“If we communicate only that part of the gospel which corresponds to people’s “felt needs” and “personal problems” (‘Are you lonely? Do you feel that you have failed? Do you need a friend? Then come to Jesus!’), while remaining silent on their relationship to their fellow men, on racism, exploitation and blatant injustice, we do not proclaim the gospel. This is the quintessence of what Bonhoeffer has called ‘cheap grace’. After all, ‘(God) is especially moved to wrath when his own people engage in such practices. It makes them disgusting in His sight, an offence to His nostrils; and in the face of this evil-doing He cannot stand their religious posturing. He cannot bear to hear their prayers; hates their festivals; is weary of their hypocritical sacrificings; views their faithful attendance at His house with loathing, as nothing more than an uncouth trampling of its precincts: “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly”‘
No, not the cute antics or the learning to speak or walk or the hugs or total undying obedience to your every whim (ok I made that part up)…
Kids make the most incredible body shields.
When you don’t want to seriously consider or God forbid, actually do something that makes you feel scared or uncomfortable just hide behind your kids!
Imagine this highly improbable, never happened to me before situation… You are enjoying a nice robust discussion over a drink of your choice with a sincere and thoughtful Christian friend. The discussion turns to the issue of say… I don’t know… public schooling, urban mission, downward mobility… Good, healthy discussion ensues. But then the debate starts to spiral dangerously out of control… out of the theology books…off the blogs…into our city…into our lives… But don’t fear good citizens our intrepid Christian has packed with him his trusty “Get out of Jail Free” card. With a merry glint in his dilated pupil he pulls out of his back pocket the trump card, the discussion-ender, the obedience crusher and with great relief places on the grand table of ideas “Yes I see the importance of these things but really I am not about to sacrifice my kids on the altar of missions!”
End of discussion
I mean who can possibly be in favour of child sacrifice right?
If the alternative is say dead kids or public schools then lets rather keep our kids alive right?
But honestly what does this quasi-spiritual, pious sounding phrase actually mean? Oh I know we have all met the kind of pastors who are so busy running around with their underpants over their trousers trying to save the world as some kind of subordinate Holy Spirit that they give off the impression that kicking a football with their kids is somehow beneath their high spiritual calling.
So perhaps if at this point we can all just start off by agreeing that kids are important. And looking after your kids in a healthy environment is important too… right… yes… we all heard that. I am firmly in favour of loving and protecting your family! I love my family and am truly humbled and shocked that God would entrust such an incredible responsibility to a knucklehead like me. I get it… I’m terrified I’m going to get it horribly wrong and screw them all up… badly…
But where does this fear come from? For that is surely what underlies this non-offspring sacrificing purported spirituality? Fear of obedience. Fear of public schools. Fear of messing up our kids. Fear of our kids getting hurt. Fear that we won’t be able to protect them. Or give them all the stuff we never had. Fear that they won’t follow Christ. Fear that they will get confused. Fear that we may have to sacrifice our own comfort or respectability. Fear of… trusting God with our lives, our family, our future…
I am by no means suggesting that all of the issues raised above are not real, complicated and nuanced. Nor am I suggesting that there cannot be legitimate reasons to answer questions of schooling, housing or area to live in either way. But please let’s stop hiding behind our kids as some kind of get out of conviction free card.
It is arrogance to think that you can protect our kids through home schooling. It is foolishness to think that you cannot equally sacrifice your kids on the altar of suburbia or comfort or status or achievement.
We, as a family, have made our choices about where live and where to school our kids. We want to be self-aware when it comes to the choices we have made. I want to deal with my idols and my fears when making decisions for my kids. It is difficult some days to send my kids to public schools in our area. I envy my friends whose choices have allowed them to send their kinds to private Christian schools. But I am not sacrificing my kids. We are intentionally choosing as a family to engage on mission in this community and that means going to the schools the kids in our area go to.
When we decided to follow Jesus we did decide to “sacrifice our lives” on the altar of mission. Our lives are now caught up in God’s greater, bigger and more beautiful story. This is what it means for us to no longer be king of our own lives. This is what it means for us to no longer idolize family. We have intentionally chosen to sacrifice some of our preferences and comforts in order to serve others. So no we don’t get to sacrifice our kids but we are as a family called to model and practice sacrificial living.
