Tag Archives: Jesus

When Justice is Silent

South Africa, it feel like, is often on the brink of another violent protest.  The poor and the marginalized are frustrated. Their voice is not being heard. They are being ignored. As a result they resort to violence or vandalism in order to get a hearing.  Most often it works. Even if it is only to get the politicians to argue about whose fault it is.   This same philosophical dilemma was debated in the 1960’s between the older ANC members and the young firebrands like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.  In South Africa, we celebrate the results of their decision to engage in the armed struggle.  The ends it seems have justified the means.  I suspect among Christians this may be something of another elephant in the room.

When you are not being heard through the normal channels, do you do whatever it takes to get those with the power to listen?  And if these actions gain you a hearing or a victory are these actions then made righteous because of the favourable outcome?

I get it! On purely rational or even emotional grounds these arguments resonate with me. But the biblical reaction, I suspect, is something altogether different.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), for instance, Jesus clearly says, that our righteous acts alone are not enough to make us just in the eyes of the law. It is not enough that we do good deeds we must also desire to do that good.   It is not enough to not murder someone rather we must love them, even our enemies. It is not enough not to commit adultery rather we must be pure in heart. True righteousness, are righteous acts fuelled by righteous desires. Neither grudging righteous acts nor unrighteous acts in order to achieve righteous goals fit the criteria for true biblical righteousness.

Jesus’ words in Mark 7:14-23 make it clear that anger, pride and violence come from the unrighteous desires of our heart. Our actions are the overflow of our heart. If our actions are evil that is because our motives and desires are evil. Unrighteous actions cannot come from a heart that is righteous or which desires righteous outcomes. If the means to bring about the result are unrighteous then the result cannot be righteous. Even if the outcome is the desired outcome or the outcome benefits people – it cannot be regarded by God as righteousness.

A robust belief in the sovereignty of God confronts us with the reality that it is not all up to us. In other words Christians cannot partake in this type of thinking that believes that if we do not stand up for ourselves and make ourselves heard then no one will do it on our behalf. Or which says we must force them to listen to us, because if we do not do it then no one will.

So what do we do, when we are not being heard? When everything within us cries out for us to force ourselves to be heard? Do we “sell our soul” to commit injustice in order to fight injustice?

No, we go to the one who sees the injustice. To the one who always hears, always sees and always listens. We fall on our knees before our Heavenly Father, crying out for mercy, for justice and in repentance for our own hearts filled with violence and evil desires.

We petition the one who has all the power to soften the hearts of those in power, to calm the restless spirits of those who would resort to violence. We pray that we may persevere to do what is right even when it feels foolish and powerless. We trust that God sees, God hears, God acts and He will do what is right.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  Will we trust God’s unseen hand at work today in the midst of chaos and uncertainty?

Too often, when the pressure is on, our theology is revealed, and it is revealed to be man-centred and not God centred. We are found to be those who trust in the immediacy of the hand of man rather than the seemingly hidden hand of God.

All true theology is cross-shaped. The cross demonstrates once and for all that God takes injustice seriously.  At the cross God has dealt decisively with injustice.  Wicked and unjust acts do not escape punishment. And not only the institutional or systemic injustice against which we protest but also the self-centred injustice that lurks within our own hearts.

The paradox of the cross is that whilst God takes injustice seriously, he is also the one who, in mercy, lays down his own life, in order to redeem us from the consequences of our sin. At the cross we see justice and mercy hand in hand.

It is the cross which must drive all our thoughts and actions against injustice. Work hard against injustice, cry out for change, lay down your finances, your time, your comforts and your preferences in order to bring about change. Get involved in change in your community. But fight to remember that a fight for justice must always come from a heart that knows and extends mercy. Mercy not only to those who are victims but also to those who are the perpetrators. That is the scandal of grace.  Grace offers humanity, forgiveness and love to those who would dehumanise, humiliate and oppress.

When we remember the cross we are compelled to cry out, not only for the victims but the oppressors also. We must ask ourselves what does it mean to bless, to serve and to love, not only the victims but the oppressors too. We cannot dehumanise, demonise or hate those who are as much the recipients of Jesus grace and mercy as those whose needs we feel. The way of the cross is a mystery, a paradox, an unnatural, uncomfortable, irrational way of following Jesus who holds grace and mercy together as he builds his Kingdom of peace, healing, justice, mercy and forgiveness.

 

Advertisements

Make us into People of the Ascension

For you, O Lord, see the tears of the widowed, the sobs that overtake them when the rest of us are not looking.

You see the disorientation in which so many people live every day—confusion borne of war, poverty, abuse, or chronic illness.

You see the people in dead-end jobs who trudge to work every day filled with so much despair that they can hardly breathe.

