Saturday, January 30, 2016

Rise Up, O Church of God!

A challenge to churches to rise up to their calling

Often a friend of mine tells the story about when his wife became a Christian, "She started reading the Bible in Genesis and began to get bogged down. I told her to skip all that and start with Matthew." Sometimes I wonder if his wife ever got horribly confused to begin reading the story three-quarters of the way through. It would be like reading The Magician's Nephew first on your initial reading of The Chronicles of Narnia. Yes, you would see how Narnia began, but the significance of many seemingly arbitrary pieces of the story would be lost on you until you read the rest of the series.

I've wondered if my friend's wife ever went back and read the old covenant parts of the Bible. Are there things that still seem puzzling or arbitrary to her—even now—because she is missing so much of the story? Sadly, I don't expect the church to have taught enough from that first chunk of Scripture for the connections to be made. Nor do I expect, with a husband battling cancer and two high-energy children, that my friend makes the effort to figure out the Old Testament on her own. She has been told it is difficult to understand, that it is boring and outmoded—why devote what little time she does have to something like that?

Many churches across America do Christians a disservice with these well-worn lines. From implying that—or saying straight out—"The Old Testament is boring," to playing only upbeat closing songs, churches are defrauding their members. They are giving people the Instagram version of God, His word, and the set-apart life. Too many churches focus on the sentimental aspects of God's character, read mostly the New Testament or “practical” Old Testament books, drive worship by emotion—rather than emotions by worship and thanksgiving—and offer no place of refuge, silence, and healing.

Real life in a fallen world includes cluttered minds, broken hearts, and deep sorrows. We cheapen words like “grief” and “tragedy” through hyperbole and overuse, and so have no language to lament with those who experience tragic loss when it comes. How does the church help people who are grieving? Pointing hurting people to professional counselling is good and loving, but what about training up a body of wise, kind, and honest counsellors to help one another? Churches could teach people truth—the good, the hard, even the ugly; they could teach people the value of life, the good of life, and what weather-all-Hell's-darts love looks like in daily words and actions.

What if churches taught God's story from the beginning? Then people would know how catastrophic the Ffall was; would see its sinewy hands reaching long fingers out into every part of God's story that it could; would see how desperately God's people tried and failed—and tried harder and still failed—and how utterly wretched they would always be until the promised Messiah came. Then we might understand why the Incarnation was so monumental, pivotal, in the narrative—because after bondage, struggle, failure, and darkness, the Light dawned, the captives were set free, and God's people were given a Saviour who would succeed. We might see that the Cross truly is the crux of the story, and that our lives and times flow directly out of that turning point in history. We might begin to understand that God is making all things new, which means this earth as well as human beings—and what we do now matters for eternity in a way that keeps us from being apathetic Nihilists.

What if churches allowed silence in their worship—no background music, no mere twenty seconds to pray silently—but minutes of silence to enter into the presence of God? What would people do if they had to be still—no phones, no talking, no noise to distract their minds? Would we come face-to-face with our mortality, with grief, with our own brokenness, with the overwhelming grace of God which is deeper than all our vilest sins? What if there were no distractions to console or ease our minds? Would we have to stand naked before God in wretchedness and let him begin to heal us?

What if churches regarded their enemies as a threat? "The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries,"1 said Pascal. Diversion—distractions and amusement—are where we seek solace for misery, and irony of ironies, we are made miserable by diversions. They drag our attention from the God who is there—present with us in every moment—putting our minds on what we don't have or making us feel emptier than when we first reached out for those glittering distractions.

Aside from the distractions we choose on our own, we are constantly occupying a space where spiritual hosts of wickedness rule and war. "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."2 What if churches reminded us frequently that we are in a battle; that we must take up the armour given by God; that we must seek refuge in God; and that we must use the word of God as a weapon on the battlefield of our minds, wills, and emotions?

In short, I am issuing a challenge to churches to rise up and take their calling seriously. Be ekklesia "called out ones". Don't be like the world or use its gimmicks—be a training ground for saints, helping us to be holy and presentable to God through Jesus Christ. Let the word of God—old covenant included—order the teaching, not the speaker ordering God's word to do as He wishes. Let us seek lament and silence and raucous joy in turn in worship. Remind us that our enemies are active and that we need protection and proaction. Teach us the truth, and pray for us to speak it with fierce boldness and tender love. Oh that we would see Jesus!