Honestly I am not sure how else I raise kids to be live sacrificially, generously or intentionally except by living, sacrificially, generously and intentionally myself. How else do I show them the character of the King who gave up all the glory of Heaven to serve and redeem us? How else do I teach my kids that Jesus came to rescue us and liberate us from our own selfish desires except by daily choosing to put to death my own desires for comfort, security and playing it safe? How else do I teach my kids that we find life when we give it away in service to the weak, the poor, the lost and the broken except by doing just this? How else do they fall in love with the beauty, grace and passion of God’s mission except by tasting it and living it?
We spend our whole lives protecting our kids, serving them, providing for their needs and their desires. Keeping them safe, comfortable and happy. And then we wonder why they grow up to be exactly what we trained them to be.
And they walk away from a Jesus who does not serve them…
Or they apathetically warm a church building designed to serve them…
And their children…
And the world dies a little bit more each day.
There would be no theme song sung by famous singers. The main parts would not be played by famous and beautiful white actors and actresses. There will be no corporate sponsors , highlights on the eleven o’clock news or commercial breaks. There would be no time to stay home, get high, get entertained or tune out for a while, because the revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be televised because the television is controlled by those in power. The revolution will not be televised because it would interfere with the drugged on comfort entertainment culture more concerned with what will happen in the latest TV show than with fighting the injustices of the day. The happenings of those TV shows will no longer be “so damned relevant” “because black people will be in the streets looking for a brighter day.”
Scott-Heron’s point was that the thing that was going to change people and change communities was not something that would ever be able to be captured on television. If you stay home you will miss the revolution.
And yet I find myself wanted to say something similar to the church of my day. We are living in a world that is used to everything being “televised.” But hear me most clearly the revolution will not be tweeted, liked, pinned, blogged, hyperlinked or instagrammed. The revolution will not be found on your church webpage. It will not be forwarded by tweets or likes. It cannot be watched on YouTube or blogged about. You will not be able to get the app or season one off your friend’s hard drive. Please allow me to reiterate, the revolution will not be televised.
Using the word revolution may seem like cheap sensationalism (do you get any other kind?) and I was loath to use it at first. But the more I thought about it, the more apt it seemed. Jesus did come to bring about revolution. He came to overthrow the world order. To wrest back and to invade the kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of God. He came to overthrow the ruler of the air, to tie up the strongman and to win the decisive victory against Satan.
But it would not be the bloody, anti-Roman revolution that his disciples expected. The Jesus revolution would be more far-reaching, insidious and long-lasting than any mere political conquest could be. The Kingdom of Jesus is the Kingdom of the King who lays down his power, gives up his rights, who loves extravagantly and who forgives scandalously. This is not the revolution that is primarily concerned with swapping the features of the powerful at the top of the pile. It is the bottom-up, inside-out, upside-down revolution of the Kingdom of God. It’s greatest weapon is love and it’s greatest warriors are the weak, the forgotten, the broken and the lost. The revolution will not be a battle for power but a fight to serve.
This revolution will not be televised but everywhere it seems the church is fighting for the airwaves. Slicker websites, more likes, tweeting pastors, blogging elders. We are clambering to be heard, to have our brand recognized, to be invited to the table, to have our stories told and our cause legitimized. The revolution cannot be televised. Ideas and concepts about revolution can be branded and downloaded but the revolution can never and will never be televised. You cannot watch the revolution from your seat at the Sunday show. You cannot subscribe to the podcast of the professional revolutioneers.
The revolution is happening all around you but you have to look in all the wrong places. The revolution came from Nazareth and what good can possibly come from there? The revolution may not be educated, clean or articulate. The revolution is found in every Christian who sticks their flag in the cracked concrete of the inner city or dusty street of the township and says there is a new king who is invading here today. They fight the good fight with shared meals, kind words, laughter, inclusion of the outsider, forgiveness, mercy, grace and justice. They will tell of a different story, a better story, a story of hope and of glory. They will tell this story with words, with hugs, with food and with football in the streets.
