Losing Lament

In yesterday’s post I shared some thoughts on the way our celebrity obsession and cancel culture has kicked the doors in and taken a seat in the church, as it does so influencing and warping our culture. We crave the big and significant and so we want leaders who are known, we want to be associated with something big and famous. But we also don’t know how to handle the failures of those very same people and so we’re quick to cancel, or are cynically knowing when sin comes to light, or gloat if we’re not pastored by a celebrity pastor. Neither are an attractive look for the church of Jesus Christ.

But there’s another facet of the cultural air that we breath that has more influence than it should in our churches. We fear mourning and we’ve lost lament. I don’t just mean when it comes to the end of life or of loss or unfulfilled hopes – that’s also an issue but it’s a topic for a separate post. I mean in terms of mourning for our sin and the impact of sin on those we know and love, on our churches and more generally in a broken world.

When did you last mourn over your sin? Last feel that deep conviction of sin that you can’t escape or anaesthetise with entertainment or some other distraction? That feeling that drives you, like David in Psalm 51, to a deep searching of the heart that dispenses with excuses or reasons or buts, and is struck once again by the deep rootedness horror of sin in your heart and life? When did that last lead you to mourn your sin not just run to Jesus with a glib I’m sorry? When did you last honestly take an unfiltered look at your heart, your motives, your loves and name sin when you see it as sin?

There are lots of reasons why we struggle with this. We fill our days full of noise, we keep busy, we rush from thing to thing. Even when we come to church it’s often having just rushed from something and squeezing it in before we rush to something else. We don’t allow time to be still, to be quiet, to stop, for deep examination of our souls, of our sin, of our spiritual state. We plan to hear God’s word but not for it to do it’s deep work of opening up, examining and exposing the soul and spirit. We don’t come to God’s word expecting to have our sins exposed, we come for a quick spiritual vitamin shot of grace and love to get us through another day or week. We also live a filtered life, lets be honest we filter out so much of the brokenness, so much of the suffering in our world. And not just in terms of our news feeds but in terms of the relationships we inhabit and in terms of ourselves. We don’t look to deeply because we’re afraid of what we’ll see..

All of this means that as a church we don’t know how to mourn sin. We’ve lost our ability to lament. To lament the impact of our own sin on our hearts and emotions and spiritual state, how it separates us from God’s presence and the joy that is found in him. To lament the impact of our sin on others, the harm and hurt it has caused, the rippling outward of sins consequences from our sinful actions. To lament the impact of our sin on the world’s view of the church, the gospel and our Saviour.

Just like a muscle atrophies with a lack of use so our ability to lament. And so when a pastor or leader fails we don’t know how to react. Some cancel. Some clap. Few leaders, leaderships or churches have the ability to lament. To mourn and be broken over sin, to humbly wrestle with sins consequences. Fewer still do it not just when the crisis hits but regularly. Examining hearts together, allowing the horror of sin to lead them to lament sin’s deep rootedness, it’s ability to wound, cut off, isolate, destroy, and separate us from joy in God. What if part of the rediscovery of healthy church cultures was learning to lament again.

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Swallowing the pill

The church is supposed to be different from the world. We’re supposed to stand out from it. We’re exhorted to be transformed in our thinking. To have the mind of Christ. The Old Testament warns us about a wide variety of ways that can go wrong, as well as giving us plentiful examples of everyday faith lived out in a hostile world. The gospels show us what that looks like in action perfectly in Jesus. Whilst the Epistles flesh that out in specific practical application of doctrine to our lives as Christ’s body. And yet all too often we default to thinking and acting just like the world with a thin veneer of gospel laid over the top. We settle for being one shade different from the hue of the world rather than being radically different.

That is seen in all sorts of ways both personally and corporately. But here’s the one that I’m finding deeply sad at the moment. It’s the way we deal with failures in leadership when there is a humble acceptance of mistakes made and a desire to seek repentance for sin. I’ve been disheartened by hearing story after story of leadership abuse and scandal and failure over the last few years. It’s nothing new, ever since I can remember there have been leaders that have failed, that have drifted away, that have been galactically stupid and sinful. Abuse, tragically, has taken place inside the church and been hidden rather than exposed and dealt with. The victims have been silenced or put under pressure rather than listened to and cared for. That needs dealing with and there needs to be justice regardless of fame, reputation or success in ministry. We must be the holy people we are called to be in reality not pretence.

