Grace is like a hungry cat

An old man, part of a group of mentally disadvantaged people, sat next to me on a bench as I was waiting for a ferry to take me across Sydney harbor to Mosman. I was eating a chocolate bar and offered him a piece. He held up a shaking hand and took it, hungrily. I ate a piece myself and gave him another. “This is your lucky day” I said to him, meaning the chocolate. But it actually was my lucky day. I was given a profound gift in that chance meeting, which is hard to describe. It was the insight that this small interaction had far more meaning than anything else I would experience that day. That it opened a portal into another dimension of living, one having little to do with my normal life. A far more important dimension, which I hadn’t noticed that day.

Why is grace so insistent?

Grace constantly nuzzles our consciousness, like a hungry cat. The Holy Spirit wants us to notice God’s presence and gifts, but we aren’t paying attention. When my cat Oscar gets tired of nuzzling me, sometimes he stands up on his hind legs and puts his front paws on my lap, or jumps up and puts his nose very close to my face, so I can’t ignor him. Grace is insistent like that, trying different ways, like marketing experts say, to “cut through” the noise and clutter that fills our life and blinds us to what is really happening, right in front of our nose. If we don’t see God’s presence and gifts, how can we fulfill God’s purpose? Our individual contribution to His Plan is critical to God and that’s why grace is so persistent.

 

In and beyond time

We live in a century when it seems like we might literally live in the final days of our planet’s existence, or at least the human race’s. We have invented technology that could possibly wipe out a large portion of the human population. We call them WMDs. Nuclear and biological weapons. At the same time, we may also be modifying the climate on the planet, to the point where the entire biosphere may heat up in global warming, leading to widespread death and destruction. And scientists tell us that, periodically asteroids have collided with the earth, destroying all life, the last time about four hundred million years ago. But this isn’t what “last days” means in the Bible.

Biblical time

We have become so ‘scientific’ in our view of time that it is very difficult for us to imagine that Biblical time transcends past, present, and future. God is timeless, yet God created time. God entered human history as Jesus and as the Holy Spirit — and gives us hints of a different kind of time.  The Gospel of John says that the Word “was in the beginning with God.” [John 1:2] “The Word became flesh and lived among us” as Jesus. [John 1: 10] And Jesus said, “If I do not go away, the Advocate (Holy Spirit) will not not come to you.” [John 16:7b] Besides the usual time dimensions implied in these references, there is God’s timelessness that exists beyond created past, present and future, which touches us and shapes us. We are already but not yet completely in God’s timelessness because we are transcendent beings. These are difficult ideas to grasp. So what does the “last days” mean in God’s timelessness?

Peter tells us that the Holy Spirit is being poured out on all people in the last days, not just Christians. As Paul said, God’s plan has been revealed to Christians – “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” [Ephesians 1:9-10]  God has performed a second great act of creation, after the first ‘Big Bang’ and entered space-time in Christ to transform everything and bring it back to himself through the action of men inflamed with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how exactly is God doing this? What is the Christian role in God’s time?

In Christian belief, mankind is deeply involved in what happens to reality and are the co-creators of the future with Jesus, according to God’s eternal purpose. Christian belief is a basis for action. It says that we are responsible for transforming the world.

Chesterton describes the Christian belief this way. “I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.”  Many scientists and Psychologists don’t believe that there is any magic in the world. Everything is explained by the actions of energy and matter evolving to more and more complexity, even the increase in human consciousness. There is no magic and no need for a magician. The last days are just like any other period of galactic history except that consciousness has evolved to the point that it knows there is something going on. Thousands of years ago, primitive man realized that he had consciousness, so gods were invented (so the scientists and Psychologists theorize). Now scientific man believes that natural forces like evolution can explain everything they observe, in their scientific view of time.

Contrast that with the Christian explanation. Two thousand years ago, God (the magician) changed the rules of the space-time continuum. After a long period of preparation, God entered His creation as a man like us. His name is Jesus. He is the eternal timeless Word and the man Jesus in time. God’s purpose is evident in his life, his teaching, and his death and resurrection. Now, in the last days, time itself is unwinding on a different scale. Scientists may theorize that the universe will take another fourteen billion years to stop expanding and contract back to the original state of nothingness. Christians believe that we are in the last days, when God is acting to bring all created things back to himself in a new glorious state through Jesus and his brothers and sisters — us. In terms of ordinary time, we have no idea when that will finally happen but we believe that it is ongoing right now. Our role, and our privilege, is to use our freedom to participate in God’s great adventure and plan, both in ordinary space-time and in God’s reality of timelessness.

