God knows how to bless
“Lord, bless this mess” prayed the late David Watson as he considered his leadership of his church in York, a church which was to have such an impact both locally and nationally in its living the Gospel – and yet a church with such problems, problems which were mirrored in his own life.
But how does God bless this mess, the mess which is us?
One of the paradoxes of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is that the more we are renewed in the image of Jesus, the more – so to speak – he drains the swamp, so the motives and the manners which would demean, even disable his good purpose for us, are exposed.
I’m in the process of reading two books which, in an American context (but it could be anywhere), focus on how God is confronted by the mess in our lives, our propensity for disarray and even disobedience.
My evening book has been chosen for me by Sheila, whose mission in life seems to be to keep her friends abreast of current trends in contemporary fiction. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen is one of America’s leading novelists, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist and last year he published Crossroads, the first in a projected trilogy, which many consider his best book yet.
Crossroads, in fact, is the name of a youth group of a liberal protestant church in a fictional town in Illinois; the novel is set in 1971. As it happens I was there at the time and I well recall how Vietnam cast its very dark shadow over this whole generation of young people; that along with Woodstock.
Fascinating that Franzen himself was a member for six years of such a Christian youth group, again during this era, and you get the sense that while he has put all this behind him, nevertheless he half-realises that something, a pearl of great price even, he has lost in the process.
The novel features the sad disintegration of the family of the assistant pastor of the First Reformed, the Hildebrandt’s – husband and wife with their four children. To say that they are dysfunctional is an understatement; they are a living embodiment of Tolstoy’s observation that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
And it’s painful to read, not least as the father, the Rev Russ Hildebrandt, finally realises that he is no match in ministry for his younger colleague who now runs this highly successful youth group. As a result, his ministry begins to come apart while he courts temptation with a young widow.
As one of his son’s friends observes of Russ: “Your father doesn’t look to our Saviour but to what other men think of him. He preaches love but holds a grudge like no man’s business.”
In contrast, Ambrose, Russ’ younger rival, epitomises a more liberal, more accommodating theology: “The idea was that God was to be found in relationships, not in liturgy and ritual, and that the way to worship him and approach him was to emulate Christ in his relationships with his disciples, by exercising honesty, confrontation, and unconditional love.”
And this is the heart of the novel, how weak and self-absorbed people (such as us) can live lives of honesty, confrontation, and unconditional love. Fascinating to read how Franzen, not a Christian as I am aware, is able to explore the tensions of living as a disciple of Jesus in a messed-up world.
In contrast my morning book (i.e. the one I read as part of my Christian discipline) challenges this Midwest spirituality, Radical by David Platt. His aim? “We desperately need to explore how much of our understanding of the gospel is American and how much is biblical.”
Platt introduces himself as “the youngest megachurch pastor in history.” However, he realises that the Lord he follows seems to have a very different strategy, disregarding both numbers and comfort..” As he observes: “Jesus Christ – the youngest minichurch pastor in history!”
In this he realises that “we are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.”
Here Platt challenges us to live our lives with a very simple dynamic. One: to commit ourselves to believe whatever Jesus says (rather than what we would like him to say.) Two: to commit ourselves to obey, whatever. “It is impossible,” he argues, “to be a follower of Christ while denying, disregarding, discrediting, and disbelieving the words of Christ.”
It’s so easy to avoid this challenge and yet, as Platt observes: “God actually delights in exalting our inability. He intentionally puts his people in situations where they come face to face with their need for him.”
And the mess in our lives? “The way to conquer sin is not by working hard to change our deeds,” argues Platt, “but by trusting Jesus to change our desires.”
So how do we, dysfunctional sinners as we are, live our lives? Platt’s conclusion: “Being a member of a church means realizing that we are responsible for helping the brothers and sisters around us to grow as disciples of Jesus. In the same way, they are responsible for helping us. We desperately need each other in the daily fight to follow Christ in a world that’s full of sin.”
In other words, God knows how to bless.