But there’s a couple of things that concern me deeply, where I worry we’ve swallowed the pills of celebrity and cancel culture and are being more shaped by it than by the gospel. It’s seen in the gloating tone of some publications reporting about a leadership failure even when that leader accepts and listens to challenge and then repents, seeking forgiveness and help to change. Or in an unhealthy skepticism and cynicism about any leader and their expressions of repentance. It concerns me because the church cannot have a cancel culture just as we should not have a celebrity culture.

We need to have a grace filled, mercy saturated, holiness seeking culture, that’s marked by a radical humility. A humility that doesn’t elevate people or their gifting but praises the God who showers gifts on his church abundantly not just in one person but in every member ministry. We need every member ministry multiplying not a one man show. We need a radical shift away from a culture than celebrates the individual as a celebrity whose glow we bask in, and is as excited about the quietly exercised gifts of widow care and compassion as the up front worship leading or preaching. We need a church culture that doesn’t put people on a pedestal isolating them from real friendship and relationship, as if somehow they don’t need it, but commits to the one anothering the epistles tells us everybody needs without exception. And where all are humbly expected to take part in this not be isolated individuals somehow above it all.

The picture of the church in the Bible is a community humble committed to honesty about our struggles with sin and with following Jesus, that constantly points one another to Jesus for forgiveness and transformation as we bring our lives into step with the Spirit. That doesn’t make leaders feel like they can’t be honest or let the brand down. That isn’t about the individual as a nexus of gifting but about equipping and training and growing together to be more like Jesus – who whilst the most spectacularly gifted person ever to walk on the crust of this orb consistently called others to ministry and poured himself out for them so they played their part in God’s purposes.

The culture of heresy spotting, of gloating name calling out from a distance is the result of swallowing those two cultural pills. Celebrity culture that puffs up and isolates and loads pressure on to an individual. And cancel culture that then turns on those who fail or sin with a smug gleeful outing of sins. We need to be transformed in our thinking. That might mean we need to unplug, unsubscribe, unfollow some of those places where that is happening. It may mean we need to step out of the celebrity Christian culture that I think is doing so much harm in our churches. It definitely means we need to commit to our local church, to unknown leaders who are far from perfect but who show they love us as we see them humbly fighting sin in themselves and asking for help from others to do so, praying for us and teaching us week by week, less than spectacularly but always faithfully.

The church, the gospel, humility and class

Think about the leaders of your church, or of the churches that you have attended.  Think of the pastors and assistant pastors you have been taught by? How many have been professionals?  How many have been middle class?  How many have been working class? And why do you think that is?

We are so blind to our assumptions and biases about class in the church in the UK that we don’t even see the problem.  The church in the UK is predominantly (overwhelmingly?) middle class.  And that is even more the case when you look at a churches leadership be it deacons, elders, pastors.  That is partly the legacy of the middle class nature of the church, and partly due to our class prejudices and partly due to the way we train, and the cost to train, people for ministry.

We need to recognise the problem.  I need to recognise the problem.  I wear class blinkers.  We all do.  We tend to think that leadership looks like the leadership we have experienced both in the church and in the world.  And that experience is not class neutral, it comes with a bucket load of bias.

How do we overcome that?  Partly we need to honestly look at the problem.  To take some time to evaluate and recognise the problem.  We also need to work to be humble about class.  To recognise that leadership is not based on class, being born into a class does not make us more fit for leadership.  Whilst it confers benefits it also comes with a whole load of unhealthy baggage that makes us prone to class specific sin.  The danger is in confusing gospel culture and class culture.  Too often we can assume that our class outlook is the biblical outlook when it is far from it.  Every class has facets of gospel culture because of God’s common grace.  And every class has been warped by sin in it’s thinking, values and assumptions.

In light of that we need to be humble about class.  Humble enough to recognise it’s influence on us.  Humble enough to honestly look at the values we assume and how gospel shaped they really are.  Humble enough to repent of where we have simply laid a think layer of gospel veneer over class values rather than deeply think through what the Bible is calling us to.

