May 16

Mission and the Hiddenness of God

John Haralson

It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.
Proverbs 25:2

Back in the early 90’s, I was a new Christian. I read all the theology books I could get my hands on and listened to a ton of sermons on cassette tapes while driving up and down I-75 between Tennessee and Georgia. During that time, one of my friends turned me on to a guy named Tim Keller, who was starting a new church called Redeemer in New York City.

He had me at “Hello”.

Not only did I love Keller’s preaching, but I also deeply resonated with his efforts to take the gospel into a hardened, secular place like Manhattan. As an adult convert to the Christian faith, I knew what it was like to be suspicious of the gospel. I sensed a calling in my life to help other suspicious people know and experience the grace of God.

I wanted to move to New York.

Through several twists and turns, I wound up working at Redeemer nearly 10 years later. Since then, I have followed that same call: first to San Francisco and more recently to Seattle. For the last 15 years, I have tried to align my life with spreading God’s kingdom in 3 cities not known for their piety.

So what have I discovered?

I have seen God bless my labors with some good and satisfying fruit. I have seen churches grow and new churches planted. I have seen peoples' lives change through the power of the gospel. This past Sunday at church, Angela Wheeless told us some of her story. Hearing about God’s work in her life was a tremendous blessing to me. God is good, and he is at work.

But at the same time, the reality is God hides much of his work from us. He actively conceals what he is doing from us. We don’t see the full fruit of our labors. We don’t see many of the changes that are taking place around us. In addition, a lot of the things we have hoped to see simply don't materialize. For example, I have yet to see throngs of my non-Christian friends lining up to be baptized.

This can be frustrating and even lead to thoughts about giving up. But I think the hiddenness of God is a good thing. For one, it helps keep us humble. If God showed us all the work he was doing through us, we would probably become arrogant. Triumphalistic Christians are a menace, not a blessing. Secondly, the hiddenness of God also keeps us dependent upon him. When we can't see results, we must continue to trust in his goodness and cultivate soft hearts.

This is probably the most important result of the hiddenness of God. It shapes us into humble and dependent people while we walk along the path of mission. And, if there is one thing I have learned in a life lived in mission, it is that our character matters as much as results.

Here is an excellent sermon about the Hiddenness of God.

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April 25

Success and Mission

John Haralson

This Eastertide, our congregation is focusing on the mission that Jesus has given the church. As N.T. Wright so aptly put it, the task of the church is to “plant the flags of resurrection—new life, new communities, new churches, new faith, new hope, new practical love—in amongst the tired slogans of idolatrous modernity and destructive postmodernity.”

So here’s the question: How do we know when we’re doing a good job? How can an individual Christian or a congregation figure out if they are succeeding at the task God has given us?

For most of us, the stated or unstated default answer is this: the presence of tangible, positive results is a sure sign we are laboring well. These "positive results” can be various good things. For a Christian parent, positive results could be having children that grow up to be faithful Christian adults. For those with a heart for justice, positive results could mean effectively mobilizing others to serve the poor. For pastors, good results often mean numerical growth in a congregation.

I think this is a trap. Making these good things (and they’re all good things) barometers of whether or not we are doing a good job of following Jesus into mission quickly leads us astray. It makes us servants under the tyrannical rule of what William James so aptly called “the bitch goddess of success”.

So what are we to do? I think we should reject idolatrous notions of success. But we can’t just leave an empty space there. The via negativa is not a satisfying way to live. We need something positive to work towards. We need a better definition of true success.

I am currently reading through a book that gives such a definition. Kent & Barbara Hughes’ book, “Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome” has been very beneficial to me. Through a powerful combination of a life of ministry and a love for God’s word, they flesh out a compelling vision for evaluating our kingdom-centered labors.

Here is the core of their argument: faithfulness to God is success. This is so simple, but incredibly profound. Anyone can be faithful. Anyone can love God, serve others, and live a life of grateful obedience. And this is what we are called to do. Any other definition of success will ultimately undo you and those around you.

It’s true Kent and Barbara wrote the book for pastors. However, I think one can easily apply their concepts to other aspects of following Jesus into mission.

