Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Am I in a Job, Jonah or Joseph season?

As a pastor I talk every day with people who are asking what it  means to be faithful in their current season of life. Often times the season is a challenging one. More often it is more winter and fall than summer and spring. People very seldom ask to meet with you to tell you how well they are doing. So the nature of the job is to try and discern what kind of season they are in and to help them live  faithfully to God in that season.

This is why the famous  Ecclesiastes 3 passage that begins, There is a time for every season under heaven, is so powerful pastorally. As the philosopher Blaise Pascale said, "Our problem is that we so seldom live fully in the present." We either live in the past, in regret or nostalgia, hankering after the good old days. Or we plan, dream and worry for the future, believing that this will usher in better days. This essentially causes  us to waste God's precious time. If He is at work in all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, surely that includes all times and seasons?

But if I am to be faithful to God in each season, how do I discern which season I am in and the appropriate way to live in it? Especially if it is a season I'd rather not be in, how do I get out of it?
The short answer is, that we need to get through it to get out of it. We need to ask God what He is wanting us to learn so that we can learn the lesson and hopefully move on.

With that in mind, I have found it helpful to ask whether a person's situation is more similar to that of Job, Jonah or Joseph. It may sound simplistic, but it's a helpful place to start. By the way, The J's are honestly not intentional!

Job was in his season of loss and pain because of his righteousness rather than his sin. There was a ruthless testing of his faith in and worship of, God, which began in the heart of satan but was allowed by the hand of God. Repentance was not the solution to the season. It was humble faith and worship. Sometimes the people of God suffer for no apparent reason. It makes no sense, but God is simply asking the question, "Will you still love me for me, if I remove the things I have given you for a time?" It is essentially a storm of righteousness.

Then there is Jonah. Jonah went through a storm of rebellion. He had refused God's commission to go and preach repentance to a city he hated. He ran in the opposite direction. So God sent a storm. Jonah tried to sleep the storm away, but to no avail. It got worse. What brought the storm to a whisper, was Jonah repenting by jumping off his ship of rebellion. Sometimes people find themselves in such a storm, and it requires gutsy honesty to admit that it is the result of sin, and requires radical repentance and obedience. The ensuing season change is often dramatic.

All to often though, I find that people's situations don't fit as neatly into one or the other extreme. They are not suffering simply because of righteousness, nor simply because of rebellion. They are neither like Job or Jonah. This is where I find the character of Joseph to be the most helpful one for understanding how God redeems difficult seasons. Joseph was a dreamer with a big future. But he was arrogant and enjoyed being his father's favorite son. His brothers resented him, and you can understand their resentment. But when their plan unfolds to kill him and he ends up getting left for dead and sold into slavery, one feels that the punishment doesn't match the crime. Sure he had some things to repent of, but there was something, or rather Someone greater at work in his being sent to Egypt. God was Sovereignly working, even through Joseph's arrogance and his brother's resentment, to fulfill His purposes. Joseph got it eventually and this is why he was able to forgive his brothers at the end of the story.  "Do not be distressed by what you have done to me. It was for saving lives that God sent me ahead of you... What you intended for harm God intended for good, for the saving of many lives." Gen 45, 50. Joseph acknowledged that although sin was involved, it was ultimately God who sent him to Egypt to fulfill His purposes.

So our job as pastors and leaders is to help people ask firstly,"What have I done to get me into this season, for which I can repent?"
And secondly, "How can I co-operate with what God is Sovereignly doing in this season, for the sake His grand purposes?"Often we seldom fully understand God's hand in a difficult season, we can help people to trust His heart behind His hand.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Keep Shosholoza. Lose the Vuvuzela

I love watching South African sport. Even though the USA is home for us, I remain an ardent supporter  of South Africa's rugby, cricket and soccer teams and keep a close track of their progress. S.A's sports teams  have always been known for their courage and passion. What they sometimes lack in clinical strategy, they make up for with their gutsy, do-or-die attitude and a high view of team over the individual. Often their best wins have been against-all-odds performances when their backs were against a wall.

