Tag Archives: Jesus

Christian Freedom

A friend recently gave me a copy of Steve Brown’s book A Scandalous Freedom. The Radical Nature of the Gospel. Maybe he thought my life was confined by too many ‘don’ts’ and wanted me to discover afresh the gift of freedom in Christ. 

Brown’s thesis is quite basic — Christians in North America have lost the true sense of Gospel freedom that they possess. Instead, Christianity has become another religious system, using rules and other pressures to provoke its followers to moral living and good deeds. In succombing to this less than Gospel understanding of  Jesus’ message, believers remain "afraid, guilty and bound." Legalism, wrong teaching, abusive leadership, false expectations all conspire to rob believers of their freedom.  "There is so much more to being a Christian than obeying rules, doing religious things, and being ‘nice’."

With considerable wit, insight into ‘churchianity’, personal transparency, pastoral care, and theological acuity, Brown challenges us to be free. His goal is to help Christians recapture true Christian freedom and  become the potent Kingdom force that God intended them to be, living with joy, courage, and peace. They will know God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness and it is deeply liberating.

Brown’s objective is admirable and in many instances needed. It is important to grasp and build into our lives the wonderful liberty that Jesus has purchased for us. Conversely, we have to reject pretense, tradition for the sake of tradition, the paralysis generated by fear, and attempts by some Christians to control. However, I have my reservations about Brown’s presentation.

1. Paul revels in the freedom Jesus provides from sin’s power and the burden of generating our own righteousness. Brown rightly emphasizes this. In Galatians 3 to 5 Paul describes the astonishing transformation — believers are no longer under the power of the Law, the curse of sin, the weak and beggarly cosmic powers. But just as much as he celebrates this significant liberation, he emphasizes that God’s invitation to live in his freedom means "walking in the Spirit," "keeping in step with the Spirit," and recognizing that "I no longer live, but Messiah lives in me." The freedom we have in Christ is not autonomy; it is a freedom to be one of the Messiah’s "Kingdom of Priests", the Messiah who is our Lord. As Paul says in Romans 6:22 that we "have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God." I did not perceive this side of the biblical freedom equation in Brown’s presentation.

2.   Paul also emphasizes that our freedom is exercised in the context of Christian community. Brown places significant emphasis on the believer as individual, but does not seem to balance this with the biblical reality of believer as part of the body of Christ. As a believer I am not free to be me without restraint. The three great commandments — love God, love neighbour, and make disciples — sets each believer in a new relational network that shapes the nature of Christian freedom. God has not purchased through the Cross my freedom so that I can sin and harm Christ’s body, bring disrepute to the Gospel, and advance Satan’s cause. Of course, Christians sin and God still loves us. In his extensive discussion on the boundaries of Christian freedom, Paul concludes "Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible — but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). For Paul the best way is the way of love and this gets worked out in the community of faith primarily. Jesus warned us about causing one disciple to sin. For him this was an important issue.

3.   Christians are to be and do good. Whether you read 1 Peter or Titus (or the Sermon on the Mount), one of the outcomes of Kingdom living is goodness — expressed in our being and our actions. We do not manufacture this ourselves, but are dependent upon the Holy Spirit for its production (note the imagery Paul used about the "fruit of the Spirit"). However, we also have responsibility, as Jesus put it, "to seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). Peter said that Jesus sacrificed himself "so that having died to sins we might live for righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24). Brown is right to point out that this should result in a "holier than thou" attitude or a self-righteous, judgmental spirit. Doing good flows out of the love the Spirit gives us for others. Being good arises from the Spirit’s consist guidance and empowerment to resist evil.

There is both spiritual freedom and spiritual discipline in Christ. While believers no longer live under the authority of the law’s tutelage, they are indeed "slaves of Christ."  As a Christian I am born again into God’s family, but He is the Father and as Peter reminds us the "one who judges with impartiality." Peter urges us "as obedient children…to be holy in all that you do" 

More could be said, but space does not allow it. By all means read Brown’s book. However, I do not think his presentation provides an adequate, nuanced biblical understanding of our freedom in Christ"(1 Peter 1:14).

Gird Thy Loins With Truth – Ephesians 6:14

I’ll freely confess that I had serious hesitation about add this bit of news to the weblog. It’s not as if there isn’t enough bad news circulating around to cultivate a sense of cultural anxiety and spiritual nausea. But, just when I’ve been tempted to just turn off the news, I got the latest survey data from George Barna.

Since 1995, the Barna group has been monitoring the level of "Biblical Worldview" held by adult Americans through an exhaustive nationwide survey. When I read the results of his first survey, I was depressed. The latest results have taken my depression to a new and lower level.

Why? What’s the big deal? The reason, as Barna wrote in 2003 [Think Like Jesus, p. 56] is that "you become what you believe." Expand that axiom to a larger level, and the cultural consequences are staggering. We are becoming what we generally believe, and bit by bit, the data shows that the mind of Believers is being torqued in dangerous directions.

