Jesus and the Three Spirits

 

Hi, everyone.

I hope you enjoyed last week’s sample chapter from my new book Your Church is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down. I’d love to hear what you think.

Here’s another sample chapter.

Enjoy!

Shalom Mark

Chapter 13

Jesus and the Three Spirits

Things come in threes.

That’s the folklore, anyhow. Good things, bad things: all follow a tri-fold pattern. You lose your car keys, then break the coffee urn, then your water tank ruptures. One, two, three. Or, pleasantly, you win dinner for two at the new Italian restaurant, then get an unexpected check in the mail, then the boss gives you a raise and a week’s get-away for your hard work and great attitude. One, two, three.

Well, maybe it works that way.

Just as often, though, things comes in ones, or twos, or a dozen. I think, more likely, our minds have a certain Trinitarian structure and rhythm to them, so three-fold patterns tend to light up our grey matter, set our synapses humming.

All the same, I have noticed a three-fold repetition in the ministry of Jesus – and, by extension, in churches who join Jesus’ mission in the power of his Spirit.

Almost every time Jesus said anything or did anything, three spirits attended. Almost, you could say, three spirits woke up. They stood to attention, at high alert. They engaged. They stopped whatever else they were doing, and came running.

The first, most obvious, is the Holy Spirit. It’s unhelpful, I know, to talk about the Holy Spirit “waking up.” But we do know that we can quench the Holy Spirit. We can refuse or sabotage his fire and passion and vigor so frequently that, for all intents and purposes, it dies within us. And we know that we can grieve the Holy Spirit. We can spurn or trample so often his love and compassion and wisdom that the Spirit within us is wrenched with sorrow. I think, also – this is only a hunch, with thin biblical warrant but ample empirical evidence – that we can bore the Holy Spirit. We can love comfort and evade the Kingdom so habitually, the Spirit eventually loses interest.

Whenever and wherever Jesus showed up, the Holy Spirit began leaping. You see it as early as the day Mary, ripe with child, showed up in the home of her relative Elizabeth, even riper with child. John the Baptist, just hearing the voice of the Christ-bearer, leaps in the womb. It’s deep unto deep. It’s the Spirit testifying with his spirit that the Son of God is in the house. And we see the Holy Spirit roused to full alert whenever, wherever Jesus appears. Jesus comes to town, and crowds come running, demons start shrieking, the desperate become hopeful, the powerful grow afraid.

All in all, the Holy Spirit’s afoot and afire. This is arguably the most obvious thing about Jesus and the early church: wherever, whenever they appeared, the Holy Spirit showed up, howling down the rafters, shaking lintel posts, loosing tongues, giving valor, healing sickness, raising the dead.

But other spirits showed up, too. Evil spirits. Vicious, malicious, predatory, unclean things awakened and mobbed together, wreaking havoc however they might. I’m not sure, I’ve already said, whether Christians sometimes bore the Holy Spirit. But I am close to a hundred percent certain that Christians sometimes, maybe oft-times, bore evil spirits. Too seldom do we pose any threat. Too seldom we live in such a way as to arouse even faint alarm in the heart of Beelzebub. Too often we get so preoccupied with Screwtape’s old shop-worn tricks – jealousy, suspicion, divisiveness, discouragement, a spirit of complaint, and so on – we give him no cause to come up with anything fresh. He can toss into our midst a little bone of rumor, and get us fighting over and gnawing that, and meanwhile he can just keep doing whatever he does in his spare time, never mind us.

Not so when Jesus arrives. Then, all hell breaks loose, since it’s the only tactic the devil has when all heaven breaks in. He typically puts on quite a display – bellowing, writhing, gnashing, mouth-frothing. It’s Linda Blair on speed. All his antics pose not the slightly twinge of worry in Jesus. He deals with it, fast, hard, decisively. And so too his disciples, once they get their training wheels off. One thing is clear, though: that when Jesus is on the move, the demons get no rest, find no shelter, lose all cool, drop all guises. They resort to open, unconcealed aggression of the nastiest sort. Jesus deals with it, lickety-split, and plants the Kingdom ensign on the rubble. The church doing Christ’s mission with Christ’s heart in Christ’s power should expect no less – full demonic assault met with decisive Kingdom conquest.

