Beyond the Voices of the Bazaar.
Asking the question: "what are we meant to do and be in our Christian lives?" is increasingly a pointless activity. While the answer is still very useful, the possibility of success in finding an answer is doubtful or rather the likelihood of finding many answers, each mutually exclusive or contradictory, is increasing. Christianity is becoming a Bazaar - a multitude of small stalls, each with an eager salesperson in front crying their wares and forcing the Christian passing by to enter and solely invest themselves in the process, truth or belief they are selling.
Think about the threads that supposedly make up a good Christian walk.
We are to spend quality time in God's word; spend a number of hours in prayer (for our Pentecostal and charismatic brethren this must include a significant period of time speaking tongues both going into intelligible prayer - the preparation model - or going out of intelligible prayer - the exhausting the natural model.).
Of course the most important thing is to ensure that our children have quality parenting including being trained up in the Lord, prayed through into the kingdom and released into ministry - presumably the ministry of raising their own family of Christians.
But then the most important thing is building a good marriage, putting your spouse first and ensuring that the relationship is strong. Men are to love our wives in the same manner as Christ loves the church, and women are to reverence their husbands.
We are to be heavily involved in our local churches. We demonstrate the quality of our discipleship in the number and variety of the meetings we go to: church twice or thrice on Sunday, the mid week prayer meeting as well as small groups and the business meetings of the various ministry roles we undertake.
We have an obligation to lobby various levels of government, show support for the homeless, the poor and the disadvantaged. Of course we must also make our voice heard on the moral issues that face our society: abortion, homosexuality, war and refugees.
In a practical sense we must meet the needs of the disadvantaged and marginalised: housing the homeless, feeding the hungry and ministering to the elderly and disabled.
The most important thing though is evangelism itself. If we just meet peoples needs here on earth then we condemn them to hell after a comfortable life. We are placed in a specific location and a specific time. We are responsible for those round about us and the generation that we are born into.
But the church is really called to make disciples of all nations. We as Christians and the churches we belong to must reach out and support missionaries as they spread the gospel to unreached people groups.
I think I could continue but you should have the point now. Each of these things are good things, right things, and can be demonstrated as sound Christian teaching. Yet if any Christian attempted to achieve all these things to the level that their proponents suggested, they would never sleep and would be attempting the 40 hour day.
Today I am the father of three boys, the husband of a wonderful wife, I have pets and a house to maintain, I have a demanding job with high stress and in some cases long hours, I average 10 to 15 hours a week on ministry and ministry related activity in addition to church involvement, I read the bible through every 8 months and try to spend 30 to 40 minutes in prayer each day and I regularly ask myself about "balance"
I say that I do all those things but often one or more areas are neglected - usually the areas that are the most important. Equally the result of me doing all these things is often not the kind of Christian character I require.
Ultimately it is a question of direction: are we being driven by what God has said or by what the Bazaar has said that God has said?
I think of the Christian leaders that I have most admired and wonder how they did it. Whitefield spent anything up to 60 hours per week preaching - not preparing to preach but actually in front of his audience. Rees Howells split his time between working a long shift digging coal with a pick axe and running an extensive mission in the next town - walking the miles each way. Jackie Pullinger worked while running a youth club for triads, spending her spare time, instead of sleeping, in jails and hospitals visiting the youth she was working with when they were in trouble. Their lives were filled with constant work; constant care and their timetables put mine to shame.
We can look at the lives of these leaders, and many others, and gain a model of ministry and discipleship that is not very helpful in a search for "balance. If we look at these lives from the surface we are confronted with a basic question that is a corollary of the "balance" question: "Is Christianity primarily about doing or primarily about being?" If we answer that it is about doing then the role of the Christian is to run in ever decreasing circles attempting to live up to the Bazaar definitions of Christianity.
Lets go back further than the Whitefields, the Wesleys and the Pullingers, to the earliest times of faith and consider one called "the father of faith": Abraham. Abraham lived 175 years and in that time he did very little. You could take pretty well everything recorded in Genesis about the life of Abraham and make a good attempt at scheduling it within six months to a year. He left his country and wandered, dug some wells, fought a few battles and talked to some kings. If the life of faith, the life of righteousness was about doing then Abraham was an abject failure.
Throughout his life Abraham demonstrated what it means when we begin to suggest that Christianity is about "being". Abraham lived by herding sheep and goats. There was a strong thread throughout his life of worship and thankfulness. To project this aspect of Abraham's life into today's terms, Abraham went to church each Sunday, loved his family and spent time in prayer and the word. His life in a very basic way lived the tenets and practises of his faith. His life was the equivalent of many other people of his time, and if we project to this time, of many faithful everyday Christians in our churches.
I have stated that Abraham's life was ordinary - filled with very little. In one sense that is true in another it completely misses the point of the story of Abraham's life. Abraham invested his whole life in two related things: his pursuit of covenant or relationship with God and the pursuit of the dream and promise of God.