Extraordinary everyday time

But there is an even more powerful way of saying what living in the last days means. Before Jesus, mankind was in a cocoon, of religious distance from God. Even Israel was afraid to approach God, or even say his name. Then God acted, and changed everything. Man’s cocoon was cracked by Jesus’ love, and a new man began to emerge into history. Jesus freed men to fly like butterflies, to escape the limits of myth and religious impotency into intimacy, even sonship with God. And we know that this reality is the deepest truth of God. “God has done great things, meeting our deepest hungers. All is God’s doing. We walk in the flow of divine creativity, even when we think it is all our doing. God’s promise is received and fulfilled in the slowness of our daily learning . . . faith, born of love and giving birth to love, is the God-intended crown of our long journey toward a fullness for here and hereafte.” [Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps]

As Chesterton might put it today, there is ‘divine music’ in the world in the last days – and a musician more wonderful than we dare imagine is playing a love song that many in the world cannot hear, as yet. We Christians have not been left alone to teach the world to sing that love song. In the last days, the days of the church, we are learning to sing in harmony; we are ‘one’ as God is one. We have been given the glory that Jesus received, which brightens our singing, and attracts and lures the world into singing God’s love song. All this is what Jesus promised. The critical question is what will we do, right now, here in our local church, in the light of this astounding reality in the last days?

 

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Easter: “me” or “we”?

In an editorial The great shock of Easter, the Sydney Morning Herald used the Christian Easter proclamation to make a provocative point to a wider audience. “Simply put, ours is a culture that pretends to liberate the “me” from the “we” by inviting each of us to forget about the tried wisdom of the past and to simply feel good about ourselves here and now.” [See complete editorial] As a Christian it pleases me that the SMH featured an editorial about Easter on its Opinion page. Certainly the point being made is a good one. Even Christians tend to forget the wisdom of Christ’s passion and resurrection, which is why we need Lent. In a way, waking up humankind to the existence of a far larger “we” and its wisdom is what Easter truly means.

Sleepers awake!

What Easter is pointing toward is a stunning truth: the transformation of mankind and, through us, the entire universe. Walter Kasper, a noted theologian, summarizes the signficance of Easter as “the event which opens the world to the future . . . a future which is based in the infinite destiny of man . . .the future of all reality has already begun with Jesus and is decisively determined by him, but far more: the person and activity of Jesus are that future.” [Kasper, Jesus the Christ, Paulist Press, 1976] The world and humankind was asleep until Easter morning, when the truth dawned. Even today, we find statements such as Kasper’s almost impossible to believe. The Sydney Morning Herald is right about one thing — our narcissistic “me” has become transfixed in contemplating ourselves, and is missing the wisdom of who we truly are. Not some shimmering image in a mirror but an unimaginable “we’ — the body of Christ, emerging in history.

Christian freedom

As Walter Kasper also points out, liberation is part of the Easter message — “Self-will is not free but quite unfree, because it means slavery to one’s own ego and the whims of the moment.” I think we feel today that we are free because we have so many choices at hand. Many of us have disposable income to pursue these choices. But Easter raises the question of who we are meant to be and whether our choices ought to be only self-willed (a pathological focus on “me”) or meant to be something else. So, especially on Easter morning, sleepers awake! Christian freedom is Christ’s freedom. Christ is the example of living for others, and what it means to truly be part of a “we.” Jesus demonstrated that in dying and rising, in solidarity with all mankind. Take a few minutes this holy season, then, and walk through what happened from the Last Supper through Easter morning. See if it helps you get beyond “me” to what “we” is meant to be.

 

Hints of Heaven

I had a discussion at the butcher shop today, with a woman who usually waits on me. We chat and today she got onto ‘The world isn’t a very nice place. I’m ready to move on.’ I said, “Well, yes. We are definitely going to a better place.” It was what she said next that made me wonder. “I’m going to come back and do all the things I didn’t do the first time around.” I said, “When you get there, you won’t want to leave.” She just looked at me, as if she couldn’t imagine what would be better than her vision of fulfilling her earthly dreams.

Imagining a ‘better place’

My belief is that we humans will still be essentially human in heaven (although transformed). We won’t become angels or pure spirits. We are enfleshed spirits and, somehow, we will retain some semblance of our senses, feelings and thoughts  from this life. This belief is what helps me imagine heaven. I know, St Paul said “No eye has seen, or mind conceived what God has prepared for those that love him” 1 Corinthians 2:9 Still I believe there are hints of heaven we experience right now. By recalling these, and reflecting on them, we can begin to imagine a better place. That is a healthy and good thing to do.

