Thursday, July 5, 2018

Jacob, Esau and Acting like Men.

There's a true story about two brothers in the book of Genesis. The older brother was an Alpha male. He was a hunter with a big appetite for food and the outdoors. He was hairy.  He was his Dad's favorite son because he kept the pantry well stocked with game. His name was Esau. The younger brother was a more sensitive soul. His skin was smooth and he preferred hanging out with his Mama to hunting out in the fields. His Mama loved him because he was great in the kitchen. He was the proverbial metro-man. His name was Jacob and he was scary smart. 

One day Jacob was cooking when Esau came in famished after a day of hunting. He begged his younger brother for some of the stew he was cooking, and knowing that his older brother would get the whole family inheritance, Jacob decided to make an outrageous proposal. "Swear to me that you'll give me your inheritance for this bowl of stew." Esau was too starving to think straight, so he made a short-sighted promise and wolfed down the stew. Scary smart meets crazy stupid.  

Jacob never forgot that promise. Like a sleazy lawyer hanging around car crashes to build a business, he waited for his opportune time to cash in. His time came when he heard his father was on his death bed. Dressing himself in skins so that he felt and smelt like Esau, he brought in his father's his death bed meal, pretended to be Esau and stole his brother's birthright. What's more outrageous is that God verified the blessing. Isaac received Jacob's blessing and Esau's birthright from Isaac and ultimately became one of Israel's patriarchs.

Now if we were applying a purely cultural template here, we'd be forgiven for thinking this is the Biblical version of Revenge of the Nerds. Esau the strong, brave, dumb jock gets outsmarted by his weak, smart, nerd brother. Brains triumphs over brawn. Bill Gates wins and O.J. Simpson loses. 

At least that's how an older friend of mine sees things going down in American culture when it comes to masculinity. "Our culture has been feminized. We're raising weak, man-scaped, lisp-talking men who don't know how to work a jack hammer, shoot a gun or grow a beard. There's no place for  real men these days." I think he may have a point, but when I raise this with another younger friend who loves books, pour-over coffee, jazz and wears skinny jeans, he insists, "The playing field of power still slants towards classic definitions of masculinity. To be a man in our culture still means to be a jock and my generation is kicking against that narrow definition." 

So where do we go from here in our quest to act like men?

I suppose we start by admitting that the Jacob and Esau story is not firstly about becoming God's man. It's firstly about knowing God's grace. God sovereignly chose social outcasts to be in Jesus' lineage to  demonstrate that He came for the poor in spirit. God chose pagans, adulterers, prostitutes and immigrants to be in the lineage of His Son. Not to mention domesticated Mama's boys. His grace is not just for the the first born with the birthright. It's for the runt of the litter in this world. 

That said, I think we can learn something about masculinity from Jacob and Esau. We can learn that God's vision of manhood is not as narrow as ours. Esau's hunting skills and hairiness weren't enough to get him chosen. Jacob's lack of those qualities weren't enough to get him un-chosen. But each man had his own unique strengths with corresponding temptations, and part of acting like a man means that we need to be aware of these in ourselves. 

Esau was brave, strong, passionate and short-sighted. He sold his whole birthright for one meal. And it wasn't even meat stew! It was a bowl of lentils! Hebrews 12 warns us of the sin of Esau as sexual temptation. Some of us will be tempted to swap everything we have for one fleeting moment of pleasure. This is not limited to hunters and jocks, but if we have an Esau appetite we need to beware as men. Being an Esau kind of man is to celebrate having a strong, visceral approach to life, but to realize we could lose our inheritance because of it.

Jacob was too shrewd to fall into Esau's temptation. His temptation was relying on his own shrewdness to get ahead. His name meant trickster. And there was a moment when God dealt with his temptation. Jacob wrestled with God, who put his hip out of joint and gave him a limp. God changed his name from trickster to one who wrestles with God. Jacob didn't lose his street smarts. But he learned to lean on God like he leaned on his cane.   

Perhaps that's what we can learn from Jacob and Esau. God has made us men with resident strengths and corresponding temptations. All men are in common in this regard. Becoming aware of these strengths and corresponding temptations in order to resist them,  may be what it means to act like men by God's grace.  

*Southlands men go away on a retreat this coming weak to explore what it means to Act Like Men. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

At Home in Exile: rambling thoughts on a long flight home.