You see those who search a loved one’s eyes for traces of love but find only an empty stare. As Lord of the earth, you spy every instance of one person cutting another to the quick, every place where a child lives in fear, every bar where someone tries to drown their sorrows.

Yet you are our world’s every hope. You are tender enough to weep with those who weep and yet strong enough to lend comfort and not be consumed with the sorrows that overwhelm us.

You are discerning enough to see where our lives run off the rails and yet gracious enough to forgive our foolishness and open again the better path that leads into your kingdom.

You are the bright centre to all of life, O God! Your lordship helps us glimpse our future with you in your kingdom, even as it points the way home.

Make us into people of the ascension, Christ Jesus!

Make us your hands of mercy, your voice of grace, your presence of love.

Whatever we do, whether in word or deed; whatever we see, whether sinful or salacious; whatever we hear, whether uplifting or depressing; whatever we face in this world, help us to face it in your power and with the knowledge of your grace and goodness.

Help us to be gentle with prodigal children. Help us to be stalwart in the truth with people in love with lies. Help us to be radiant with hope with people who fear death.

Help us to be your people, Lord God.

For today, as always, this world needs your shalom-filled presence. Bring peace to war-torn places and help people everywhere to see in one another your image.

May those who delight in the paths of suicide and destruction be turned instead to delight in life and in mutual flourishing. End the terror in which so many live, and thwart the dreams of those who plot still more terror on the unsuspecting.

Where there is hunger, bring bread; where there is drought and thirst, send refreshing rains; where there is hatred, bring your peace; where there is greed, bring your own fullness and so turn appetites run amok away from short-term pleasures toward things that last and that foster richness and plenty for all.

We are the people of your ascension and reign, Holy Christ of God. Whatever we do, help us never to forget who we are, whose we are, and where true joy may be found.

In the power and blessing of your name we pray. Amen.

(I found this prayer somewhere on the internet.  Used it to close out our Story telling nights last year but as usual forgot to note where I found it.  But it is pasted to our fridge if that helps at all)

When our heroes have become too small

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)

What if more of us were downwardly mobile?

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.

A5bVC8FCEAA87jK

On the right of the picture you can see me helping out Gavin with his understanding of the 3-5-3 system!

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.

A Party for Prostitutes

Tel Aviv, December 2005

Last week I shared the story of throwing a birthday party for our friend J who had never had a birthday party before.

In no one indicating that the details are similar, it did remind me of this story by Tony Campolo as retold by Tim Chester;

Tony Campolo tells of a time when he was speaking in Honolulu, Hawaii. Campolo lives on the east coast of the United States so his body was six hours ahead of Hawaiian time. At 3am it felt like nine o-clock to him. Awake and hungry for breakfast, he found himself in a “greasy spoon” café in the small hours of the morning. As he bit into his doughnut, eight or nine prostitutes walked in. They had just finished for the night. Their talk was loud and crude, and it was difficult to avoid listening in. He heard one tell the others it was her birthday the following day. “What do you want from me? A birthday cake?” was the sarcastic reply. “Why be so mean?” she replied, “I was just telling you. I don’t expect anything. I’ve never had a birthday party. I’m not expecting to have one now.” When Campolo heard this he made a decision.

When the women left, he went over to the café owner, a guy called Harry. “Do they always come in here?” “Yes,” said Harry. “Including the one who sat next to me?” “Yes, that’s Agnes. Why do you want to know?” “Because I heard her say it’s her birthday tomorrow and I thought we might throw her a party.” Pause. Then a smile grew across Harry’s lips. “That’d be a great idea.” A moment later his wife was in on the plot.

What Happens Next

Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. When Agnes entered with her friends, she was flabbergasted. Her mouth fell open and her knees wobbled. As she sat on a stool, everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. “Blow out the candles,” people shouted, but in the end Harry had to do it for her. Then he handed her a knife. “Cut the cake, Agnes, so we can all have some.” She looked at the cake. Then slowly said, “Is it alright … would you mind … if I wait a little longer … if we didn’t eat it straight away?” “Sure. It’s okay,” said Harry. “Take it home if you want”’ “Can I?” she said, “Can I take it home now? I’ll be back in a few minutes.” And with that she left, carrying her precious cake out the café.

What Kind of Church?

There was a stunned silence. So Campolo said, “What do you say we pray?” And they did. Campolo lead a group of prostitutes in prayer at 3:30 in the morning. When they were done, Harry said, “Hey! You never told me you were some kind of preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry waited for a moment. Then he kind of sneered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”

Campolo Comments:

Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning?… But anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with prostitutes and with all kinds of left-out people. The tax collectors and “sinners” loved him because he partied with them. The lepers of society found in him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious people could not relate to what he was about, those lonely people who usually didn’t get invited to parties took to him with excitement.

