Running towards trouble

Marine sergeant Jason Thomas was dropping his daughter off at his mother’s Long Island home when the planes struck the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001. Although Thomas had left the Marines a year previously, his instinct when he heard of the attack on the Twin Towers was to pull on his old Marine uniform and head straight to the scene of the devastation. As soon as he arrived, he ran into the dust and chaos of the collapsing skyscrapers, helping to rescue two policemen.

For about five years after the event, no-one knew who this anonymous hero was. When sergeant Thomas did reveal his identity, he was asked about that day and about why, when everyone was running away from the devastation, he ran into it. I can’t source the exact quote, but he said something along the lines of  “Marines don’t run from trouble, they run towards it.” Because of his training and background, his instinct was different from that of most of the people caught up in those terrible events.

Luke 15 records the story of someone defying conventional wisdom and conventional respectability by running towards trouble. When the prodigal son’s father saw him at a distance, he ran towards him:

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him (Luke 15.20)

No big deal, you might think. But you would be wrong. Not just plain wrong, but seriously wrong.

In ancient Middle Eastern culture it was considered impolite if not shameful for a grown up to run in public. If you wanted to be an upright, respectable person, you certainly would not run in public. What compounded further this breach of social convention was the fact that this man was running towards his estranged son who had wasted his inheritance. If “Here comes trouble” was the reaction of most of the neighbours when they saw the wild child making his way home, then the boy’s dad was ready to run into trouble.

And that was only the beginning of the trouble. Once the boy was back home his estranged elder brother decided to show his true colours. His years of apparently faithful service to his dad proved merely a fragile shell concealing bitterness and resentment. Nothing reveals our true hearts like the sight of someone being blessed whom we feel is undeserving. The father’s efforts to heal the brokenness of one son, revealed the brokenness of the other. The trouble was that the brokenness of the elder brother threatened the healing of his broke and broken sibling. Trouble. We don’t know how or even if the trouble ended. Jesus leaves us with a scene of celebration and sourness and a father’s joy tainted by the his eldest son’s hardheartedness.

Jesus originally told the story to show the love of God the Father. He also used it to highlight the destructive attitudes of Israel’s religious leaders. Sad to say, the church has sometimes, perhaps often, been more like the elder brother than the father. What I am entitled to “get out of church” becomes more important than what we can “give out of church”. Rules replace grace and returning prodigals are crushed by the kind of territorial mentality that drove the elder brother.

Jesus is looking for people who, with the heart of His Father, will run towards trouble. Run towards troubled, broken people. Run into the chaos and confusion of broken lives with the love of God.

Sergeant Thomas commenting on that fateful day in New York said: “Someone needed help. It didn’t matter who. I didn’t even have a plan. But I have all this training as a Marine, and all I could think was, ‘My city is in need.'”

Your city needs you. Your town needs you. Where you live needs you. Perhaps it’s time to run towards trouble.

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Three Voices of Easter

D.H. Lawrence once wrote a short story called The Rocking Horse Winner.  It tells the story of a family who are outwardly, successful but behind the scenes there is great anxiety about money. The anxiety is heightened by a lifestyle that is beyond their means. The money worries become so intense that their children can feel as though they hear the house whispering “There must be more money”.

One Christmas their little boy is given a rocking horse as a present. Somehow he find that if he rides his rocking horse long enough he can predict the names of winners in horse races. Over time, with the help of his uncle and the gardener, he earns a small fortune that he anonymously gives to his mother. As Derby day approaches, he gets on his rocking horse. He rides the horse for hours, until he eventually has the name of the winner revealed. The horse wins the family £80000, but the young lad, is so exhausted that he dies the next day.

Pure fiction, maybe. A morality tale, perhaps. A criticism of materialism, definitely. However, it illustrates what can happen when we listen to the wrong voice.

As the time of His crucifixion approached, Jesus had differing voices contending for his attention.

On Palm Sunday, the voice of approval spoke loudly. He was hailed as a Messianic king. Though He came in peace, the palm branches strewn before Him symbolised a desire for revolution and the hope that Jesus would be that revolutionary leader. The voice of expectation almost always accompanies the voice of approval. Jesus refused to allow His mind to be controlled or His mission to be compromised by either. He did not need the crowd’s approval, although He accepted it. And though He received their worship, He was no slave to adulation.

How we handle popularity and approval might reveal as much about us as how we handle opposition and setback. A desire for approval can become an addiction as spiritually lethal as any physically destructive narcotic. A need for constant approval more than likely indicates poor spiritual and emotional health.

