Thursday, March 17, 2011

Deliverance From Somewhere Else

The story of Esther is stunning in its providential beauty and hope. Despite God never being named, the book bearing a Jewish Persian Queen’s Gentile name—a wonderful twist of biblical irony—is received as Scripture, as God’s very speech. Esther is God doing sign language. God writes himself out of the story, but not out of history. The I AM receives no cameo. No token merci, gracias, danke or thanks is given the Almighty. God is silently active.

Uncle Mordecai’s poignant challenge (Esther 4:14b) to his queen-niece is oft recited: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” That’s a moving question. That dog will hunt. Them there words will move you to the core.

There is, however, a subtle danger in hinging the praiseworthy courage of Esther on these words. It can leave deliverance in human hands. Somehow we will do it. The story without God risks becoming a “Yes we can!” fairy tale. Were that the case, it would never have been received by Jewish or Christian tradition as Scripture. Hence, the story’s power, although revealing Esther’s courage, must find its source elsewhere.

Back up a few lines before Mordecai’s question and hear this: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:14a).

We could say fear of impending doom was the key motivator in Esther’s risky breach of Persian protocol. But, again, that misses the point and makes the story a human yarn. Look more closely. Mordecai confidently articulates the sure hope of deliverance. Salvation will come for the Jews. It does not depend on Esther; she simply has the providential responsibility and privilege of right place and time. Deliverance depends on the unseen hand. Esther can either be swept along or be swept away. Rooted in her trust in the Lord as the “one who delivers,” who acts and is acting even when it seems he is conspicuously absent, Esther steps into the gap.

Many are bemoaning the demise of the church. We get all overcome with emotion over what we can do to deliver ourselves from extermination, sure that salvation rests in human ability rather than God’s action. We risk writing a story that is not worthy of being called tradition in the long run.

God is a deliverer. He is always acting and stirring. He is always providential even when his silence screams. He is acting now. He is presently transforming lives, neighbourhoods and congregations. He is birthing new movements of the Spirit. He is on the move. Jesus said the gates of hell will never prevail against his church.

The question is whether or not we, as one strain of the Christian tradition, will stand on this confidence and join God in another wave of his gracious acts, or will he need to use someone else who will join him even at the risk of perishing. Have we become so confident in our own ways, comforts, religious systems and supposed wisdom that we will simply drift into the archives rather than be present participants with the providential deliverer?

Will we, as church planter and pastor Ed Stetzer, author of the LifeWay Research Blog, asks, “be the groups that reach postmodern culture, or will God have to bypass us and use others?”

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Skate in Another's Sledge

Where were you on Feb. 28, 2010? For Canadians, that was the glorious day of the golden goal: St. Sidney’s slick shot that eluded American goaltender Ryan Miller. Not only did Canadian water consumption ebb and flow with the intermissions of that game as fans left Sidney, Roberto, et al to visit “John,” but the day showed again that Canadian culture is increasingly entwined with the new myth of hockey.

Eighty percent of Canadians watched some part of that gold medal game. We were dragged willingly into the meta-narrative of a new patriotism, as the vast majority of us wanted to be identified with this moment of national self-definition.

Where were you on March 19, 2010? Unless it’s your birthday, chances are you can’t remember. That was the day Canada’s sledge hockey team lost the bronze medal game to Norway at the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. It passed almost totally unnoticed and without the angst that would have filled the airwaves had Canada’s other Olympic men’s hockey team had to settle for silver. We are selective in our devotion and prejudiced in our “religious” affiliation.

Until a couple years ago I played hockey regularly and loved it. Then life with a quiver full of little people caught up to me, and mustering the time, energy and money to get out with the guys became a challenge. As it’s been over two years since I’ve laced them up, that makes me a Canadian backslider of post-biblical proportions.

But in this new year, my son and I decided to return to the ice. We wanted to do it together, but it’s difficult finding a place where a teenager and 38-year-old can play together—until we found sledge hockey. Once a week we strap on the pads and slide our heinies into a sledge and “skate” with people of various ages who see the world from a completely different angle. The vast majority of participants are disabled.

We have chosen to do this, but this is life as they know it. The experience has become a great teacher. Not only am I keenly aware of new parts of my behind that can go numb, I am also newly aware that life as I see it—even from a mere 172 centimetres (5’8”)—is not the be all and end all.

As I bomb around the ice knowing I can get up and walk away, I see able-bodied people watching me like I’m from another planet. I am an anomaly to them, an alien, a peculiarity. They gawk and leave, wondering at this strange sight. I overhear conversations between parents and their kids: “Just be glad you can walk!”

Then the missiologist in me kicks in and I realize many Christians look at their world this way. “Be glad you’re not like them,” we say, whoever “them” is. Or we just stare, bewildered by strangers and their strange ways.

I am learning once again the need to leave the world as I know and want it, to engage the world from an unfamiliar angle. Is this not the essence of the incarnation that has wrought my salvation? Have we forgotten that this way of life is not only a command—“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21)—but also what has made Christians of every age strange? Maybe that’s what Peter means when he reminds us we are a peculiar people (I Peter 2:9). Perhaps, saved by grace, we are to skate that grace in another’s sledge.