Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Balanced Attack

I’m coaching baseball. Teaching ten year old boys the difference between force plays and tagging up is an agonizing art. It really is like herding cats. Then there’s the fine line between patience at the plate and swinging away. Recently our only hope of winning is if our pitchers toss a shut out and we score a run with a bases loaded walk. Putting good pitching and timely hitting together in the same game has happened with about the regularity of the passing of Haley’s comet and the Cubs winning the World Series. We are in desperate need of a balanced attack.

I’m observing something in the men around me. Beneath the polished veneer, “how ya doings?” and conversations about gas prices and the weather there runs a tight rope over troubled waters. We live with the tenuous tension between what we have and don’t have; who we know and don’t know; what we do and don’t do; who we are and who we wish we’d be. Many of us don’t know whether we’re coming or going, where we’re headed, or who we are. We sometimes hit, sometimes throw strikes, and often feel like we’ve dropped the ball. We are in desperate need of a balanced attack.

I coach boys to become men, not just hitters and fielders. But, they already seem torn and tossed about; small versions of their tattered dads sitting in the stands. They are over-the-top self-conscious, critical, seemingly bearing the weight of the world on their boney shoulders. A culture tells them million dollar contracts rest on the next pitch; that they must own the latest tech-toy or movie; that they should be what everyone else expects them to be. Their souls are cluttered and busy beyond belief; they lack peace. They have no concept of wholeness, of that ancient biblical notion of shalom.

A man of shalom who can find?
Shalom is a beautiful old Hebrew word translated “peace” in English Bibles. But, it doesn’t just mean peace – as in no shots being fired or that glorious moment just after the kids go to bed. Shalom means completeness, well-rounded happiness, soul rested-ness; prosperity from the depths. It is what we secretly yearn for. It is the stillness of the batter’s box from which life can explode into action. Shalom is the source of the balanced attack. And, shalom is a gift received from God when we cease our striving; when we surrender; when we heed his ways; when we believe.

If the boys we coach, employ, and put to bed grow up to be like us, what will their futures look like? The prospects are rather unnerving. The future is beginning to look like an ADHD, fast food, credit card, celebrity-driven unstable mishmash.
If we – I’m talking to the big guys now – are men not bound by faith to the Ancient of Days and the Prince of Peace we have no shalom. Without this sure footing we have nothing but the frantic chaos and tensions of the world and ourselves to offer those boys with bats on their shoulders and the world at their disposal.
Convinced we must experience a piece of everything we are not leading ourselves or the next generation into peace at all. We avoid the wells of the Spirit where we must wrestle with our own darkness, our own inner tensions, imbalances, complexities and sin. Consequently, we never find the source of true joy, freedom, forgiveness, brotherhood and hope. If we are to have a balanced attack we simply must go to these peace-filled deeps.

Without shalom our vision is blurred. We look at the proud man, the loud man, the crowd man and he looks so balanced. He always seems to hit home runs and throw strikes. He seems destined for fame and fortune. But, look more closely. Think more biblically.

I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree…but he soon passed away and was no more…Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for a man of peace/shalom (Psalm 37:35-37).

A man of peace you can find. A boy of shalom can rise from your influence. Wholeness, rest, and peace can be had, but you can’t buy it or strive after it. You have to surrender your way into it. You might even need to strike out a few times. But, having found God’s wholeness – even the hard way – you will finally know and coach a balanced attack.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ripe for a new harvest

For the past few summers our clan has bustled about Ontario’s threshing and steam-era shows and small town festivals making and selling homemade ice cream. It’s the continuation of my late father-in-law’s vision to fatten up the population one creamy spoonful at a time. Our kids very much enjoy Grandpa’s vision and Grandma’s recipe!

To be honest, I’m mostly a fish out of water when it comes to these shows and the 1928 engine I’m somehow supposed to know how to run and occasionally fix. I grew up rural and worked on farms, but there’s a good reason cows kicked me!

Actually, it’s really not so bad. We get copious amounts of family time, meet lots of cool people with interesting stories, and there’s nothing quite like a steam engine whistle at five metres to shake loose the cobwebs that build up from reading too much theology. It’s like a call back to where the writing meets the road.

I’ve actually been learning valuable lessons from these jaunts down memory lane.

