Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Trusting the shepherd is good

Very occasionally I like to surprise my girls.  It usually goes something like this: I plan, purchase or prepare something I know they will love and then I begin to give them a series of cryptic clues in the lead up to wet their appetite for the coming joy.  When the time comes for them to receive their surprise it normally involves some form of instructions they have to follow, "make your beds and get dressed so we can get going" or something like that anyway.  Now normally these instructions would be met with rolled eyes, pained expressions and passionate protests... but not when I have told them something good is coming... even when they don't know exactly what the good is they trust me enough to know that it will indeed be good and so they get on with their jobs.  So it always makes my heart happy to see their faces when they discover what the surprise is... it is like the fun they have with me is vindication for their trust in me.

As I listened to Francis Chan's morning session on day 3 of Oxygen Christian Leaders Conference I was shattered by the reality that the simple trust that my children have in me, even though I am a flawed, weak and inconsistent father, is so often what I lack in my relationship with the perfect, almighty and faithful Jesus.

Chan's text was the famous statement of Jesus, "I am the good shepherd" and if his message focused on anything it was that I need to stop always thinking of myself as shepherd and remember that I am also a sheep.  I need to rest as a sheep in His care and trust like one who knows that my shepherd will lead me by still waters, into green pastures and through the shadow of death.  I need to be more like my girls and even though I don't know how things are going to work out, if my shepherd is in the lead I have to trust that it will be good.

But Jesus does not leave us without tangible truths about Himself on which we can hang our hats of trust:

  1. His affection, dedication and concern for us is unquestionable.  In the text Jesus holds Himself up as good shepherd against the phony cattle thieves of His day (Pharisees).  And the comparison couldn't get any more stark. Jesus says that the thieves come to "steal and kill and destroy" but that He "lays down His life for the sheep."  Basically the thieves prey on their sheep & feasts on their blood... But the good shepherd prayed for His sheep & sweat drops of blood.  Chan impressed on hearts that this is how much Jesus loves us and that no one loves us more than this.  We can trust Jesus to lead us towards the good because He was prepared to lay down His life for us.
  2. He is doggedly protective of His sheep. Jesus says that the hired hands when confronted with a threat will run away and leave the sheep to their own devices because they care nothing for the sheep, only their own necks.  But Jesus says that the good shepherd goes into fight for His sheep because of the above mentioned love He has for them.  Surely knowing that our shepherd has our backs should give us confidence even when danger lurks at every corner. Chan said at this point that "If I was a sheep and Jesus was my shepherd I would actually love to walk into the valley of death just to see Him fight for me."  We can trust Jesus to lead us towards good because He has our backs.

So when Jesus says that the life He is leading us to is the "abundant life" or "life to the full" surely we have grounds for trusting Him.  Even when the life we are living doesn't fit our shallow view of abundance we have to trust that following the good shepherd actually leads the the abundant life.  And what does this abundant life look like... well if it looks like anything it probably won't look like the image of abundance put forward by secular western society... it will look like Jesus' life:

  • Abundance is not to be found in the status our possessions obtain for us but in the joy the sharing of our possessions gives others
  • Abundance is not to be found in the privilege and power we crave but in the meekness with which we empower others
  • Abundance is not to be found in the relationships that satisfy our desires but in the giving of ourselves to other without expectation of anything in return

But it is just so easy for me to hold back from following my good shepherd because I think I know what good is better than He does.  I put control measures in to ensure my safety, security and peace.  I shy away from difficult paths because I am not confident they will work out well.  I procrastinate when it comes to obedience because I am not convinced that it is for the best.  But at the end of the day what I think Francis Chan was getting at, and what Jesus is offering as my shepherd, is the kind of abundant life where I am so convinced of the love and protection of our shepherd that I will just rest and joyously follow knowing that He will lead me into true abundance.

Judgment rather than tears - symptoms of a self-righteous heart

One thing that Paul Tripp said in the night session of Day 2 really stuck in my brain all night.  Tripp was unpacking Jesus' great self-declaration that He is "the light of the world" (John 9:5) which comes in the midst of an encounter between Jesus' disciples and a man who had been blind since birth.  Right from the outset we should recognise that what are a few words on a page to us "a man blind from birth" are a life sentence for the man in question.  Even living in a society like ours with social welfare and national disability schemes this man would have battled his whole life, so you can imagine what living in first century Palestine was like for him.  And it would have been the little things as well, as Tripp said, "he never would have seen the face of his mother or a stern look from his father."  Reflecting on this man's lot in life should produce in us a deep sadness.

