Blessing the Undeserving

My favourite miracle of Jesus has to be his first – the most outrageous and irresponsible of them all. You can understand healing lepers, lame people and the blind. Even raising Lazarus seems kind and compassionate, but providing extra alcohol for a crowd who have already drunk the place dry just seems utterly bizarre.

Why does he do this?

I was sharing some thoughts around this passage in John 2 at church as my own learning in this area was quite the revelation. I began by asking people which of these descriptions best matched their experience of faith

a) The Christian life is about death to self, taking up your cross and going hard after Jesus #nocompromise

b) The Christian life is about living in the wonderful blessing of God’s grace and enjoying his provision. #soblessed

The right side of the room was for those who totally resonated with a) and the left was the opposite. Choose a place on that continuum that reflects your experience. We did that, chatted and then we moved from the place that reflected our experience to the place that reflected our understanding – or our theology – because reality and ideas sometimes are quite different. This proved to be the case as people shuffled around. I’m sure most people learnt more from that experience than anything I may have said!

Personally I have always leant much more towards ‘a,’ a tough and somewhat stoic approach to faith. If God happens to bless me along the way then I’ll take it as a bonus, but there are no expectations on him and plenty of sacrifice required from me. It was partly the era I grew up in and partly a function of my own approach to life.

However several experiences on long service leave messed with my script. I blogged a while back about the caravan we bought for the trip, a once in a lifetime bargain that we were fortunate enough to stumble upon and purchase. I expected to travel Oz in a modest unexciting caravan, but we finished up owning and living in a top of the range, prestige kind of van. Admittedly it was a repairable write off that had been all fixed up, but was 25-30k under market value. Perhaps my coolest bargain ever. As we travelled there were times when I would say to Danelle ‘I can’t believe we own this van! This is way outa our league!!’

Then a few curious things happened.

We met friends in Torquay and told them the story of how we had acquired the van and they said ‘What a blessing! What a wonderful blessing from God!’

‘Really?…’ I said. Like we deserve a blessing! With kids starving all round the world why would God bless wealthy middle class westerners with a caravan that exceeded their expectations???’ I thought it was a fair point. If anyone needs blessing it aint us – or if he does want to ‘bless’ me then maybe he could heal the nerve pain that has been hanging around me!

Then it happened a second time. Some friends in NSW simply said again ‘what a blessing…’. I am starting to think there is some dodgy theology going on around Oz that I need to correct. I don’t deserve a physical ‘blessing’, it’s just very good fortune. But I began to wonder if maybe God would actually do stuff like that.

But why? Why us?

Then a third time it happened in Darwin as we had dinner with my cousin. She pushed a little harder and asked why I struggled to accept this as a blessing. ‘Why wouldn’t God want to bless us with something good?’ she asked.

The simple truth was that I believe God is generous in theory, but in practice I just couldn’t see him being generous in a tangible way toward me.

The question struck me though, because it cut to the core of my perception of God. It began to reveal God as like a ‘good boss’, rather than a good father. A good boss gives you what you’re due and occasionally might give you a little bonus. But it’s a purely transactional kind of relationship. It’s nothing like a ‘father’ kind of relationship that we claim to have with God.

As we talked the wedding in Cana came up and the outrageous, unnecessary generosity of God became the focus. If as John indicates, the miracles are ‘signs’ of some sort then surely Jesus first miracle is a sign that this is what God’s kingdom is like. Overflowing with generosity and grace – the undeserving get the very best. It’s a concept that just doesn’t compute easily – that God would somehow provide the best wine of the day to people who had already pushed their limits.

In the end I actually came to a point of saying ‘this van is a beautiful blessing from God’. There is no rational reason why we should have it – but we do.

And while I get all the symbology and deeper meaning of the miracle (ceremonial jars / law / old cov / new cov / weddding feast of the lamb etc) the point that stuck with me was the outrageous actions of Jesus, to bless that party with the very best in wine – even though they were completely underserving.