As a church we are in danger of being more concerned with the appearance of the Kingdom than with the Kingdom itself. We are fooling ourselves into believing we can watch, download, tweet, blog, pin or like the revolution. We are obsessed with the appearances of revolution and the trappings of appearance. But the revolution will not be televised, it must be lived, experienced, caught up in, participated in, sacrificed for. Anything less is simply the delusion of those who like the idea of changing the world rather than actually changing the world and being changed ourselves in the process.
It is my prayer that finally we will get out the building, shake our neighbours hand, get to know someone who is different to us, play with the kids in the street, buy a homeless guy a cup of coffee and go looking for signs of Christ at work in the unplugged, unphotoshopped, untweeted or liked world of the ordinary. Perhaps then all these other things will no longer be “so damned relevant” because Christian people will be in the streets looking for a brighter day.
My wife read me this Soren Kierkegaard quote recently from Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution. It hit a little too close to home for me.
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand it, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.” (71-72)
Here is my review of The Irresistible Revolution (even now I might want to nuance some of my thoughts in that post a bit more)
I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city that rose up out of the crust of the earth.
And it’s streets were paved with asphalt,
And a river of dirty water ran down along it’s curbs.
It was a city
And its people knew no hope.
They were chased and herded from place to place by the churning jaws of bulldozers.
They were closed up in the anonymous cubicles of great brick prisons called housing projects.
They were forced out of work by the fearsome machines and computers,
And by the sparseness of their learning.
They were torn into many pieces by the hostile angers of racial fears and guilt and prejudice.
Their workers were exploited.
Their children and teenagers had no parks to play in.
No pools to swim in,
No space in crowded rooms to learn in,
No hopes to dream in,
And the people knew no hope.
Their bosses underpaid them.
Their landlords overcharged them.
Their churches deserted them.
And all of life in the city seemed dark and wild, like a jungle,
A jungle lined with asphalt.
And the people sat in darkness
I had a dream,
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in neon-lighted darkness.
And I heard people talking.
And I looked at them.
Across their chests in large, golden letters-written by their own hands
Across their chests were written the words:
“I am a Christian.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said;
“How terrible…How terrible…How terrible.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said:
“That is no place to live,
But some of our people have wandered there,
And we must go and rescue them.
And we must go and gather them, like huddled sheep into a fold;
And we will call it a City Church.”
So they built their church.
And the people came,
And they walked past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying men who lined the city’s streets.
Year after year they walked past,
Wearing their signs: “I am a Christian.”
Then one day the people in the church said:
“This neighborhood is too bad for good Christians.
Let us go to the suburbs where God dwells, and build a church there.
And one by one they walked away, past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying people.
They walked fast.
And did not hear a voice that said:
“…the least of these…the least of these…”
And they walked by, and they went out, and they built a church.
The church was high and lifted up, and it even had a cross.
But the church was hollow,
And the people were hollow,
And their hearts were hard as the asphalt streets of the jungle.
I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in bright and gaudy darkness.
And I saw more people with signs across their chest.
And they were Christians too.
And I heard them say:
“How terrible…how terrible…how terrible.
The city is filled with sinners:
To save sinners,
To save sinners.
But they are so unlike us,
But we are supposed to save them…
To save them,
To save them.”
And one person said:
“Can’t we save them without going where they are?”
And they worked to find a way to save and be safe at the same time.
Meanwhile, I saw them build a church,
And they called it a Mission,
A City Mission:
And all the children came by to see what this was.
And the city missionaries who had been sent to save them gathered them in.
So easy to work with children, they said,
And they are so safe, so safe.
And week after week they saved the children
(Saved them from getting in their parent’s way on Sunday morning).
And in the dream the City Missionaries looked like Pied Pipers, with their long row of children stretched out behind them,
And the parents wondered in Christianity was only for children.
And when the missionaries finally came to see them, and refused to sit in their broken chair, and kept looking at the plaster falling, and used a thousand words that had no meaning, and talked about rescuing them from hell while they were freezing in the apartment, and asked them if they were saved, and walked out into their shiny care, and drove off to their nice, safe neighborhood-
When that happened, the parents knew;
This version of Christianity had no light for their jungle.
