Spider-Monkeys in the City

Brit and I and the four kids got back last week from a four night visit to Halifax. We put in 3310 km and 36 hours of total van-time (along with a great many McDonald’s cheeseburgers and Tim’s breakfast sandwiches). Our kids are great road-trippers and we had a blast together.

Halifax has been on our radar for church planting. Landing there in the next year seems more and more like a real possibility. This is both exciting and frightening.

We stayed at an Airbnb equipped with Netflix, so we watched a couple of episodes of Planet Earth II together.

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One episode featured a family of spider-monkeys and focused on the daily challenges of being a spider-money. Jungle life is no joke. Unbeknownst to these little creatures, David Attenborough had the cold, hard facts on them, and sombrely narrated: “Only 1/3 of these monkeys will survive to adulthood.”

To survive, Attenborough said, the moneys have to be tough monkeys. Tough and smart. Monkeys that develop their jumping and swinging skills faster than other monkeys are the ones that survive. The jungle is competitive, and only the strongest, smartest, luckiest spider-monkeys make it.

When I think of church planting, I feel the same pressure.

I have to be tough, I think, because only tough church planters make it. And I need to be smart. I need to not just be a good church planter, but an innovative and unique one–the city is a competitive place, after all.

I hear David Attenborough’s voice narrating as we walk around Halifax: “Only 1/3 of these church planters will survive past three years.”

Thankfully, there’s a better word than Attenborough’s.

Speaking to the apostle Paul, whose life was one of weakness and distress and pain, our Lord said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Once, Paul had begged God to remove a “thorn in the flesh,” a constant reminder of Paul’s weakness. And this is how God responded: not by removing the thorn and replacing it with strength and smarts, but rather with a renewed promise of sufficient grace. God would not turn Paul into a great and powerful man, but would use Paul’s weakness as a conduit for his own power.

When God paints, he likes to use unimpressive brushes.

This answer would have hardly been surprising for Paul. He witnessed this upside-down reality in his ministry, pointing it out when encouraging other Christians:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

I doubt spider-monkeys experience the dread and fear I sometimes do. For their sake, I hope they don’t suddenly freeze, catch their breath, and, high up in a tree, begin wondering, “Do I have what it takes? Am I strong enough? Will I make it, will I be okay? Am I just another weak monkey?”

Paul no longer needed to be strong. He didn’t need to be worried about competition or lack of resources or the rate of persecution among apostles of his time. Because of Jesus’ grace he could say, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Church planting is going to be hard. It has many challenges. There have been many before me who have tried and failed (in a manner of speaking). I’m planning on working hard. I hope to be wise and bold wherever I’m called.

But my comfort and hope isn’t strength and smarts; it’s in the God who gives grace to the weak people he chooses to work through.

“… Johnson?”

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I am a blessed man.

The Bible teaches there is blessedness in obeying God and turning from sin (Psalms 1 and 24). And yet as I sit at my desk, often feeling not a bit obedient or faithful, the fact remains: I am blessed by God.

Genesis 15 is the story of God blessing Abram by entering into a covenant with him (along with Gen. 12 and 17). This covenant ensured perpetual blessings of life and land and legacy to Abram. His family, and eventually all the families of the world, would get wrapped up in these blessings.

Abram’s faith in God and the covenant promises was all that was required of him (v. 6).

Now, what did Abram’s new life of faith look like? Did he roll up his sleeves and get to work? Did he strategize land acquisitions and draft fertility charts?

…for a blessed man, rest is a most appropriate response.

No. He took a nap: “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram” (v. 12a).

Imagine this scenario in a corporate boardroom:

“Well, Johnson, I believe the contract is in order. I’ll take you into my organization. This guarantees the perpetual growth of your company for generations. Congratulations, Johnson.”
“Zzz… zzz…”
“… Johnson?”

“Fear not, Abram. I am your sword and your shield. I will bless you and yours from this day until forever.”
“Zzz… zzz…”
“… Abram?”