Sitting here in Dubai airport on the way home from Durban to Los Angeles, I realize this is the first time I've been alone in 2 weeks. I've left Rynelle in South Africa to spend some quality time with her Mom for a few more days as I fly home to our kiddos and church family. It's been a beautiful whirlwind traveling with Brett and Kira McCracken, but I'm savoring a moment of solitude. Between us, we spoke 20 times in 8 days in Cape Town and Johannesburg in various forums. The churches in our Advance family received us with such warmth and enthusiasm, it was a joy to invest in them. A few days in Durban catching up with family and friends crowned a rich trip and now I'm reflecting on what I come back with. 

Yesterday, on the day I said goodbye to my family, my CBR reading was the often-quoted Jeremiah 29:11, "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans for a hope and for a future." God the Father conspires for the good of His people. His plans are not always apparent to us, but He knows what they are and assures us that they are always and only good no matter how dark our days become. I unashamedly own this anchoring promise as I fly home for myself,  my family and my church. You should too.

However, lest I become trigger happy with God's good promise, I notice that it comes with a context and a condition that means we should take careful aim. The context of the promise was to Israel in Babylonian exile. They would still be in exile for another 70 years, away from their temple, their king and their homeland. God is strong enough to send His people into exile and prosper them there. Those are not the plans I would have hatched to prosper a people, but then again, I am not God. The condition of the promise was that they were to "pray for and seek the peace and prosperity of their place of exile, for in that they too would prosper." This condition involved both enemy love and a break from living in limbo, stuck in their longing for their homeland. God's people were to be fully present in exile, building houses, planting vineyards, marrying and multiplying. They were to put down roots in order to thrive in exile. They were to treat their place of exile like a home away from home. These were God's good plans for His people in exile. 

Every Christian is called to live this way in the world. This world is not our true homeland. Heaven is our true country and from it we await our true King.  But we are called to practice permanence, seeking the peace and prosperity of the places we are sent even though we are not from here

There are at least two more layers of meaning in this passage for me though.

The first is that longing for our homeland can be about another era rather than about another place. I hanker after a more certain, more settled time, when I knew how to navigate my way around better. In our cultural moment it feels as though we are learning to drive in a new country on the other side of the road. So much feels disorientating and there is a temptation to turn the car around and high tail it back towards the border and familiarity. 

Many of us long for the days when Christians were in the moral majority, when this nation agreed upon a Biblical moral compass. Yet now we seem to be in the minority and the national compass points in another direction. This is highly regrettable, and I empathize with a longing for more familiar days.  Could it be though, that God is calling His people to be a prophetic minority in exile, like Daniel in Babylon, rather than a moral majority? Can He not still bless us as a prophetic minority?

At a local level, some of us long for the familiar days of one church, one community, yet now we are one church in four communities. This too, can feel like exile. Could it be that God is strong enough to make us thrive here in our unfamiliar new normal?  Could it be that he is warning us against nostalgia that sucks the life out of the present and hope out of the future? 

The second layer is more personal for me.  While America is my home, it is my adopted home. This means that it can feel exilic at times, even though my roots are gratefully dug down deep here.  I have loved and learned so much from America - its proud patriotism, it's strategic influence, its constant innovation, its lavish generosity, its ability to show compassion for the weak, to dream big, to execute a plan, to stand for individual conviction. These values have shaped me deeply and profoundly.

But I've also been shaped by some values I was raised with in South Africa that seem at times to cut across the very fabric of what America most values. Hospitality. Loyalty. Encouragement. The ability to sacrifice individual dreams for a collective dream. The ability to be flexible with personal boundaries. The ability to disagree, yet stick together. I must qualify. These qualities are not absent from America. They simply tend not to be dominant in my experience. No human culture represents God's values completely. South Africa certainly has some major cultural blind spots. But while these values seem to resonate with God's heart and mine, they seem to cut across the grain of the place I call home. Perhaps some of them are the cohesive threads that America needs lest its individualism causes the fabric to unravel? I return intent on cultivating these values where I am planted, even if they seem exotic - not because they are South African values - but because they are Kingdom values.

All of us have those moments when some person or some place lets us know, "You're not from here, are you?" What do we do in those exile moments? We train our souls on Jesus, who left his homeland in heaven to take up residence as an exile here on earth. He was cut off from his eternal home to secure ours. We turn to Him for wisdom and courage to be at home in exile.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Doheny Wave: A Parable of Church Sending and Leaving

I grew up in Durban, proudly known as Surf City South Africa, but only learned to surf when I was in my late 20’s. I brought two surf boards with me to the USA, and of course, everyone told me that Huntington Beach was the spot to surf. I had no way of anticipating the territorial agro of the locals, who guarded their wave like a gang guards their turf. I remember my friend Donnie having to break up a fight between two guys in their 50’s because one guy dropped in on the other guy’s wave. This was a far cry from Durban’s chill surfing scene. 