Then, soon, the children saw too; it was all a children’s game;
And when they became old enough they got horns of their own,
And blew them high and loud,
And marched off sneering, swearing, into the darkness.
I had a dream,
And I saw the Christians in the dark city,
And I heard them say:
“We need a revival to save these kinds of people.”
And they rented the auditorium,
And they called in the expert revivalist,
And every night all the Christians came, and heard all the old, unintelligible, comfortable words, and sang all the old assuring songs, and went through all the old motions when the call was made.
Meanwhile, on the outside,
All the other people waited impatiently in the darkness for the Christians to come out, and let the basketball game begin.
I had a dream.
And I saw Christians with guilty consciences,
And I heard them say:
“What shall we do?
What shall we do?
What shall we do?
These people want to come to OUR church,
To OUR church.”
And someone said:
“Let’s build a church for THEM,
They like to be with each other anyway.”
And they started the church,
And the people walked in.
And for a while, as heads were bowed in prayer, they did not know.
But then, the prayers ended,
And they people looked up, and looked around,
And saw that every face was THEIR face,
And every color was THEIR color,
And they stood up, and shouted loudly within themselves:
“Let me out of this ghetto, this pious, guilt-built ghetto.”
And they walked out into the darkness,
And the darkness seemed darker than ever before,
And the good Christians looked, and said,
“These people just don’t appreciate what WE do for THEM.”
And just as the night seemed darkest, I had another dream.
I dreamed that I saw young people walking,
Walking into the heart of the city, into the depths of the darkness.
They had no signs, except their lives.
And they walked into the heart of the darkness and said:
“Let us live here, and work for light.”
They said, “Let us live here and help the rootless find a root for their lives.
Let us live here, and help the nameless find their names.”
They said, “Let us live here and walk with the jobless until they find work.
Let us live here, and sit in the landlord’s office until he gives more heat and charges less rent.”
They said, “Let us live here, and throw open the doors of this deserted church to all the people of every race and class;
Let us work with them to find the reconciliation God has brought.”
And they said, “Let us walk the asphalt streets with the young people, sharing their lives, learning their language, playing their sidewalk, backyard games, knowing the agonies of their isolation.”
And they said, “Let us live here, and minister to as many men as God gives us grace,
Let us live here,
And die here, with out brothers of the jungle,
Sharing their apartments and their plans.”
And the people saw them,
And someone asked who they were,
A few really knew
They had no signs
But someone said he thought they might be Christians,
And this was hard to believe, but the people smiled;
And a little light began to shine in the heart of the asphalt jungle.
Then in my dream I saw young people,
And I saw the young men and women
Those who worked in the city called Chicago,
And they were weary,
And the job was more than they could bear alone,
And I saw them turn, turn and look for help,
And I heard them call:
“Come and help us,
Come and share this joyful agony, joyful agony,
Come as brothers in the task,
Come and live and work with us,
Teachers for the crowded schools,
Doctors for the overflowing clinics,
Social workers for the fragmented families,
Nurses for the bulging wards,
Pastors for the yearning flocks,
Workers for the fighting gangs,
Christians who will come and live here,
Here in the heart of the darkness,
Who will live here and love here that a light might shine for all.
I heard them call,
And I saw the good Christians across the country,
And their answers tore out my heart.
Some said, “There isn’t enough money there.”
Some said, “It’s too bad there. I couldn’t raise children.”
Some said, “I’m going into foreign missions, where things don’t seem so dark.”
Some said, “The suburbs are so nice.”
Some said, “But I like it here on the farm.”
And one by one they turned their backs and began to walk away.
At this moment my dream was shattered by the sound of a great and mighty whisper, almost a pleading sound;
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am hungry in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am thirsty in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am a stranger in this asphalt jungle.”
And a voice said, “Come, help me, for I have been stripped naked, naked of all legal rights and protection of the law, simply because I am black in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for my heart is sick with hopelessness and fear in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, live with me in the prison of my segregated community, and we will break down the walls together.”
And the voices were many,
And the voice was one,
And the Christians knew whose Voice it was.