How do we approach the issue of church leadership with humility about class?  We need to read the instructions given on the character and gifting of deacons and elders and work hard to expose and root out class bias in how we read and apply it.  None of those characteristics require a university education or to be a professional.  Godliness is not the preserve of a certain segment of society or class, and so church leadership mustn’t be.

Secondly we need to remove the barriers to church leadership in terms of training, working and structures.  Too many of our training opportunities are inaccessible to those from working class backgrounds; be it bible college or ministry trainee opportunities.  We need to think of more practical apprenticeship with greater flexibility and greater funding.  How about how we work as a leadership, the times we hold meetings, the way those meetings are run, and accessibility to those things.

If as churches we want to reach everyone with the gospel.  If we want churches that are diverse in terms of class we need leaders from every class and background not as a token or a quota but because that is the nature of leadership in the church.  As churches we mustn’t be class blind because that will only lead to resentment, hurt and ultimately division.  Rather we must be humble enough to recognise our bias, our experience and the way it shapes us.  We must be humble enough to see the current blockages in our church and the wider church and humble enough to recognise the need to change.

God’s what next for his people

So what does God want from his people?  We started with that question and I wonder after look at 1 Kings 19, how that’s changed?

We’ve seen that God is passionate for his people, his glory and his gospel and he wants his people to be passionate for that too.  But we’ve also seen that passion can get out of kilter as it did for Elijah.  That God doesn’t call us to do more than we can.  He cares for his people and provides rest and food and spiritual refreshment for his prophet on the run.  We can’t minister, we can’t serve, just on passion.  God has made us finite, dependent and we need rest, food and closeness to him.  We can only ever serve him out of an experience of and enjoyment of him. I wonder if that idea seems strange to you?  Enjoying God?  What does it mean to enjoy God? 

One of the dangers we face in serving in a local church, especially in Yorkshire where less than 1% of the population go to church, where so many are sleepwalking to a lost eternity, is in thinking that we care more about God’s glory than God does.

In v14 God speaks to Elijah again, and repeats his question “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  And Elijah speaks again of Israel’s covenant breaking and his zeal.  His passion for God’s glory is tangible isn’t it?  He’s almost burning up with his passion for God, and yet Israel aren’t, they’re indifferent to their sin, indifferent to God, indifferent to the covenant and their breaking it and are trying to kill Elijah!

So what’s next for Elijah?  A hermit-cy in the cave on Mount Horeb?  A new location – greener spiritual pastures?  Should he be scrolling the FIEC jobs board looking for somewhere where people will actually listen to God and respond?  Where his ministry actually produces fruit?  What is God’s what next for his passionate prophet?

Here’s God’s what next(15-21).  Elijah’s to appoint Hazael King of Aram, Jehu King of Israel, and Elijah as his successor as prophet.  God sees and God has a plan, in fact God had that plan all along, he doesn’t start scribbling it down as Elijah sat under the broom tree or even when things didn’t go to plan post Carmel.  Elijah’s assessment of Israel’s spiritual state isn’t wrong.  And God is going to act; Hazael and Jehu will be God’s means of judgement, God’s discipline of his covenant breaking people, designed to bring them back to him.  And Elisha will be the one who brings God’s word to those people.

Elijah, trust me, I’m not done with my people.  I’m not finished with them.  They may not have turned at Carmel but trust me and my plans and purposes.  But notice something else, Elijah is told to go back to where it’s hard and continue his ministry.  He’s to keep going because Elijah is just one link in the chain of God’s gospel purposes.  Elijah is to prepare the way and pass on the truth to Elisha – whose name means God saves.

Don’t despair, don’t think you care more about the lost God’s glory than God does.  And we mustn’t think that we know better what our role in God’s kingdom should be better than he does.  God has placed us where he has put us to serve him there.  No one else can reach your colleagues at work.  No one else can disciple your children like you can.  No one else can live a gospel life out in front of your neighbours like you can.  Don’t mortgage God’s plans for you right here and right now, the places he’s put you to be his light in the darkness, by longing to be somewhere else.

