This is adapted from a talk I gave (over Zoom) to the All Nations Staff Meeting here in Cape Town last week:
Well, for those of us in South Africa, we are 5 weeks in and honestly, I have lost interest in countdowns. I have come to the stage where my original adrenaline and introvert enthusiasm for an enforced hermitage have either drained out or been fulfilled and many of us have hit a wall.
An Overwhelming wall
If you, like me, have had your fill of Instagram challenges, facebook tags, Whatsapp groups. If you have mowed your lawn to an inch of its life, painted each room in your house a new colour, washed your car enough times that you have begun to see what is under the paint, and you are done, I am with you.
For others, there has been more focussed activity; zoom calls that blend into one another, emails, pings and a flood of COVID-19 articles, forwards and cries for help. A whole new re-tooling by reading a million homeschooling articles, making sense of zoom school schedules that are different for each child, figuring out the time and emotional bandwidth to fulfil Pinterest’s desires for your ‘creative’ family time. It’s no wonder that many people are overwhelmed. An airborne disease with no cure and a new way of life that seems to require more, not less of us in the midst of it. The world is experiencing a concurrent crisis like most of us have never experienced before and we are finding the low tide mark of our character and our inability to operate in ways that seem human nevermind ‘Godly’.
While these realities have been turned into the latest meme’s and Facebook forwards, it feels few people have the supposed luxury that is a level of margin required to consider, what might it mean to become, as new testament scholar Gordon Fee calls it, ‘A People for God’s name’. What does it mean to see our lives become God-shaped in this season?
Finding yourself in Genesis
At the beginning of God’s good story, we find the foundational claims about what it means to be Human. Many of us who have been Christian for a long time need to get back into this text. We need to recover the nuance and wisdom that exists in it, which has been buried under our simplistic children’s bible inspired imaginations around what is really going on. Early on we see, as the pinnacle of God’s good creation, the creation of humans. We see that God created image-bearers, people who represent his presence and reign and take on the task of priest-ing the creation to God and God to the creation.
So far so good, we are made to image God and in that way, we are deeply gifted, important and particularly precious within the context of what God has created. But as many of us know, by Genesis 3, things have gone painfully wrong. But rather than rushing to our normal assumptions here, let’s look at the particular way in which Adam and Eve ‘fall’ in Genesis 3. Most of us have been implicitly trained to name sins as most heinous when they are the most visible; murder, sexual immorality, stealing etc. But what happens in Genesis 3 is far more subtle; what Adam and Eve are tempted by is the invitation to ‘become like God’. Of course, at one level they are being tempted with what they already have. They have already been made in the image of God, but the particular temptation, the foundational human temptation before the other sins we have thought of as the ‘worst’, comes the desire to become like God without God.
Those of us who are ‘professional’ or ‘serious’ Christians have pretty much mastered staying away from the big sins. Most of us know which sins are bad and will incur the judgement of others, and the ones which have become culturally acceptable and therefore bear less immediate consequences. But ‘professional’ and ‘serious’ Christians are particularly at risk of this foundational sin. We are in one sense, deeply committed to doing things that represent God. Our desires are to minister in the name of God, by the power of God for the glory of God, and yet it is quite possible to act out these desires while our hearts as Jesus said to other well-meaning religious people, can be far from God.
Meeting overwhelming needs
A couple of weeks ago, we were offered a police permit to break the South African household lockdown and join a nearby NGO in distributing food parcels in Masiphumelele. The community where many of our most significant friendships exist and where we have worked for the last 11 years. I jumped at the chance and was partnered with one of our dearest Xhosa friends as a co-conspirator in this distribution task. Needless to say, social distancing and ‘staying in your homes’ is a complete impossibility for most living in Masiphumelele. Therefore, in great contrast to the predominantly white suburb I had been stuck in, Masi was alive with people on the streets and I effortlessly elbow-bumped into lots of the children and teenagers our pre-lockdown weeks are normally filled with. In addition to these life-giving spontaneous connections, many of the families we were tasked to deliver food to were deeply grateful and it felt good to feel like we were meeting a need.
