Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Our Longing for a Thin place.

 I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of the term Thin Place? It sounds to me like a health club serving kale smoothies or a beach where skinny people hangout, but it’s not. The Celtic Christians had an ancient saying that, “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart but in thin places they are even closer together.” They spoke of remote, wind swept regions like the Isle of Iona as Thin Places. They were sacred spaces where the presence of God seemed nearer and they felt like they had come home. Have you ever been in a place like that? You might feel like Yosemite or the Santiago Trails or the Himalayas are thin places.  Perhaps it's somewhere closer to home like the Fullerton Trails or San Onofre Beach. For some mysterious reason the veil between heaven and earth seems more flimsy in these places. Until other tourists discover what we've discovered, that is, and then we have to find a new thin place. Perhaps at the heart of our wanderlust is our yearning for a thin place.

More than a place per se, we are hard wired with longing for the presence of God, which makes us restless creatures. It is not enough for us that God is generally present in the world. We want God to show up in His special presence. Augustine, the 1st Century Church father prayed, "Almighty God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You." The presence of God is our greatest need. It is the need beneath our felt needs. More than a better job, a bigger house, a healthier marriage or a fitter body, we need the presence of God. We yearn to walk with God in the cool of the day like our first parents did in Eden. 

The problem about our yearning is that our first parents were banished from the presence of God after the fall. 'He drove out the man, and at the East of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen 3:24) As sons and daughters of Adam and Eve we find ourselves East of Eden, exiled from the presence of God, restlessly trying to find our way back home. John Steinbeck who wrote the book East of Eden, often explored this theme of exile."As humans we have an incurable virus of restlessness, the urge to be Some Place Else."

This is why I love the building of the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus. The word tabernacle means dwelling place. God had redeemed and rescued His people out of Egypt. He'd given them his Law at Mount Sinai. But now He was coming to dwell with them in a ram skin tent. "Let them make me a tabernacle that I may dwell in their midst."(25:8) The God of Passover blood, Red Sea rescue and Mt. Sinai fire came to dwell with His people in the tent of meeting.  

The Tabernacle became Israel's thin place. After it was set up a cloud rested upon it that was visible to all of Israel.  At night the cloud had a fire within it. Whenever the fiery cloud moved on, Israel would break camp and follow it. Their thin place was not in one place.  God's presence dwelt with them and they moved wherever it led them. 

When Jesus came to earth, John's gospel proclaims, "The Word became flesh  and tabernacled among us." (Jn 1:1) God took up a tent, not of ram skin and purple yarn, but of flesh and blood, of bone and beard. He came to dwell among us, sharing in our weakness, temptations, limitations and grief. His body torn on the cross tore the curtain between the holy place and the holy of holies, so that everyone might come in to the presence of God. Jesus is our new sacrifice, our priest and our tabernacle, making the old ways obsolete. 

Because of Jesus, we will never again be exiled from the presence of God. But we will be sent with the presence of God. J.T. English said that the mission of God is the presence of God in all of creation. God wants his people to make thin places whenever they gather and wherever they go; places where the veil between heaven and earth is flimsy. Can Southlands be such a place and such a people? God is Re-Edening his world with his presence through us. "Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations...and surely I will be with you to the very end of the age."

If you missed Sunday's message on the Tabernacle you can click below to view it.

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.