Good News of an Unhappy Ending

So everyone’s leaving evangelicalism? Now, that’s good news! What we talk about when we talk about evangelicalism (This is the book Rob Bell should have wrote) is nothing less than politics. And I think we can all agree that as of late politics have been all-consuming and well a bit much.

In America, it’s no longer faith & politics, it’s faith/politics.

The decades – long experiment of testing the evangel, good news of Jesus, against it’s both Republican and Democrat control variables has pronounced a verifiable conclusion, to the tune of 81%! That’s scientific validity folks! Evangelicalism is politics.

Evangelical faith in America is representative of a whole host of political perspectives that, no surprise – naturally should follow from one’s expressed religious belief, only here, faith has been sublimated into those very perspectives. The Hegelian synthesis has occurred. Faith to the common evangelical is one in the same, or at least an 81% match, with shrinking the government, standing for the anthem, anti-abortion, deporting illegal immigrants and while we’re at it – creating jobs!

It’s never good practice to shoot from the hip at targets so complex and nuanced as western evangelicalism but humor me a minute. David Bebbington’s pinpoint definition for evangelicalism offers four qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism. Your average evangelical may or may not identify with these qualities: a particular regard for the bible, the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the radical response in personal conversion and lastly the demonstrable expression of the gospel in life. But whether they identified with these qualities or not, evangelicals, up to this point, could have always put a check mark in this box as It positioned them in some implicit, respectable manner as a follower of Jesus; a bible-believing, Christ-centered, transformed disciple of Jesus.

This is now no longer the case.

Core Christian beliefs have been eroding in the US and Canada steadily for the past few decades, however the cultural Christian could always assent to the convenient identity of ‘evangelical’ without ever understanding the content of the label. It was at best benign, though respectable. But now, the politicization of the word evangelical has riddled it with contempt. To many it is on the verge of being derisive.

So it would seem, the right response to evangelicals leaving home is to applaud them. Not a sarcastic slow-clap but an authentic cheer for someone who has soured on one thing in order to taste again the sweetness of the sure thing. Evangelicals are leaving home to come home to Jesus.

So, to my good natured, well-intentioned evangelical friends:

You can stop saying that Jesus was neither a democrat nor republican, yet the problem persists: you are either a democrat or republican. These are the first labels you reach for, and notably not the label of “follower of Christ”. You’ve heralded your sacred conscious to such heights for the sake of liberty that you cannot not taste the freedom of submission to your Lord, Jesus Christ.

Don’t Look Both Ways

A couple weeks ago I preached on Jesus’ call to his first disciples (Jn 1:29-42). In reality they were not-yet his but rather John the Baptist’ disciples. Perhaps I’m being a tad too provincial and anachronistic, but I think it’s altogether possible Jesus persuaded them to leave the flock of his crazy Baptist cousin, and join his implicitly-held though undeniable, Reformed world and life view.

If there was a sarcasm font, the previous sentences would be written in it. Here we have it! Jesus is a proponent of indeterminate transfer growth!

Nah, but seriously, what struck me in preaching this text is how Jesus calls these men to follow him.

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” (Jn 1:35-39)

Come and See. Now that’s a methodology. Lately, I’ve been trying to discern what it means that Christ perceivably calls us here, to cross the road before looking both ways. Man, that’s dangerous! And it’s not what I was taught. I was taught to look left and right and then make my way. And preferably find a crosswalk if you can, mmkay?

But what if I so trusted the person I was following, that I wouldn’t even think to look both ways? What if I just felt so compelled to step off the curb and onto the road with the faith of a child? Hand in mom or dad’s. Now this doesn’t work in that old Atari game, Frogger and I don’t suggest you make a habit of “on-coming and seeing” how it works crossing your local hwy but somehow it works for us in following Jesus.

Note: it’s not, “Okay, you’ve seen, now come!” It’s remarkable that here in what is the dawn of Christian discipleship, Jesus says “Come, and you will see.” He, quite matter-of-factly, puts it to us. When Jesus invites us to follow him, he leaves all this room for exploratory faith, for seeking, for wonder and curiosity.

The pedestrian ‘walk’ sign has been flashing for a solid 20 seconds and we haven’t moved an inch. But he waits. He’s not going anywhere. Not without us.

Why would Jesus do this? Why ask someone to take steps before they know where they’re going? It’s certainly not to find something that their intelligence, wit or tenacity alone could lead them to ‘cause then what would be the point of following Jesus or anyone else? Following Jesus is not akin to a treasure hunt where vague clues combine with specific knowledge of the landscape and result in pointing you in the right direction. To extend the analogy, you’re not in search of treasure or God himself, for that matter. You are, for some inexplicable reason, the treasure and God has found you.

With that, Jesus can confidently say to the curb-sitters; all of us who are risk-adverse, come and you will see. And the best part: his invitation doesn’t leave us with cold clammy hands, breaking out in a nervous sweat. Because we know we’re already found in him and now in following we can set-out in search of the ever pregnant and growing promise of the not-yet. Jesus, where are we going? Where will you lead? Will I find purpose, healing, rest there?