The second half of our distribution took a decidedly different tack. With my friend and I well acquainted with the geography of the more congested and streetless area of shacks at the back of Masi, we opted to deliver these parcels by hand. As word, which as it does, quickly got around that food was being handed out, rather than being able to knock on people’s doors as we had before, we were greeted instead with a seriously anxious crowd.
My co-conspirator walked through the crowd in her characteristic self-assurance, I followed attempting to imitate her sense of confidence. She proceeded to make clear public service announcements employing the full strength of her considerable ability to vocally project, I attempted to sheepishly address those closest to us appealing to the difficult predicament we were placed in.
We failed and had to retreat lest we stir more anxiety than necessary and become the focal point for frustration and the tangible sense of powerlessness that was in the air. It seemed our decision was well made as the same crowd later than day threatened to flip over a minibus taxi with food parcels in it, which as one Xhosa friend commented, they most clearly were capable of.
This experience of being physically overwhelmed gave way to a sense of emotional overwhelmedness that emerged through the rest of that day. I realised that the NGO had valiantly arranged for 1500 food parcels in a community of around 60,000. Even if each NGO operating, each church surrounding and within this community mobilised, the level of economic need resulting from the COVID-19 crisis is overwhelming. It is, in short, governmental.
That is why in the following days, I was overjoyed to see the response of the national government which increased SASSA and similar grant levels to the point where most should technically receive a ‘livable’ if not ‘thrivable’ income in the near future. While the enormous economic needs might be beginning to be met by the government, just another step or two back reveals that economics although vital are not the source of Masiphumelele’s needs either. The economic situation is the fruit of the sins of greed, excess, inequality that were a scourge both in South Africa and globally far before COVID-19 became a factor. These ills flow from broken hearts which need connection, with God, with others, with itself even. The need is vast and overwhelming.
I was beginning to become aware, that while I might be called in the name of God, to work by the presence and power of God, I am not God, and neither are you.
So where does that leave us? In a fatalistic and apathetic malaise twiddling our thumbs amid a global crisis? Certainly not, but it does mean that we need to come into contact in fresh ways with the limitedness of our human frame.
At this point, it might be worth taking a moment to ask yourself, more importantly, to ask God in which ways you have been tempted to seek the level of control only available to God? ( Where am I trying to be God or serve out of guilt )
The Humility of Humanity
As we saw at the beginning of Genesis, we have been made good, we have been made gifted by God to image him. Normally, we have, by now in our lives, figured out what we are good at and what we are not. Those of us who are missionaries, or just what I earlier termed ‘serious’ Christians have normally found ways to see our gifted expressed in ways that help and serve those around us. This is good and what God intended.
By Genesis 3, we see a world that by the simple yet profound actions of Adam and Eve experience brokenness for the first time. Adam and Eve don’t just experience it but it gets inside of them. Genesis then is not just a nice historical tale about origins, it is a story we are meant to read and see ourselves in. Paul is aiming at this when he councils us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. So now, post-Genesis 3, we are all gifted, but we are all broken too.
Somehow Genesis 3 also reveals to us that our brokenness may not just be on one side of a scale named ‘Bad’ with ‘Good’ being on the other side. Our gifted and brokeness have somehow become mixed up in one another, our desire to become like God which is good, can be pursued wrongly and be the very essence of brokenness and sin. Sin, Genesis 3 reveals, is subtle and it’s far easier to mistake exactly because of how it is mixed in with our gifting and calling. We see that we can do things for God and yet as I mentioned earlier, that in those exact actions our hearts can be far from God.
Finally, Genesis reveals to us and the experience in Masi that day revealed to me, that we are limited. We can only be in one place at a time, can often only do one thing well at a time. Our particular time in history and the excessive technologisation of our lives makes this a particularly difficult truth to hold on to. Many of us are experiencing the felt-pinch of our limitedness. We cannot be a plumber, teacher, student, missionary, gardener, friend-to-all, zoom-call expert all at once. Once again, our internet-connected lives seem to offer us the ability to be in all places, know all things, and control all things. To see this as the mirage it only takes being in a conversation with a person who is replying to someone else on WhatsApp. We begin to recognise a person cannot be ‘present’ here while attempting to be ‘present’ somewhere else.
