Thriving In the Gray Zone

Soon, our Vibrant Faith team will be gathering in North Carolina for our twice-yearly staff retreat. This year we’re doing something different—we’re reading Mark Sayers’ book A Non-Anxious Presence in advance, then planning a deep-dive discussion that targets the book’s insights into a rapidly changing church environment. Sayers, pastor of Melbourne’s Red Church, is widely respected around the world as a cultural critic and philosopher. His premise in the book is that the world has entered a “Gray Zone,” a term he borrows from the 21st-century military lexicon. In contemporary warfare beginnings and endings are fuzzy, we’re not always sure who the combatants are, and there are no shared rules of combat. Considered more broadly, Sayers says that we’re all living in a cultural Gray Zone. That means we…
  • live in an in-between space (or “liminal space”) that is characterized by disorientation and confusion,
  • experience cultural, social, and religious contradictions that are produced by the transition from one era to the next,
  • discover that our assumed procedures, boundaries, and definitions no longer apply, and
  • patterns of life and trusted markers for what is normal and what is not-normal have been infiltrated with doubt.
In the book, Sayers turns to the respected McKinsey global consultants Richard Robb, James Manyika, and Jonathan Woetzel to help explain our rapidly shifting landscape:
“[The world is] poised at a set of historical, technological, economic, political, and social inflection points. The transformation we’re living through has sometimes been likened to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the Industrial Revolution pales in comparison to today’s convulsions, because the shifts today are happening much faster and on a much bigger scale. Because they are so interlinked—urbanization and consumption, technology and competition, aging and labor—and because they amplify one another, the changes are hard to anticipate and more powerful in their impact. And they challenge our imaginations as much as they do our competencies and skills.”

Our Descent Into the Maelstrom

The tectonic shifts we’re experiencing are, of course, profoundly accelerated by the pandemic’s impact on all aspects of our life. Sayers points to the historic role other pandemics have played in massive cultural change—referencing historians who call them “bridges” that connect the world we know with the world we don’t yet know. This all makes sense—and corresponds to the waves of disorientation washing over us. We’re struggling to find our balance because we’re floating in the surf, bullied by the force of each incoming upender. We need a buoy to hold onto…

In his iconic horror story “A Descent Into the Maelstrom,” Edgar Allen Poe narrates the story of three fishermen brothers who must find a way to survive a life-threatening ocean whirlpool   after their schooner is dragged into its gaping mouth by hurricane winds. More than that, they must find a pathway out of their own panicked responses when their worst fears come true. Only one of the three brothers, the middle one, survives. After his brothers doom themselves by allowing fear to fuel misguided responses to the threat, the lone remaining fisherman notices that casks that slide over the ship’s deck into the abyss of the whirlpool are dragged down, but then ascend through the chaos back to the surface of the sea. So he ties himself to a cask and throws himself overboard, saving his life.

The story is a metaphor for life in the Gray Zone. The middle brother saves himself only after he realizes the buoyant power of the cask—in our case, our “buoyant cask” is our intimate attachment to Jesus. It’s his ability to establish an intimate connection with us, while maintaining His independence from our anxieties and doubts and personal agendas, that transforms us. He doesn’t say “I’ll tell you the truth;” he says “I am the truth.” He’s not peddling a new set of values; he’s offering Himself as the path into a centered identity that can withstand the consuming force of our culture’s maelstrom. As Jesus models, our lasting influence is always driven by the “nucleus” at the center of our identity, not by innovative strategies or motivational tips-and-techniques. We resist the pressure of the disorienting waves that wash over us, because we have our arms around something more powerful than our anxieties and fears.

The middle brother in Poe’s story recognizes his path of rescue will take him down before the cask he has lashed himself to returns him to the surface. His great act of courage is to trust his downward path, the path of apparent weakness, to lead him to the ascending strength he must have to survive. So we trust our certain strength—the cask whose name is Jesus—as we descend into our fears and challenges and struggles. We invite the life of the “Vine” to course through the brittle interior of our dead “branch.

Weakness Into Strength

Our unshakeable core is built on our understanding of who Jesus is, and who he reveals us to be. We need Jesus’ perspective to embrace our heart, and to discover what we stand for. And this is why following Jesus will lead us to confront and conquer—not avoid or capitulate to—the fears we face in the Gray Zone. Jesus understands what sort of force transformation requires; that a broken thing must be shattered to pieces before it can be put back together and made whole. And as we are made whole by him in our trusting descent into our weakness, we begin to live and lead from a place of authenticity, seeding our relational environments with conviction, not symptom-control.

At the heart of our new resource Lives of Meaning and Purpose is a Jesus-centered exploration of our core identity—when we discover our callings, we discover a Jesus who is paying ridiculous attention to us. He forms us as he calls us into our purposes in life. We developed this new ministry kit out of our five-year project “Creating a Culture of Calling.” Please do check it out, HERE. And for help inviting others into a more intimate attachment to Jesus, use our new 40-lesson curriculum for teenagers and adults Following Jesus—you can check it out HERE.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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