It is not activity that gained Abraham the title "father of faith", it was his heart attitude to his God. In a series of events, Abraham placed God's direction above the sensible. He obeyed the direction of God to achieve the dream that God gave him: that of an inheritance in the land and the nations that his descendants would form. He chose to leave Ur of the Chaldees to become a wanderer; he chose to trust God to give him a true heir. He chose to sacrifice that heir, the heir that was to deliver the promise.
The difference in Abraham was his level of engagement. The difference in Abraham was the level of his hunger for God and the things that God was offering him.
Since before Abraham's time to now, a person who follows God can choose a series of messages from the Bazaar that will keep them very busy, very comfortable but allow them to miss the core of what it means to be a Christian. I have come to the conclusion that being a Christian is not about the many messages of the Bazaar but about my level of engagement. To be a "balanced" Christian my expression of Christianity must be equally valid if I work hard or do nothing. It is not about what I do but about my response to God and my saying yes to the challenges that he confronts me with.
In the decisions we make we shape our lives. There are consequences that we will experience for every choice we take. In the case of Abraham some of the consequences he lived with were that of a nomadic existence, the risk of having to deal with bandits and armies alone, the hard work of self-sufficiency - herding sheep. He allowed God to challenge him in those areas, made the choices that God wanted and then gladly lived with the consequences.
The alternative was to avoid the challenges and choices and wall God out of certain areas of his life. Surely Abraham could be more value in Ur where there were people he understood and whose language he knew?
The voices of the Bazaar can be very compelling when offering an alternative to the challenges and choices that God is presenting. How can it be wrong to follow what is clearly Godly and Christian teaching? The issue is not so much what but that it is not the what that God wants.
King Saul was instructed to completely destroy the Amalekites. Instead he saved the best of the livestock and Agag the Amalekite king with the intention of sacrificing the animals to God (1Sam 15). This was a case of doing what may seem right but missing the core of God's requirement. This act finished Saul's reign over Israel, after this he was a dead man walking.
Equally Christians today can be in the position of choosing the voices of the Bazaar to avoid the voice of God calling them to specific dedication, response and activity. The voices of the Bazaar are easy to justify.
Equally, saying yes to the challenges that God places before us, can lead to the specific voices in the Bazaar that are the choices God wants us to make. A journey to the voices that God chooses results in a life that is immersed in the reality of the Kingdom. A journey to the voices that avoids the choice of God means that all we do is play the game of church.
The difference is the level of engagement. Without a hunger and thirst for God and the things of God we can live our lives without ever entering in to the centre of God's will. The heroes of the Christian faith held in common a hunger and thirst for God that would not let them rest until they saw God's purpose achieved with or without them. A life that evidences a lack of hunger and thirst for God tends to also lack real intimacy with God.
A young couple scrimped and saved, making huge sacrifices to get married. They sacrificed jobs, vacations and educations because those things stood in the way of a speedy marriage. Finally they were married and in their own home. Strange thing, they refused to be in the same room as each other preferring to always be apart, talking by telephone, passing notes under doors or calling through keyholes.
This absurd picture is the norm for many Christians. Huge cost has been expended for each Christian. It has been expended by God and the Christian so that they can be in intimate relationship and yet the level of reality of God in the life of many Christians is less than any other relationship they have. Test the level of reality, the level of intimacy you have with God. List everything that is of value in your life and consider whether if you lost everything but still had God at your present level of relationship, whether you would be happy?
Alternatively ask the opposite question; "if your level of involvement with God reduced, while you retained everything else that was important to you - possessions, church, friends, family, jobs etc - would you be happy?" Most Christians would say no - that is the correct answer and a more troubling answer is avoided.
There is a spiritual entropy, left to themselves our relationships with God deteriorate and grow cold. In biblical terms it is described as losing your first love or in major cases, falling away. Sometimes we think that these things are a sudden event, rather in most cases they are gradual over time, with the sudden event the realisation of how far away from God we truly are.
They say that if you take a frog and put it into hot water it will jump out. If you take the same frog and place it in cold water and then heat that water, the frog will quite happily stay in the water until it dies, never noticing the temperature that will eventually kill it.
The Whitefields, the Wesleys and the Pullingers each became engaged, each addressed, said yes to the challenges that God placed before them, and were led to their specific voices in the Bazaar. Whitefield to becoming the greatest open air evangelist ever and the sole support of an orphanage in Georgia, Wesley to reforming the Church of England and founding a new discipleship, Pullinger to a slow boat to China, the evangelism of the triads and thus the transformation of the walled city.
The challenge for me, the challenge for today's Christian is to seek engagement with God, to seek real intimacy, the seek the reality of the kingdom; or to follow the voices of the Bazaar.