But when the disciples saw this man they had no such sadness... instead they just had a question, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"  Tripp said that this should shock us because these disciples had hung out with Jesus for some time, they had witnessed first hand His love and compassion that reached out to the broken and the hurting of this world and yet when they see the blind man their thoughts go straight to cause and effect instead of compassion and affection. As I dwelt on this shocking abuse of humanity I realised that it is not limited to the disciples of Jesus that day but so often to the disciples of Jesus today as well.

The problem for the disciples was that they had failed to be moved by the broken condition of this man and had seen him as an opportunity for theological debate; an opportunity to quiz their master rather than an opportunity to imitate their master.  Yet we live in a world where the brokenness of sin is evident everywhere and far too often this brokenness draws us into discussion, dialogue and debate about God rather than a demonstration of God.  We might be refined and politically correct enough not to debate over disability but:

  • When we see the scores of lost people around us instead of reaching out to them with Jesus our first inclination is to debate about election and free will
  • When a neighbour goes through a marriage breakdown instead of offering our hospitality we are immediately drawn into figuring out who was to blame the husband or the wife
  • When we see people living in alternative sexual lifestyles instead of going to them with the gospel of peace we debate about whether or not you can be Christian and gay
  • When we hear of a famous minister who has become embroiled in some scandal we are quick to give our theories as to why they fell and almost secretly rejoice that the tall poppy has fallen rather than praying for their restoration for the sake of the gospel 
  • When we see conflict in Gaza we are sucked into debate about the future of Israel and quibble over eschatological nuances rather than weeping over the tragic loss of life on both sides of the conflict

Now I know that theological debate is important as it helps us clarify the message of the gospel and the practice of the church, but when theological debate is our first response to seeing the brokenness of the world and the suffering of people around us surely something has gone awry.  Tripp pointed straight to the heart of our problem, "Only a self-righteous heart can look at the sheer suffering of a broken man and ask 'whose sin caused this?'"  It is the self-righteous assumption that we in the Christian world have got everything together and are the only possessors of correctness that causes us to preside over the world's sufferings in judgment rather than weep over them with compassion.  

But if we look to the gospel of Jesus Christ there is no room for self-righteousness among the people of the church.  Surely it shows us that without the constant mercy and grace of Jesus we are nothing and hence we have no right to sit in judgment or preside in debates over the broken people of this world because we are part of that brokenness too.  Jesus is not the light of the world so that we might see its brokenness to judge it more clearly... Jesus is the light of the world to open our eyes so that we might see the deep need this world has for Him and run out to it in compassion.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A pastoral struggle uncovered

I haven't been in pastoral ministry all that long, only about 8 years, but it has been more than long enough to ride the rollercoaster of emotions as I have sought to shepherd people.  There have been some who have come from darkness to light... there have been some who have simply faked it for years before suddenly waking up and coming alive... there are some who have battled great adversity and suffering and yet have held on to their faith like it was their last possession on earth... there have been some who turned up seeking something but quickly disappeared when they couldn't find it... and there have been some who track along in the church for years, showing signs of growth and joy only to shipwreck their faith seemingly overnight.

To be honest I haven't really thought that much about how I have responded to this rollercoaster until Bryan Chapell spoke in the morning session of day 2 of Oxygen Christian Leaders Conference.  Chapell shared from Jesus' bold statement "I am the Son of God" from John 10:36 and in the process uncovered my pastoral heart.

See deep down inside when God called me to shepherd the people I think I took the charge one step further than I was supposed to.  Yes I was called to ride that rollercoaster with all the different people at different stages of faith journey but I was not called to personalise the end result.  I was not called to be the one who held people in the faith, who sustained people through suffering, who opened blind eyes, who snatched people from danger... Yes God wanted me to play a part in all of this but the power was not mine and the end result did not depend on me.

