Friday, April 5, 2013

When you play the game of thrones...

So there was a fair bit of excitement across the internet this week about the re-commencement of HBO’s immensely popular TV series Game of Thrones.  I must admit I hadn't really heard too much about the show until about 6 months ago when it appeared in an article I read claiming that it was “the most popular TV series among men”!  This sparked my interest because I was interested in what captivated men in today’s society.  So I read a good number of reviews and articles about the show and even watched a few episodes to see what all the hype was about.  I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when my research uncovered that it was full of blood-thirsty battles, betrayal, powerful rulers and of course sex.

After I got over my initial sadness that we men are so easily enticed by the stereotypical blood and flesh, I came to understand what I am led to believe is one of the key themes of the story. Based on a series of books by George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones is set in a mythical land in times gone by when numerous ruling families and their kingdoms are all struggling against one another for the right to rule on the throne that rules all thrones.  Each family has their own strengths and weaknesses expressed mainly through their family motto; a governing principle by which they stand and fall.  So through deceit, manipulation, allegiances and the military they each make a play for ultimate power.  “Nothing new here” I hear you say, but from all accounts the plot is compelling, the twists are intriguing and viewers are emotionally drawn into the “game”.

But while each family lives by their motto, there is an overarching principle which governs the behaviour of virtually all the main players.  It is expressed best by something that one of the characters says: “When you play the game of thrones you win… or you die!”  It doesn't matter whether their means and motives are seemingly pure or obviously evil; everyone is sold out on a quest for power and glory.  This thirst rears its head in their heartless disregard for life, their sinister schemes and manipulations and the way they treat women as objects of conquest.  The main players will give everything, befriend anyone and compromise anything to sit on the iron throne.  For them victory is the ultimate.  They are happy to face the prospect of death because if they do not have the throne they might as well be dead.

I think part of the reason Game of Thrones is so compelling for us is because it plumbs the depth of human character and shows us glimpses of ourselves.  Albeit in an extreme and concentrated version the “game” is a heck of a lot like the world we live in.  We might not be all fighting each other for the one throne, but we all long to have our own personal seat of authority.  We want to reign over our own lives and take the spoils of victory whatever that might look like to each of us.  Money, sex and power are just the beginning, we all have something that if we fail to achieve or attain we feel as though we might as well be dead.

Two of Jesus’ disciples once showed what was really in their hearts when they asked for thrones of power and authority. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  They showed that they were not following Jesus for who He was but because of what He was able to give them, namely power and glory.  They showed themselves to be no better than a player in the game of thrones; sucking up to the one they thought was the surest bet for victory and trying to ride His coattails to glory.

Jesus’ response to them not only turned their world upside down but completely blows apart the governing principle of the game of thrones.  He said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  Jesus speaks here of His imminent suffering and death and asks the would-be rulers if they were prepared to take on shame, mockery and crucifixion.  Jesus basically says that life is not a case of “you win or you die” but rather “in order to win you have to die”.

Jesus did not gain His seat on the throne that rules all thrones through military might, manipulation, treachery or deceit.  Jesus was crowned King of kings because He laid down His life and paid the price for all of our manipulation, treachery and deceit; for all the times we ignored His rightful reign and made a play for the “thrones” of this world.  And then He calls His disciples to do the same.  To lay down their lives and denounce any claim to the throne… to cast aside our heartless pursuit of money, sex and power… and to display selfless love to the world rather than treachery.

So for all the fans out there who have been frantically downloading torrents to keep up with the latest installment, please remember something.  The beauty of the “game” for followers of Jesus is that it has already been won.  His banner flies high above the throne of thrones and He is the undisputed King.  This world will tell you that if you don't win the game you might as well die… but Jesus claim is stunning in contrast: “The game of thrones was won BY the one who died!”