To live well, to become as I referenced earlier, a People, or a person, for God’s name requires us to live in the conscious truth of these three things which are always true about every person. You are gifted, you are broken, you are limited.
The limits of our limitedness
When we come into touch with the God-given limitedness we have received, through a situation like this current crisis, we can tend to respond in one of two ways;
1) We retreat into apathy and disillusionment
2) We engage in what a writer on the Spiritual life Richard Foster describes as, “Muchness and Manyness”
Given that most of you who are drawn to an apostolic missions movement are likely to be drawn towards the second and time doesn’t allow me to address both, I’ll describe the second way and offer some final thoughts on how to respond to God in the midst of it.
Muchness and Manyness
Once we hit a wall, we suddenly realise that we do not have what it takes. This disturbs us, at a deep heart level, realising we are not in control. Our minds know this to be true, but our hearts are naturally seeking comfort and safety in a dangerous world and so we reach for whatever control we can. What we can most often control is what is right in front of us, we make a plan, we hustle, we dive in and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. That last word picture should be a good enough image to convince us that this results in sheer exhaustion.
Busyness may feel rewarding on the surface, we may feel like we are getting something done, making something happen, but actually, the busyness is simply a symptom that we have lacked the courage to confront the realities of our hearts by getting lost in the realities of our lives. A friend recently shared a picture of what this process is like; Imagine a waterskier flying along behind a boat, our lives are so often like this, we are moving at blurry speeds just about managing to sustain the impossible, but at a key moment we have to let go of the rope and sink into what has been beneath us this entire time.
I am not in the camp that believes God has somehow caused this crisis. I believe we are living in a broken world that is in bentness and rebellion against its creator. But in a situation that we cannot control, we are offered an invitation from God. An invitation to reflect deeply where the desires to get busy with good things come from and why it seems they so often lead us to neglect the deeper attention it takes to participate with God’s work within us. A work that could make us less anxious, more trusting and more peaceful not just busier. Will we respond to this invitation? Will we trust that God is working to see good come through our lives amid difficulty and suffering?
When we refuse to slow, to take account, to pay attention we numb ourselves to the deep work God is longing to do to bring us to Christlikeness. In Daniel 7, an otherwise strange and apocalyptic piece of literature to modern ears offers us some searing insight into our modern world. In verse 25 it says the strategy of the enemy, the strategy of antiChrist is to ‘wear out the saints’. That is the result of our busyness. The enemy does not need to catch us up in some heinous sin to take us out of action in God’s Kingdom, he just needs to keep us busy enough that we lack attention to God’s loving presence and connection those he has placed around us to love and be loved by. The enemy just needs us to get busy and anxious enough about the things around us that we lose vision and heart for God’s good and beautiful kingdom moving in and through our lives.
So how do we turn from the busyness and return to the easy yoke Jesus’ said those that followed him could expect? The writer of Hebrews offers us this;
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
We fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who has marked out a way for us and calls us forward into his likeness. We are called like him to set the joy of our Father’s face before us, recognising that He is the human one who by the power of the Spirit endured dark times of suffering. He was resurrected and has now, as fully human and fully God made a place for us in the presence of God. Even in the midst of Corona-Virus as we get stuck in powerlessness and a lack of control, we can enjoy the friendship and communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We do this so that we would not lose hope, we live as gifted, broken and limited people who know who and what they were made for and don’t need to strive to be any more or settle for any less.
So how do we fix our eyes on Jesus at this time?
Well, maybe you like me are feeling overwhelmed by the many needs shouting for your attention? A vague list of needs creates a background din, a hum of vague guilt that leaves us drained, lamenting our limitedness rather than embracing it. One way that can be helpful can be creating some silence and space in your day to create a list of all these things. Only then can you work through them with your attention fixed on God to hear which ones you can meaningfully engage with and which one you have to give back to God in trust that he is the saviour and we are not.
In this time we must learn to tell the truth about ourselves. The truth that we are gifted and have much to offer the world in love and service. We are broken, not all that we say we do for others has been fully refined by the self-giving love Jesus models. We are limited, there are only so many people who I can meaningfully love as my neighbour and the rest I entrust to God.