Those are two of the three spirits awakened by Jesus and his Bride.

The third spirit is often more noxious than the second. Indeed, it is often simply the second spirit – evil spirits – masquerading as something good.

I speak of the religious spirit. Wherever Jesus arrived, the religious spirit was soon aroused, to withering disdain, to cold fury and malice aforethought. This is a spirit the evil spirits enjoy taking captive. It’s a dangerous spirit because it’s evasive and camouflaged. It shape-shifts. It’s seditious, insidious, always posing as its opposite: keeper of virtue, upholder of purity, protector of doctrine, defender of truth. It’s rigidity masking as piety. It’s control pretending to be watchfulness. It’s judgment posing as discernment.

The Holy Spirit is only ever what it is: the pure presence of Christ.

So, too, an evil spirit. It is only ever what it is: the pure presence of the Anti-Christ.

But a religious spirit is never what it seems. It’s corruption masquerading as goodness.

And it’s very hard to cast out. Almost impossible. Jesus could dispense with evil spirits with a single word. One command, and they were flung headlong into fiery torment, shrieking their protest in vain.

But Jesus could not cast out a religious spirit with a thousand words. Indeed, the more he spoke to it, the more it cloaked itself with God-talk and strutted its impeccable credentials. You know the general list: sat on this board since before the dawn of time, taught these studies for years beyond numbering, read the Bible end-to-end every year for decades, tithed and then some since childhood. And so on.

Jesus met those people all the time, and made nary little headway with any. Consider, for example, the trajectory of John’s gospel, from chapter 7 through chapter 12. The religious leaders mount an increasingly belligerent attack on him personally and on his work. They begin with semi-polite requests for his bona fides, move to increasingly shrill accusations against him – he’s got questionable parentage, he’s had no schooling, he’s a Samaritan, he’s demon possessed, he’s an enemy of Rome – to, finally, hatching a plot to kill him. All the while, Jesus explains to them who he is and what he’s doing. But with every word he speaks, their ears grow duller, their opinions louder, their vision cloudier.

It’s hard to get past all that, or through to that.

An example. This portrait is fictitious, but assembled from many real encounters.

Let’s call her Deirdre. Deirdre grew up in a good Christian home. In fact, her religious pedigree goes back centuries, and includes prominent and founding members of churches stretching all the way back to the Scottish highlands on her dad’s side, the English mid-lands on her mom’s. Her grandmother and grandfather met at a holiness conference in Keswick, England. Her own mom and dad attended Sunday School together at First Church in a small farm community in Saskatchewan, and both can tell funny stories of their third grade teacher, the formidable but lovable Ms. Doolittle, who drilled them with Scripture and made them learn it by heart. Deirdre’s father was First Church’s youngest lay preacher – people compared him to C.H. Spurgeon. He went on to become a full-time pastor, then a missionary in Indonesia, and then an officer in their denomination. He died of a stroke at age 63, speaking at a Revival conference.

Deirdre was married at 17 to a boy she had met in Sunday School, just like her parents. What was never talked about was that she had to get married because there was a problem—she was pregnant. Deirdre was sent to Calgary for her last year of school, and the baby was promptly given up for adoption, but she was made to marry the boy anyhow. They’ve made the marriage work, largely by staying busy and staying out of each other’s way.

Deirdre and her husband came west for reasons they’ve never talked about. Within weeks, she was involved in three or four things: teaching Sunday School, organizing the women’s ministry, delivering hot meals to shut-ins, and volunteering to answer phones at the church when the secretary needed to get the bulletin ready for Sunday. Within six months, she was superintendent of the Sunday School, and helping with the Youth Group. She’s also mentored three young moms, and visited the shut-ins she delivered meals to.

The pastor couldn’t believe his good fortune. He didn’t know how the church had ever managed without her. When a position on the Deacon’s Council came available, he heartily suggests her name. She happily accepted it.

