Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
I’m clearly no scholar, but many moons ago at Bible College they tried to teach me New Testament Greek. Twice. I haven’t retained a whole lot – apart from being an alpha male with who enjoys a good pi. Still, one little thing my teacher mentioned has really stuck with me.
There’s a lot of vocabulary to learn of course, so we made hundreds of little flash cards to go through every day, with the Greek on one side and English on the other. “Here’s a trick,” my teacher said. “When you get a card right, put it in a pile to your left. When you get a card wrong, put it in a pile on your right. When you finish, leave the left pile, but pick up the other one and go through them all again, with the same method. Keep going until they’re all on your left.”
OK so perhaps that’s not revolutionary. But my teacher pointed out that we humans have a penchant for going over and over the things we already know (because that feels good), and avoiding the things we don’t know (because they make us feel inadequate). So many students waste precious swat-vac time revising over and over things they already know. By disciplining yourself to focus on what you don’t, you can learn a lot and very quickly. Did I take it to heart? All I’ll say is don’t take me on at Trivial Pursuit Genus I edition.
But it makes me wonder how we go about learning to be sacred agents. “Come follow me,” says Jesus, “And I will make you fishers for people.” The good news is that the Lord will teach us. The question is: Are we really wanting to learn?
When I hear Christians talking about what it means to be on mission, I hear us rehearse again and again – and again – and again the things we already know. We conspire to keep the conversation in a safe place. But what if we pressed into the things we don’t know and aren’t being effective in? What if one agent could say to another “I just don’t know how to…” or “I’m just getting nowhere with…”? What if our collective prayer was “Lord, forgive our slowness, but please, please, teach us to represent you to our neighbours in a way that really matters. We’re obviously missing something, probably plenty. Open our hearts and minds and eyes and ears and would you go over it with us one more time?”
In a boat, on a lake, Jesus leans over to his disciples and tells them to be very careful. It’s a captain’s safety warning, but it’s not about life vests, and it’s not, as the disciples first thought, about the supplies. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ It’s a warning for all who would set sail with Jesus on his mission. But what does it mean?
In a nutshell, the ‘yeast’ is a simple, little idea. But it spreads through a group and forms a culture it changes everything. The yeast of these groups were two different kinds, but both concerned with how to rule the world. Well, how to get everyone to behave.
The little idea of the Pharisees seems to be that ‘You can get people into line by shaming them.’ Point out people’s mistakes, make a public example of a few, and people will be too mortified to step out of line. This idea hasn’t run out of steam, we see plenty of it today. It’s the major weapon of our comedian-prophets who try to reinforce a particular framework of values by lampooning those who don’t share them. People who don’t fully support same-sex marriage are constantly shamed, for example. And does it work? Does shaming transform a society? No. It’s a powerful weapon, but at the end of the day, not an effective one.
The Herodians had a different little idea: ‘You can get people into line by coercing them.’ If you have the political power, you can set the rules and police them, and so just make people behave, punishing those who don’t line up. This is another familiar idea. Many people today seem to think you can shape society by getting the numbers in parliament to pass certain laws – say to legalise or illegalise abortion. But when you get the laws you really want, do you then get the society you really want? No. Coercion is another tool that so many clamber for, but in the end it doesn’t build what you want to build.
Jesus is setting out with his disciples to change the world, but it didn’t – and doesn’t – happen through shaming or coercion. Both of them breed elitism, hypocrisy and resentment. Watch out for those little ideas! As sacred agents, we’re not to use them on others or stress when they’re used against us.
And it all raises the big question: What is Jesus’ yeast? Discuss.
We don’t think of fishing as a team sport. When I think about fishing, the image that first pops into my head is someone standing alone out on a jetty holding a fishing rod and trying to keep themselves warm. At most, they nod and grunt to other individuals who are doing the same thing nearby. Often we imagine fishing for people in the same way.
When we think of worship, we imagine Christians together in something approximating harmony, but when we think of evangelism so often we imagine ourselves (or someone else!) performing a solo. This is to our enormous detriment, and not what Jesus has in mind. The ‘you’ in ‘I will make you fishers for people’ was plural, and he was talking to fishermen familiar with the importance of teamwork. Right at that moment they were mending their nets, and it’s time for us to mend ours.
Teamwork is vital in mission for so many reasons. Jesus said “everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” That’s hard to do alone. Effective mission also involves all the parts of the whole body of Christ. Fruitful mission needs spokespeople (evangelists), yes – but also hospitality, mercy, service, encouragement, teaching, stewardship, pastoral care and leadership. In teams we can each bring our God-given strengths and cover one another’s weaknesses. Teams – at least good ones – tend towards mutual accountability and regular reflection and feedback. Teams can allow a continuity of mission even as individual members move in and out. Teams are the perfect environment for new members to have a go and be developed.
Show me a church where baptisms are common, and I’ll show you a church that organises for team mission. And yet, do many? Even in churches where we feel that most of us are called primarily to individual witness – do we seek the help, support, intercession and coaching of others? Or are we alone out in the cold, happy that at least there’s no-one else to see our empty bucket?