When I turned 40 my friends clubbed together and bought me a stand-up paddle board. I gradually learned to surf on it but realized it was better suited to a longer, slower wave. It took some humility to take the counsel of other stand up paddle boarders to go further south to Old Man’s(seriously!) near San Clemente, but in truth, that’s where I learned to ‘SUP,’ as they say. Later on I discovered an even better SUP wave just further North of Old Man’s called Doheny in a protected bay next door to Dana Point’s Yacht club. Doheny is a long, curling right, reef break and the hammer shaped pier separates surfers from paddle boarder’s in order to keep the peace. 

Peace was the order of the day at Doheny. It was such a far cry from the cussing and clawing of Huntington Beach, it was worth the extra 15 minute drive. Doheny has these iconic photos of multiple surfers riding the same wave from the 50’s . One guy has a lady on his shoulders, the other has his dog on the board with him, the other guy is hanging ten on the front end. It’s like something out of an old Beach Boys music video. In fact, I’m told they actually shot a beach Boy’s video at Doheny once. 

The thing is though, that while I prefer the communal peace vibe of the Doheny wave to the turf war of the HB wave, sometimes it can get in the way of universal surfing protocol, which goes as follows: the person closest to the inside of the wave, which if you are surfing right is the person on the left, has right of way. This is because they are closest to the pocket, which is the most powerful part of the wave. So, while it may be Doheny Protocol to have multiple surfers on a wave, the surfers should not drop in on the surfer on the inside. They need to be widely spaced enough so as not to impede the surfer who is travelling at higher velocity than they are because he or she took off from the pocket. I am neither territorial nor aggressive in the water. But I am focussed! I’ve had one too many entanglements with people who abuse the gracious Doheny wave by ignoring universal surf protocol, the last of which was a guy wearing a crash helmet while he paddled! 

There is a parable here for the medium-sized multiplying church, and it has to do with church sending versus church leaving. As a church, we try to be far more Doheny than HB with people when they want to leave the church. It’s certainly one of the most painful parts of leading a church, but it’s a part you have to embrace. For various reasons, from time to time, folk feel like they have to move on. Sometimes it’s simple reasons like moving city or state for a job or because houses are cheaper elsewhere. Other times it’s more complex, like we just feel our season is coming to an end here. This normally means there is some pain or disappointment under the surface that is hard to talk about. Other times it is more blatantly conflictual, when people tell you of their disagreement with a doctrine you preach or a direction the church is going in, or a real grievance with a leader or member.  

Whatever the case, one has to try and handle leaving graciously, listening and responding to people’s reasons, and realizing that Jesus is Lord of His Church, not you. People join and people leave church. I think they generally leave way too easily. But it is what it is. 

Where this hurts multiplication though, is in the timing of their leaving, and this is why I use the metaphor of a wave. When you send people out to start a new plant, it is like a wave of going flows through your church. You gear up to train and send a team of valuable servant-missionaries along with some of your most vital leaders, and this is costly. You are aware that they are going to leave significant gaps in the church but you know that others will rise up to fill those gaps. That is part of the pain and beauty of sending. 

But it never fails to surprise me that as you send this team out, gearing up to fill the serving/giving/leading gaps they leave, folk who felt left behind seem to feel the current of the wave too and they come and tell you that they also  feel like God is moving them on to another church. This happens every.single.time - sometimes just a week after you sent the team out to plant! At the same time as some are sent, others just went. And you have to be gracious, because well, we are the Doheny wave, not the HB wave. But the reality is, it impedes the momentum of the sending church. It’s like dropping in on a surfer taking off from the pocket. It’s not going to kill anyone, but it’s clumsy and frustrating. 

On one level I understand it. People have just said good-bye to some of their closest friend and some of their favorite leaders. They feel like they are part of the left behind series. They are now having to be part of a re-building effort at the sending base and some just feel, “This is not what I signed up for. Things just don’t feel the same as they used to. I'm exercising my freedom to go too.” 

And it may well be that they will go to another church and thrive. Jesus’ mission is greater than any one local church. But the fact is that it makes recovery from multiplication more painstaking. 

This is why I always take time to describe the kind of church we are to newcomers who are considering becoming members. I say, “Understand that you are coming to a multiplying church, which means both warm hellos and sad good-byes. Count the cost of being a community on mission before you join. And when we send, that is ideally the time for the rest of us to stay and re-build.”

There are times when the clumsiness of the Doheny wave makes me want to be more like a Huntington Beach surfer. But then I realize that my local church is not ultimately my turf to guard. It’s Jesus’ turf to guard. And also, that there are many more waves where that came from.