives, not whether I can body pop to “We No Speak Americano,” and then find some tenuous link to salvation from it(perhaps the fact that not speaking Americano wouldn’t have been a problem at Pentecost!*groan*). The word is powerful enough on its own. When I go into the local secondary school, I could give the best apologetic talk known to man but it has nothing on actually reading scripture to those kids there that have never even looked at a Bible. There’s no magic formula, it’s just the power of the word of God. And those of us that teach at the group have been really lucky to have some great training from our church and others in the wider area and so without meaning to sound arrogant, I think we’re generally pretty good at teaching the Bible clearly, relevantly and faithfully.

So why then have people dropped off?

I have a few theories. I don’t know which are right, if any.

Firstly, the people who have dropped off were never those who seemed to have any real commitment to Jesus. There may have been some commitment to the group, but that was about as far as it went. I don’t believe in sugar-coating the Bible (there’s no need too. I’ve found that when it comes to games, treat them like they’re 5 and they love it. When it comes to the Bible, treat them like their adults) and so we’ve stood up and said some things which people will have found difficult to hear, things that are challenging sin in their lives and pushing them out of their comfort zone. I think that this may be a contributing factor to the drop off. Ultimately, some people will reject the word and walk away because the price they’re being asked to pay and the sacrifice they’re being asked to make are too high, just like the rich man whose face fell when Jesus told him to sell all he owned. There were other gods in their lives, so that there wasn’t room for God. I’m very much in two minds as to how to react to this though. My natural reaction is to just let them go. Why put hours of time in trying to woo back those who aren’t really bothered (at least for now) when I could be doing a deeper work in the few who are? Sometimes you just dust the dirt off your sandals right? But another part of me is saying, should I really just let them walk away because it’s a lot of effort? I know though that if I’m truly honest, I worry about them walking away because of how it looks to the rest of the church, the ones who only see in numbers. Would I only be ploughing away at getting certain kids back because I fear man more than God?

If it’s true that they’ve left because we teach the Bible and refuse to compromise on the truth, then that would lead me to conclude that those we have left are those that God wants to be here right now, the ones that the word is at work in. Yes the numbers are smaller but I keep entertaining the idea in my head that sometimes you need to prune to encourage growth. My hope is that this smaller committed group are going to make a big splash for Jesus and we will grow again but that we needed this drop in numbers to allow us to disciple the ones we have left. This is the idea I haven’t been able to shake from my head. The ‘one step backwards, two steps forwards’ idea. But if it’s true that this is what’s happening, then it’s not even one step back. These are all steps in the right direction. It’s only in our worldly views that a drop in numbers means things are being done wrong. It might be exactly what God wants for now. My vicar has said on numerous occasions that I picked the group up at a low ebb spiritually and when I look back to when I started, I can see that to be true. Yes the numbers were bigger, but we were spiritually far poorer.

I suppose that’s the problem with me talking about not seeing ‘results’. More often than not, I’m looking through the wrong lens (the numbers lens) and wondering what everyone else must be making of it. The lens I need to keep firmly in focus is the “true disciples of Jesus lens.” And the fact of the matter is, we don’t know the result because we haven’t reached the finish yet. Sometimes things look bleak mid-race but there’s a last-minute spurt no-one was expecting. Where will we be this time next year? Doubled in size? Or halved? And if we are halved, does that mean that we’re doing something wrong? Or is God just defying our worldly wisdom.

Maybe I didn’t need anything to change over the new year. Maybe the problem is just in my head.

Of course, the other option is that I’m just doing a very bad job. Hmm…