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“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.  “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring [emphasis mine]

No one knows how long this pandemic is going to last and when we as a church shall be able to gather together again. But as Christians, our commission and commitment ultimately does not depend on our circumstances.  In this time of COVID-19, how are we “making the most of every opportunity”?  How are we spending our time?  Are we living our lives in anxiety or apathy?  Are our decisions marked more by fear than faith?

The COVID-19 is a big wakeup call for everyone, including Christians. This pandemic has reminded us in a big way just how uncertain life is.  What is our response as Christians? More than ever, we need to trust that God is in control, that He is our loving Father, and that we have an opportunity to pause during this season and reflect on what we truly hold to be most important in our lives. I am blessed that my wife and I had intentionally chosen to live simple lives, free from attachment to material possessions and the fleeting pleasures of this world.  We are truly content with the simple and modest lifestyle that we have. I am not saying this to boast, but to testify to the joys of living more simply and more sacrificially. It is a blessed freedom to live by faith and not by FOMO.

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” (Eph. 5:15-17; NIV)

The Damage Done

Division. Bitterness. Disappointment. Broken Trust. Severed Relationships. Deep Sorrow. Dishonour to God.

How did we get here?

Uriah Heep

THOT OF THE DAY:

Like “the little foxes that ruin the vineyards” (Songs 2:15), the obfuscation, obstinance and obsequiousness of a scheming sycophant can subtly sabotage our best efforts in a spiritually immature church.

 

By creating a narrative of an evil “deep state” and casting himself — a powerful white man of immense generational wealth — as a victim in his own right, Trump not only tapped into the religious right’s familiar feeling of persecution, but he also cast himself as its savior, a man of flesh who would fight the holy war on its behalf. “There’s been a real determined effort by the left to try to separate Trump from his evangelical base by shaming them into, ‘How can you support a guy like this?’ ” Jeffress tells me. “Nobody’s confused. People don’t care really about the personality of a warrior; they want him to win the fight.” And Trump’s coming to that fight with a firebrand’s feeling, turning the political stage into an ecstatic experience — a conversion moment of sorts — and the average white evangelical into an acolyte, someone who would attend rallies with the fever of revivals, listen to speeches as if they were sermons, display their faithfulness with MAGA hats, send in money as if tithing, and metaphorically bow down, again and again, at the altar of Donald Trump, who delivers the nation from its transgressions.

Alex Morris, False Idol — Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump

Leading the Way Forward

Quote of the day:

“Leaders with great goals pushed past all the conflict and tension, removed any doubt about self-interest, and dissolved the messiness and noise of the current state.”

—Mark Hannum, Become: The Path to Purposeful Leadership (McGraw-Hill, 2019)

First Allegiance

Ideally the church is different.  It is made up of people who are as varied as can be: rich and poor, learned and unlearned, practical and impractical, sophisticated and unsophisticated, aristocratic and plebeian, disciplined and flighty, intense and carefree, extrovert and introvert—and everything in between.  The only thing that holds such people together is their shared allegiance to Jesus Christ, their devotion to him, stemming from his indescribable love for them.

That is why it is always wretchedly pathetic when a local church becomes a cauldron of resentments and nurtured bitterness.  This pitiful state of affairs may erupt simply because there is very little at the social, economic, temperamental, educational, or other levels to hold people together.  Therefore, when Christians lose sight of their first and primary allegiance, they will squabble.  When social or racial or economic or temperamental uniformity seems more important than basking in the love of God in Christ Jesus, idolatry has reared its blasphemous head.  When protestations of profound love for Jesus Christ are not mirrored in love for others who profess to love the same Jesus Christ, we may legitimately ask how seriously we should take these protestations.

– D.A. Carson, Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation [emphasis mine]

Calm Down!

Much ink has been spilt over the fury and furor surrounding Brexit. In one of the more sober reflections I’ve read, the author writes:

We are likely to soon know whether it will be a catastrophe, a liberation or something in between. The biggest problem right now is that we, as a nation, are not in remotely the right frame of mind to address and adapt to the changes that will soon be coming our way.

So, please, Brits, calm down about Brexit. Calming down isn’t only a virtuous stance, but a practical one. We need to get through this and that will require addressing issues that arise calmly and with proportionate action.

We have a tough road ahead and none of us really knows where it will lead. We need less polarisation and more pragmatism, less hyperbolic zealotry and more keeping calm and carrying on. We will need to stiffen our upper lips, put the kettle on, and deal with it. Most of all, we need to calm the [f**k] down.

Perhaps this is a salutary reminder to keep calm in the midst of our ecclesiastical conflicts.

One of my students in my Bible study class is constantly worried if his faith is the real deal, if he’ll be found among the elect when Jesus returns. Would to God that the sleeping masses of professing believers had such a troubled conscience! In The Great American Swindling Of Christianity, Benjamin Sledge writes how vast numbers of religious people are duped into thinking they have the real thing, when in fact, all they have is a cheap imitation:

… there are a growing number of men and women who’ve been catfished, but by their faith traditions. They were lured in to believe one thing, but find themselves downing the proverbial bottle to scrub the bad taste and memories. Over time, they realize they’ve been the sucker of some charlatan preaching about how the poor inherit the Earth, all while the preacher in question flaunts his $1,000 Nikes from stage.