Some hints of heaven

To help you get started, I will list a few hints that I have experienced.  A skeptic might say, “Oh, you’re only experiencing ____” and refer to some chemical or psychological cause. My response is, “Well God uses those means to let us see what he has in store for us.” This is clearly a case of “believing is seeing.” Here is a short list of hints that immediately come to my mind, from among many I have experienced:

  • There are several pieces by Bach which literally stop me in my tracks. I don’t want to move or think, just experience his sublime music. The only words I can think of to describe what this music is pointing at are “pure” and “love.” And, in fact, I don’t want to utter any words at all or analyse the experience. I only want to lose myself in the moment.
  • The first time I took my daughter Meg to Paris, we arrived very early and had to wait to get into our hotel. Just after dawn, we walked down to the Place de la Concorde and I happened to see her face as she took in the magnificence of Paris for the first time. Her eyes were shining. She had a look of pure delight on her face. She was lost in the experience. I imagine that’s how I’ll feel for the first 10,000 years in heaven.
  • I have some photos from the Hubble Space telescope, of incredibly immense colorful shapes of dust clouds and stars and galaxies all mixed together. It’s as if an artist is saying, “What do you think of this? I’ve got billions more to show you.” Endless excitement and surprises.
  • Occasionally,  I feel very relaxed and peaceful, like the first few hours after I arrive at a summer holiday resort, before I begin planning what I’m going to do on my vacation. The sky is bright, the breeze is soft; the ocean is gently reverberating in the background.  There is no need to do anything. A lot of pleasant possibilities are there for the taking but I don’t need to grasp them. I just “chill out” and leave all my cares and concerns behind.

I could keep on going, but I hope you get the idea. Try imagining heaven this way yourself. Don’t worry about whether you’re getting it right or not. Tell some friends about your ‘hints of heaven.’ You’ll find they have their own hints too. Makes for a really interesting and uplifting conversation.

 

 

Labyrinths and Mazes

I recently read a fascinating editorial by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Leave behind the retail maze, zen is just a single path away. In it she manages to combine the usual post-holiday lament about Christmas shopping madness with an excursion into meditation, and the role of labyrinths in the search for inner peace. She begins with “Christmas is a kind of test . . . just surviving it bestows a sense of achievement.” She then wanders through the pain of “fighting and struggling for more choice in our lives” and finally arrives at the relaxing properties of labyrinths, comparing them to mazes. “A maze is a series of decision points, any one of which could result in terminal confusion . . . A labyrinth, having only one path, requires no decisions, so its complications become instead a sort of dance, engendering a curious feeling of trust.” I think Ferrelly is on to something, comparing modern life and the struggle with complexity to a maze — and the way toward peace as a labyrinth of constraint yet freedom.

How does a labyrinth work?

Laryrinths are ancient, first appearing almost 5,000 years ago in the Bronze Age in ancient Peru, Crete, Troy and Jericho and elsewhere. In the 12th to 14th centuries in Christian Europe they became associated with religious practice. They became mediative tools. Ferrelly describes how they work. “A walk has three stages: the walk-in (purgation or release), the still centre (illumination or receiving) and the walk out (union or returning).” She described her own labyrinth walk as a ‘card-carrying skeptic” as “experiencing a delicious, timeless trance and a lingering wellbeing.” Are you skeptical? Have you ever walked a labyrinth? I have, once in a garden. I experienced a similar delight as Ferrelly did,  from giving myself over to finding the way to the center, then back out again. Maybe it’s just that I enjoy solving problems, or maybe there is a deeper significance. But the maze versus labyrinth metaphor is a powerful one about life and prayer.

Choosing to leave the maze of everyday life by entering the labyrinth of prayer

Why do we need to pray? Or better yet, do we need to find a way out of the maze of everyday life? I think that most of us can relate to Ferrelly’s description of information and choice overload becoming oppressive, especially at Christmas. We also sense that that the “rat-race” isn’t healthy. We look for ways to “wind down” or “go off-line.” But many people are reluctant to commit themselves to daily prayer. Either we’re too busy fighting our way through the maze or we fail to make time for prayer because we, like Ferrelly, are skeptical that praying regularly has any value. In any case, most us don’t know how to pray so we never actually give the “labyrinth of prayer” a chance. But, what if praying is as simple as following the path to the center of a labyrinth, enjoying some time at the center, then finding our way back out, feeling refreshed? As Christians, we believe that God is at the center of everything. What if this simple practice can lead us into a heightened experience of God, and bring “delicious, lingering well-being” into our life?

This question about praying as laryrinth can lead to a choice, or it can remain only speculation. Like any labyrinth, we have to take the first step into the puzzle. I’m an amateur at prayer but, encouraged by grace, I am going to enter the labyrinth, and encounter whatever waits for me at the center.

 

 

“What if I never encounter a special person?”

A good friend of mine went to a lecture by a well-known woman, who said that her life had been profoundly affected by a special person she had met long ago, her mentor. My friend wanted to ask her, but didn’t — “What if you hadn’t met that person? Would all the advice you’re giving us today have worked in your life?” It occurred to me that what my friend was really asking herself was “What if I never encounter someone that will change my life? Is everything up to me?” As a believer, this conversation made me wonder, Is it possible that God leaves some people completely alone, to fend for themselves? How does God work?

