Friday, May 25, 2012

No Longer, But Not Yet

I was engaged for four months before the big day. Engagement is an interval in time determined by things that are no longer and things that are not yet. The engaged are not really single, but not yet spouse. My experience of engagement was of a time in between. It involved longing (hey, I’m a guy and I was longing). It involved work (and a wedding takes a lot of it . . . or at least that’s what my fiancĂ© told me). It involved intentionally parting with the past, while not quite being able to step into the future. And it was a time that contained the moment of truth. Hannah Arendt, the late political theorist, describes what we know to be true, but don’t particularly like to experience. History does not lie. History—and our own experiences of times like engagement—reveal that the intervals of confusion in which what we have known is no longer, but what is yet to be is not yet, are precisely the seasons in which what is most true is revealed. The Bible tells many such stories and reveals God’s faithfulness and truthfulness in those lands in between. Israel’s slavery in Egypt was a long interval that contained a moment of truth: they were a people of the covenant. The generation of wandering in the wilderness was a no longer and not yet, but it contained a moment of truth: God was serious about making for himself a people. Israel languished in exile, a time of corporate identity crisis that contained a moment of truth: God wanted a people for the sake of the world and would do what it took to awake them to it. The world waited between the time of the prophets and the birth of Christ, a four-century gestation that contained a moment of truth: God waits for just the right time to be revealed with full disclosure. We also live in a land in between. We live between Jesus’ first appearance and his final coming in glory. He is the way, the truth and the life in this messy, hopeful interval. Given that we continue to be part of the shifting sands of culture and history, it is not surprising that we experience times that baffle, in which we are called back to the One who is the truth of every moment, no matter how unsettling. Are you and yours in a time of no longer, but not yet? Do you find yourself in the mysterious, miserable interval as the actors and witnesses who must become aware of the truth contained in the moment? Many believers, along with their churches and organizations, are these days. Confusion abounds because what once was seems gone forever—even as many fight to recapture seemingly lost ground—and what is yet to come is a strange and foreign land where we don’t understand the language or the maps. Isn’t it exciting? Many don’t think so. But let’s look at it another way. We are privileged—yes, privileged—to walk this historic interval where Christendom is a tourist attraction and the cultural trajectory is towards a world we’ve come from, but never been to. That’s not spin. It is truth. It has always been the actors and witnesses of the unsettling intervals between the no longer and not yet who have the privilege and responsibility of patiently and obediently anticipating that moment of truth when God reveals a new thing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


At 23, I was handed the keys to a pastor’s office for the first time. I remember the idealism leading up to the moment the key went in the door. This was a small church trying to find its way, and I was full of vigour, vision, and a healthy dose of naivety. I unlocked the door, sat behind a black metal desk on a creaky office chair, gazed out the window with all my so-called fresh thinking, and pondered a thought that has not yet left me two decades later: “What do I do now?” I’m amazed by the ongoing relevance of that question. I would venture to guess most pastors (and most leaders in any area of life, for that matter) ask this question regularly. There is much hankering for strategic plans, big vision, and becoming the fount of conference-speaker-worthy inspiration. However, I’m increasingly convinced what is most deeply needed among pastors and their churches is a fresh admission that, all things considered, we don’t know what to do next. Sound counterintuitive? It is. We expect our leaders to know exactly what must be done in every conceivable situation. However, pastors are in a state of discombobulation; an embarrassing place of unsettled confusion. The culture is quaking, and everything we were taught would work to grow a church is not working all that well. The more we press, the worse things seem to get. The quicker we think we can right the ship, the more she seems to toss uncontrollably. Mutton gets thrown in all directions – and sheep don’t tread water well. And, the more discombobulated things grow, the more enamored sheep become with the greenness of the grass on the other side of the fence. Genuine conversion growth is not much more than a trickle. Finances lag. The church as true community on mission is hard work. And, so, pastors are brought to this moment: Do we have what it takes to lure back the sheep? Do we have the courage to find new ways of fishing in the great sea of diversity we find ourselves in? Do we have to do both? Should we do both? Our times require long-term missionary faithfulness and leavening few have patience for. We’re replanting something. The fruitful orchards built by previous generations have been uprooted and, while clinging to the confession that must continually reform and renew us from within, we require a new form of mission for the new world we now inhabit. Any pastor who tells you they have that figured out is either lying or selling something. We’re all experimenting at the moment, and our only way forward is to ask with humility and honesty, “What do we do now?” Which brings us to Jehoshaphat. Threatened by superior forces, the king of Judah stood before his people and admitted he was bankrupt of ideas. The odds were stacked, the future looked bleak, and there was only one thing to do: point to the faithfulness of the Lord and his people’s utter reliance on God for their entire state of being. Jehoshaphat reminds God of his sovereignty, his acts in history for the sake of his purposes through his people, his holiness that cannot endlessly endure human arrogance, and then, boldly, says it: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). What do we do now? That’s the question we must return to as pastors and churches. Do we have our gaze fixed in the right direction? Have we relied on human ingenuity rather than the power of God? Have we ceased depending upon the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit? Have we embraced a spirit of competition as churches? We follow Jesus, but do we remain addicted to the same self-sufficient, hedonist nicotine the culture is hooked on? Have we forgotten God lifts up the humble, but brings down the haughty? We must receive the gift of discombobulation where we don’t know what to do, but are called to lean on, look to, and point toward he who has done it. Proclaim the Word. Follow the Spirit. Love. Serve. Suffer. Do justly. Be the discombobulated people of God for the sake of a discombobulated world.