But we also need to realise it’s not all on us!  Elijah was just one link in the chain.  God graciously shows Elijah some more of the links in the chain of his kingdom purposes.  God has others in Israel who’ve not bowed the knee to Baal.  That’s so helpful for us to realise isn’t it?  Your church family is God’s gift to you, a weekly reminder that you’re not alone – you need them, they need you.  They remind you it doesn’t all rest on your shoulders.  You’re not solely responsible for whether those around you come to trust Jesus.  Yes, you need to live out the gospel and speak the gospel to those around you, but so do others who are in their lives.  We’re free to just play the part God calls us to, to be our link in the chain.

Don’t mortgage the present opportunities because you imagined they would look different.  Don’t give up because it is hard and slow.  Just like Elijah go back and keep labouring, keep speaking the gospel to each other, keeping listening to God’s word and putting it to work, keep praying, keep playing your part, being the link in the building of God’s kingdom you can be.

Our society loves the fast, the instant, the spectacular, the silver bullet.  And that means we’re tempted to despair of the unspectacular, slow, steady, and opposed.  But God knows what he’s doing.  God cares passionately for his people, his glory and his gospel and that takes time.  That’s why the images we get of growth in the Bible are of vines, and fields, and harvest, and trees, and flocks which all take time to grow.

What is God’s what next for you?  Go back and be passionate for his glory in the ordinary and everyday acts of faithfulness.  In your parenting, in your marriages, in your care for elderly parents, your love for your neighbours, your service of the community, your work, your listening to and applying his word.  Be the link in the gospel chain he calls you to be as you live as disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus teaching them everything he has commanded us.

Do you know one of the most wonderful liberating truths I’ve been realising more and more recently.  I know only a tiny fraction of what God is doing at any time in me, through me, in my family, my church family, and in our community.  That’s what Elijah is shown here.  God is building his kingdom and trusting him to do so as he knows is best liberates us from burdens to live enjoying him.

And as we go back to our ordinary and everyday we can go back full of hope and faith because God isn’t finished yet.  Elijah lived his whole life longing to see God’s salvation, longing to see God’s gospel promises of a Messiah restoring a people to relationship with God free from sin and blessing the nations but he never did.  That brief conflagration on the top of Mount Carmel was a good as it got in terms of spiritual revival.  And when he was taken into heaven in a whirlwind it still hadn’t happened.  

But years later, in Luke 9v28-33, finally Elijah got to see what his ministry was about, where in God’s sovereign goodness and wisdom everything was leading, what his ministry was a link in the chain of.  As he and Moses stand on the mountain and talk to God the Son in all his glory what do they talk to Jesus about?  “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.”  Don’t rush passed that.  So often we major on the glory, or Peter and his mistaken blurted out building plan, in this passage.  But what is it they speak of?  They spoke together about Jesus Exodus.  Jesus is about to lead his people out of slavery to sin into a new world flowing with milk and honey where they will be free to worship and enjoy God Father, Son and Spirit.

All of Elijah’s hopes and dreams are going to be fulfilled beyond his wildest expectations, in Jesus.  And its only centuries after he’s gone back and played his part does he fully understand where it was all leading, what God was really doing.  And it was all worth it.  His everyday ordinary obedience was ultimately, In God’s sovereign immutable plan leading to God made man who would be the offering for sin, not burnt but crucified on a hill, rejected by God’s people just like Elijah, but actually killed by God’s people, but through that death and rejection and judgement opening up the way to God and freeing his people from the enslaving power of sin.

Elijah and Moses see a glimpse of Jesus coming kingdom.  A kingdom that is certain.  A Kingdom that cannot be conquered, that he is building and giving everything for it is worth it.

How are you feeling about serving God where you are?  Will we share God’s passion for his glory, his people and his gospel?  Will we go back trusting in his love and provision and goodness in food and rest and every other evidence of his goodness and love and develop healthy routines?  Will we go back setting aside time to enjoy God?  Not burdened thinking it all depends on us but trusting that we are called to play our part in making Jesus known but that God is working out his purposes and plans that are far bigger than we can imagine?  And will we go back trusting in Jesus and his power to change the world one life at a time certain in his promise that his kingdom will come?