Their supporters are some of the most passionate, colorful and vocal in the world. I still get chills when I hear them sing the National Anthem, and watch a whole stadium vibrate with the rhythm and tone of the great African folk song, Shosholoza. Simply unmatched, anywhere in the world.

The one phenomena that detracts from the enjoyment of watching South African sports for me though,  is a phenomena called  the Vuvuzela. It's a long plastic trumpet, that when blown by thousands, simply sounds like a swarm of bees. And when the monotonous drone is heard for a whole game through TV speakers, it becomes unbearable. Like nails scraping on a chalk board.

In fact, when South Africa hosted the Soccer World Cup in 2010, there were complaints from all around the world that viewers couldn't get through a whole match with the sound of the Vuvuzelas constantly droning in the background. Millions of people just pressed mute on their TV sets, and so the  festival atmosphere of the South African stadiums; the singing, chanting, cheering, dancing, was lost by the many spectators. Some stadiums banned the infamous Vuvuzela after the World Cup,  but watching the recent Springboks thumping of Argentina, the Vuvuzela is clearly back with a vengeance.

This is not the end of the world of course, but for me it may be a powerful metaphor when it comes to the South African diaspora of the last 20 years. While many 'Saffers may have moved to other nations out of fear or desire for comfort, countless others have moved because of a genuine desire to make a difference. From a Biblical point of view, many of my friends have left the comfort and convenience of home because of The Great Commission, and I've seen God do some remarkable things because of their obedience.

However, I've noticed at times that the best of the South African ethos can be obscured by cultural inflexibility. Kind of like a Vuvuzela drowning out Shosholoza . You may protest, "But that's our heritage." I would simply ask, "Is it helpful or harmful in exporting the essence of who we are?"

Having lived in the USA for 6 years now, I've seen it with numerous South Africans who have come to live here. I've also observed similar phenomena in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Asia  when I've visited there. The pioneering spirit, the gutsy faith, the sacrificial heart and warm hospitality sometimes get obscured by cultural sentiment. Why?

Because of our  unwillingness to give up expressions of Christianity that are culturally nuanced, but that we claim are  biblically universal. Attitudes towards authority, gender, race, conflict, and organization are most often the areas of cultural conflict. Our journey has been one of learning to be culturally flexible while remaining biblically faithful. It's not an exact science and we've made some pretty glaring errors at times. It's vital that we make the effort though.

I believe that for South Africans,  a willingness to add planning to passion, theology to faith,  diplomacy to integrity and humility to authority, are some keys to learning to thrive in 1st world environments. We have such a rich spiritual heritage, and some beautiful cultural customs to go with it. We need God's wisdom as we go though, so that the Vuvuzela doesn't drown out Shosholoza.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Truth in Tension.

Most leaders know and love the promise in Isaiah 54 where God says, ‘Enlarge the place of your dwelling, for you will spread out to the right and the left.’ It speaks of expansion, growth, and multiplication. However, many ignore the little precursor to the promise, in which God counsels, “Lengthen your chords, strengthen your stakes. ” Using the metaphor of a tent, God is saying that for enlargement  to take place in a sustainable way, we will need longer tent chords and  stronger stakes.
In other words,  greater growth will require greater tension.

Andy Stanley, alludes to this in his book Deep and Wide. “Most situations in church are not problems to solve. They are tensions to manage.” When leaders have an aversion to tension, they tend towards simplistic solutions to any situation that challenges the status quo. They try and resolve that which is not meant to be resolved. This invariably means that they have a smaller tent or sphere of influence. The idea of healthy tension can apply to finance, vision, relationships and administration. Growth places a healthy tension upon all of these. But I want to look specifically at managing  truth in tension as a precursor to expansion.