And then the trouble began. There are a number of things Deirdre’s observed at the church, and she feels she must, now that she has been given the sacred responsibility of being a Deacon, speak them out. To wit:

• The toys in the nursery are not properly sanitized, and a number of them are unsafe for small children.

• The sign at the church entrance does not say that we’re part of the Convention of Bible-believing Kingdom-come Teetotaling Baptists. People should know this before they come through the doors.

• Nowhere in our constitution have we taken a position on the events surrounding the Second-Coming of Christ. This is potentially confusing for people. And where do we stand on those matters?

• Likewise in the Constitution, nowhere have we spelled out our position on Creationism, Biblical inerrancy, birth control, drinking and smoking, or what we’d do if we found a gay person in our midst.

• She saw one of our Youth leaders talking with a married man downtown. She’d like the pastor to deal with this.

• Is there a policy about how short the skirts can be for people on the worship team? If not, can we make one?

• Is she the only one who sometimes finds the pastor’s sermons a little – she doesn’t want to say “liberal,” but doctrinally fuzzy? She’s kept a record of instances of this, and she’d be happy to share that with any of the other council members.

• She appreciates our church’s helping street people and the like, but should we put our energy (and money) into those people when our own church members rarely if ever get a visit from our own pastor?

And that’s just the first round.

The pastor now wonders how to get rid of her. Every time he tries to talk with her about any of this, it either goes nowhere, or it gets worse. And it turns out that Deirdre talks with a lot of people. She freely shares her growing concern about all the things with which she’s growingly concerned, and she tells the pastor “a lot of people” feel this way. When he asks her to name anyone, she replies that sharing names would be a breach of confidence, and she’s surprised the pastor would even ask her to do such a thing.

Most of us who’ve spent any time in the inner workings of a church will find this portrait, fictional though it is, eerily familiar. And most of us are nonplussed by it. No prayers, no confrontations, no frank discussions, no backroom deals make it go away. One day, mercifully, Deirdre and her ilk usually leave of their own accord. They leave embittered, accusatory, and often try to sabotage the church from a distance. The pastor is relieved almost to giddiness. The only thing that spoils his happiness is the thought that seven Deirdres, each worse than the last, might be on their way.

Deirdre is the embodiment of the religious spirit.

Now the point of saying all of this was to say that all three spirits – the Holy Spirit, evil spirits, and religious spirits – rouse whenever Jesus is in the house.

They can’t help it.

The Holy Spirit is necessary, since apart from him we can do nothing.

The evil spirits are inevitable, but easy to identify and clobber.

But the religious spirits are inescapable, and nearly impossible to deal with.

So what shall we do?

I’m learning the art of holy indifference. One of John Wesley’s biographers described the man’s “regal disdain for trifles.” That’s brilliant: a kingly contempt for trivialities. Most of what the religious spirit cooks up is too petty to waste a moment on, too paltry to dignify with a response. And too toxic. This spirit’s offerings are not just flighty things pretending to be weighty things, but rancid things posing as sacred things. It’s bile passed off as holy water. Poison hidden in a chalice.

What I’m learning is that we don`t have to drink it. This is one cup you can let pass. In my early days of pastoring, I didn`t heed that. I drank from the cup every time it was offered to me. I drank, and it rankled, twisted, and inflamed me. I allowed it to eat me alive. And always I would find that the more I fought against the religious spirit, the more I became it. I fought bile with bile, pettiness with pettiness. I rarely did this openly. But that’s part of the way it works: rarely is anything done openly. Instead, it`s done secretly, furtively, in a sideways manner.

Wisdom refuses to stoop to this.

Which isn`t to say I just ignore it. We still need to confront the religious spirit. Jesus did this repeatedly. He called it out of the shadows, named it for what it was, and made it clear that the Kingdom of God will not be beggared by this spirit. It will not be held ransom. It will continue its work of healing and liberating and proclaiming.

