We had a friend from the UK stay with us last week. While watching some of the awe inspiring big surf one day he recounted being taught a lesson by someone who had sailed around the world. When in desperate situations with heavy seas and high winds, he would always be looking to for the chink in the waves to find a way through that did not destroy the boat. “There’s always a chink, keep looking for it.”
It’s a lesson for those of us facing scary situations where our minds very easily can write the script of the obituary of our business / ministry / relationship before it’s over. “God will provide enough grace to sustain you where in providence he has placed you.” Keep working, looking out for the chink, praying and moving. Never ever, ever give up.
The photo above was taken on the day we watched the surf in Santa Cruz. It was also the day that I failed to find the chink through that very spot while surfing. If you look closely there is a stand up paddle boarder at the base of the furthest wave. It is triple overhead. That wave, or one a few hours before it, landed on my head, snapped my leash, threw my board onto the cliffs and destroyed it. I had to swim half a mile back to safety and was subdued for a full two days. I had failed to keep moving and when I saw the set coming just froze, hoping for the best instead of looking for the way out and paddling hard around. I hate learning the hard way.
A lot of the pastors I meet with or churches that we partner with are finding this period to be the most challenging they have ever experienced. When we are tempted to despair, I think wise advice is to keep praying, keep moving, keep looking for and asking to be shown the chink. And in the middle of the crisis ask to be taught to sense his presence. To see our reward as himself, not in his gifts or providence. Because even if he does appear to be asleep in the boat in the middle of a life threatening storm, he is with you, and the wind and waves answer to him.
I love my dog. He teaches me so much about what I should be like. He never holds grudges. After every mealtime he is so happy that he just cannot contain his gratitude and spends a couple of minutes walking around you, usually with a sock in his mouth (his trademark gift), with his tail wagging so hard and uttering little grunts. It is embarrassing that he almost worships me, or at least does not want to let me out of his sight. If I am ever upset with him, he takes himself off to his crate and hides until he thinks I no longer remember his transgression. Or more likely he no longer remembers why he is in there. When I am working he will sometimes just lie there looking at me thinking “I have no idea what you are doing, but I love you.” Many years ago, we had a cat. She would lie there looking at me and in her mind she was just judging me and criticizing my every action. This is not to say that I just love my dog because he is a sycophant. He also teaches me how flawed I am. There are a few things which he does that are not good. However much I train him, he will always have a predisposition to do them. Like sticking his nose in the recycling to find anything worth dragging to his crate to clean out. Like losing all self control when he sees a squirrel and bolting as fast as he can for it wherever it is. Like ripping open any bag of food – the latest was a 12oz bag of coffee beans and eating a third of them with hilarious and predictably hyper consequences for the next 12 hours. Some things are too disgusting to write in a blog. He is just wired with those flaws.
I wish I could have a similar level of devotion and attachment to God. I wish I could continually appreciate the mercies that God shows me every day and express such deep gratitude. I take comfort in the fact that God knows my weaknesses and is very fond of me all the same. I will never comprehend the levels that he works in or thinks about, but it comforts me to be in his presence while he is at work.
This may sound weird, but does anyone else sometimes get a sense that at certain times God is so close to the tiny circumstances of what you are experiencing that he is orchestrating everything around you? I walked into a conference of 800 people last week, with only one person that I really needed to spend time with. He is a dear friend who is like a father to me in some ways. This man knew Mother Teresa, has been involved in leading the world’s largest fair trade crafts business for decades, and has had a lifetime dedicated to serving the poor. We email perhaps once every quarter and speak on the phone whenever I feel I need his unique blend of wisdom of that combines business shrewdness and spiritual discernment. Once he said to me “Nathan, it is time to get off your knees praying about the situation, and get back in front of your spreadsheets and on the telephone to sort the situation out.”