Not all truth is truth in tension. Hundreds of thousands of Christians are martyred every year for their faith in Jesus. There may not be many truths that are ‘hills to die on’, but there should be some that we are so deeply convicted about that we say like Martin Luther and countless others, “Here I stand I can do no other. The 5 Solas of the Reformation are a good place to start. Sola Fide. We are justified by faith alone. We do not hold faith in tension with good works when it comes to salvation. We are saved by faith for good works, not by good works. Sola Gracia. We are saved by grace alone. We do not hold grace in tension with the law. We treasure grace because we know that we are law breakers. Sola Scriptura. The Holy Scriptures are God’s inspired self- revelation. Although He also reveals Himself through nature, and culture and reason, the Scriptures tower over every other revelation as God’s final authority for all life and doctrine. Sola Christo. All of Scripture points ultimately to Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world.  He is not held in tension with any other philosophy or deity. He is all-sufficient and all-supreme. Sola Deo Gloria. Although God has crowned man with glory and honor, His glory is all-surpassing, and any glory that creation possesses, ultimately reflects the glory of the Creator.

As I said, not all truth is truth in tension.
There should be some truths which are hills to die on.

But most truth is truth in tension. It is not simply a stake we hammer into the ground. It is managing the tension between too seemingly opposing truths. As we manage this tension, we create a safe and sane space in which people can live with freedom and conviction. This is a key to expansion.
There are many leaders who are people of great conviction, but who refuse to manage truth in tension. This is ultimately an enemy to growth and expansion.

Here 7 truths in tension which we are trying to manage well as a community.

1. Grace and Truth
Jesus came full of grace and truth. It wasn’t a little bit of both. It was full doses of both. In fact, grace makes no sense unless we have heard the truth that we have sinned and are in need of a Savior.
We want to be kind and generous in the way we think and speak about others whether they agree or disagree with us, while also clearly communicating what we believe and why we believe it.
Building around truth without grace leads to condemnation. Building around grace without truth leads to license; what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.
Grace and truth call people to repent, but allow them space and time to work out their repentance. Grace and Truth allow people to belong before they believe or know how to behave. They call everyone to enjoy the pleasure of God in Jesus Christ, even while they are in the process of becoming like Him. Living in Grace and Truth will mean less policies and more conversations.

2.Faithfulness and flexibility– we want to be faithful guardians of an unchanging message about the person and work of Jesus, and the need for personal salvation and sanctification, while also adapting ways of worship, teaching, being church and doing mission according to culture and context. We also want to be faithful stewards of what God has done in the past in our community, while leaning into the new things that God is doing.

3. Charismatic and Evangelistic
We want to be a community reliant on the power and leading of the Holy Spirit so that we can be bold witnesses of Jesus in order that people may be saved. Although we recognize that the Holy Spirit’s gifts are also for the encouragement of the Church, we will be will be watchful and willing to give up  cultural charismatic vocabulary and traditions that may in some way hinder the expansion of the Gospel.

4. Communal and Missional
We want to see the church become a missionary movement to love and reach the lost, to care for the poor and to bring justice to our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and nations, while also being a grace-filled community in which people can find relationship, healing, and hope. We do not want to neglect the gathering of the believers in our quest to reach the world. “After we have done our best to communicate to a lost world, still we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians.” Francis Schaeffer

5. Now and Not Yet - we want to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to see that confirmed by miraculous signs and wonders, while also ministering grace to all, knowing that suffering will be part of life until
Christ returns.

6. Transcendence & Presence – We want to live lives that celebrate God’s awesome power, transcendent majesty and sovereign work, while at the same time experiencing his intimate presence and power. We also want to be in the world but not of it,  like Jesus, who ‘took on flesh and dwelt among us,’ but who was without sin. We know that true religion is to look after widows and orphans but also to avoid being stained by the world.

7. Unity and Diversity – we want to maintain the unity of the Spirit while we attain to the unity of the faith. While there are some truths which are foundational to the life of our community,  many are at different places on the continuum of these truths in tension. Unity does not equal conformity. It simply requires that we all keep learning, moving and growing in humility as we follow Christ together.

(Acknowledgement to New Wine Network and Andy Stanley’s ‘Deep and Wide’ for some of these.)