This is what God is like

What’s ‘So Amazing’ is That He Wrote a Classic on Grace

Where the Light Fell, A Memoir by Philip Yancey | 9780593238509 | Booktopia

I have just finished the gut churning, heart breaking memoir that Phillip Yancey released last week.

How this man came to write so eloquently about the subject of grace is a beautiful mystery. It could have gone so much differently… His title ‘Where The Light Fell’, makes a lot more sense having heard his story.

Let me lead you into it without spoiling it. Yancey is 71 now, so a few years older than me and he grew up in the centre of a fundamentalist religious world that I remember all too well.

The first chapter opens with his father (a pastor) having contracted polio and being hospitalised in an iron lung. He and his wife decide to exit hospital and ‘trust in the Lord’ for his health needs. He is convinced that God will heal him, but he dies in around 6 weeks and in the aftermath Yancey’s mother dedicates her children to missionary service in Africa. As the story unfolds it’s as if she put a curse on their lives.

Yancey also writes about her theology of ‘perfectionism’ (she believed she hadn’t sinned in 12 years…) that held her captive and prevented her from showing any vulnerability. She was harsh woman and especially tough on her kids, while presenting a face of love and joy to others around her.

Yancey grows up on the outer in school and lives in a caravan / motor home with his mum and his brother. The story focuses largely on the world in which he grew up – racist, Southern Baptist and deeply committed to maintaining pretences no matter what.

I remember this world and part of the reason I am a pastor today is because I was compelled to be part of creating something that doesn’t reek of the same pompous religious tones, but rather was a place of grace and authenticity. Yancey clearly ‘transformed his pain’ (to quote Richard Rohr) into magnificent writing that was never afraid to explore the hard questions in an accessible way.

I expected to hear more of Yancey’s life as a writer / communicator but this was a ‘family history’. In many ways a truly tragic story, but one that is well worth reading. We see two lives (Yancey’s and his brother) take two very different trajectories and both were a response to their upbringing. This isn’t a book for the faint hearted, because it is littered with stories of dark religious behaviour that in places is simple abuse. But if you have ever read Yancey’s classic ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’, then this story will give context to his writing.

When Feeding the Monster is Easier Than Taming It

Don't Feed the Monster by Ltd Make Believe Ideas | 9781800582415 | Booktopia

Every now and then there is a part of me that gets rubbed raw and I have to articulate what’s going on. There were two moments today that brought that inner disturbance to light again, so let me fire off some thoughts and you can tell me what resonates and what is just dumb

I was listening to the Rebuilders podcast today, where Mark Sayers was interviewing Terry Walling mostly in regards to what we have learnt from the ‘Mars Hill’ podcasts (google it if you are out of that loop). During the conversation they got talking about the priority of making disciples and how this has been supplanted by the challenge of growing an outwardly successful church (think BIG – funky, cool, busy etc. To be fair discipleship is not purely correlated to church size. You can have a small church with no discipleship going on and a large church with a culture that forms people into Christ. But by and large we must concede that no one sets out to maintain a steady 60 or 70… We all want to ‘grow’ and in that aspiration there is also a subtle seduction – to give top priority to Sunday gatherings – to the shop front.

From Pete Scazzero

Ok so Sunday gatherings aren’t ‘bad’ and they do some good, but Wallings observation was that because the sacred cow of the Sunday morning gathering is the epicenter of church life, actual discipleship will always be a challenge. While the focus is on attracting people to Sunday events – either as congregants or as participants, our most significant energy is spent here. Hence there will be less time and energy for the kinds of relationships and conversations that are confronting, transformational and purposeful. In fact simply put, when we focus primarily on Sunday we take the focus away from everywhere else.