Faith precedes understanding. It takes a few steps into faith before we can ask what’d I get myself into? And God intended it this way. Faith requires having skin in the game. In Christian faith, there exists a preamble of trust with which the disciple ventures out to follow Jesus. Before all else, discipleship is a proper exercise in trust; that what we believe about God will determine if we can cross the street without looking both ways. After all it’s not so much about where we’re going, as it is about who we’re with.

Mowing Lawns at Midnight

I have 20 minutes this morning. From the moment I ply my two year old son with Cheerios and picture books to when he tires of them and lets me know with substantial volume. 20 minutes of silence. 20 minutes of me.

There are some people, who have a difficult time determining where they end and their work begins. Boundaries. I’m not one of those people. I’m not a workaholic. You won’t find me at the office burning the midnight oil, mostly because I don’t have an office.

I’m a church planter. A church planter doesn’t have a 9 to 5 and therefore a church planter doesn’t have a 9 to 5 to flout. There are no regular hours that would mark a reasonable expectation of work accomplished. For the church planter, there are no regular hours to exceed. There’s no such thing as overtime because there’s no defined time to work over. The truth is a church planter cannot over work. You won’t find a church planter “staying late”, precisely, because they never leave work.

So much of what we do is intrinsically tied in to who we are.

A friend of mine once shared how ridiculous the life of a church planter can appear to onlookers. My friend was in the first year of a fast-growing independent plant and he had been burning the candle on both ends. Services needed to be planned. Sermons needed to be written. People had to be visited. He was routinely up before dawn and regularly returning home after 10pm. Chores around the house were piling up and his to-do list was growing fast, as was the grass in his front and backyard.

On several occasions, returning home after work, and after dark my friend took to mowing his lawn with a flashlight held high above his head. With one arm wrestling the self-propelled mower and the other lighting his way, it wasn’t long before he met the burning stares of his neighbours. And with that, the absurdity of his work/life balance.

Something tells me this wasn’t what Jesus meant when he said, “Let your light shine before others, that they might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

“The most tragic thing,” my friend said, “…about mowing my lawn at 10pm is now that’s what I’m known for. To my neighbours, I’m the guy who pastors people and tends to their spiritual care and wellbeing, only I’m also the guy who doesn’t know how to punch out his time card. All work and no play. It’s effected my witness.”

It’s true, it isn’t exactly a picture of the abundant life, is it? It’s not Christian witness at its best.

Hey everyone, come and see Jesus at work in me… at work doing lawn care at some ungodly hour!

My planter/pastor friend understands what a lop-sided, imbalanced work/life conveys about the gospel. Namely, that it’s not enough – that you can follow Jesus and yet have your life say it’s not enough. There’s a particular kind of striving that Christians, most notably church planters and pastors, seem to have mastered. The innocuous need to catch up on some work or go in on Saturday or the quizzical ministry mantra of being all things to all people in a consumer culture (1 Cor 9:22) – a burdensome prospect to be sure (something tells me this wasn’t what Paul meant). The malcontent of one who compulsively works to prove their worthiness of Jesus’ love, it appears in mowed lawns at midnight, in the cot beside the desk or the incandescent glow of a computer screen from the study. These are the excesses of not trusting that Jesus Christ is enough.

My friend’s working to change how he works, how he plants churches and pastors people. And so am I. Thankfully the kingdom of God does not solely depend on his, or any one of our much-to-be-desired previews of it. We’re learning to work and live from God’s love and acceptance, as opposed to for God’s love and acceptance.

I identify deeply with my work. In fact, it’s a constant challenge to remind myself that I am not only what I preach, not only the sum of my pastoral care, not only the efficacy of my leadership.

While suggestions of finding a work/life balance might still be drowned out in laughter by planters and pastors like myself, I’m optimistic that we can find a rhythm of work/life that honors the life of Jesus at work in us.

In The Wilderness

I live a 10 minute bike-ride from a sprawling Migratory Bird Sanctuary. It’s one of the places I go to find a little sanctuary of my own. 300 hectares of managed wetlands, marshes and low-dykes in the Fraser River Estuary. It’s a local treasure, right in our backyard.

On my way this morning, over the Westham Island bridge, mid-span I happened upon a pair of pristine Mute Swans. They wandered together, aimless, parallel to and then under the bridge. With their heads up just right they carried over the water as if it was all theirs.

Moments like this; I’m witness to the Creator’s love. It’s like I see what Gerard Manley Hopkins’ described as ‘“bright wings” of the Holy Spirit over the bent world’, and I find exactly what I need. Two Mute Swans travelling together is a quiet reminder. God is in the wilderness. Or maybe better, this is where he finds me quite easily.

The wilderness, has always been for me, a place of revelation and reception. I’ve always felt welcome there, taken in, greeted, even addressed. By whom? Well, the Creator I suppose. Perhaps, I enjoy the wilderness because I’ve never been without the prospect of returning to a civilized and well-settled world. Nevertheless, I find what I need in the wilderness.