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Why Easterfest made me weep for the local church

I want to start by saying that I love the musicians at my church.  As one who has about as much musical ability as that Shane Lee guy who sings 5 octaves of a piano on YouTube, I deeply value the fact that God has gifted people with musical ability.  Furthermore I love to see people using these gifts to glorify God, encourage the church and even draw unbelievers to a place where they can hear the gospel.  So the last thing I want to do is deny the hard working musicians at church one weekend a year to go and perform on a bigger stage, hear other quality Christian musicians and mix with thousands of other like-minded people.  However, for some reason I struggle when Easterfest rolls around each year.

Easterfest is most definitely a magnificent event that draws people from all over the country and attracts artists from all over the world.  It is also a triumph for the churches of Toowoomba – their unity and common heart for the gospel is impressive.  So my struggle is not with the event itself, but with the fallout of the event back in Brisbane.

Anyone in local church ministry will tell you that if random people from the community are going to ever walk through the doors of a church, they are going to come at Easter and/or Christmas.  So as a local church pastor I want the Easter services at my church to be the most welcoming, passionate and vibrant presentation of what the gospel, and the community that it creates, is all about.  However, year after year local churches are forced to do this without a huge percentage of their keen, gospel-loving people and without pretty much all of their musicians.  Just this year I was involved in 3 services across the weekend and the same guy had to worship lead at all 3; we planned a significant outreach event in our local community and could have done with the extra help; and I know of a major combined churches evangelistic event that attracts 12 000 people that was seriously undermanned when it came to volunteers.

Just to be clear I am not blaming Easterfest for this.  In fact if anyone is to blame it is the local churches.  I fear that local churches dropped the ball in terms of local evangelism at Easter many years ago.  This left a huge void in the hearts of people passionate about the gospel and they sought to fill that void with Easter conventions and, over the last decade or so, Easterfest.  The snowball effect is hard to ignore: the church became less active in evangelism at Easter, passionate gospel-lovers looked elsewhere for stimulation, which then made the local church less inclined to think creatively about local evangelism at Easter.  It is now a huge effort to put on something intentionally evangelistic when you know you are going to be struggling to get the critical number of energetic people needed to make the event happen.  In fact it has reached the point where it is almost pointless having a service on Easter Sunday night because so many people are away.

I know Easterfest has an evangelistic edge to it and I am totally supportive of the gospel being proclaimed faithfully at such events.  But I think it is clear from the New Testament that God’s plan A for the gospelisation of the world is the local church.  Planting local churches was at the very core of Paul’s ministry and when the Apostles wanted to pass on something to the general population of Christians they would write to the local churches or at the very least the leadership of local churches.  Even in Revelation Jesus personally addresses local churches to communicate rebuke, encouragement and challenge.   Local churches are supposed to be communities that visibly represent Christ on earth and bear witness to His gospel to all who they come in contact with.

Unfortunately I think the local churches in Brisbane have failed to even captivate the hearts of their own people with intentional gospel ministry at Easter, let alone the hearts of unbelievers.  Why else are thousands of people getting out of Brisbane as early as Thursday night to drive for 2 hours in holiday traffic to go to a concert?  Surely if there was the promise of passionate gospel ministry around their local church they might consider sticking around.  But as it is they are packed and ready to go without even a second thought. So now the local churches feel awkward about asking their people to hang back from Easterfest to partner with them in the gospel.

So here is the point of this post: I would love to see local churches plan creative and intentional evangelism for Good Friday morning.  Good Friday is the day on the Easter weekend that still holds the most traditional significance in Australian society and it is ripe for the picking.  Then I would love to see people delay their trip to Toowoomba so that they can take part in the evangelism on Friday morning.  We had a small group of young ladies do this for our Good Friday outreach this year and it was hugely appreciated!

Maybe I am asking too much.  Maybe the snowball is too big and travelling too fast to stop.  Maybe the local churches in Brisbane have lost our chance for evangelism at Easter.  But one thing I do know is that Jesus is passionate about the local church and the people in whom He dwells are passionate about Him.  So if we are bold enough to call them to contribute to something that proclaims this Christ in their own backyard, then we have a good chance of gradually seeing His passion for the mission of the church become their passion as well.  Especially at Easter!