Who can confidently answer such “ultimate questions?”

The obvious answer is God can tell us how He works in our lives. Still, Christians believe that, until we are face to face with Him in the next world, we see “a poor reflection as in a mirror.” (Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 13:12) If uncertainty about God’s ways is the lot of believers, where does that leave someone who is still seeking God? I think it leaves all of us with the human processes of thinking and deciding — and the influence of grace. Do you see where I’m going with this? We only have human categories to decide what God will or will not do for us — Is He stingy or generous; merciful or judgmental, etc? The Bible has many examples of different actions of God that we believers interpret according to our human categories. The absolute truth about God is hidden in God; we can only depend on our limited human powers of  understanding to know Him in this life.

Grace tips the scales toward generosity and mercy

But there is another path we can follow, not solely depending on logic and reasoning — although these are usually good guides — but also depending on our personal experience of God, which comes to us through grace. Knowing God in addition to “knowing about” God. My personal confidence in God’s generosity and mercy is based on the “tsunami” of grace in my life, which has been pursuing me since my earliest days. I can see God’s generous actions in my life in retrospect, especially in my darkest days, when my need was greatest and my worthiness of His friendship the least. These experiences actually happened in my life! And they also happen in the lives of many believers, who have shared their experiences with me. The great hymn Amazing Grace beautifully describes the same experiences. I am part of a community of believers who enthusiastically  report the consistency and reliablity of grace — merciful, forgiving, generous, etc. So, when my friend asked her question, I could confidently say, “Keep asking questions. I am certain that you will encounter someone who will help you to find what you seek.” That is the Good News about grace!

The second great act of creation

Most of us are aware that the universe began in a ‘Big Bang’ about 14 Billion years ago. But how many people realize that another equally great ‘big bang’ happened just 2000 years ago?

I once taught a weekend ‘Enrich Your Faith” workshop to a small group of Christians in the basement of a Baptist church in Virginia. I wasn’t a Baptist but a friend had vouched for me with his pastor who kindly lent us a meeting room for two days. I wanted to begin the workshop where Peter had started on Pentecost and help the group to understand what living in the last days means by exercising their imaginations. Having worked at NASA, I decided to use a metaphor about space.

A Story about God’s Second Great Act of Creation

“Have you ever seen a solar flare?” They looked puzzled so I continued. I drew a big circle on the whiteboard. “This is the Sun, an immense ball of fire. Every once in a while a giant explosion takes place inside the sun and a huge eruption of flame bursts out of the Sun and travels millions of miles into space, eventually falling back into the Sun, pulled by its enormous gravity.” I drew a big arc from the circle on the white board out and then back. “This is a solar flare.” I paused. They looked even more puzzled. What had they gotten themselves into?

“Let me explain this metaphor and how it relates to the last days in the Bible. In my story about the solar flare, God is the sun. Scientists tell us that the universe is about fourteen billion years old but they can’t explain what happened at what they call the Big Bang. The Christian explanation is that, in a gigantic act of creation, the universe and reality we live in erupted out of God like a solar flare. I call this God’s first great act of creation.” I could sense they sort of understood so I continued. “Two thousand years ago, the human race experienced God’s second great act of creation. Jesus entered the universe to bring it back to God, and transform everything.” I pointed at the place in the arc on the whiteboard where it stopped going out and turned back to rejoin the big circle. “We live in the last days where God has sent His Son and Spirit to the human race to reunite everything in the universe with Him.” I paused to see if there were any questions. The group was wrestling with the metaphor. I could see things shifting in their minds by the expressions on their faces. “The question I want to ask you is, what does it mean to be a Christian in the last days?” That’s where I left the metaphor and began the first lively discussion of the workshop.

The Last Days

We live in a time when it seems like we might literally live in the final days of our planet’s existence, or at least the human race’s. We have invented technologies that could possibly wipe out a large portion of the human population. We call them WMDs. Nuclear and biological weapons. At the same time, we may also be modifying the climate on the planet, to the point where the entire biosphere may heat up in global warming, leading to widespread death and destruction. And scientists tell us that, periodically asteroids have collided with the earth, destroying all life, the last time about four hundred million years ago. But this isn’t what “last days” means in the Bible.

Peter tells us what the last days means to Christians. The Holy Spirit is being poured out on all people, not just Christians. As Paul said, God’s plan has been revealed to Christians – “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the time have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” [Ephesians 1:9-10] In the language of my metaphor of the solar flare, God has performed his second great act of creation and entered space-time in Christ to transform everything and bring it back to himself through the action of men inflamed with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how exactly is God doing this? What is the Christian role? To understand that, we need to understand more about what is going on in the last days.