So – let’s ditch Sunday gatherings and just focus on ‘discipleship’?… Let’s get up close and personal – the kind of interactions that stretch us and challenge us… yeah?…

If only it were so simple. The problem we have is not one simply of structure – it is one where both pastors and congregation perpetuate the problem. Many people like a large Sunday gathering where they can come and be inspired, uplifted and then go home while remaining largely anonymous. ‘Church box’ ticked and now I feel better. All good right?…

Many pastors also like a larger gathering where their oratory capacities are praised and they get to feel good about themselves. (Not me – other pastors…) But when we play this game we end up in a co-dependent cycle where people are educated, inspired and maybe even formed into Christ, but the focus is on growing the crowd and discipleship comes second if at all.

Sometimes I think to myself ‘let’s re-organise Sundays into smaller groups so that we can facilitate the kinds of interactions that enable more gritty conversations – that evoke honesty, vulnerability and transparency… but I know exactly what would happen if we took that approach.

People would either stay home that week or (if it continued) they would simply go to another church. We have en-culturated people into a particular liturgy (whether you are high or low church) and they have come to see this as the primary expression of church. This is church to them.

But this is not church. It is but one expression of it – and one I feel we have given way too much weight too. Sunday looms large every week for churches and the need to do it with polish and pizazz often contributes to a culture that is reflective of this. Typically churches with more flair and polish attract the beautiful people, the hipsters and the cool, while churches that are just ‘passable’ on Sunday are populated by aging congregations or people who don’t care about ‘cool’.

That said, I honestly can’t see a way out of this maze. If we choose a path away from the Sunday centred church – the church that is all about the gathering – then (unless there is very skilled leadership) people will simply leave. They will stop coming, find a ‘real’ church and any pastors dependent on them for their income will soon be tested as to whether they really want to pursue this path… I remember when we led Upstream, many years ago now, people wouldn’t join us because we were unfamiliar, we didn’t look like church as they knew it. They just wanted an ordinary church to attend and we didn’t tick any of the boxes on their wish list. It was really difficult leading a community that struggled to grow. Even those who weren’t Christians still were curious about when we did ‘real church’. This perception of church as a gathered community on Sundays where songs are sung and sermons are preached is present in non-Christians because they have seen it in the movies.

Having led in both Upstream (smaller home based) and in more conventional church I can’t say that the discipleship processes of one clearly out-did the other. In each group there was a ‘normal curve’ of how people followed Christ. Some went hard, others ambled. I sense this is just how people are.

But I am concerned that we are trapped in a co-dependent cycle that keeps us nibbling at the edges of discipleship rather than opening the floodgates to the real deal. What do I mean by that? Simply people who show up wanting to follow Jesus more – who want to know him better – live their faith with more integrity – encounter God more genuinely – where these conversations pervade the life of a community, not in a weird way, but simply because it is who we are.

I sense the ‘success’ of discipleship in any church will have more to do with the culture set by leaders than any structure or process. If leaders clearly communicate that Sunday is the big deal and you don’t want to miss it then that will be heard loud and clear, but if leaders communicate that Jesus is the big deal and your priority is always moving closer to him then perhaps this will be seen as core.

But can you communicate that Jesus is the big deal – and so is Sunday?… Honestly – I am not convinced it is possible. The Sunday box is easy to tick – especially if it’s a rockin funky place, but ‘Jesus’ box requires much more than a tick. It is long hard work to form disciples.

I sense we have become so reliant on the Sunday form that we always struggle to re-imagine church without it. Perhaps the test of discipleship is in the kinds of relationships we participate in outside of Sundays. Do we meet with people who both inspire and challenge us? Do we have those in our lives who sharpen us and who call us on to follow Jesus more closely? Or do we just have people who will discuss football, interest rates and cars?

I get the sense that so long as Sunday is growing and feels energetic we are content, but I think Pete Scazzero’s statement (pic above) is on the money. We have to change the scorecard and I feel like I have been banging on about this for so long now… but perhaps that’s because we are still stuck in the Sunday loop.

I wish I had an answer, but I sense we have created a monster and now, because we don’t know how to tame it, instead we feed it.