One of Chapell's main points was how the Father and Son worked together to hold people in the faith and sustain people in the faith.  Jesus says in John 10:28, "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand." And while I have heard this countless times I don't think I fully took it to heart.  What I needed to understand was:

  • The people who came to faith came because they heard Jesus' voice
  • The people who stayed in the faith stayed because Jesus kept them there
  • The people who held on in the face of great adversity were held by the infinitely powerful hand of the Father

I had allowed my passion for pastoral ministry to elevate my understanding of my role in all of this.  It is not that I thought that I was saving people or that I thought I was the power that kept people in the church... in fact if you had asked me I would have immediately promoted the saving power of Jesus.  It was more that I over-estimated my part in God's salvation plan and bore too much of the burden of people's lostness on myself.  Only as I have reflected on this reality has God brought the names and faces of people who have drifted away to my mind and reminded me of the pain, responsibility and dare I say guilt I feel because they fell away.

Chapell said that often we seek to hear Jesus because we think in Him we will find all the answers to this burden... that if I just know more about Jesus... or have another sharp and pointed answer to objections... or another beautiful story about Him... that I will have everything I need to pull people back from the brink of destruction.  But what I needed was not to seek to hear Jesus so I would have answers to the problems that other people faced but so that I had true and tangible hope that Jesus is who He says He is... He is the Son of God and the Son of God can and will save His sheep.

I needed to see the reality that the Father had given Jesus His sheep and that Jesus had kept these sheep and that no one could snatch them away because they were held by the Father.  They were not held by my preaching... they were not held by our programs... they were not held by my pastoral care... they were not held by me... At times I have probably been guilty of viewing people in the church as valuable because they gave my ministry meaning, but Chapell powerfully showed me that people were valuable because they were God's most treasured gifts to His own Son.

I know that God wants me to walk alongside the people of His church regardless of whether they are climbing high or falling fast... I know that God wants me to reach out to those who are sliding away into the clutches of unbelief... and I know God wants me to lament over those who have been lost... but He doesn't want me to be crushed by this journey.  He wants me to rest in the reality that He has His sheep in His hands and they are listening to His voice and He will never let them go.  He wants me to hear again and again that Jesus is the Son of God and is more than able to save.

Gruesome words Glorious truth

If you ask people to reflect on Jesus’ ministry and tell you some of the most meaningful teachings to them you would probably get joyous reflections on the “Sermon on the Mount” or encouragements to prayer or a favourite parable. But in the Day 1 Evening Session at Oxygen Christian Leaders Conference Don Carson sought to remind us that for all of Jesus’ much loved and treasured teachings, from start to finish His teaching was saturated with images of His death & resurrection. This can challenge our view of Jesus meek and mild and possibly none more challenging than the passage that Carson took us to tonight.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) The image of people being called to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus is gruesome to say the least and it probably leaves us saying to ourselves, “Surely there must be a deeper meaning here that makes this teaching more… palatable” (do you see what I did there). But the reality is that while it is true that Jesus does not want us to physically feast on His flesh the deeper meaning is perhaps even more confronting.

Carson called us to consider that which we eat more than simply the packet we open or the thing we heat up in the microwave. But to recognise that everything we eat has given its life so that we might sustain ours. On a hamburger the cow died, the lettuce died, the tomato died, the wheat died to make the bread… everything on the burger died so that we might live. Agricultural societies knew this far better than us, so Jesus’ first audience would not have missed the significance. When Jesus is saying “Unless you eat of my flesh…” He is clearly saying that unless He dies we will… Jesus is saying that He will die so that we might live.

And this is shocking because it means that we don’t get to control God. Carson pointed out that the crowd on that day merely wanted Jesus because of the massive material benefit He had provided them through the feeding of the 5000. They wanted a Jesus who would continue give them physical blessing but Jesus’ desire was to give them far more than that. Unfortunately many in the crowd that day didn't
want the staggering sacrifice that Jesus was offering through His flesh and blood… they want to control Him for their own advantage.

And if we look deep enough into our own lives we might just see that we come to Jesus for everything other than the flesh and blood He offers. We want Jesus to make us healthy, happy and successful. We want a Jesus who can add comfort to our lives so we come to Him expecting Him to serve us in the way we want Him to. But Carson reminded us that Jesus declaring that He is “the bread of life” isn't some cutesy little clich├ęd jingle about who Jesus is… but rather it declares that Jesus is going to give His life in our place… Like the staple food in our diet He will die so that we might live.