The Christian Role

First, let me describe how science sees our times and the evolution of human consciousness. I will summarise a well known secular model, called The Graves Model or Spiral Dynamics.

Like Buddhism, Spiral Dynamics sees a certain inevitability in reality. Buddhism theorizes that reality is always the same in essence, with man ascending beyond himself into timeless nirvana. [1] Spiral Dynamics sees reality as evolving, and mankind’s social reality evolving as well, inevitably upward to greater consciousness and mindfulness of ‘the whole.’ Both these theories see reality as indifferent to humans and their fate. Everything will eventually turn out as it will regardless of what mankind does.

It should be obvious that both these theories are radically different than Christianity’s. In Christian belief, mankind is deeply involved in what happens to reality and are the co-creators of the future with Jesus, according to God’s eternal purpose. Christian belief is a basis for action. It says that we are responsible for transforming the world, while Buddhism and Spiral Dynamics are much less emphatic, theorizing that it doesn’t actually make any difference in the long run. “Some people seem to believe in an automatic and impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active, but rather a reason for being lazy.” [2]

Chesterton describes the Christian belief this way. “I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.” [3] Scientists and Psychologists like Graves don’t believe that there is any magic in the world. Everything is explained by the actions of energy and matter evolving to more and more complexity, even the increase in human consciousness in Spiral Dynamics. There is no magic and no need for a magician. The last days are just like any other period of galactic history except that consciousness has evolved to the point that it knows there is something going on. Thousands of years ago, primitive man realized that he had consciousness, so gods were invented (so the scientists and Psychologists theorize). Now scientific man believes that natural forces like evolution can explain everything they observe.

Contrast that with the Christian explanation. Two thousand years ago, God (the magician) changed the rules of the space-time continuum. After a long period of preparation, God entered His creation as a man like us. His name is Jesus. Exactly what his purpose was in doing this is evident in his life, his teaching, and his death and resurrection. Now, in the last days, time itself is unwinding on a different scale. Scientists may theorize that the universe will take another fourteen billion years to stop expanding and contract back to the original state of nothingness. Christians believe that we are in the last days, when God is acting to bring all created things back to himself in a new glorious state. In terms of ordinary time, we have no idea when that will finally happen but we believe that it is ongoing right now. Our role, and our privilege, is to use our freedom to participate in God’s great adventure and plan.

But there is an even more powerful way of saying what living in the last days means. Before Jesus, mankind was in a cocoon, of religious separation from God. Even Israel was afraid to approach God, or even say his name. Then God acted, and changed everything. Man’s cocoon was cracked by Jesus’ love, and a new man began to emerge into history. Jesus freed men to float like butterflies, to escape the limits of myth and religious impotency into intimacy, even sonship with God. And we know that this reality is the deepest truth of God. “God has done great things, meeting our deepest hungers. All is God’s doing. We walk in the flow of divine creativity, even when we think it is all our doing. God’s promise is received and fulfilled in the slowness of our daily learning . . . faith, born of love and giving birth to love, is the God-intended crown of our long journey toward a fullness for here and hereafter.”  [4] That is a magnificent hymn composed by one Christian, celebrating what it means to live in the last days. What is our response?



[1] The Buddha, a great and wise man, sat under a Lotus tree and developed his theory. Unlike what Christians believe, Buddhists don’t claim that the Buddha’s vision was revealed by the source of all truth, God. Of course The Buddha may have been influenced by God but he doesn’t attribute his wisdom to any higher being.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 100

[3] Chesterton, Ibid., p. 55

[4] Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps, Paulist Press, New York, 2010, p. 77

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Angry Christians

Sometimes, I notice different kinds of anger when I talk with Christians or read their Blogs:

  1. “The church doesn’t give me what I need”
  2. “Those other Christians and their churches are heretics, apostates or just irritating.”
  3. “The Pastor offended me.”
  4. “They are ruining the church.”

What is Jesus’ mind when it comes to such anger? I suspect he would tell them a parable, like this one.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Jesus says, how can I show you my love unless you empty yourself of your anger?

C. How Do We Get There? — Understanding the ‘Journey’ of Transformation

The best way to begin to understand what transforming a local church means is to use the metaphor of a ‘journey.’ There are a number of  journeys in the Bible but I will use the exodus from Egypt to illustrate the major features of a ‘journey of transformation.’ [1]

There are three major parts to the Exodus story: preparation and the decision to make the journey, the actual journey, and arrival in the Promised Land. I will briefly summarize some of the main features of each of these and relate them to transforming a local church.