If the religious spirit is at all as I`ve been describing it, then of course its preferred haunt would be synagogue on Sabbath, or church on Sunday. Its stage is not the public square. It shows up on hallowed ground, amidst consecrated halls. It inhabits the place set apart for worship and prayer and the public reading of the Word. This is the place the religious spirit gravitates to, because it’s camouflaged for just such an environment. It can perfectly mimic the gestures, postures, tone, and language of this place. It can go for years undetected in these quarters.

Until provoked. Until Jesus shows up.

So Jesus often encountered this spirit at church, as you do.

There was, for instance, the man with the shrivelled hand. I think I met this guy once, so to speak: one hand perfectly fine, wide and leathery and strong as a hydraulic pump from having to do double duty, and the other a wilted and bony rag of a thing, curled in on itself like a small animal dying. His bunged hand trundled up under his arm, carried there like a loose package awkwardly jutting, threatening to drop.

Anyhow, if that was him, Jesus ended up meeting him in church. And the watchdogs were watching. The religious spirits were hovering. They figured Jesus might be stirred with one of his odd emotions – love, compassion, tender-heartedness, that sort of thing – and that he might make a move. And he doesn`t disappoint. Best I give the story in full:

On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shrivelled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.

But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”

He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”

He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.

These stories can be multiplied. Maybe most glaring is the account that follows Jesus’ most spectacular miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead. The Pharisees are so alarmed by this, they call an emergency meeting of the Jewish High Council, the Sanhedrin, and after urgent debate they come to fierce resolve: “from that day on they plotted to take his life.” They don’t in any way deny the miracle: they defy it. They pull out all the stops to destroy the author of such wonders because “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

The last thing the religious spirit wants is Jesus “going on like this.” It’s dangerous, subversive, a threat to order. It imperils temple and nation, the touchstones of religious pride and identity.

Stories like this must have fed the imagination of Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky as he wrote his famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. In that riveting piece, Ivan Karamazov, ever bent on destroying the sweet faith of his brother Alyosha, tells him about Jesus walking into Seville, Spain, “during the grimmest days of the Inquisition. When throughout the country fires were burning endlessly to the greater glory of God and… wicked heretics were burned.” Ivan goes on to explain,

Of course, this was not the coming in which He had promised to appear in all His heavenly glory at the end of time… No, He wanted to come only for a moment to visit His children… He came unobserved and moved about almost silently but, strangely enough, those who saw him recognized Him at once…drawn to Him by an irresistible force.

But the crowds surging around him draw the attention of the Grand Inquisitor, a man ancient, austere, terrifying. He seizes and imprisons Jesus, and intends to execute him, but only after he spends the night lecturing him on why he is a threat to the church and to public order. He explains to Jesus that only three forces can “overcome and capture once and for all the conscience of these feeble, undisciplined creatures, so as to give them happiness. These forces are miracle, mystery, and authority.” He claims that Jesus “rejected the first, the second, and the third of these forces and set up his rejection as an example to men” when he spurned the devil’s three temptations. What Jesus offers people, the Grand Inquisitor accuses him of, is freedom. And that is an intolerable gift. People don’t know what to do with freedom.

Ivan ends his story this way: 

The Grand Inquisitor falls silent and waits for some time for the prisoner to answer. The prisoner’s silence has weighed on him. He has watched him; He listened to him intently , looking gently into his eyes, and apparently unwilling to speak. The old man longs for him to say something, however painful and terrifying. But instead, He suddenly goes over to the old man and kisses him gently on his old, bloodless lips. And that is His only answer. The old man is startled and shudders. The corners of his lips seem to quiver slightly. He walks to the door, opens it, and says to Him, “Go now, and do not come back… ever. You must never, never come again!” And he lets the prisoner out into the dark streets of the city. The prisoner leaves.

Alyosha asks Ivan, “And what about the old man.”

“The kiss,” he says, “glows in his heart… But the old man sticks to his old idea.”

The old man sticks to his old idea: the epitaph of those who love the religious spirit.