1. Pascal, Blaise, Pensées (Public Domain, Project Gutenberg) 49
2. Ephesians 6:12 (NKJV)

Friday, January 1, 2016


Christmastide is here. Here. Now. This is Christmas. Though the world is weary and rejoicing to have limped through ‘the holidays’, many traditions have just begun celebrating Christmastide after forty days of darkness and fasting. The season of light has dawned, culminating in a day whose very name means manifest or revelation. Light does that very thing, it shows us what we would have walked right past in the darkness; it reveals the shapes we feared in the night as friendly, familiar things; it makes manifest God’s gift of himself to us.

God gives himself to us…The Incarnation still staggers my mind and heart, sometimes to the point where I give up thinking it through. To be honest, near the end of the year work and friend-gatherings reach a raucous tilt and I hold out hard for the airport. I slide into my window seat with a sigh, watch the night glide past, and take a break. The problem is, I take a break from my habits and routines because I am away from home. I often go to bed late and rise late, skip quiet time and journalling, get easily nettled, and skimp on self-control in just about every area. The last week of Advent and most of Christmastide are often spent in self-inflicted semi-darkness. Sure, there are starlight points in the dark skies of my soul, but it often seems like the sun of revelation is suffering a prolonged eclipse.

Unlocking the front door of my cabin the first week of January seems to coincide with the shadow passing from between me and the Light of the world. I slip back into my own skin, my own home, my own habits. The new year stretches before me like a glorious sunrise—I don’t know what the day will hold, but it opens bright and full of hope.

Amidst my dim Christmastide and my looking forward to a fresh year, someone I love dearly mentioned how bleak the coming year looks from this vantage point. She said it seemed like she was stuck in an unyielding cycle that someone else chose for her. There isn’t an end in sight. Now, I can see only hope that the coming year will be better than the last for this belovèd friend, as this year reeked for her. Perhaps I am young and naive, but in my mind, there is an irresistible hope in new years and seasons.

Mid-conversation, I suddenly wondered about the Children of Israel, those between the Old Covenant and the New, those deafened by nearly four hundred years of silence—did they ever lose hope? Did the Messiah seem impossible to them? Obviously they passed down their long-held prophecies and expectations. Mary readily received her role from God, knowing there was to be a Messiah. All of Israel seemed to be peering about for their Saviour throughout the gospels, uncertain if the Man from Galilee could really be the One foretold. They all knew the history, but did they ever get furious that the prophecy sat there, unfulfilled? Did they consistently beg God to defend his name and bring forth the Saviour for these promised people? How many generations were snuffed out in darkness, never seeing the coming Light?

What if my friend never sees the dawn of change, of salvation from this rotten situation in her lifetime? Does God not care? Is God not powerful and kind enough to bring redemption and resolution into a very fractured situation? We talk theology often on this site, but do we believe God intervenes for the unjustly accused, the abandoned, the orphans and the widows? Do we live like God is with us? For the in-the-quiet-darkness Israelites, the Incarnation was hoped for, was yet-to-come, but was never fulfilled. However, we know—we know that God is with us, he has come. He is here and he is not silent. He does not stand aloof nor remain indifferent to our plight. But what is he doing when nothing changes? Theology fails to comfort the abandoned and hurting. Heady discussions aren’t the equivalent of the Holy Spirit changing hearts and healing brokenness. All our comments and platitudes don’t end that bleak feeling of the sucking, downward spiral of depression when nothing changes, even though a person has remained faithful to Jesus. If God is with us, why is hope often invisible for the steadfast, God-honouring believer?

I want answers for my friend; for myself. Yet all I have is questions. I still see the Light rising in hope, but how do I give my vision to my friend? How can I be her eyes and impart God’s hope to her? How can I bear her burdens and share my joys? Reality sometimes presses us hard with its weight—how do we hold on to real, robust hope that makes our souls buoyant? When we trust God to stand up for himself, to stand up for what is right, how do we not lose hope in the waiting?

I don’t have solid answers. I don’t have something tangible that keeps depression at bay. I know God is with us. My friend knows he is with us. She wants to see him with us. To see him move. To see his power. To see the Light dawn in the pitch black she’s been living in…But what if she is in the middle of a kind of “four hundred years of silence” history with God? What if the coming hope is so bright that it must be preceded by inky silence to contrast just how mighty God is? That’s not a query my friend can cling to; not the light at the tunnel’s end that she needs to see by. But it may be the truth; it may be reality. I believe she will trust God, even if redemption doesn’t come in her lifetime. It will be a continual, exhausting choice—but God with her and in her will help her walk in the starlight. And I believe that her prayers and obedience will advance the dawn in all its glorious brilliance, even if she never sees the Dayspring.