And they turned,
And their faces were etched with the agonies of decisions.
And the dream ended.
But the voice remains,
And the choice remain,
And the city still yearns for light.
And the King who lives with the least of his brothers and sisters in the asphalt jungle…
Yearns for us
HT to Nigel for posting this first.
Every culture, organisation and church has a prevailing myth that tells the story of who we are and what we value. And every myth is held up and carried along by its heroes. These are the human vessels that carry our ideals, our dreams, our aspirations. These are the men and women who put flesh onto our values. They are the ones who have succeeded in living the ideals and the dreams we hold to in some significant way.
What is the prevailing myth in your church? Who are the prevailing heroes in your church? Meditate on this for a while. The question is not what should be the prevailing myth in your church or who should be the heroes in your church. The question is; what IS the myth and who ARE the heroes?
We say mission drives our church but yet we spend most of our energy and time on maintaining our existing structures and programmes. We say we want to see our community reached for Christ but yet we employ numerous staff members whose primary responsibility is to care for us and our needs through teaching, youth work or kids programmes. We say we serve Jesus and not money and yet we create an elaborate system of church which requires a large amount of money to keep it going. We create a system that actually hinders us from mission rather than propels us forward into mission. We speak about what we think ought to be the prevailing myth but yet so often our lives are driven by a darker, less obvious shadow myth.
Who are the heroes in our church communities? The dashing youth leader? The talented musician? The eloquent preacher? The brilliant exegete? The successful business man? Any defining myth we create is carried forward by its heroes. If you truly want to know what the defining myth of your community is then ask yourself who are your heroes?
The bible teacher as hero betrays the myth that knowledge about God is our functional salvation story. Bible college is seen as the ultimate experience for young Christians. The worship leader as hero betrays the myth that the high that shared experiences bring is our functional Saviour. The successful business man as hero betrays the myth that we will find happiness or significance through money and success. The family man or stay at home mom or home-school parent as hero betrays the myth that family is the most important thing in the world. All these heroes and myths contains some truth but as is the case with all great lies, the object of truth has been stretched to breaking point, beyond it’s ability to hold the disproportionate value we have placed upon it.
What if the myth that defined our church really was the gospel. The gospel of Him who left all the security, the pleasure and the comfort of heaven to lay down His rights, his preferences, His desires in order to serve us. To become one of us. To die for us. What if the myth that defined our values, dreams and aspirations was this gospel story? What if our goal was sacrifice and not comfort? Risk and not security? Service and not pleasure?
What if our lives were defined not by our rights or our pleasures but instead were marked as those who joined their story with the great Story, who laid down their lives for the True Myth, who become heroes in the Ultimate Adventure and who risked it all for a share in the Kingdom of our Great King. What if we really were known as the friend of sinners, the defender of the vulnerable, the light in the darkness, the peacemakers, the kind and the just?
What if we really did believe that a man’s life did not consist in the abundance of his possessions? What if we really did believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive? What if we really did believe that our Father in heaven will clothe and feed us as he does the flowers of the field and the birds of the air? What if we really did believe that our God is a good God and that his Kingdom is better than all the pleasures and joys the kingdom of this world has to offer? What if we really did believe that the gospel is true?
I am not reaching for some utopian ideal of church. I know that anything we touch this side of Jesus’ return will be marked by our brokenness and sin. What we need though is honesty, an honesty robust enough to admit that our defining myths are too small. We have shrunk the kingdom vision into easily containable chunks that we can use to control our lives. Our heroes have become too small and our dreams are too reasonable.
We have shrunk the Kingdom to a coke lite, kid friendly version of the world, without the sex, drugs and swearing. We need an honesty that leads us not to self-inflicted lynchings of guilt but an honesty that admits that we have been living for the wrong myth and inspired by the wrong heroes. Our myth is sadly most often the coke-lite version of the world, without the sex, drugs and swearing.
