Over the past six years, we (The Oak Church) have had the privilege of working with A* and his team in Ukraine. It’s been a real joy to send teams from The Oak to work with the church and to build friendship in a way that goes deeper than a ‘mission trip’.
I remember sitting in ‘A’s’ van, many years ago now, travelling somewhere discussing the way the west has often ‘gone to’ the east in some way that is reminiscent of our colonial days. It was a difficult conversation because I knew there and then that my heart had a ‘we have the answers’ part to it too.
When you’re in that sort of situation, sitting next to a true hero of the faith, recognising the darkness and sin in your own heart, the only response is repentance and the request of forgiveness both to God and to those who you have sinned against. I remember sitting there, trying to hide my tears, as apologies for my heart and our nation poured out in some incoherent babble and then receiving such a warm reponse from ‘A’.
Something lifted. Work moved aside and friendship took over.
I would now consider ‘A’ to be one of my closest friends. We don’t see each other much, maybe once or twice a year, but walking through the pain of that journey was probably the biggest paradigm shift in God working in my heart for His nations.
The apostle Paul once killed Christians. He actively sought them out and killed them. So when he became a Christian it’s no surprise that it took him the best part of a decade to gain the acceptance, probably through forgiveness and repentance of the Christian community, to gain their trust. One of those leaders was a young man named Timothy who, whilst we only have a couple of the letters written by Paul to him and the replies are all but lost, ended up being a dear friend of this Christian killer.
I imagine many moments of Paul’s pleading for forgiveness for his heart and many moments of tears and joy as reconciliation took over and friendship began.
Paul writes at the beginning of his second letter (2 Timothy 2-5):
“To Timothy, my beloved child: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.”
I don’t know about you, but I hear a deep friendship with honesty, tears, joy and encouragement - on both sides of the friendship - i wonder what Timothy had to lay down in his own heart to accept Paul as his friend. Sometimes the greatest friendships come out of the greatest of opposition.
Over these last few years, ‘A’ and I have been trying to work together in building the church in the UK, in Ukraine and now in another nation. His life and work have shaped The Oak in unseen ways and he continues to invest himself in me, our family and our church.
For us at The Oak this brings new opportunities. It opens up the way for us to bless the nations, with integrity, here in Leeds and Bradford, in our nation and in many others. It means, as we put teams together made up of Ukrainians and Brits and go to love the nations – the opportunities are endless. It means there is a softness to our heart and our actions that cuts through ‘work’ and seeks to forge long term friendship.
This last week I had the joy of being with ‘A’, his family and some of our wider church family from other nations. It was a joy multiplied as I got to take a friend of mine, Rich (from the amazing KXC), too! Laughing and planning together, trying to respond to what God seems to be doing in the nations – having seen a doubling of our teams work in another nation in the last 6 months. Church Planting seems more and more to me about catching up with what God is doing rather than trying to kick start something.
I am becoming more and more convinced that apostolic ministry, the ministry in the church of building gospel foundations in churches, is founded on friendship. A friendship that is forged through the pain of forgiveness and a friendship that is forged through walking and talking together, praying and worshipping together, eating and laughing together. Apostlic ministry is not an added extra or a 'nice way to see the world' but a fundamental gift of God of what it means to be the church.
At The Oak we want to love the nations. Not because it’s a thing the church does but because God has made us that way – to be in friendship and be the nations.
*'A' - Name changed for his safety.