(HT: Tim Chester)

Photo Credit: Tal Bright via Photo Pin

Great Stories Have Great Endings 4

68140297_cff5ce8fb4_o

This is part 4 of our series in Revelation 21-22.  You may also like to read parts one, two or three.

4) It is a Place of Rest:

When you read these chapters there is a real sense of safety and security.  It is a picture of a world at peace and at rest.  In the first creation account, the goal of creation was rest. Not a sleeping type of rest, per se, but a rich, beautiful enjoyment of God’s creation. At the end of the story we see the rest which was lost restored.  We are set free to once again enjoy and marvel in the beauty and splendour of the Creator and of his creation.

In 21v1 John notes that there is no longer any sea.  Firstly, before all the surfers faint, remember this is all picture language.  These images are not meant (in large) to show us what the new creation will look like.  The intention of the picture language is to show us what the new creation will BE like.

So in this instance, for the people, of the ancient world the sea commonly represent a place of fear, of uncertainty and of chaos.  In the new creation it is not necessarily the sea that will be absent but fear, uncertainty and chaos certainly will be absent.  It will be a world of peace, of safety, of rest and of order.  It will be a return to the character of Eden.

Central to these chapters are the image of the New Jerusalem, the city of God, the bride of Christ as a massive secure city with giant walls and huge gates (21 v 15-21).  The imagery itself is beautiful but when we remember that this was written in a day where invading armies, vengeance killings and marauding bandits were still very much a reality, then the idea of this huge, impenetrable city was a beautiful, comforting image.  The new creation will be a place of safety and refuge, no longer will there be any danger of invasion, of plunder, of slavery, of rape, of vengeance, or of wanton destruction.  No longer will there be a need to anxiously guard your property or your family, to hide from evil-doers or to fear the unknown.

But it gets better, the gates of this huge city will never be shut!  City gates were shut at night!  Night time, even in our days of electricity, is a time of danger, of fear and of uncertainty.  The gates of the New Jerusalem will never be shut because there will be no more night.  The new creation will not be a place of fear, of violence, of danger.

All these will be gone and those who practice those things will not be welcome in the city (21 v 27).  It is a beautiful and paradoxical picture of this imposing, massive city- impenetrable.  But yet its gates stand wide open…  As if to give a powerful visual aid to Jesus’ words “To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.” (21 v 6)

Photo Credit: Olivander

Great Stories Have Great Endings 1

68140297_cff5ce8fb4_o

Great stories have great endings. In fact I think it is the ending that defines the story…

In the urban spirituality of the city there is a somewhat accepted spiritual epithet that “it is not the destination that matters but the journey.”  This sounds really spiritual but in reality it is, quite simply, a load of cobblers (always wanted to write that, it just sounds so Dickensian).  The ending is that which gives shape and substance to the entire the story.

If the ending is tragic then the story is a tragedy, despite the moments of joy and laughter that may be found in the journey.  If the ending is happy then the story is a comedy (as defined by Buechner) despite the moments of sadness and tears which it may take to bring the story to the required happy ending.  The ending is not simply that which ends the story, it is that which gives shape, substance and even meaning to the entire story.

This is equally true for the Bible story as for any other story.

The biblical ending defines, shapes and gives meaning and significance to the biblical story. If the ending is rubbish or trite then the story is a waste of time. Certainly not something to base your life on.

To use some big words for a minute our ESCHATOLOGY defines our MISSIOLOGY which defines our ECCLESIOLOGY (HT to Alan Hirsch whom I ripped off slightly).  To translate our doctrine of the end must defines our mission which must shape our doctrine of church.

I have been reading, teaching and meditating recently on the end of the Bible story (Revelation 21-22).  A few things stood out for me:

1) God does it

This chapter is full of God’s work.  This glorious picture of the new heavens and the new earth- it is all God’s doing.  Only He can do. Only He will do it.  And as a result all the glory can only go to Him (21:2-5).

And the Lamb is at the centre of all that he does (21:9, 22, 23, 27; 22:1, 3).  Who is this Lamb? It is the the Lamb who was slain (5:6, 9).  At the centre of the New Creation is Jesus who died, for our sins (the Lamb who was slain).  The New Creation will forever be shaped by the king who died for his people.

What particularly struck me is that in Revelation 19 we have just had this picture of Jesus on the white horse, with eyes like blazing fire. A sword coming out of his mouth, He is crowned with many crowns, and the name King of Kings is written on his robe and on his thigh.   He comes to judge the nations and to rule them an iron sceptre.  It is a great and terrifying picture of a powerful and mighty king come in judgement

I think I have always assumed that it is this King who will be the centre of our worship in the new creation.  But when we come to Revelation 21-22 who is at the centre of the new creation, the Lamb who was slain!  Without reading too much into the picture language of Revelation, it is the pattern of the Lamb which is will shape the pattern of life in the new creation.

photo credit:  Olivander