We need an honesty that inspires us to join our story with the Great Story, to give up our small ambitions and our small dreams. We need heroes that inspire us not to greater church attendance but who lead us to far wilder, less safe and more beautiful places where only our faith and our hope in the Great King can ever hope to sustain us. For it there that we will win glory for His Name and find the life we so desperately crave. “ For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
This past weekend I went to a conference that in all honesty I would never have gone to a few years back. And if by some miracle of teleportation I had found myself there, I am sure I would have been incapable of learning from those whose stories are so different to my own. At times I suspect radically different. (I say suspect because that really was not the point of the conference and neither I nor they presumably felt the need to get into our differences) Perhaps even different to the extent of the basic tenets of the gospel different. But yet I must confess there was something vibrant, something alive about their faith and their spirituality, something deeply attractive. Something I wanted…
For all my good Bible teaching and wrestling with exegesis I suspect my life, my spirituality, my faith is often as dull, as rational, as safe and as attractive as a three-day old sandwich. You could eat it but given the choice you would probably choose not to. How can it be that having given years of my life to studying the biblical text, fine tuning my doctrine and training other to go and do likewise I can now find myself deeply attracted to the spirituality of those who I have regarded as having a “lesser theology”?
The obvious first point of examination must be the possibility that my theological convictions are wrong? I have tossed that idea around a bit lately and while I can conclude that I have moved on a few issues, it is more the moving of nuance than of relocating to a different theological neighbourhood altogether. Perhaps, I am being naive but I am not sure it is my theological convictions that need moving. It is my heart!
Please don’t misunderstand me. Doctrine matters! Right doctrine leads to right living – breaking down the walls of exclusion, eating together, loving one another, joy, hope, freedom and life. Bad doctrine leads to division, strife, confusion, bitterness and hatred, just read Galatians if you are not convinced.
If this is true, and I would stake my life on it being true, then how can it be that those whose of us who have spent most of our lives studying, teaching and contending for what I would regard as good doctrine have lives that are so profoundly mundane and unattractive?
I suspect that what we need is not more information but rather some deep contemplation, sustained meditation and some profound experiences of the Spirit as we seek to live the information that we already know. We have become drunk with our quest for more knowledge. Like giddy schoolgirls we flock to hear, download and read yet more and more information on our latest theological crush. And somehow as we “just teach the Bible” we expect that transformation will just magically happen.
What makes these “lesser theological lights” (by my tribe’s standards anyway) so effective and vibrant and attractive? Faith. They actually believe in a God who wants to redeem and restore all of creation. So much so that they actually act on it. They base their lives around it. Make intentional choices to be downwardly mobile, committed to prayer, reaching the lost in the toughest neighbourhoods, speaking out against injustice, racism and exploitation. When God says that money enslaves and that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, they listen, they obey and they build lives on the words of Jesus. Faith.
It is after all not Bible teaching that matters but Bible living. It matters not how well you exegete the text but how deeply the text exegetes you! Will you follow where the text leads you? Will you meditate deeply on the implications of the text for your life, your aspirations, your lifestyle, the lost and the broken or will it merely become another interesting sermon to be tucked away until next we meet? Will you follow the text to where it leads to the end of you and your resources? Will you follow the text where it leads to a deep dependence upon the Spirit to lead you, guide you and sustain you for mission and in fact for life?
Strangely, I remain committed to my tribe theologically. Some days I wish I was not so convinced. But yet I long for my tribe to do so much more than contend for, teach, exegete and understand the truth. I long for the days when evangelicals will be known for their spiritual vitality, their love for the poor, their stand for justice, their care for the planet, their love for homosexuals, their lives of simplicity and sustainability, their radical generosity, their fight against consumerism and wastefulness.
Not at the expense of the gospel proclaimed. But precisely because we have believed the gospel proclaimed we are no longer conformed to the standards (comforts, securities, importances) of this world but rather our minds are being renewed by that gospel. Precisely because we have believed the gospel we will give our lives away in service of the last, the least and the lost just as Jesus gave his life away for us. We intentionally join our small story with God’s Great Big Beautiful story of redemption, resurrection, restoration, hope and beauty.