… in practice, we hate Christians for their inability to do the simplest task their teacher commands: To love their neighbors as themselves. It makes one wonder, what teacher are they following exactly? This Jesus character? Or money, fame, indulgence, convenience, and pleasure? Just who is duping who now? …

Recently, I was the target of a fantastic bait and switch. I bought a pair of gym shorts after seeing an online advertisement. …  The problem was that the real thing cost more than I wanted to pay. But isn’t that the case with most desires in life? In fact, isn’t that the glaring inconsistency in Western Christianity? People everywhere are settling for a cheap substitute, then it unravels at the seams. The real version, though, is costly.

… So while it’s one thing to say you’re a Christian, it’s quite another to be Christian. This is, indeed, the West’s largest problem. We identify as “the real thing” but most are frauds, just like my gym shorts. Pretty on the outside, but fraying inwardly.

Michael Gorman reminds us that “the apostle Paul wanted the communities he addressed not merely to believe the gospel but to become the gospel, and in so doing, to participate in the very life and mission of God.” (Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission)

To close, I quote Sledge once again:

This begs the question so many ask aloud: “Why don’t American Christians act like Christians?” But the answer stands boldly in the face of any rational thinker — we’ve been tricked, bamboozled, inoculated, and swindled. They say the greatest trick the Devil ever performed was convincing the world he isn’t real. I would contend the greatest trick he’s ever performed is amassing hordes of people who think they’re Christians, only to continue to act like the Devil himself. If Christ is to be taken at his word, then he intends to create little versions of himself who love, serve, bless, and care for those on the fringes of society. Today’s flavor of Christianity mimics the taste of New Coke, and everyone hates it. We “believe,” yet never behave.

So You Want to be a Model?

Our church has been going through 1 Thessalonians as a sermon series for the Fall, and my bible study class decided to undergo the same journey (though we are 1 week behind). To be honest, I’m glad we are doing so, because frankly, the constraints of a sermon means that much is left unsaid on the passage, or given only a cursory treatment at best (especially if the preaching is not expository). In studying 1 Thessalonians for myself, I am struck by how we fall short of Paul’s approach to discipleship: for Paul, it is not just about the message we proclaim with our lips but also the practice of our lives that matter.

Paul writes: “You know how we lived [ἐγενήθημεν] among you for your benefit … and you yourselves became [ἐγενήθητε] imitators of us and of the Lord … As a result, you became [γενέσθαι] an example [“model”, NIV] to all the believers …” (1:5b-7; CSB). Notice how Paul can confidently assert that the Thessalonians knew his and his co-workers’ manner of life (“You know”) when he was with them. Indeed, he repeatedly emphasizes that his Thessalonian converts can testify to his manner of life when he was with them:

“You know how we lived among you” (1:5b; CSB)
“For you yourselves know … as you know” (2:1,2)
“You are witnesses, and so is God, of how devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly we conducted ourselves with you believers.” (2:10)

Wherein lay Paul’s confidence?  According to the apostle, it’s “because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” (1:5a; CEB), or, taking the καὶ explicatively:

because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech
but also with power; that is,
in the Holy Spirit
and persuasively

That is to say, not only did the Spirit empower Paul to expound the gospel, but the Spirit also enabled Paul to embody the gospel, which convicted/persuaded the Thessalonians to embrace the gospel, i.e., they stopped worshiping idols and began serving the living and true God” (1:9; NCV). What about us?  Are we living out the gospel in our lives? It’s not about being religious or a nice person, but embodily expressing a cruiformic pattern of life in allegiance/faithfulness [πίστις, 1:8] to Jesus as Lord and King (over against Caesar).

Later in his epistle, Paul assures the Thessalonians that he is “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (2:4a; CSB); to be entrusted with the gospel means being faithful to its message, its meaning and its mode of expressing it (more on this in our next post when we look at 2:3–6). Paul did not compromise his integrity or his fidelity to the εὐαγγέλιον for the sake of numbers or making the message more palatable to his audience. So, with his integrity intact, Paul truly embodies the gospel, and hence, on behalf of his apostolic co-workers, he can “offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate” (2 Thess. 3:9; NIV).

Let us choose, however, from among the living, not men who pour forth their words with the greatest glibness, …not these, I say, but men who teach us by their lives, men who tell us what we ought to do and then prove it by practice …
—Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius; Letter 52: “On Choosing our Teachers”

In particular, as a challenge to those of you are who are called to shepherd the flock that Jesus died for and entrusted to your care: are you a faithful model to the sheep?

Take Me to Your Leader!

… an individual, working alone, is unable to satisfy today’s mix of personal, organizational, and global demands. Today, leaders at every level make choices to set aside personal ego and control, trust in their teams and talent, and better influence and direct others to achieve the desired needs of unique organizational systems.

– Wade A. McNair, LeadAbility: Transforming the Way We Live and Work Together

In the context I am thinking of, we are lacking in LeadAbility because of Conflict and Competition, in place of Cooperation and Collaboration. What’s missing is Truth and Trust.

The author closes his book with this pledge:

A Better Leader Pledge

I will be better today
than I was yesterday.
I will be better tomorrow
than I am today.

Every day I will choose to
Live Wholeheartedly,
Learn Continuously, and
Lead Courageously.

As a result, I will better my own life,
the lives of those around me,
and the world we live in.

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