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April 03

Your Life Is a Good Story

John Haralson

One of the great things about the Bible is that it shows us many of the failures of God's people. In the pages of Scripture, we get to see Moses' sinful anger, Abraham's failure to protect Sarah (twice!), Peter's denial of Jesus, and David's abuse of power, just to name a few. This is encouraging because we know we are far from perfect. Seeing story after story of God's imperfect people inspires us to believe that God could use us in the world, even with our significant sins and struggles.

But there is a danger here we must recognize. Very often, we can view the Biblical characters primarily through their weaknesses. I have begun to realize that I do this all the time.

For example, take the Apostle Peter. When I think of Peter, where does my mind go? I think about all the boneheaded things he did in the Gospels. Most poignantly, I think about Peter's denial of Christ at a key moment.

Essentially, I often view Peter as a failure. In my imagination, he is someone who talks a big game, but cannot be relied upon in a crisis.

But this is not the full story on Peter. After the resurrection, God transformed Peter into a strong and faithful pastor. Throughout the book of Acts, Peter was the first man out of the helicopter, preaching the gospel in some very difficult situations. God had transformed him from a impulsive coward to a pillar of the new church. His character began to reflect the meaning of his name--Rock. He became steady and strong.

Was Peter a perfect man? Of course not. He still fell short as a transformed man. But, the point is this: God changed Peter in some very significant and beautiful ways.

So what difference does this make? I think it makes a substantial difference. If you're a Christian, and you primarily view people like Peter, Abraham, and David through their failures, you probably view yourself primarily through your failures as well. It is very possible that you aren't seeing the significant transformation that God is working in your life right now.

The upcoming Easter season is a good time for you to start thnking about some of the ways God has already changed you. Get input from people who know you best. Ask them how you have changed recently or over the past couple of years. What you're basically getting at is recognizing how has Jesus shared his resurrection life with you.

I am convinced that this kind of self-awareness is a key ingredient in a healthy Christian life. The resurrection of Jesus means that God is authoring a good story with your life. It is vital that we learn how to trace these redemptive storylines in our own lives.

He is risen!

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March 28

What Are Your Life Liturgies?

John Haralson

God uses the regular practices and habits of our lives to change us. Some of our life habits and patterns are so deeply intertwined with our identity that it is more helpful to see them as liturgies. For our purposes, I want to define liturgy as a set of deeply formative practices that mold and shape us. In other words, the liturgies of our lives are things that do not leave us unchanged.

We see this fairly clearly with the liturgy we use in our Sunday worship. Each week, we engage in a collection of regular practices like confessing our sins, receiving God’s forgiveness, singing God’s praises, hearing from God’s word, and gathering around God’s table together. We believe that through these practices, God shapes and transforms us.

For example, through singing praises to God on Sunday morning, we actually believe that God transforms us into people who more readily praise him on Tuesday afternoons . Through the regular practice of praise, we become people who are more and more skilled at praising God. Our liturgies change us.

But what about our other liturgies? What are the other deeply-ingrained rhythms of our lives doing to us? How can we modify them in such a way that they will change us for the better?

Consider your regular practices in any of the following areas:

  • Your free time
  • The number of hours you spend at work
  • Your media habits
  • Your relationship habits
  • Your spending habits
  • Your conversation habits
  • Your habits related to caring for the poor

Take your habits in any one of these areas and ask yourself the question: How are these practices changing me?

Let’s take an example pretty close to home: your computer habits. This is, after all, a blog post. So if you’re reading this I assume you have a fairly well-developed set of computer habits.

Here’s the point I want to get across: your computer habits do not leave you unchanged as a human being. Over time, these habits will shape you. You need to ask yourself whether or not these habits are shaping you in a good way or a bad way.

I don’t ask these questions in an attempt to generate guilt. Instead, pick one area where you would like to make a change for the better. Make changes to your habits and practices in that one area with the belief that God will actually use those changes to transform you.

For more on this topic, I recommend Jamie Smith's book, Desiring the Kingdom.

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