CS Lewis reckons courage as the greatest virtue, because without it all the other virtues become conditional virtues. If we lack the courage to act with integrity, honesty or mercy at the testing point then we only have integrity, mercy or honesty with conditions that involve our own pleasure, comfort, safety or desires attached. (HT to Frost and Hirsch)
As I meditated on what God would be saying to our Gospel Community this week, as we gathered to plan and dream a bit for the next few months, I realized that all of our planning boils down to three clear questions. What is God saying to us/ calling us to do in this season? Will we do it? What do we need to do to make it happen?
Most of the time the sticking point goes with question two; “Will we do it?” Mostly we are with a fair degree of wisdom, common sense and occasional direct guidance able to without too much difficulty discern what the next faithful step is that God is calling us to. And then we often skip straight on to question three, the how question(s). We spend a lot of time here making excuses, raising difficulties and finding obstacles to not answering God’s call on our lives/community.
And often this is where we stay. We have a fair comprehension of what God wants us to do. We have some good ideas about what we ought to do. But we also have thrown up many reasons, excuses and potential difficulties as to why we have to think longer/ delay acting/ do something else. It is seldom voiced so plainly. Mostly we just plan it to death and the calling merely slips away silently into the night, unseen and unmissed.
“Will we do it?” is the game breaker. I think it is crucial to answer this question, throw it around, look each other in the eye and answer it out loud before we even begin to talk about logistics. The how are always second tier questions. On the first tier is the What question and the “Will-We” question. Once those are answered in the affirmative the why will follow as a matter of course. If we have made a prior decision to obedience the logistical how questions become less like a series of obstacles and reasons why it will not or could not work. And more like a serious of challenges to be overcome and worked out any way we have to.
The calling is clear. Obedience is a prior decision. Now we simply need the courage to make it work anyway we have to.
If money was no object what would you do with your life? Great diagnostic question to get you thinking and evaluating your life right? But not really a practical question at all… we all need money and money for most of us is always an object. So is this the type of question that makes Oprah a cupboard full of cash and leaves the rest of us chasing the wind?
But what if money really was no object? What if when it came to the Kingdom of God, money really was no object. What was it again that Jesus said to his disciples again when they were worrying about clothes and food?
“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”
“Do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
I spend a lot of time in the week working to supplement our income the bulk of which comes from “missionary support”. The supplementary work is good, honest, hard work. I even think we are rather good at it. I think it could even develop into a mainline source of income if we wanted it to. As a sideline business, though there are some aspects of it (namely the ones that bring in most of the cash) that stink as a sideline. As a sideline it struggles to know its place. Like a cameo actor always trying to squeeze into the limelight, and upstage the main actors. Or like details in a verbose novel that distracts from the main story.
But money is an object. I have bills to pay. Kids to feed and clothe. Medical aid, pension, car payments…
But what if this ministry really was not my ministry… not in an abstract, read it in a textbook kind of way. But what if it really is God’s work, his ministry, his Spirit changing lives, opening hearts… What if money was no object for Him? What if following Him meant giving up my right to a self-perceived security? What if it made sense in every other sense except in the money sense to give up a sure stream of income to follow a reliable God into an unsure future? I don’t simply believe in a closed, rationalistic universe but most days you would not know that. Too much of my life can be planned, organised, drawn on a graph, explained, reasoned out or reasoned away. Most days my life could be quite easily explained as if there were no God.
But start acting like I believed all that Jesus talk about feeding the birds and clothing the flowers and I can almost guarantee you that I would have any number of Christians eager to remind me to be “a good steward” and not do anything rash. Quite frankly I don’t think most of us would know a rash if it broke out all over our body. When I read the gospels I cannot help but think that if we did half of what Jesus did we would certainly we would not be considered for the church council or invited to run the youth group.
What does it mean to live by faith? Sure faith says that God has given me work so work at in gratitude and worship to Him. But what if it just felt wrong to follow the money stream? What if my reasonable, non-Charismatic, evangelical theology feels like it is a burden wrestling me to the ground when all I want to do is love people, trust God and forget about the money! Sounds so simple when I write it like that… but we all it’s just not that simple. Is faith reasonable or is it crazy? What if both ways sound like they are trusting God? Do I go with my feeling, my gut? What if the people I trust agree both ways?
Just thinking out loud I guess… what if?