Preparation and the decision to make the journey

From our perspective, looking back thousands of years with the eyes of faith, Moses is one of God’s heroes, so when we use the exodus journey as a metaphor for transforming a local church, we may become confused. Should we wait for a ‘hero’ to arrive, to lead us? Are we inflating the role of Change Agent, which we must fulfill, so that it requires heroic qualities beyond the reach of ordinary people? I suggest putting ourselves in Moses’ shoes, and seeing him as a reluctant leader and unlikely hero. That is precisely who we are, as we consider being Change Agents in our local church. [2]

The journey of transformation in Exodus begins with Moses’ personal change. He became aware of how badly the Hebrews were treated by the Egyptians, and killed an Egyptian who was beating one of the Israelites. To escape Pharaoh’s vengeance, Moses fled to escape being killed himself. “I can’t stay in this situation anymore” is generally the experience that starts an individual down a path toward finding ways to change the status quo.

Moses created a new life for himself as a shepherd in Midian, but he wasn’t yet a Change Agent. That was God’s work. God chose Moses, to transform the situation of his Chosen People. “God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” [Exodus 2:22] The sequence of events leading to Moses acceptance and performance of his role as Change Agent shows us our own personal path toward becoming ready to transform our local church. There are three steps in this preparation stage:

Encountering God

One day, while he was tending his father-in-laws’ sheep, Moses had an encounter with God. The burning bush got his attention, and he heard God’s voice calling him, “Moses! Moses! And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’” [Exodus 3:4b] God’s call collided with Moses own awareness of the Hebrews situation. Our personal struggles as Christians are the preparation for God’s call to us. Our willingness to listen is how we play our part in His plan to use us to fulfill His purposes. That may include becoming a Change Agent in our local church, if we open ourselves to that possibility.

Overcoming doubts

“So, now go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” [Exodus 3:10] God’s call is very clear and explicit in the Biblical retelling of the Exodus story. But you can also see how difficult it was for Moses to respond to God. “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh   and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” [Exodus 3: 11] In the verses that follow, Moses throws up one question and doubt after another, which God answers patiently, “How do I prove that God actually is behind this? What is your name?” “Why should the Israelites listen to me? What if they don’t believe me?” We can easily identify with these questions. Discerning a call from God is difficult, especially when we can so easily be misled by our own ego or give in to our fears. God’s reassurance to Moses was to provide other like-minded people to support him in the journey. God sent Aaron, Moses’ brother with him as a companion on the journey. “I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” [Exodus 4: 15b] In transforming a local church, a small group of like-minded Change Agents is crucial in discerning the mind of Jesus and having the courage and resilience needed to undertake the difficult journey of transformation.

Decision to make the journey

The final step in preparation is taking the first irrevocable step on the journey, which involves a firm decision to leave the status quo. In Moses case, he first asked Jethro his father-in-law for permission to leave Midian. “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.” [Exodus 4:18] He met Aaron and then all the elders of the people of Israel and, with Aaron’s help, convinced them that God wanted them to leave Egypt. In the case of a local church, this decision step involves convincing and aligning the Pastor and important people in the local church about God’s desire that the whole church begin the journey of transformation. This can be a difficult and discouraging process. “The Israelites did not listen (to Moses) because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6: 9] But God was insistent, even though Moses was discouraged. “Moses said to the Lord, ‘If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?’” [Exodus 6:12] And God kept on saying to Moses, “I am the Lord. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.” [Exodus 6:29] That is the choice that Change Agents must make: to focus on their own internal self-doubts or to focus on God’s insistent urgings to make the journey of transformation that God desires.

The actual journey

The actual Exodus journey seems to begin after the Pharaoh relented and let the Hebrews go. Before that happened however, there were the plagues, culminating in the ‘Passover’ when God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian but spared the Hebrews who had showed their faithfulness in smearing blood from a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts. Were the plagues and Passover part of the journey? Yes, because every significant change journey can only begin with an ‘ending’ stage. The Hebrews had to experience something that would make them leave their usual surroundings behind and end their familiar life, even slavery, to set off into a barren desert toward an unknown destination. That didn’t just depend on Moses and Aaron’s persuasion but on God’s clearly demonstrated support for their journey. The plagues and Passover were unmistakable evidence of this and bound the Israelite community together in a common purpose: to make a dangerous journey to find the Promised Land.

How can we relate the plagues and Passover to what we can expect from God in transforming a local church? God doesn’t always signal his support so dramatically. Elijah experienced God’s support for his mission and journey as a ‘gentle whisper.’ [1 Kings 19: 12b] The question is, should Change Agents expect some sign of God’s support for their mission of transforming a local church? Or should they depend on their own powers of enrollment and persuasion to unify their community at the beginning of the journey of transformation? As I ponder this, I believe that Change Agents should not depend on their own talents and resources. God will send signs of His support but they may be surprisingly ordinary ‘whispers’ not dramatic plagues. This highlights the strong need for prayer and discernment at the beginning of the change journey, when ‘endings’ and leaving the familiar behind will be required. Combine this with the requirement that the whole church community must make the journey, not just a few ‘early adopters,’ and the ending and setting off stage may be quite protracted, as the community waits and discerns God’s support for the journey.