This is not a counsel of despair. It’s a counsel of reality. It’s facing squarely a biblical fact: wherever the kingdom of God forcefully advances, opposition mounts fast and hard – and much of that opposition comes from within the camp. I have stopped counting the churches I know where a great vision embodied in a godly pastor has died a brutal death at the hands of those with a religious spirit. I wonder how many of those pastors would have carried on in the face of that spirit if they had known, for one, that these spirits always show up when Jesus is on the ground and, for another, that the best way to deal with them is to defy them.

Going to Mordor

 

Hi, everyone.

My new book, Your Church is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down, is ready to launch.

Here’s a sample chapter.

Enjoy!

Mark

 

Chapter 5
Going to Mordor

Historian Daniel Boorstin documents a momentous shift that occurred in North America in the 19th Century: we stopped calling people who went on trips travelers and started calling them tourists.

Traveler literally means one who travails. He labors, suffers, endures. A traveler – a travailer – gets impregnated with a new and strange reality, grows huge and awkward trying to carry it, and finally, in agony, births something new and beautiful. To get there, he immerses himself in a culture, learns the language and customs, lives with the locals, imitates the dress, eats what’s set before him. He takes risks, some enormous, and makes sacrifices, some extravagant. He has tight scrapes and narrow escapes. He is gone a long time. If ever he returns, he returns forever altered.

In a sense, he never goes back.

A tourist, not so. A tourist means, literally, one who goes in circles. He’s just taking an exotic detour home. He’s only passing through, sampling wares, acquiring souvenirs. He tastes more than eats what’s put before him. He retreats each night to what’s safe and familiar. He picks up a word here, a phrase there, but the language, and the world it’s embedded in, remains opaque and cryptic, and vaguely menacing. He spectates and consumes. He returns to where he’s come from with an album of photos, a few mementoes, a cheap hat. He’s happy to be back. He declares there’s no place like home.

We’ve made a similar shift in the church. At some point we stopped calling Christians disciples and started calling them believers. A disciple is one who follows and imitates Jesus. She loses her life in order to find it. She steeps in the language and culture of Christ until his word and his world reshapes hers, redefines her, changes inside-out how she sees and thinks and dreams and, finally, lives. Whatever values she brought into his realm are reordered, oft-times laid waste, and Kingdom values take their place. Friends who knew her before scarcely recognize her now.

A believer, not so. She holds certain beliefs, but how deep down these go depends on the weather or her mood. She can get defensive, sometimes bristlingly so, about her beliefs, but in her honest moments she wonders why they’ve made such scant difference. She still feels alone, afraid, sad, self-protective, dissatisfied. She still wants what she always wanted, and fears what she’s always feared, sometimes more so. Friends who knew her before find her pretty much the same, just angrier.

You can’t be a disciple without being a believer. But – here’s the rub – you can be a believer and not a disciple. You can say all the right things, think all the right things, believe all the right things, do all the right things, and still not follow and imitate Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is made up of travailers, but our churches are largely populated with tourists. The Kingdom is full of disciples, but our churches are filled with believers. It’s no wonder we often feel like we’re just going in circles.

******

I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was 15. That was 1975, more than 25 years before Peter Jackson’s vivid screen adaptation of the trilogy. For me, the books were vivid enough. They wracked and tumbled me like some elemental thing, a wind storm, a landslide, a flash flood. Every night for several hours, I inhabited Middle Earth tangibly. I stood in its grassy meadows and rocky heights, under its canopy of stars. I bathed in its rain and basked in its sun. I lolled in the idyllic peace of Hobbiton, but fretted over the shadow moving toward it. I traveled – travailed – with Sam and Frodo on their way to Bree, pursued by dark riders. Together, we wended through the treacherous forest of Mirkwood, enjoyed the Falstaffian hospitality of Tom Bombadil, traversed the haunted barrenness of the Barrow Downs. We picked up Merry and Pippin and Aragorn along the way, then travailed on to Rivendell, arriving in the nick of time and barely breathing.