I loved reading this story recently. And apparently according to my Facebook timeline so did a whole lot of other Christians. It really is a good showing for the team. Particularly our team that seems to take more than it’s fair share of hits. Some of them unfair but honestly many of them thoroughly deserving. So then, here it is, a Christian feel-good story. Here is the evidence that we are making a difference. We do care about the poor, social justice and racial reconciliation. A mortal wound to the myth that we are represent essential middle-class, politically conservative values. We can call this one a victory and sleep sweetly tonight.
But like most fans of major sports teams who love to use the rather generous pronoun “we” when referring to the achievements of our sporting teams, many of us are off the mark in our celebrations. I well remember the sharp quip I witnessed last year when Steve Timmis was having a friendly go at Gavin Peacock concerning Steve’s beloved Manchester United’s drubbing of a Chelsea team containing Gavin Peacock in the 1994 FA Cup Final, Just as Steve was at his most smug, someone piped up from the floor, “Yes but which one of you was actually on the field that day?” Point – Gavin. Silenced – Steve.
Thanks for cheering on the team today. But are you actually on the field? Or do you prefer to cheer on your heroes from the stands with your warm jacket, dry seat and a flask of coffee.” You might be allowed to get away with that rhetoric at the pub with your favourite players name emblazoned on your replica shirt but in the kingdom there are no supporters clubs, no comfy seats and no replica shirts. You are either on the field or out the game altogether.
Not everyone is a superstar but everyone is called to get their boots muddy. I played football. I still have my team socks, team jacket and the dodgy knee to prove it. I did the hard yards in the mud, in the rain and even in the blazing sun. I chased back in plenty of lost causes. I even stuck in a few goals for the cause. I was not a great player, I was not even a very good player but I was on the field. I played for some terrible teams with some terrible score-lines. Once we even had the distinction of finishing bottom of the very bottom league in the whole division. They could not even relegate us because there was simply nowhere else to go. But every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we showed up to play football. We laughed, we fought, we blamed the ref, we blamed each other, we backed each other, we cheered and jeered our own players and somehow in the midst of all that we got to play some football, respect each other and create some good memories as the goals flew past us.
You don’t have to be a superstar but you do have to lace up your boots. You have to get on the field.
Do you have space in your life for messy, broken lives? For people who are not like you? People who do not hold the same values or convictions as you? Do you know, by name that is, people who are struggling with addictions, mental illnesses or eating disorders? Have you ever stopped to actually talk to the guy who scratches in your bins or knocks on your door asking for money? Or are you too busy getting ready to go to the next church event?
Perhaps this story has to force us to consider even where we live. What are the values that drive where you choose to live? Many of us live in nice, neat, sanitized suburbs with the beautiful veneer of comfort, respectability and safety (the holy trinity of evangelical property purchases?), far away from the messiness and discomfort of poverty. And just in case we put up nice big walls, and gates with an intercom system to make sure that we don’t even have to look at the “bergie” asking for money in the eye? Most middle-class South African would not even have flinched at the derogatory term in the previous sentence!
More of us need to consider ways in which we might be downwardly mobile. I strongly believe this is a key issue to a rightly lived out gospel story here in South Africa. To remain in our comfortable, secure, middle-class church culture is antithetical to the gospel of the one who gave up all the glory, security, comfort and riches of heaven to come eat with outcasts, misfits, sinners, prostitutes, traitors, thieves, political revolutionaries and the unclean. More than that to die for them. To die for us. To lay down his life for our sins. To follow Jesus is follow him who laid down his life for the undeserving, the unlovely and the ungrateful. To follow Jesus is to live among the broken, the sick and the lost. To eat with the outcasts, the sinners and the cynics. To give up your small ambitions and believe the gospel words that he who wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Jesus and for the gospel will save it.
Disclaimer: I am middle-class. I have nothing against being middle-class and I am certainly not suggesting that middle-class is evil, wrong or less Christian. Nor am I suggesting that we all need to give up all our possessions and become poor. That is surely just bizarre. But we do need to move towards life together with the poor, the outcast, the sick, the broken and the sinners. How that looks? There are no magic answers but the questions remain, and demand our attention.