The Israelites’ journey also started with great drama. Pharaoh let them go, then changed his mind and descended on the helpless Hebrews with his entire army. They wailed in fear, “What have you done to us? . . . It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” [Exodus 14: 11-12] We all know the story of what happened next, and probably have an image of Charlton Heston stretching out his hands and parting the waters for the Hebrews, and then stretching out his hands again and bringing the waters on top of Pharaoh’s army to drown them all. What can this mean for our journey?

This is a story of learning to trust, in God’s promises and in our own decision to set off on a journey of transformation. If we unpack the story in Exodus, Pharaoh’s change of heart can be seen as a loss of comfortable assumptions about transforming church and a collision with the harsh realities of opposition and discouragement. In the exodus story God told Moses what was going to happen, in advance, and Moses reassured the people.  I heard another story years ago that helped me understand this same situation.

I was leading a Change Team in a large Insurance company a number of years ago, and one of the executives described the ‘change journey’ like this.

“I was flying across America a few years ago on a brilliantly clear day. We were at 39.000 feet as we approached the Rocky Mountains, and I happened to notice some small towns in eastern Colorado. If you have ever been there, you know that the eastern third of Colorado is all barren, dry plains, with few trees and very little water. As I looked at these small towns I wondered why anybody would ever settle in a place like that. Then a reason occurred to me.

“I imagined that some poor farmers in Missouri, a thousand miles to the east, had heard about California and decided that the farm that they struggled to make successful wasn’t worth the effort. So they talked to some of their neighbors, who basically felt the same way and they all decided to go to California. They sold their farms, bought covered wagons and set off for the ‘promised land’ in California.  After traveling without any particular difficulty for a month or so, suddenly they saw the Rocky Mountains in the distance, on the horizon. Every day the mountains grew in size until, one day they seemed to fill the horizon with an impenetrable barrier.

“The farmers had a map someone had given them, and it showed a trail through the Rockies but it also showed that the journey to California would be all mountains and desert from now on, as soon as they entered the mountains. It all seemed too hard, almost impossible, so they just gave up their dream about a new life in California and settled right where they were, in those desolate plains of eastern Colorado.”

That business executive told his story to illustrate the importance of understanding the barriers and risks of the change journey – and the vital need of having guides on the journey who understand what will happen, who can help the community get past these barriers. That is the vital role that Change Agents must fulfill in transforming local churches. That is what Moses did for the Israelites, reassuring them that God had promised to be with them and was actively working on their behalf. “But Moses said, ‘Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. . . The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’” [Exodus 14: 13-14]

Arrival in the Promised Land

When does the journey of transformation end? Do we really ever arrive at a new church? Indeed, perhaps we never fully arrive until the final coming of Jesus. We always remain a ‘pilgrim church.’ So, how can we understand ‘arriving’ as a result of transforming church? The Israelites journeyed in the desert forty years before they entered Canaan. Arrival was a process that happened to them both before and after they reached the political border of the physical land that was given to them. This process can be seen as a ‘continuous arrival in the Promised Land’ in God’s time, according to his plan. We can expect the same ‘continuous arrival at new church’ on our own journey of transformation. How does this process of ‘continuous arrival in the Promised Land’ work?

As the Israelites were about to enter Canaan, Moses looked back over their forty years in the desert. [3] He reminded them of everything the Lord had done for them, in spite of their continued grumbling and losses of faith. He reminded them that they hadn’t trusted God before they fought the Amorites. “You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” [Deuteronomy 1:27] And, indeed, because they were hardhearted and did not trust in God, the Amorites “chased you like a swarm of bees and beat you down from Seir all the way to Hormah.” [Deuteronomy 1:44] Moses told them this story before he retold their encounter with the Law, which established how they were to live in the Promised Land. “Walk in all the ways that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” [Deuteronomy 5:33] What do these two stories say about ‘continuous arrival’ in a journey of transformation?

God promised to give a homeland to the Hebrews, and led them through transformational experiences to prepare them to live in this land as he wishes them to live. He fed them with Manna when they were starving and provided water from the rock. He clearly showed them that when they trusted him, he did great works in their behalf – but when they didn’t trust him, they were like any other people and could be defeated. He gave Moses very explicit instructions in the Law, which described life in his kingdom. “If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers.” [Deuteronomy 7:12] Seen from this perspective ‘continuous arrival’ means gradual growth of a community into God’s people. In the journey that a local church makes, we should expect the same type of gradual growth, as well as times of forgetting and backsliding. The Change Agents must create the desire in the community to continue the journey no matter what happens in the short term.