Rivendell was such a relief. Rivendell, the Elfin kingdom high in the craggy folds of the Misty Mountains, is a paradise. A place safe and serene, immune, it felt, from the shadow stretching over all Middle Earth. I wanted to stay there for good, with Frodo and Sam and all the rest. To sleep in warm beds and wake in light-soaked rooms. To eat delicious, plentiful, nourishing meals. To wander through ordered gardens, and pass over stone bridges under which rushed waterfalls as they sluiced from great heights to great depths. I wanted the story to end there, the drama to resolve there. Rivendell was a place of unbroken tranquility, and I wanted to dwell there for good.

It was not to be. Soon after arriving, the Fellowship of the Ring is formed – a rickety alliance of nine mismatched pilgrims, a dwarf and an elf, two men, four hobbits, and a grizzled and elusive wizard – who venture into wonders and dangers, battles and betrayals, wrong turns and detours, all with a singular mission, though no real sense how to accomplish it: they must get to Mordor and destroy the ring. The ring is a thing of hypnotic seduction and despotic power. If it falls into the hands of its maker, Sauron, his power will become boundless and his evil all-consuming. The shadow will become all there is. The ring can only be unmade in the place it was made, melted in the fire it was forged: the bowels of Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor.

Mordor is as close to hell as any place short of hell gets.

It’s a dangerous mission. It’s a hopeless mission, but their only hope. It’s a mission that cannot be accomplished by armies, treaties, even strategies, but only by a total and vulnerable incarnation: the smallest, weakest creatures, Frodo and his ever-loyal but none-too-bright companion, Sam, most don the disguise of evil and walk into the very heart of darkness, climb its Golgotha, and face its evil head-on. They must face it personally. Only then can that evil be broken and defeated, for them and for everyone. They are willing to lose their lives for the life of the world.

Which sounds like another mission we’re well acquainted with.

The point here: no one accomplishes such a mission, or joins it, or heralds it, as a mere tourist. Only a travailer can. Only a fellowship of travailers can.

But there is a subplot here. That fellowship is a fellowship in name only when it is formed back in Rivendell. In the place where life is easy, where good things abound, where no threat encroaches, it’s impossible to get a dwarf and an Elf to trust each other – even to be civil with one another – if their lives depended on it, precisely because in a place like that their lives will never depend on it. They can live forever there in their prideful independence. They need rely on no one. They need not trust anyone. They can simply become more entrenched in their belief that they are superior, all else are fools.

But you have to give up those illusions when you go on a dangerous mission together. There, each needs what the other brings. Each must learn to trust and rely on everyone else. Each must be humbled, and stretched, and burdened. Each must be willing to sacrifice the things that they cling to – their stuff, their status, their comfort, their dreams. And out of that willingness, deep cries to deep. Iron sharpens iron. Enemies, sworn enemies with personal and historic resentments, become friends, willing to lay down their life for the other. There is no request too great, or need too perilous, that each won’t turn heaven and earth for the sake of the other.

Tourists make poor companions. Those who dwell in Rivendell form frail and shallow community. Only travailers – only those who venture out together on a dangerous mission – form community, community with sinews and sturdy bone. Travailers discover how hard, and needed, and beautiful, and life giving community like that is. Together, they risk much, and give much, and suffer much, and love much.

Meanwhile, back in Rivendell, every one’s doing just fine on their own.

I love that the church of late has discovered the power of life together. Or, at least, we talk about it a lot. It’s deeply right that we seek to nurture that life together over lingering meals, rambling conversations, leisurely walks, dropping in on one another unannounced.

But if we’re not careful, we’ll have a perfect life in Rivendell and forget about Mordor. We’ll prefer fellowship to mission. We won’t ride up to the gates of hell and demand they give way. We won’t invade the heart of darkness and overthrow it. And, in the end, the depth of our life together will show it: we’ll be acquaintances but not soul mates, buddies and girlfriends but not brothers and sisters, willing to help each other out in a pinch with a meal or two, a little housework, the loan of a car for a few days, but not “sharing all things in common,” not “considering others better than ourselves.”

