A Reflection on Mark Labberton’s Address for GA…and for Today
I just returned home from my first General Assembly, where I had the joy of serving as part of the PFR and Fellowship Team and sharing our new, exciting vision for the Fellowship Community. As is the case at every General Assembly, one of the highlights of our time in Detroit was the PFR/Fellowship Breakfast midway through the week. Our speaker Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, shared a powerful word, not only for commissioners as they turned their focus to the start of plenary discussions, but for all of us as we focus on what it means be a Gospel-centered community today.
Labberton centered his address on the Book of Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar’s decree:
“You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to bow down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down in worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshipped the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble shall fall down and worship the golden statue, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods, and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it not true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:4-15)
If your eyes began to glaze over by the time you read “the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble” for a fourth time (and now a fifth time!), you are tracking with Labberton’s point: There is a “mesmerizing rhythm” about this cultural decree.
And just as there were “mesmerizing rhythms” in the Babylonian culture, so there are with ours, such that the eyes of our souls glaze over and we lose our focus and vision.
I get the reality of that rhythm. The day-to-day routine. Errands to run. Chores to do. Classes and meetings to attend. Emails and phone calls. Health and fitness regimens. Bills. Family life. Social life. Political and economic strife. Cultural tensions. Cultural temptations. The demands of the world. The demands of self. Whether good, bad, or indifferent, the cycle of it all can lull us.
Even our flurried pace of ministry – or our flurry of denominational discussions – can have a hypnotizing effect of their own.
When I say I just returned home from General Assembly, I did not return to my home outside of Atlanta, Georgia, but to my home away from home. I went from Detroit to Nazareth Hospital in Limuru, Kenya, where I am writing this blog post and where I am serving for two weeks with Tree of Lives, a holistic mission for individuals, families, and communities impacted by HIV/AIDS. The rhythm in Kenya is different – and yet it can be equally as mesmerizing.
On a routine errand to the local grocery store this week with Vinton, one of the pastoral counselors at the hospital, I asked Vinton if ministry had been busy. (The question itself betrays the impact of that mesmerizing rhythm on me!) Vinton replied, “Yes, disease, death, grief, and so on.” His response was similar to that of the last time I asked him the question when I saw him in November.
During the hospital’s Monday-morning staff meeting on that same fall trip, our mission facilitator asked the staff if any of them had seen God at work in the past 24 hours. Not one person raised his or her hand. Our facilitator remarked that, when he asked the same question of our mission team, each of us had no trouble listing three or four experiences where we had seen Christ. But here at the start of the workweek, no staff person could do the same.
I get that reality as well.
By God’s grace, Vinton and the Nazareth staff are helping defeat the, not just mesmerizing, but lethal rhythm of HIV/AIDS in Kenya. At the same time, as much as Vinton or I or any of us who proclaim to be followers of Christ desire to break our culture’s rhythms, we are just as tempted and persuaded by them. How much easier it is for me – when I am miles away from the routine of home and know that I am on a “mission trip” – how much easier it is to see Jesus in the faces and places and experiences I encounter. How hard it can be – when I am back at home with its varied circumstances and challenges – how hard it can be to see Christ and the mission on which He has called me, wherever I am – in Kenya or in Atlanta, in my office or at church or in my own backyard.
But by God’s grace, we can break that deadly rhythm as well.
So how do we get out of this rhythm – and into Rhythm? Listen to how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego respond to King Nebuchadnezzar’s ultimatum: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18). In Labberton’s words, the greatest threat is not the fiery furnace; the greatest threat is idolatry.
There is a bit of a paradox at work, of course. Certainly, we need to be in touch with the rhythms that surround us. But there is a grave difference – a joyful difference! – between being in touch with them and being tethered to them. Indeed, it is a question of worship: Which rhythm commands – and receives – our attention, our obedience, our adoration?
All other rhythms may woo us, entice us, weary us, beat us down, or otherwise tempt us to give into their threat. But there is a greater Rhythm still.
Ever since I first heard it years ago, I have often found myself reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s translation of Jesus’ words from Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
For us as Christ followers, that’s our true mesmerizing rhythm – and my prayer for each of us this day. May we be so disconnected to any other rhythm and so connected – intimately and integrally – to the One True Rhythm of Jesus. And may that Rhythm impact every other rhythm, to the end that all of God’s people might live in glorious sync with the mission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.