We’ve all been there, in some way or another, to some extent or the other. Many have grown disillusioned with ‘church,’ some with ‘the work of the Lord,’ some perhaps even with God and their faith. Perhaps you can identify with Rock Queen, Baptist-turned-Buddhist Tina Turner who sang ‘I don’t wanna fight no more… this is time for letting go!’ Many have recently learned of sociologist Josh Packard’s research on millions of Americans leaving ‘the church’ and his subsequent book ‘Church Refugees,’ telling the story of a multitude of ‘dones’ with the institutional church. Most of us know of committed believers who have just ‘burnt-out’ (I recall my personal ‘annus horribilis’ of 1993), often as a consequence of a focus on ‘the work of the Lord’ to the detriment of ‘the Lord of the work.’ We all know the visions and the plans and the programs. In my own city we are ‘less than two weeks away’ from a metro-wide ‘Switch On’ mission, packed with programs to get the evangelised (?) evangelising – literally every day my inbox and cell phone are bombarded with feverish reminders of the planned events, etc. Will some people be touched, despite the hype? I sincerely pray so. But over close on fifty years of ministry, I have seen these missions come and go, with pretty much the same limited results considering the incredible input of energy and activity and money.
A few weeks ago my son shared this quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry (French writer, poet and aviation pioneer), which evoked from my spirit a resounding ‘Yes!’ Here it is, ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to work long for the endless immensity of the sea!’
It reminded me of my school days and British poet John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever.’ Trained as merchant seaman, Masefield deserted ship in New York City and worked in a carpet factory for some years, before returning to London and the sea. Now I get terribly sea-sick, but the poet stirs me:
‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying…’
Reba Riley has written of many suffering from ‘Post Traumatic Church Syndrome.’ Some may need a period of ‘detox,’ a sabbath period. However, sooner or later it would be wise to take another look at things, a fresh look at the church (ekklesia), our faith and the Infinite-Personal God of the Bible. Is our understanding and experience of God at least reasonably accurate, or clouded by years of misconceptions, bad preaching and even indoctrination? Are we not called, at a time like this, to read the Bible and the Bible story afresh, in dependence on the Spirit, reading it as it were for the first time? (maybe in a paraphrase version, or a different translation to what we are used to). I wish to God believers would take a long break from so-and-so’s daily meditations for busy people. Why not read the Bible for a change, perhaps not starting with Genesis but with Mark’s Gospel – you can read it from The Message, in one sitting, in an hour.
I’ve been threatening for the past two years or so to write a blog series on ‘What Does God Look Like?’ That has to wait for more mature thinking and prayer, but I tell you what, just a glance at Jn. 14 is helpful. Jesus is teaching on ‘The Way to the Father.’ In answer to the disciple Philip’s question, ‘Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied,’ Jesus replies (v. 9), ‘Philip, don’t you even know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you! Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking to see him? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?’ (cf. Jn. 14: 10bff; Mt. 1:22-23; Heb. 1:1-4; 2 Cor. 3:14-18). In other words, the clearest picture we have of the Father is Jesus himself. We need a fresh look at the person of Jesus, not so much the metaphor and shadow of the OT. Why obsess (as many are doing) with the signs along the roadway when you’ve arrived at your destination! (N.T. Wright) For the past weeks, during our evening prayers, my wife and I have been reading through Matthew’s Gospel – what delight and challenge we have found as we have zoomed-in on Matthew’s many and varied photographs of Jesus, how our imagination has soared, our spirits have been stirred and our life challenged! (of course, God’s self-revelation is not limited to the Bible, for we can see him in creation, in history, in his community, and in a hundred other places and lovely things).
The trick of course is to get the balance right, i.e. between ‘the work of the Lord’ and ‘the Lord of the work.’
- For many years, for me, a focus on the former dimmed a focus on the latter. Quite rightly and more recently, we have learned that all our work and witness needs to be rooted in Christ, i.e. in who he is, and what he has done. We are human beings, firstly, rather than human doings. We are ‘in Christ’ by faith (cf. Eph. 1-3 and Col. 1-2) and he is in us (Col. 1:27). And so if we are to give true expression to this union and faith, it needs to be from the position of being in Christ (cf. Jn. 15/The Vine and the Branches), Christ being in us (Gal. 2:20), and co-operating with Him in the task to which he has called us (among other things, Christ-likeness, the ministry of reconciliation, discipling of all nations, serving the poor, restoration, etc). All this must happen with our motives pure and our eyes kept firmly on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:1-4).
- ‘Work’ we must. I notice some of my more esoteric friends so caught up with our union with Christ that they somehow imagine that God’s restoration of all things in Christ will ‘just happen’ without any effort on our part. In Col. 1:24ff (NIV) the Apostle Paul writes about his ‘Labour for the Church,’ filling up in his flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions,’ and concluding (v. 28-29) ‘We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, he so powerfully works in me.’
Last year my wife and I were privileged to join a conducted tour of Israel, in company with academic experts and good friends – one of our favourite places visited was the Sea of Galilee with its overlooking hills. I have a vivid picture before me of Jesus, after John the Baptiser’s arrest, preaching ‘God’s Good News’ in that setting, announcing God’s kingdom with all its blessings for his people (Mk. 1:14ff) in marked contrast to the deification and oppression of Rome. “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.'” Whoever you are, whatever your station in life, do you hear his call?? It’s what we were made for, because we were made for him!
A prayer for you and me…
‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind
forgive our foolish ways;
reclothe us in our rightful mind,
in purer lives our service find,
in deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard
beside the Syrian sea
the gracious calling of the Lord,
let us, like them, without a word
rise up and follow thee.
O sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
where Jesus knelt to share with thee
the silence of eternity,
interpreted by love!
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.
[John Greenleaf Whittier, American Quaker poet, born 1807]