Abram believed. He was blessed by God. And for a blessed man, rest is a most appropriate response.

Everyone’s a Prepper

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Lots of people will tell you where the world is going.

The world is either going swiftly down the drain or it’s evolving into something greater. It’s either on the edge of destruction or at the dawn of a new era.

Everyone has an eschatological outlook; an imagined telos of all things. And so men build high or they dig deep. They spend or they invest. They weep or they laugh.

But it is the preacher’s task to declare that the future is all about Christ just as the past was all about Christ. Jesus’ redemptive work is central, not only to the Bible, but to all of human history.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15-17, 19-20).”

So what will the future bring? What do we need to prepare for it?

We need a faith that looks to a Saviour who will fulfill every promise he makes.

Ever Gardening

markus-spiske-104913-unsplash.jpgIn Gen. 1:26 and 28, we read that our first parents were made by God to “have dominion” over everything in creation and to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Verse twenty-six relates this function simply to our being made in God’s image: we image God in the way we  are the undisputed rulers over all of creation. In verse twenty-eight, this role comes out of a blessing: “God blessed them and said to them…” A person is, just by showing up, a creation-ruler, and they are sent out to do this work with God’s blessing.

The way humans carry out this work is through the altering of creation. The English word “culture” has agricultural roots related to cultivating, tilling, and caring for land. Human culture alters the landscape of the world, in every way. Through culture, that is, the works of art and science, humans exercise their dominion. They then have babies that grow up to carry on this work of culture-making and creation-shaping, and on it goes.

Admittedly, humans as a whole don’t have a good track record with culture-making. Every culture we’ve made so far bears the sin we brought to it. Most of us can’t handle our smartphones in a responsible manner, and yet we’re in charge of the planet and its lifeforms?

It’d be nice at this point to have the option of opting out. Take a pass on the whole creation mandate-thing. But the gardener who stops weeding is making a horticultural decision; he’s exercising dominion in his own lazy way.

Bruce Waltke observes, “The issue is not whether human beings will develop culture; the only issue is what kind? Will it be godly or ungodly? Will it be motivated by agape (God’s love) or eros (self-love)?” Imaging God is simply inescapable for those made in his image.

So at work, at home or at school, we are always gardening and tilling and shaping the world. And whether we do it well or poorly, we will do it nonetheless.

 

The Lost Boys

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_The_Return_of_the_Prodigal_SonShall we start with Luke 15:11-32?

Let’s.

I once started a week of teaching at youth camp with this parable, and if you think about it, the internet has a whole lot in common with youth camp.

This parable teaches that God is in the business of seeking and saving lost and wandering people. And boy, business is a-booming.

The setup for the story is found at the beginning of the chapter: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”

The religious leaders were none-too-happy that Jesus was spending his time, you know, seeking and saving sinners. Jesus, ever the equal-opportunity pursuer, shows there’s no type of sinner he won’t go after.

Exhibit A: The parable of the man who had two sons.

The younger son in the parable is selfish and shortsighted. He’s an ingrate. He’s the party boy that’ll do whatever it takes to make Saturday night memorable.

The older brother in the parable is scrupulous and proud of it. He is rich in works but poor in relationship. He is like your uncle who stayed at home to “take care of his parents,” but his hatred for them and his siblings is a menace, darkening the home.

And yet, to the younger, the father in the parable, “ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” and to the older, he “went out and pleaded with him” to return home.

So, dear reader, Jesus is going out to you, whichever of the sons you’re more like right now.

If you’re still at home, but want to leave. If you’ve left the faith, secretly or openly, and are trying to live it up elsewhere while your resources dwindle. If you’re beat up by the world and slowly coming to your senses. If you’re already walking back home (or considering it) and wondering how God will receive you. If you’ve been pacing just outside of the house, angry at God for what he’s withheld from you and given to others. Or, if you’re any other version of a lost boy, the Father is seeking you.

And for that reason, welcome to camp, and welcome to my blog.