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Our kids have a weird tradition whenever we drive through the tunnels on Adelaide’s South-Eastern Freeway: They hold their breath until we’re out the other side. Why? I don’t have time (or importantly, a good answer) to get into that.
I have a feeling that the coming New Year’s Eve is going to be celebrated with greater than usual gusto. 2020 has been a hated year and become a reviled number. Again and again we’ve seen on social media comments like “2020 strikes again.” It’s like we’re collectively holding our breath until we get through these last few weeks.
I get that it is some sort of coping mechanism, but let’s admit that it’s unhelpful and childish, just when the world needs help and maturity. It is victim language, as though this year is just something that happened to us. Putting everything onto the arbitrary year-number is a powerful form of fatalism, and the problem with fatalism is that we resign from responsibility. When you think about it, holding one’s breath is about the most passive thing one can do.
The other problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that the dawn of Friday January 1st is going to usher in peace and prosperity. It’s putting our hopes in sheer luck – it is actual astrology.
When you think about yourself as an agent, and agent of God’s kingdom, no less, you simply can’t go down that path. We are responsible agents. It’s true we can’t fix everything, but it’s also true that we can wake up each day and ask the Lord ‘What can I do to help?’.
Even in a pandemic; even in economic and political upheaval; even if China, or worse, New Zealand take us over, then there’s plenty for us to do, and we can see 2021 as a year of worship and a year of mission. Instead of holding our breath, are there people we can encourage? Real hope we can share? Instead of counting the days, let’s make every day count.
Announcement: The wait is over! Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus is off the press, in stock and ready to be sent to you. But you’re already baptised? This book is still, especially for you – to keep on hand (why not a few copies) for those you know who are coming to faith, or close, or raised in the faith and coming of age to own it for themselves. Order at: sacredagents.net
Smartphones have ruined our lives in many ways, and not least among them is that it’s no longer acceptable to spot someone standing by a swimming pool and just shove them straight in. We’re reticent, too, to do this with baptisteries.
Baptists like me are keenly aware that you can’t force people to believe, that people should only be baptised according to their own faith, not someone else’s. We’ve been wary, therefore, of prompting people to be baptised. The ideal scenario, when you follow that weird logic, is that we should be completely silent on the subject, and wait for the people coming to faith and kids in the youth group to suddenly come to us and request baptism. ‘That’s how we’ll really know that it’s genuine faith,’ we tell ourselves, ‘if we had nothing to do with it.’
Of course, we don’t consciously tell that to ourselves quite so clearly, because it’s clearly ridiculous. As I’ve mentioned once or two hundred times here: passivity is not purity of mission. God involves us in sparking faith in others, not merely to wait for spontaneous combustion. We should mention baptism more, not less. It’s right there in the Great Commission so it should absolutely be normalised as something that lots of people do, and have across the history of the church and around the world. There are many ways we can regularly offer opportunities for people to explore baptism, and stop short of coercing people.
Even if – especially if – your church has not had a baptism in quite some time, might you consider setting a rhythm of offering baptism discussion sessions once per quarter? Even if – especially if – every last person in your congregation has already been baptised, might it not indicate that it’s time to invite others in? And if you know someone who wittingly or unwittingly is standing a little too close to the pool of faith, why not smile mischievously, put your arm round them … and give them a copy of Taking the Plunge?
We’re becoming familiar with confinement – in one way or another all of our worlds have become smaller. Our wings have been clipped, options limited, movement restricted and circles tightened. Most of us long to be beyond this, past the labour pains of this confinement, and birthed into the new. But what will that new look like?
For better or probably worse, what Christians are most distinctively known for is going to church. Gathering together has been fundamental to, and the main measure of, our faith. Now for worse or possibly better, all that has been pulled from beneath us, shaken up to reveal what cannot be shaken.
When churches are able to regather in person, the “One per 4 Square Metre Rule” will effectively mean that all our church buildings have effectively shrunk. The chapel that used to seat 100 is now good for 30. The 500-seat auditorium will now hold only 125. When church walls are closing in on us; what room does it leave for our movement?
Given we don’t know yet whether these restrictions will be temporary, permanent or intermittent; here are three thoughts:
1. If we’re broadcasting, we might as well do it online. Where our ministry has been stage-focused, with attendees mainly observers, it’s been relatively easy to transport this online in a kind of ‘verch church’. Don’t get me wrong, this has and can continue to be a significant blessing. The making of strong disciples requires effective Bible teaching, where most of us need to shut up, listen and take notes. We will always need to tune in to gifted teachers and truly prophetic leaders.
2. We need other things as well, however: Interactive spaces where each one can be known and heard, questions asked and lives shared. This necessarily happens in smaller groups (we have the tech to talk to many people at once, but can still only really listen to one at a time). Home groups are great for carrying much of this, but also have their limitations: They can be hard for many to access, and struggle for quality control.
3. During restrictions at least, what if we kept the big-long-talk online, acknowledging its value (edifying for adults, with good English, Christian background and attention span, less so for others) but no longer centre-of-worship? Some churches may piggy-back on the teaching of others. And what if we kept the prayerful intimacy of home groups with all they offer? But what if we also offered medium-sized services with a short homily, sure, but a stronger focus on communion – and concomitantly on the child, the newcomer, the migrant and the struggling? They could be simple, 45 minutes perhaps, and repeated as needed.
Imagine the discipleship benefits of small, medium and large-format ministries spread across our weeks and across our land? Might these closed-in walls actually open up some wide new possibilities?