I walk into the conference half a day late and the first person I see lining up to get lunch is Paul. Amazingly for someone who is so well known and respected he had a lunch time without having to meet with anyone, and we get 45 minutes together. He speaks a word that i need to hear. Mother Teresa was passionate about her mission, but she was a saint not because of the world-changing impact or the success of that mission, but simply because she got up every morning and faithfully did what she knew she was called to do. Be more like Mother Teresa and less like the puffed-up success-narrative addicted ‘achievers’ we are programmed to need to be. Our job is just faithfulness. Work hard, and smart and pray a lot. The rest is his.
I preached on Nehemiah at the weekend. A man of action, passion, meticulous planning, and a burning desire to see the people of God return to be the people they were intended to be. Building the wall was just a means to an end of a restored vision of who God had called them to be. If there were a patron saint of Trade as One it would be Nehemiah. He has his heart broken over the gap between what God intended his people to be and what the reality actually was. He prayed a lot, and got on with doing things. He doesn’t expect miracles or direct words from the Lord. He asks for God’s help and does what he thinks is the best thing to do in the situation. When threatened by an army that was going to come and put a stop to the wall building he ‘prays to our God and posts guards on the wall.” I like Nehemiah a lot.
So here’s my question. His activity sprang from a vision that he believe God ‘placed on his heart to do.’ Once that vision got lodged there and God provides the opportunity to get in the game, he was unstoppable. He frequently calls on God to help him out of the scrapes that he gets into in achieving what he set out to do. And yet a few people I respect a lot are telling me that outcomes don’t matter – success or failure of Trade as One is not the point. That God is more interested in his relationship with me and the maturity of my soul than in what I think I can achieve for him. I get it. Sort of. But wait.
I grew up a missionary kid. I have sat through countless prayer meetings where God is called on to do very specific and very practical things to help those who have risked a lot – for money to arrive in the nick of time, for protection from gangs of fundamentalist Muslims who had set out to kill us, for the repair of vehicles when stuck in the middle of nowhere in life-threatening situations. I have ‘laid hands’ on VW engines and seen them burst back into life for no explainable reason. My parents and the community they were a part of lived on the edge. Their experiences shaped their view of God and their understanding of themselves. As I live with Trade as One as my journey, I too find myself in scrapes, albeit typically less life-threatening. I want to cry out to God as David frequently does in the psalms ’Do not let me be put to shame. Do not let my enemies triumph over me. Grant me success.’
But there are no guarantees of great success, or even for that matter survival, of Trade as One. I know that, but while there is breath in my body I will work and fight and pray and plan to make it have all the impact it can have. Can one of you wise pastors out there council me on why I need to be less like Nehemiah? Outcomes DO matter. Rescuing women from bonded commercial sex work does matter. And it does not just happen by praying for it to happen. The wall gets built when people stop farming and stoop down to pick up and replace stones on the wall. We were created in Christ Jesus TO DO good works which he has prepared in advance for us to do. Jesus got tired to the point of exhaustion, with all the work he did. Somehow I have to let go of worry. Somehow the link between my efforts and God’s providentially orchestrated outcomes needs to get better understood. They are not unrelated because we are called to work with him. But we must learn to take on his yoke, not one of our own making, and plough the field he has given to us to work. All we need will be provided.
Did Nehemiah succeed? The wall was completed in 52 days, although no where near its former size and glory. That was not the vision though. It was to call the people back to obedience to the law so that the exile could be over at last. By that measure, he failed. But his life stands as a testament I think to an approach and a type of person that God delights in. So maybe my friends are correct. Success is not the point, even though it feels like life or death when it hangs in the balance. As NT Wright says, God takes those acts of obedience and faithfulness done in this life as building blocks for the new creation.
One of the things I love about my job is how I get to speak with so many great leaders in the church all over the country. It gives me a not-quite-unique, but I think a rare perspective on trends and common issues that churches are grappling with. Here’s what we are seeing, much more so than in previous years. Burned out staff and skeletal planning. The church is stretched like never before.
I think the seriousness of downturn that was triggered in October 2008 took until the first quarter of 2009 to be properly understood. That quarter last year saw Trade as One having very few conversations with church partners because they were all in the mode of restructuring, revising plans and many of them losing staff. Eighteen months later the staff that were left are burning out. The number of people on sabbaticals, extended vacations or on the ragged edge is more than I have seen for a long time.
