Luke 10:1-11 | God’s Perspective is Bigger than Ours |
a reflection by Dan Spragg
I’m going to begin today with a story I’ve used before, so forgive me for that, it’s just so good and so relevant for today and for us and where we are. In his bestselling book Good to Great business and management guru Jim Collins reports on a mammoth study he and a team of researchers conducted looking into the question of why some companies seem to be able to make the leap from being a good company with good performance indicators to being a great company, one that leaves its competition in its dust. One of the keys to success that they identified was that of an aspect of what they call ‘disciplined thought’ – which is the art of being able to confront the brutal facts, while never losing faith. He tells the story of American military officer Admiral Jim Stockdale who during the Vietnam War was tortured over twenty times during an eight-year imprisonment. He earned a number of medals upon his release due to the way in which he conducted himself during his time in the prison camp; he set about organising the other prisoners, he devised elaborate secret communications systems within the prison population to break the feelings of isolation, he instituted rules that helped the other prisoners deal with torture, along with a number of other things. During his research for the book, Collins got the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Stockdale considering the big question of how on earth did he deal with the horrendous situation in the prison camp while having no idea if he would ever make it out alive or not? Collins writes this:
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”
I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and as we continued the slow walk… Stockdale limping and arc swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred metres of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”
“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
To this day, I carry around a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas, deal with it!”Jim Collins, Good to Great, p85.
Collins calls this The Stockdale Paradox – being able to confront the brutal facts while never losing faith in the end goal. We have to be ‘hopeful realists’ when we find ourselves in uncharted and challenging territory.
Heading over to our story in Luke’s gospel, I wonder how the disciples were feeling at this moment. The picture painted is kind of interesting. For their first solo journey, without Jesus there with them, there’s a bit in here that they could have been concerned about. Firstly, they were quite vulnerable as they were sent out – ‘like lambs among wolves’ – They took nothing with them, they didn’t really know when they were to eat, or where they would sleep. There is a very real sense in which it was potentially a hostile environment they were going into, they were to expect rejection. The key point in this passage seems to be, however, on their receiving of the hospitality of those who did welcome them. They were to eat whatever was served up to them, and they were to stay in one place and honour those who welcomed them. Now, there is a bit of research around that strongly suggests the towns where these disciples were being sent were not Jewish towns. Food then, would have or could have been a stumbling block. What was a Jewish person to do if it was bacon butties for breakfast? Well, Jesus suggests they were to put aside their customs and accommodate themselves to whoever was welcoming them – and therefore, welcoming him, welcoming the good news of God’s Way. These disciples Jesus sent, were entering a different culture, and the message Jesus sends them is to adapt, be open, and accommodate to whatever comes before you. The challenge to go on this journey without any supplies, or really any contingency plans is quite a novel idea! The Scouts would not approve… they were purely to go trusting in the grace of God to provide anything they needed along the way. Not only did this include money, food and shelter, but also other workers to join in and share the load of work. They were to go and trust that God would provide for all their needs – supplies and people power. There is a very real sense of God being at work ahead of them. In essence, these disciples were sent by Jesus on a mission into a new culture and the only thing they took with them was the message of God’s good news and the demonstration of that good news. They were at risk, and they were vulnerable, but they were to trust that God would provide and they were to be open to what this provision looked like even if it wasn’t what they were used to.
Let’s ‘park’ Luke 10 for a moment and talk about time. As you know we are working through our collective Vision and Purpose as a church family. Our vision of who we are and who we seek to be is: To be an open, vibrant, multifaceted, God-filled presence in our communities, for the purpose of: taking notice, pointing towards and engaging people with the goodness, grace and love of God, through Jesus, animated by the power of the Spirit. The particular belief and value we are looking at today is: God’s Perspective is bigger than ours. Perspective. So, let’s think about time as an example. We experience time in a linear way. We are in this moment in time and our only experience of time is that it goes forwards. Second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour; days, weeks, months, years… we live in time in a straight line that moves forwards. General Christian thought throughout history is that this is not God’s experience of time. God’s relationship to time is that God was before time and so exists outside of our timeline. Imagine our timeline – straight, linear, forward-moving. And God is with us, but God also is looking at this timeline from left, right, behind, in front, below, above. St Patrick described it like this: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left… God’s perspective is bigger than ours. We simply can’t know all there is to know. We can’t do all there is to do. What a relief! Perhaps this is something we need to hear.
Perhaps this is something that those disciples needed to hear too. They were to go into this unknown, unpredictable situation to see what they found. They were to expect some to welcome them. They were to expect some to reject them. But, in both situations, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God has drawn near. God is at work in those who receive our presence, and God is still at work in those who aren’t interested – that’s what this implies I believe. God is at work for God sees more, God knows more, God is more. God is the one at work as the disciples went with the good news of divine peace. In their vulnerability, God was at work. Being vulnerable is to be at risk, but being vulnerable is also owning up to the fact that we don’t know how things will go, that we don’t have all the answers, that the answers might be found as we are in conversation with the communities we interact with. Being vulnerable is admitting that we need to rely on the hospitality of others. Being vulnerable is to acknowledge the ‘brutal facts’ as Admiral Stockdale would say – the lambs among wolves, the anticipated rejection; our long slow decline in numbers and decreasing engagement, the increasing complexity, and our financial challenges. But, as Stockdale would also say, to never give up hope of what is still possible – that the good news of God’s way still draws near and still has work to do in us and through us to the communities we interact with. This is good news, isn’t it? In my opinion, this totally flips the responsibility of ‘outreach’ and of ‘church’ from us to God! Sure we acknowledge we have challenges and we adapt to those as best we can, but we are to be at work in this big gospel good news story, because ultimately it is God who has the big picture, therefore we don’t follow fear and where it might lead us, we follow hope and joy and peace and love.
One of the biggest challenges for us from Luke 10 is that as we acknowledge our reality while never giving up hope we are not only called to follow where God is at work but that this will be into new spaces and places that we haven’t been before. Quite often, not always, but quite often the thinking behind our interactions with the community is that ‘we provide something, they’ll come and maybe they’ll be interested in faith and add to our life. But Jesus lays the challenge here of ‘we go, and it is there that we will be provided for.’ In our adventuring out into new ground, following where God is at work; that is where the provision will be found. We acknowledge the challenging realities, we never give up hope in the work of grace, and as we follow where God is already at work it is there the provision for our life will be found. We will not continue into a long and meaningful future by getting stuck in our challenges and retreating back to safer ground. God’s perspective is bigger than ours. God, remember, stands at all points on our timeline – behind in what we have already done, beside and below to guide, hold and nurture, above to inspire and in front with a smile and an invitation to come and see what lies ahead.