Often the life of a sacred agent is simply ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ (Eugene Peterson) There’s much to be said for faithful perseverance. But what about when the world gets turned on its head? What do good representatives of Christ do in times of upheaval? Here are some preliminary thoughts, given that the heaval is still currently on the up:
Be Still -When everything’s blown apart by a storm, and there’s so much to check up on and so many loose threads to tie down. It’s tempting to go into ‘heroic’ mode, and some of us need to – for instance medical and essential services workers. But weirdly, this particular crisis is calling for the majority to stay put and slow down, which is very hard for heroes. But it can be a great gift to those around you to stand firm, to be still. If this season allows you some rest, take it. There’s no doubt there’ll be much to do before long, needing many good people who are refreshed and ready to go. Sit with Psalm 46 for a bit.
Be Constant -Many people are feeling like the rug’s been pulled out from under them. When everything’s shaking, people look to hold onto something that’s not. Are you able to be unshaky? Keeping to good rhythms, and particularly your spiritual disciplines (holding to One who is unshaky) will help not only yourself, but also those around you.
Be Wise – I wonder whether owls are associated with wisdom because their eyes open so wide. It’s not becoming for sacred agents to be in denial, or to bury our heads in the sand or our hands. The shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable(Lk16) saw what was shifting in his life and made adjustments. If God is using this time of shaking to shake off of us stuff that’s been holding us back, let’s cling to it no longer. Keep seeking wisdom, which is to say, God’s perspective.
Be Kind – Under stress, it’s easy for people to go into survival mode and become ruthless, selfish and sharp. We, whose ultimate survival is guaranteed, need not be drawn down that path. More than ever seeking the Spirit, let his gentleness, peace, joy and love flow through us. We will shine especially bright when we’re determined to respond to unkindness with kindness. Our God fights fire with water.
Be Confident – Sacred agents may well weep and lament alongside the suffering, and in our own suffering too. But we do so still knowing that Jesus’ kingdom will ultimately triumph in a renewed creation. This calls us to be hopeful, and hopeful in a way that is more than wistful or wishful. We should plan. Plan banking on Jesus winning. What might mission and ministry and church look like on the other side of this? Perhaps we were blind-sided by the storm; let’s not be blind-sided by the calm after it!
It’s not downhill from here till the lights go out. No, even in the pitch black, we sacred agents look to the East.
It’s the question no man should ever ask! But the season of Advent just sidles up and drops the question shamelessly. Sacred agents, are you expecting?
Me: What? Who? Me? No. Of course not.
Gabriel: Why not?
Me: How did you get into this conversation, Gabriel?
Gabriel: I get around. Now tell me again about how you’re not expecting. God has big plans, you know. Don’t you want to be part of them?
Me: You know I do.
Gabriel: Well then, it’s time to get moving. Your relative Elizabeth is already … oh, hang on, hang on, wrong script. Your brothers and sisters around the world are already busy with kingdom work. So let me ask you again – are you expecting?
Mary: Yes, are you expecting rulers and thrones to be brought down and the humble lifted up? The hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty?
Gabriel: Are you expecting empires to crumble while the kingdom keeps growing? Nations and cities to be transformed? Are you expecting churches to thrive? Are you expecting your neighbours, family and friends to be powerfully changed as Christ is birthed and formed in them? Are you expecting King Jesus himself to return in triumph and glory and justice and vindication?
Me: Wow, well … truth be told? I’m not expecting, I’m just a little overweight….
We should measure spirituality by flow, not volume. It’s not “How much of the Holy Spirit do you have?” but rather “How much of you does He have?” Scripture speaks of God’s Spirit blowing like the wind, or pouring like water. He moves, he flows, he doesn’t merely inhabit. When Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and drink, he immediately says that from those who do, ‘streams of living water will flow.’Jn7
So the question is not merely how much are we receiving, but how much are we giving? God’s ideal is for free flow: ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’Mt10 The servant put in charge of feeding other servants is in trouble if he considers himself rich rather than responsible.Mt24 The servant who receives mercy is in trouble if he doesn’t in turn pass it on.Mt18
So what happens when the flow stops? In the Great Depression of the 1930s a fascinating and awful spiral occurred. People stopped spending. Those with work greatly feared losing their jobs, and so instead of spending their income they saved as much as possible, living as frugally as they could. This meant that sales plummeted and firms making and selling things went out of business, and indeed people did lose their jobs, creating more fear, more self-preservation mentality, and round and round the spiral went. The flow of money stopped, poverty bit hard, and instead of a trusting, trading society it was each person for themselves.
If only people knew that they were going to be OK! If only the fear was overcome, the spiral could begin to reverse. Indeed the new US President Roosevelt famously told his nation “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The only way to reverse such a fearful spiral was for someone, somewhere to begin spending money with optimism they didn’t feel – in faith. It ended up being the US government, with a scheme called “The New Deal”. It borrowed enormous amounts to guarantee citizens paid work on massive infrastructure projects and bring hope and certainty.
How does that speak to sacred agents? I believe that fearfulness about the prospects of Christians and churches in our society is giving us a defensive and survivalist mindset. There is a narrative of Christianity in decline which is simply not true but widely believed nonetheless. Churches fear closing. We’re reluctant to take risks like adding staff, planting a church or commissioning members to service elsewhere. Even as individuals, when we privatise our faith and begin drawing on God ‘just to get through the week’ rather than to bless others abundantly – we’re continuing a negative spiral in contrast to God’s will.
How do we reverse this? It takes some courageous sacred agents to give more than they can afford to. (I’m not primarily talking about money – but not excluding it). When we give more than we can afford, it leaves us in deficit. But we then call on others to flow blessing to us. And on the Father himself to measure to us with the generous measure that we have used. Do we not know that we are going to be OK? Should we not be the most confident and least fearful of all people? Let us gospel ourselves once more. When we call on the Lord to “open the floodgates of heaven and pour out his blessing” – do we not realise that we ourselves are those gates, and that he is seeking to once again open us?