As I lead Trade as One and look to partner with churches, this is concerning. I would hate to see concern about how much can realistically be taken on by the church prevent Trade as One from opportunities that it would otherwise have had. That’s why the team has worked hard to ensure that when we do partner with a church, we have built the engagement model in a way that demands very little from them. All it takes is 5 minutes from stage, a small handful of volunteers.
When we talk about money in our churches, we seem to really only ever talk about our giving and how we should be doing more. In an age of unprecedented wealth – when compared historically or geographically, the current economic woes we face in America are really only ones of wealth deprivation – there absolutely needs to be more giving. Research consistently shows that only about 2% of people’s income is typically given away. We could multiply this by a factor of five before we reached Old Testament standards, let alone New Testament standards of giving beyond the point of when it hurts us and involves serious sacrifice. So before I say what I am about to, don’t get me wrong, we need to see more faithful, bold giving. But what about the other 98%? Does the gospel have nothing to say about that? Why do we never talk about it? Isn’t what we do with that just as much, if not more, of a discipleship issue?
When we talk of compassion and justice, I see compassion as the gateway to justice. Our hearts are moved to empathize with the poor and the oppressed and our wallets are often moved to give. If we are being drawn into compassion by the spirit, I see it often leading then to engaging the mind on issues of justice. Archbishop Helder Camara said “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” Systemic injustices that keep the poor in their place, that allow the rich to play by a different set of rules, that deny the poor the rights to be recognized as an image bearer of the creator God. Justice then demands a well thought-through approach.
For every dollar that is given to the church, at least ten dollars are spent in the shopping mall. Justice has everything to say to what we buy and how our products are made and yet we are not paying any attention to it as the church. Four years ago I founded the fair trade company Trade as One specifically to partner with the church in America to get us to think about how we subvert some of the 98% for the kingdom of God. The gospel calls us to live simply, to give generously and to buy ethically. If we read it as seriously speaking to us rich, James 5 is a horrifying indictment of our apathy for and complicity in the abuse of how workers who make things for us. When the church begins to see the other 98% of its people’s incomes as capable of being engaged in the gospel, things get really exciting.
What excites me is that despite being told five years ago that I was crazy to think that the church could be engaged in the area of fair trade (the most memorable and depressing opinion came from one of the country’s leading mega church missions pastors “This won’t work – Americans are consumers first and Christians second”), churches all over the country are getting it – from Willow Creek, to North Point, to Vintage Faith, Imago Dei, Menlo Park Pres. If you want to know more, check out www.tradeasone.com/churches
While global trade has improved the conditions for some marginalized people, many critics suggest that conventional commerce gives too much power to multinational corporations and rich countries, and too little power to less industrialized countries and producers working there. Conventional trade often minimizes opportunities for vulnerable producers and sometimes degrades the environment.
When we buy something cheaply we have to ask ourselves who paid the true price of that product — because someone somewhere paid.
Fair Trade is essentially the exchange of goods based on principals of economic and social justice. It goes without saying that Aid and Development work are totally crucial and much needed approaches – but what gets us most excited about Fair Trade is that it is a sustainable and systemic approach that gives people independence and dignity. It’s not charity, nor pity, but it’s a sustainable way to break cycles of poverty and dependency. When you buy Fair Trade products, like Fair Trade coffee, Fair Trade chocolate, or Fair Trade gifts, it comes with the knowledge that your purchase makes the world a little bit better place to live for people in some of the darkest corners of the world.
In a nutshell, we buy things we need, and in the process provide a way out of extreme poverty for our creative, hardworking partners all over the world.
Fair Trade certification is a vital part of the process, ensuring that our producers all over the world are paid fairly, that there is no child labor, that women are treated well, and that the environment is respected. For a more complete definition of Fair Trade, click see our FAQs, or visit the Fair Trade Federation website.