Viewing the full sweep of the history of the Israelites from our current day perspective, you can easily see that they and their descendents are still ‘arriving’ in the Promised Land, and not yet fully there in the 4000 years since Abraham. And we Christians are just the same as them, ‘continuously arriving’ in God’s promised kingdom of the New Covenant but not yet there. While we may feel that we have learned a great deal from our transformational journey over 2000 years, we are still in the arrival process, with all its human foibles and need for divine forgiveness. Change Agents need to understand that whatever accomplishments may be achieved by the local church as it tries to more closely follow the mind of Jesus, the journey will continue. This awareness of the local church’s role in ‘Salvation History’ as well as learning to be mindful of its practical consequences in the life of the church is one of the important steps in the journey of transformation.

The final irony in Deuteronomy is that Moses could not enter the Promised Land. He “broke faith with (the Lord) in the presence the Israelites . . . and did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” [Deuteronomy 32: 51-52] This is a clear warning to Change Agents and leaders in local churches. There are risks in the transformational journey, and those who lead the church need to be aware of them and take them seriously. These risks should not discourage the community from undertaking the journey. In God’s Plan, churches cannot opt out of making the journey. To me, these risks once again emphasize the need for prayer. Only by trusting that God is going before the church, to prepare the way and the Promised Land, can we find the courage to be Change Agents and leaders of this journey.

Lessons from Exodus for the church’s journey of transformation

I will not cover the practical details of how to help a local church make a journey of transformation in this Blog. I am currently writing A Guide to Transforming Your Local Church which will be available on this website when it is completed. The process I will  describe in that Guide is based on the experiences of many experts in organizational change. Equally important, I have amplified that organizational change process to take into account the lessons of the holy journey of transformation that each church is being called to make, as exemplified in Exodus.

Briefly, here are a few lessons that we can learn from Exodus about each local church’s journey of transformation.

Lesson 1. The change journey of a local church is difficult.

Exodus does not describe a ‘change project,’ or finding practical everyday solutions to help the Hebrews live better and serve God in the land of Egypt. It describes an incredible adventure, of leaving, being pursued, almost starving, facing countless enemies and finally arriving after many years of wandering in a vast wasteland. Understanding this, preparation for the journey is vital, especially of the church’s leaders.

Lesson 2. The change journey needs dedicated people – Change Agents — who can see where the church must go and help the church’s leaders see the path and guide them through the steps.

The Hebrews would never have left Egypt unless God had sent Moses to them. They were trapped in slavery and surrounded by a formidable barrier, the vast desert. They didn’t know where to go or how to get there. Local churches need Change Agents who, with God’s help, can persuade the church’s leaders that the journey must be made, and then support them and the entire community as the journey progresses.

Lesson 3. The change journey needs leaders who are strongly committed to help the entire church community make this difficult journey

God led the Hebrews using a few people, the leaders and elders. They were the essential intermediaries who, with Moses help, saw what God was doing on the journey and communicated this to the Hebrews. Transforming a local church is not a ‘one person job,’ for a charismatic leader or anyone else. It requires that a number of people in the church fulfill leadership roles in the journey.

Lesson 4. The ones who actually have to change – the entire community, including leaders and Change Agents – need to be supported every step of the journey.

The Hebrews constantly struggled on the journey. If they could have gone back to Egypt, they would have. They lost trust in God and even worshipped a Golden Calf. Yet, God chose the entire community as his people, not just a few people that were ‘good enough’ to make the journey.  Helping people change their long established habits is one of the key challenges that Change Agents and leaders must deal with when transforming a local church.

Lesson 5. The leaders and Change Agents need to anticipate the risks of the change journey and put plans in place to lessen or eliminate those risks proactively.

God knew what the Hebrews faced before they did, and prepared ways to help them get past these risks. The Lord told Moses what he should do, to help the people find Manna or defeat their enemies. In the same way, Change Agents and leaders need to depend on God to help them past the difficulties they will surely face. Some of these risks are common on any change journey, such as change resistance. Some are unique to the challenge that the church faces in the 21st century. Prayerful awareness and preparation are an essential undertaking for leaders and Change Agents.


[1] I will use the terms journey of transformation and change journey interchangeably. While all changes may not be transformational, transforming a local church is generally concerned with making numerous changes, some small and some large.

[2] There is a mythic dimension to undertaking a journey of transformation, which Joseph Campbell described in his classic Hero with a Thousand Faces. He described this mythic journey as ‘a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” In this sense, the Change Agents I describe in this book are heros, because they intend to leave the everyday common world of church and, with Jesus’ help, successfully help their fellow Christians find the ‘boons’ of a new way of being church. However, I will not expand or emphacize this heroic aspect of transformation. Jesus never saw himself as a hero and neither should we. See Philippians 2: 6-11.

[3] This retrospective look is contained in the Book of Deuteronomy.