That whistle is a shrill reminder of a day we hardly imagine existed. A mere century ago things were very different. Cities now sprawl and the countryside is latticed with pavement and patterned by fields worked by tractors the size of the houses the first settlers raised a dozen kids in. There was a time when people actually cleared bush to survive. There was a time when land was worked for the very first time. Those old tractors with steel-studded wheels were groundbreakers in more ways than one.

For me, the sunny days of dust and constant drone of putt-putts has given new vision to my glazed-over screen-saver eyes. Comfortable in our advancements, affluent to a fault, thoughtless and deconstructionist of our pasts, we need a rekindled pioneering spirit. The spirit that shaped much of what made Canada and the United States unique—and which yet can be seen in the lives of recent immigrants—has cancerously become what historian Jacques Barzun simply calls “decadence.” We’ve settled in, hunkered down, upgraded the implements and lost our drive to find space where no plow blade has turned the ground. If personal cost or discomfort is involved, we’re against it. As much as this is true in many of our lives, it is certainly true for the vast majority of churches.

The Apostle Paul was always looking for a place where the gospel had never been preached, but we act like he pretty much swallowed up all the possible real estate. We have memories of an adventurous, entrepreneurial, missionary past, but now buy the secular line that such zeal is unnecessary, misguided and probably mean-spirited. All this works to close our ears to the commission to go, to be compassionate, and to be Christ-centred and Christ-sent people who pioneer with our Lord in inner cities and vacated hamlets.

Where is there ground yet to be broken for Jesus in your neck of the woods? For all of our new-fangled gadgetry, the land around us is spiritually dry, overgrown and unstewarded. The wildness and weeds are choking out life.

Who are the pioneers willing to take long-term, faith-filled initiative for a new day? Is there any room for this pioneering spirit in our churches?

What might the implements of a new pioneering season of Christian mission look like? Someday they too will look out-dated, but Lord knows we need them now. After all, just look to the fields, they are ripe for harvest.

Monday, September 08, 2008

For God's Sake

It’s harder to live your convictions in the trenches than to nod your head at the confessions in the pews.

Traditionally the expanse between our theological statements and our practice of the Faith widens over years inevitably creating a hunger for reformation, revival, or renewal – pick your revitalizing label. What is stated and what is lived effectively become two different realities and someone, somewhere concludes with the monks of yore who discovered the Gospels, long ignored in a monastery basement, “Either these are not the Gospels, or we are not Christians.” I’m wondering out loud if perhaps our practice is betraying our convictions in regards to the good we do, and why.

Consider our propensity to fundraise, as an example. Is it not the tiniest bit troubling that we increasingly give only if we get something in return? We have meals, accept trinkets, and definitely expect that income tax receipt. In addition, and we especially do this with youth, we expect that they will do something – like feed us, sell chocolates, or shovel driveways – to earn our generosity. All this work to earn subtly models selfishness and teaches that you have to work to earn favour in the Kingdom – and how does this shape their understanding of God and grace? Secondarily, funds raised tend to be spent primarily on ourselves – programs for our kids, conference trips, or to replace that gaudy 70’s orange carpet (okay, maybe this last one has some merit). Is this the essence of service? We should be asking how Kingdom-minded all this really is.

Two theological inconsistencies are at work here – we give to get and we expect what is given to be earned. How does this reflect the nature of God whose grace and salvation is neither earned nor deserved? A deep spiritual ailment has beset us.

Having been wooed by the pleasures of 21st- century ease we are unwilling to part with our hard-earned cash without some earthly return. We revel in Mammon rather than God and only do good for our own sakes.

What has happened to doing good for God’s sake?

Any truly God-centered good is selfless and if I expect something in return I either don’t really believe it’s worthwhile or I’m not truly doing good, but simply performing an act of covert selfishness. If it is worthwhile it is worthwhile because it is good for God’s sake alone!

Sacrificial missionaries raising their own support are questioned by the godly in their new cars as to why they need so much. Youth rarely look toward voluntary service or ministry or seeing all they have and are as mission, but are encouraged (even by parents) to grab as much of this world as they can. We pump dollars into our ourselves, we’re proud of our spires or of not having spires, while the world screams to make poverty history, to solve the epidemic of AIDS, to heal racial divides, for an end to terror, for something to fill the hole in our souls that all our excess has not satisfied – the world cries out for salvation. Meanwhile we, whose commodity ought to be grace, demand to receive in order to give. Is it just me, or does something smell like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)? Our practice betrays our theology. Stop this heresy for God’s sake.