This smashes our pride because unless it is this meal we seek from Jesus… unless we recognise our need for this life-giving sustenance… we will forever be hungry. Yes Jesus spoke some incredibly gruesome words in John 6:53 but they are some of the most glorious words in all of Scripture… They declare that Jesus is so spectacular, so sacrificially loving, so merciful that He would allow Himself to become our bread… that He would die so that we might live.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Fire your inner lawyer - Justification through ministry success

This is my first reflection on day 1 of Oxygen Christian Leader's Conference but it also serves to continue the thoughts I have been sharing in the Functional Justification series.  In my quest to unpack common ways we seek to justify our existence apart from the gracious work of God in Jesus I have cited justification by manliness and justification by BuzzFeed as two sources of self-justification.  But today I was struck between the eyes by the source of justification I personally default to far too often...

I attended Paul Tripp's sessions on leadership where one of the prevailing themes was the trap we who are in public ministry face of seeking to find our identity (or justify our existence) through the success of our ministry.  As much as it pains us pastors to admit most of us are incredibly sensitive to the critiques and criticisms of those we minister to.  Being told your sermon missed the mark, hearing that someone left the church because of something you said or having our passionate vision for the church shot down stings and tears shreds off our pride.  Simply being a pastor doesn't make me any more impervious to the painful criticism of my work... in fact the personal and incredibly urgent nature of the job probably makes me more sensitive to it.

And I think there is something of a perfect storm of destruction brewing in the broader evangelical scene at the moment which is making many victims of its devastating power.  Firstly the growing number of younger Gen Y people like me moving into pastoral ministry brings with it our Gen Y optimistic entitlement.  We are part of the generation who legitimately think that we should be the leading lights in our chosen field before we are 30.  And secondly we are daily confronted with the celebrity pastors who did just that and are now highly influential and powerful people in the evangelical world.  And they don't even have to be worldwide celebrities, they could just be that young up and coming preacher who seems to have the charmed ride up the church ranks in your local context and is far more gifted and influential than you are.  This perfect storm of optimistic entitlement and unrealistic examples presses down a heavy burden on the necks of young pastors as we feel in ourselves that we should be far more influential and successful than we actually are.

The reality is that when our source of justification is ministry success we will do anything we can to build a culture of success around us:
  • We surround ourselves with people that stroke our egos making sure we talk to them after church and avoid those who might be critical
  • We prepare sermons that target groups in the church we long to impress because of the doors they might be able to open for us
  • We constantly repeat stories of wins in ministry to remind ourselves that we are on top of our game
  • We inflate our statistics, exaggerate our victories and sweep negative results under the carpet
  • We look for ways of magnifying our 'brand' and getting our name out there
But Tripp's sessions broke through our futile attempts to grasp for significance and identity in the success of our ministry.  He reminded us that sin is deceitful and it's greatest target is me because there is no deception worse than self-deception.  And so he called us to look past the positive success-heavy image of ourselves that we have created by "firing our inner lawyer".  By this he meant ridding ourselves of the need to present a case in our own favour in order justify our existence based on our ministry success.

For Tripp the only way we can truly be free of this self-justification was to remember the simple truth of the gospel and preach it to ourselves.  To sit at the feet of Jesus and gaze on the sheer beauty of God and bask in the wonder that my life has been invaded by this God of beauty and that His grace has let me share in Him. To remind myself that I have already received identity and significance vertically from God so I don't need to seek it horizontally from others.

Only when we are prepared to be confronted with the ugliness of the self-justifying lawyer who lives in our hearts will we be broken to the point of letting go of our desperate desire for success.  Tripp says we need to let God make our self-justification seem like "vomit in our mouths" so that we know not to go there again.
  • Yes this may mean listening to some of those critiques and being humble enough to learn from them
  • Yes this may mean surrendering the idol of being known as influential and successful
  • Yes this may mean no one will ever want to podcast your sermons, give you a book deal or preaching gig
But you will only ever have the fortitude and character to face the unpredictability of ministry if your identity is based on the reality of who God is and what He has done for you... rather than who you think you are and what you think you have done for Him.