Some things are very difficult. Ranking right up there with licking your elbow and contacting a government department is this: Trying to remember a tune while listening to a different one.
Sacred agents live with a similar difficulty 24/7. If the world into which we are sent was merely cacophonous, it wouldn’t be so hard. But it tends to play a particular song of its own, while we are called to march to a different beat. If that makes you feel and look a bit unco then you’re no Robinson Crusoe. So how do we do it?
I like to think of Daniel and his amigos. Somehow they sustained that art of living with one’s feet in Babylon and heart in Jerusalem – the double-life of a sacred agent. How did they cope? By hitting Pause and hitting Play.
None of us can claim to have more responsibilities or a busier life than Daniel, yet paused three times a day to physically open his windows to face Jerusalem and pray. It was a conscious act of reorientation which he needed 21 times a week. How many quiet times can I afford not to have? Or am I stronger than him? Daniel switched off the Babylonian lullaby that constantly sought to spiritually pacify him and tuned in to Radio Jerusalem.
And they pressed Play. If they weren’t the authors of Psalm 137 then it was someone with the same heart: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? / If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill / May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. They never wanted to forget the heavenly tune of God’s kingdom. They needed to be able to whistle it even in (especially in) the direst of trouble.
What are your practices of pressing pause and play, of tuning out and tuning in?
When I coached my daughter’s basketball team, the first thing I wanted to teach them was how to get rebounds. Having the ball makes a lot of difference in most sports. So I told them what I’d learned from watching Dennis Rodman in the Chicago Bulls’ glory days. I asked them ‘What makes the most difference in getting rebounds?’
Being tall? No, that’s the 4th most important factor. I saw Rodman constantly outdo much taller players. Being skilled? No, I’d say that’s the 3rd most important. Even the cleverest players would come up empty handed when Rodman was nearby. Was it getting in the best position? Well, I’d say that’s the 2nd most – and very – important. But I still saw Rodman pinching rebounds that taller, more skilful players were in the prime position to get. So what makes all the difference?
Far and away the biggest factor is simply wanting the ball. Watching bad-boy Rodman on TV, it was really obvious. No one wanted it like he did. Quite short for a power forward, he lead the NBA in rebounds seven years in a row and his team won five championships.
It also got me thinking about evangelism. If there’s one thing we could work on, what should it be? Do we need people ideally shaped by God for evangelism? Yes, but it takes more than that. Do we need to train people in the skills and techniques of evangelism? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make it happen. Do we need to position people in just the right place, working, befriending, eating and drinking with sinners? Definitely. We’ve worked on all those things and I hope we continue to.
But my question is: Do we really want the lost sheep like the Shepherd does? Is the bottleneck to evangelism not so much in the skills of our hands and the knowledge of our heads but in the desires of our hearts? Do we talk and pray about this honestly? Because if deep down we prefer our warm fellowship not to be disturbed by outsiders, what will happen is this: We’ll go through all the motions of attempting the rebound – wanting to be seen to be trying in the eyes of the Coach – but never coming up with the ball much.
Meanwhile, God uses the Dennis Rodmans of our churches – often uneloquent, amateur odd-bods – to win people for the kingdom. And their point of difference is just this: They have in their hearts God’s heart for the lost that he fervently loves.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist most famous for developing his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Often presented as a pyramid, it says that our most basic needs (at the base) are for the body – food, water and shelter. Once those needs are met, we next desire safety, then love, then esteem. And once we have gotten ourselves all these, at the top we seek “self-actualisation” – to become all that we can be. It’s in this last category that many people put spirituality and religion. It’s a rookie mistake theologically, but we westerners fall for it over and over.
Scripture presents God’s kingdom as laying at the very base of our needs, and vitally connected to all the others. “Humans don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God’s mouth”, Jesus quotes Moses. “Anyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again”, he tells the woman at the well, whose pyramid of needs has become a pile of rubble.
Jesus is the foundation, not the decoration! God’s kingdom isn’t the icing on life’s cake – it’s the yeast that makes it rise in the first place! Yet people continue to think of Jesus as the gift for “the one who has everything,” and Christians as folks who have their lives in order and then play religion with their leftover time, energy and money. (Do we prove them right?)
If we present Jesus as “the final piece in the puzzle” to those who have tried every other form of entertainment/stimulation/inspiration and found them wanting – well, they’ll soon find him wanting too. He just won’t fit as the final piece, he won’t be chaplain to our self-actualisation. To the one who had everything, Jesus said “Go and give all your possessions to the poor; then come and follow me.” Jesus is the gift for the one who has nothing, surely.
What does this mean for sacred agents? Firstly we must denounce the distinction between spiritual and physical. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices” says Paul. We must rediscover the all-of-real-life Jesus who works powerfully in and through the mundane.
Secondly, if Jesus is foundational, the danger of silent service is that we help people build a tower that won’t stand. Why give someone a car and then walk away with the keys in your pocket? If Christ is the real key to lasting transformation then we cannot keep this secret or leave it till last.