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.

Education: The Biggest Idol of Our Age?

That’s the question I want to throw out there.

One of my biggest frustrations in youth ministry is trying to get young people to prioritise their faith, over and above their education. This is a particular struggle around the exam season in January anad May/June. It’s during those periods that some of our young people drop of the radar almost completely as they say they need to revise and don’t have time to come along to church/youth group at the moment.

The constant cry I hear from young people is how important this year or these exams are. I’ve even heard young people trying to outdo each other as to who has the most work at the moment and therefore who is the most busy. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a downer on education as such and I can definitely see that education/higher education is right for some people and even that God uses it to get people where he wants them etc. I can’t really deny that as I’m a graduate myself and my theology degree has no doubt helped me in my line of work. But I know that it doesn’t make me or define me, and even though it has its uses, I probably could have made better use of 3 years simply by sitting and studying my Bible everyday with some solid Christians around me.

My issue is the lie that our young people seem to be buying into. The lie that their education is basically the most important thing in the world. When I was at school, here’s a rough outline of what the teachers would say to us in the different year groups.

Year 7 – This is the most important year as it’s your first year at secondary school and will really define how you’ll do in the future.

Year 8 – This is the most important year as last year was really just an introduction. This is the real work and how you do now will affect what sets you’re in next year.

Year 9 – This is your SAT’s year. This is the most important as it’ll decide what GCSE’s you’ll do.

Year 10/11 – Your GCSE years are the most important as these will define your future.

AS/A Level – Basically your GCSE’s now count for nothing. You need to get good results so you can go to uni. Oh  and a lot of what we taught you before wasn’t strictly true.

Degree – All that stuff before now means nothing. People will only care about your degree.

OK so I know that’s a sweeping generalisation, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. The thing is, the whole things a bit of an anti-climax. At the end all you get is a piece of paper. Now I know that along the way you’ve acquired knowledge and transferable skills etc and those are undoubtedly valuable for many areas of life. But the eternal reality is, it doesn’t really mean a lot. On judgement day, I don’t think Jesus will be asking how we scored in our GCSE History paper.

Let me just reiterate again. I don’t think education is wrong, but I think it has become an idol, one which our young people, parents and churches have bought into. Why as churches do we celebrate the young person who got 11 A*’s but who wasn’t seen at church/youth group/bible study for over a month during the exam season? Why do we not celebrate the young person who scored  D’s and E’s but tried their hardest and still kept their relationship with Jesus as the highest priority in their life. Surely that is the more Godly way?

The thing is, I think parents have bought into this as well. I reckon that if I stood at the front of church and asked parents for a show of hands as to what was more important: their child’s relationship with Jesus or their education, then most parents would say that their child’s relationship with Jesus was more important. But I don’t think that crosses over into practice so much. I’ve heard a lot of parents say something along the lines of “so and so can’t come along at the moment because they’ve got so much work on.” In many ways this is probably a wider parenting issue than simply education. I just don’t think that a lot of parents encourage their children in their faith, at least not much. I know lots of parents who say that their child isn’t really interested in church and they don’t like to try to force them in case it drives them away. The result is they do nothing. But let’s flip that into an education setting. If a child wakes up on Monday morning and say “I don’t want to go to school today,” what does a parents say? They say tough, get up, you’re going. They wouldn’t take any nonsense. But when their child says they don’t want to go to church or youth group, they back off. Parents are happy to encourage their children to go to school and work hard, even though from an eternal perspective, it will mean nothing, but they won’t encourage them to go to church/make time for youth groups/bible study which just may well have some bearing on their eternal salvation. Bananas!

And what drives so many of our young Christian’s choice of university? For the most part I would say it is its academic record. Now of course we’ll want to take that into account, but I wonder how many of our young people are considering their choice of uni based on whether or not it has a flourishing Christian union or solid Bible teaching churches in its locality. Shouldn’t that ultimately play more of a part? Don’t get me wrong, some parents definitely prioritise their children’s faith and are working hard to show their children that Jesus needs to be the priority in their life, and of course there are young people who prioritise their faith. It’s just sad that I think these people are probably in the minority.

Now I know this is easy for me to say as I’m not a parent and of course the reality of making this happen in practice is a lot more complicated. I’ve also been through the education system and achieved relatively highly. But I think that has simply helped me see the emptiness of academic achievement and so I think the principle I’m suggesting is right. A relationship with Jesus is worth far more than education. When I became a Christian, my priorities changed. Of course I had a lot of school work and exams, just like everyone else. But going to church on Sunday and to youth group in the evening were set in stone priorities. Any work or revision had to fit around them. The model I tend to see from a lot of young people is Jesus has to fit around my school work and if he doesn’t, he’s out.

I don’t think our churches are helping. Us middle class academics can tend to get a bit caught up in this whole education thing. We like big words and debate but we forget that the early church was started by relatively uneducated fisherman types. Not a degree in sight. They just relied on God. I wonder sometimes whether we’ve stopped relying on God and are relying on our understanding, our knowledge and the systems our Bible colleges have provided to pick apart scripture. If it’s not intellectual and deep then we must be getting it wrong.  But what a challenge it is to hear Jesus say that we need to receive him like a little child. What a challenge it was for me at the carol service of the special needs school to think about how the gospel is relevant even for those whose understanding may be severely limited.

I guess I’m just calling for perspective, some eternal perspective. Education is a great gift from God, but when it becomes the be all and end all and replaces God in our lives, it becomes an idol. It’s a classic example of us taking something that God has given us for good and making something bad of it. It’s because of my thoughts above that I will never ask my young people what grades they’ve achieved in their exams. That makes no difference to me. I will be asking them how their relationship with Jesus is going though.

Is education the biggest idol of our age? It’s a big claim and maybe it can’t take the crown, but I’m sure it must be up there.

p.s. immediately after I posted this I went on facebook and a friends status read as follows:

‎… “just so you know, from those of us who have been through the education system, all those things that you’re learning day to day… all the subjects and all the quotes and all of that stuff when you get out in to the real world, when you’re looking for work and meeting people, that stuff, is vital.” Dara O’Brien

I rest my case!