Having preached through the book of Exodus last year and learning about what the wilderness signified to Israel, I’m reminded of all the ways God speaks to me through his creation. Whenever I’ve had the chance to travel through his creation, whether in my youth, backpacking after high school; bounding across the red cliffs of Kalbarri, spotting dolphins in northwestern Australia, prayer walking the dykes of the North Alouette River in Maple Ridge in my 20s and finding otters and beavers, observing these swans today.

His voice is unmistakably wild.

To ancient Israel, the wilderness, midbar, though also known to be hostile and unhospitable, represents the place from which God speaks to his people. In fact, in the Hebrew lexicon the words for ‘wilderness’, midbar and ‘word’, dabar, share the same root. Further, the Hebrew word for “speaking,” me-dabber and the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, have the same letters.

There’s something here.

Moses, as he sang of Israel’s election by God in Deuteronomy, sets the scene amidst the wilds of the vast Sinai.

“He [God] found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him,” (Deut 32:10).

When the Israelites were taken into captivity, in Egypt and then later occupied by Babylon they were exposed to all kinds of clinging things that threatened to deafen them to God’s voice; idol worship, immorality, barbarism etc. Israel was intended to be a people called by God to be his own and in trying to be faithful to this call Israel, over a lot of miles, became freighted with all kinds of sin. Things that corrupted and clung.

However, in all of Israel’s going out and coming in there came a familiarity in the wilds; a familiarity with God’s speaking. A voice, Elijah discovers and we’re told, that was not in the wind, earthquake or fire but in the sound of a low whisper. “What are you doing here?” asks Yahweh (1 Kings 19:13).

God encounters his people in the wilderness.

In all my own rambling, journeying with Christ, I have seldom heard this voice clearer than in the wilderness. When I’m encountered by God here I have often already amassed a sizeable web of things that cling. Those sins that don’t cause to much of a fuss and that’s precisely the problem. The small yet significant anxieties, the fearful insecurities, the preoccupations with material things, the terminal comparisons to others that pastors are especially good at.

It can all dissolve with just one word. One low whisper. “What are you doing here?”

We are freighted travellers aren’t we? Carrying with us so much of what entangles. But somewhere between the breaking dawn and the fading sun, we catch a glimpse, or hear it, even faintly, hovering over the waters – God’s speaking.

I’ve Got News

I overshare. Not with complete strangers, mind you. But if someone familiar gives me a conversant inch with an affirming “I hear you!” I’ll take a mile of eye contact and attentive “ya knows?” I like to talk, albeit as an introvert. I’m not particularly good at conversation either. My StrengthsFinder Woo Factor leaves much to be desired. I l simply like to convey ideas, experiences and feelings in hope that it might engender something of equal or greater interest in the dosey-do of dialogue. It’s something I do at home, church, cocktail parties, and the gym. I know I do it, I don’t even care I do it –  unless the recipient of my effusive explanation of why I prefer early AM workouts to evenings (because…indigestion, man) suddenly notices the cardio machines came with the membership and you can conveniently use them whenever you like (…alright, ttyl).

 

My proclivity to speech sets me up well as a pastor and (I think) an evangelist – though I’m not a closer. Never have been. I’m here for the company and conversation. All the ripe and ready seekers in my life would probably attest to that. I don’t even know the Sinner’s Prayer (aren’t all prayers Sinner’s Prayers?). I tend to leave a lot of room for the Holy Spirit to double down with classic illustrations of the Bridge to Life, pardon in the eternal court room, and The Roman Road.

 

Nevertheless, I enjoy talking about Jesus, and in doing so I can’t help share the gospel of his life, death and resurrection. Missiologist and author, Lesslie Newbigin explains what it means that the gospel can truly be referred to as good news.

 

The gospel is – by definition – news. It is something new. When we are confronted by something new we can only grasp it by trying to relate it to what we already know. This may be less or more difficult. Some “news” is quickly seen to be not so new after all; it is a foreseeable development of the existing situation. Some news is more startling. We could not have expected it. But now that it has happened we set to work to integrate it into what we already know, so that it does not totally upset our previous way of understanding things.

 

One of a few New Year’s resolutions I made was to write more in 2018. So here it goes. I would venture that the joy I’ve typically experienced in writing has come from a similar place as my tendency to TMI. God gave me the desire to convey ideas, experiences and feelings but something about blogging has always left me with a bad taste; as if in trying too hard to say something new, I would nearly always end up saying nothing at all (cue the Teacher, ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”) But here’s the thing: the gospel is news! I’ve got news…good news.

 

So I resolve, here, before you three readers (if I’m lucky) to write the good news, to animate it’s novelty and enliven its reception in my life. This year I will write in hope, that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus would lend itself to redemptive oversharing. Wherein a word count full of imperfections: sentence fragments, dangling modifiers and insensitivities (they’re inevitable, but seriously I’m an enneagram 9, so, sorry!), I might somehow write words that twirl, and bind, and wrap and stick into an authentic expression of this startling news of Jesus. This is a lot to ask from a blog. I know.

But, what’s new? Jesus. He’s all the good news I got.