Any church too safe became that way because somewhere, somehow, they started wanting to dwell in Rivendell more than travel to Mordor. They started caring about fellowship more than mission, and in the end lost both.

I often hear talk that pits fellowship and mission against one another, treats them as competing imperatives. “Why are we caring for all those people when we’re not caring for our own?” The logic here is that pursuing mission means neglecting fellowship. But the opposite is true: to neglect mission is to destroy fellowship. Mission enhances fellowship, and fellowship strengthens mission. This isn’t to say that our fellowship becomes easier when we take seriously our mission. In significant ways, it becomes more difficult. It just becomes necessary. It changes from a middle-class luxury to a working-class necessity. We stop being picky and get desperate. We probably argue with one another even more when we’re on a dangerous mission together – after all, the stakes are so high – but we usually argue about things that matter. We laugh harder, cry more often, fight more fiercely, and endure greater hardship. We risk much, and give much, and suffer much, and love much.

Has your church lost its mission? I can guarantee that, if it has, it’s also lost, or soon will, any meaningful fellowship. It might look like Rivendell around the place, but each will keep increasingly to his own. No one really needs anyone else, and if they did, they’d never say. After losing your mission, it’s only a matter of time before your fellowship become that in name only.

*****

There’s a fairly easy way to measure whether your church has a dangerous mission: do you desperately need God and one another to accomplish it? I don’t simply mean praying before you work and needing a sufficient handful of volunteers to run your programs. I mean that, aside from God showing up and showing the way, and aside from people laying down their life with you (or for you), what you’re trying to do won’t get done. I cannot do it without you, and we cannot do it together without God. True mission requires leadership, volunteers, resources, and strategies. It calls for brainstorming and trouble-shooting sessions. But above all, it requires a fellowship where God works mysteriously, continuously, providentially to do more than we ask or imagine. To the extent that we can look at anything we’re accomplishing and account for it on purely empirical grounds – anyone with the same team and resources could pull this off – it may be a good thing, but it’s not a true mission. A true mission is eleven men, terrified, bickering, huddling in a hidey hole, who turn the world on its head within a generation. A true mission is a solitary man, gathering with other men and women, and spending his life and health to abolish slavery in England. 

Or less historically monumental, but just as significant: it’s a church that decides the best protest they could mount against abortion is for its members to open the spare rooms in their homes to pregnant teens, or the church who chooses to do the same to end the plight of the homeless in their community. Anyone who’s attempted even a little bit of this finds out soon enough that, except we’re in this together and God be our helper, it is not just hard: it’s impossible.

******

I love the scene near the end of The Return of the King, the third instalment in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. The fellowship is now physically scattered but forever bound together. Frodo and Sam are somewhere in Mordor – alive, but for how long? The city of Gondor, the last bastion withholding Mordor’s forces from overrunning all Middle Earth, has won a costly victory: they’ve temporarily driven the enemy back, but much of it fortifications lie in ruins, and its armies are decimated.

A war council is drawn. They are reduced to a desperate measure: the last remaining fighters could storm the gates of Mordor. It’s a crazy, suicide tactic, bound to fail. The only good it will do is distract the eye of Sauron momentarily, and so buy Sam and Frodo, wherever they are, some time to accomplish the mission. The argument on one side is to not attempt it. For it likely won’t succeed, and everyone will die trying.

Gimli, the dwarf, speaks, and sums up the council so far. “Harrumph. Vastly outnumbered. Zero chance of success. Certainty of death.”

Then he pauses. He bunches up his bristly eyebrows, and skewers everyone with his fierce unflinching gaze. And then he delivers the resolve: “Well,” he demands, “what are we waiting for?”

Jesus said that he himself builds his church on the foundation of our total allegiance. That church, his church, the gates of cannot stand against. We will storm those gates, crash them, trample them, and raid the kingdom of darkness inside.

Vastly outnumbered? No, greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world. 

Zero chance of success? No, through him we are more than conquerors.

Certainty of death? No, though we die, yet shall we live.

Well, what are we waiting for?

*****

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