The temptation, especially for leaders, is to live off the approval of others, and to enslave ourselves to their expectations.

Five days later the voice that was clamouring for Jesus’ attention was a completely different one. The voice of approval and the voice of expectation had yielded to the voice of rejection.Voices that had shouted His praise the previous Sunday were now among those calling for His death.

What might be hard for us to take in is that Jesus was as much, if not more, in the will of His Father, when a hostile crowd and hostile religious leaders were calling for Him to be crucified! The reason that I believe that this is hard for us to take in, is that most people do not question whether or not they are in the will of God when life is going well, but they do question their spirituality and calling when life is difficult. Yet Jesus was every bit as much in the will of God in Pilate’s judgment hall, as He was when the crowds welcomed Him as king.

Handling rejection and opposition is a skill that any Christian in general, and any Christian leader in particular, must learn. Jesus taught His disciples this skill. Peter devoted most of his first epistle to instruction on how to cope with suffering. And how to do it without allowing rejection to shape your identity.

How did Jesus resist the voices of approval and rejection?

I would suggest that He was able to resist both because there was another voice that He heard more loudly and heeded more intently. That voice was the voice of His Father’s affirmation.

On two occasions the Father had spoken from heaven affirming Jesus as His beloved son (at Jesus’ baptism, Matthew 3.14; and at the transfiguration, Matthew 17.5). In that week leading up to the crucifixion, the Father spoke again, intensifying the affirmation that He had previously spoken over His Son: “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’” (John 12.28). Amazingly, Jesus was already so secure in His Father’s love that He said the voice was for the benefit of the people!

Knowing the Father’s love is the key to faithful and effective ministry. It is also the key to emotional and spiritual stability. It is a knowledge of His love that can guide us through the confusing voices that call for our attention at Easter or any other time of the year. May the voice of His affirmation echo throughout your heart and mind, however loud the voices of approval or rejection.

If you keep your destination in mind, you don’t have to detour

A few years ago a Syrian lorry driver boarded his truck in Turkey and set out for Gibraltar. Like most drivers in the twenty-first century, he typed his destination into his satnav, and set off. Sometime later he found himself at Gibraltar Point in Skegness, sixteen hundred miles away from his intended destination on the rock of Gibraltar.

No doubt the said lorry driver will look back on the escapade with a smile in years to come, but it is hard to believe that he or his employers saw the funny side when he landed in Yorkshire.

Confusion over destinations is not restricted to Middle Eastern lorry drivers. It’s been known to cause many a domestic argument. “Where are we going?” and “Where should we be going?” are questions that reach far beyond the route to a delivery destination or holiday location.

In Genesis 27 the events that unfold in the lives of Isaac. Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, might best be understood if we asked “Where were they going?” and “Where should they have been going?” The deception and ensuing disappointment that worked its way out in the events surrounding the passing on of Isaac’s blessing, had their roots in Isaac’s loss of direction.

Genesis 25.28 records:  Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob” and therein lay a wrong turn on the road to a faithfully fulfilled calling.

The psychological consequences of his favouritism would have been devastating enough in themselves. What made his favouritism even more damaging, was that Isaac was walking a path that was going in the opposite direction to the route God had given to him and Rebekah. Verse 23 of Genesis 25 reveals that God had made it very clear that Jacob not Esau would inherit the blessing.

If you want to keep on track with God’s purpose for your life or for His church, staying connected to your prophetic destiny is crucial. What does that mean? In another generation it would have been described in terms of obedience to the revealed will of God. Isaac somehow became disconnected from what God had spoken about his family.

The “taste for wild game” played a big part in this. This theme dominates the whole of chapter 27. Isaac thinks he is dying and he wants a meal of wild game before he dies. That takes Esau away from the scene and gives Rebekah and Jacob opportunity to execute their strategy – actually it was Rebekah’s strategy. That strategy involves trying to substitute the wild game with a goat. And then Esau, too late, returns. Isaac’s unbridled taste for wild game has led his family into permanent breakdown and division. It never was the same again.

When we lose our sense of God speaking, when we disconnect from His revelation, we end up in the flesh. In the New Testament, the church at Galatia did just that.The mind governed by the flesh, says Paul, in Romans 8.6, is death. Allowing the flesh to lead us doesn’t just bring pain on ourselves, it brings pain to those around us.

Eventually, Isaac reconnects with God’s purpose. In Genesis 28, he finally acknowledges that God’s hand is on Jacob and sends him off with his blessing.

God’s promise is that He will get us there in the end (Philippians 1.6). Whether that’s by way of a spiritual detour or not is largely up to us.