Consider some of the findings [you can read even more at: www.barna.org – March 9, 2009]:

The survey found that:

  • One-third of all adults (34%) believe that moral truth is absolute and unaffected by the circumstances. Slightly less than half of the born again adults (46%) believe in absolute moral truth.
  • Half of all adults firmly believe that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches. That proportion includes the four-fifths of born again adults (79%) who concur.
  • Just one-quarter of adults (27%) are convinced that Satan is a real force. Even a minority of born again adults (40%) adopt that perspective.
  • Similarly, only one-quarter of adults (28%) believe that it is impossible for someone to earn their way into Heaven through good behavior. Not quite half of all born again Christians (47%) strongly reject the notion of earning salvation through their deeds.
  • A minority of American adults (40%) are persuaded that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life while He was on earth. Slightly less than two-thirds of the born again segment (62%) strongly believes that He was sinless.
  • Seven out of ten adults (70%) say that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe who still rules it today. That includes the 93% of born again adults who hold that conviction.

Differences among Demographic Segments

The research data showed that one pattern emerged loud and clear: young adults rarely possess a biblical worldview. The current study found that less than one-half of one percent of adults in the Mosaic generation – i.e., those aged 18 to 23 – have a biblical worldview, compared to about one out of every nine older adults.

The challenge facing an authentic, unapologetic, Biblical, Christlike ministry is immense, and imperative. The Gospel is more than a private affection. It is, in Jesus’ words, light and salt. And, I have to believe that it is the only reliable element standing in the way of "the complete demise of our culture, the loss of meaning and purpose in life, and the rejection of all that God holds dear and significant. [Think Like Jesus, p. 57] So, I take those thoughts to heart, and "gird my loins."

God’s mission: Emmanuel

Emmanuel is my favorite Christmas word, partly because it is also a missions word.  God is a missionary God and provides us with the greatest expression of missions in and through the Christmas event.  The reason why the shepherds could accept the angel’s invitation was because God had come to earth: “Let us go and see” (Lu 2:15).  The reason why Jesus could say, “Come to me everyone who is tired and burdened” (Mt 11:28) was because he was living in the same world with the same demands, discouragements, obstacles and opposition that we face.  The reason why the apostles were so confident in their faith was because they had seen “the Life” with their eyes and touched it with their hands (1 Jn 1:1-2).  Missions (pl) is our part in God’s mission to redeem the world.  Jesus was sent into the world as the greatest act of that mission.  Our participation in God’s mission happens when we play a role through the ongoing sending of the Spirit: either by going ourselves or by becoming the means for sending others.

Emmanuel, God with us

Emmanuel, God with us, is the proclamation of the missionary God. God speaks the eternal Word and it becomes a baby lying in a manger, a man on a mission, a sacrifice on a cross, the resurrected savior, the ascended Lord.  But the proclamation of Emmanuel does not end at the ascension.   Emmanuel does not become “God no longer with us.”  Jesus said, “I will be with you always” (Mt 28:20) and this is not just a comforting metaphor or a pretentious sentiment, but a living reality.  The act of Emmanuel continues with the explosion of words and languages at Pentecost – the Spirit of Christ beginning to blast the message of Emmanuel out to the four corners of the earth.  It is not the principles and instructions of Christianity that are the essence (as good as they are for living well), but it is the presence of the living Christ impacting lives around the world – Emmanuel, God with us. Words are weak and limited, but the experience of the living Word continues on, and it is our faith in Emmanuel that drives us to be part of that movement, the mission to cross barriers, to face obstacles and to show love for the sake of Emmanuel. The God who came to earth continues to be with us, Emmanuel.

“Be careful; your nose is growing!”

"Be careful; your nose is growing!" The inspiration for this warning is the Disney movie Pinocchio. In the story, when the little wooden boy told a lie, his nose would grow longer. 

When we’re very young, our attempts at deception are rather artless and obvious. I recall, at the age of five, being asked by the emergency physician how I had managed to break my ankle. I didn’t want to tell him that I’d jumped off of a flight of stairs; my dad had brought me to the hospital and I was afraid to tell the truth. So I explained, "I ran so hard that my leg just broke!"

Actually, it’s not just the disposition of children.  People, generally, are not especially good truth tellers. In fact, the only thing that changes over time is the sophistication and subtlety with which the truth is "massaged" to avoid punishment and confrontation, or to avoid the pain of punishment or discipline. It is amazingly common how regularly we disappoint one another by dealing in untruths.

It was no different in Jesus’ day–and Jesus was concerned that his disciples would know that they were to live well above the level of conventional notions of honor and righteousness. In fact, Jesus encouraged that those who would enter the kingdom would have such a character as to possess surpassing righteousness in the area of truth-telling (Matt. 5:20).

So what does surpassing righteousness in Christian truth-telling sound like?

Righteousness admits the need to help others’ doubts

The first thing Jesus said was you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ (Matt. 5:33) Jesus’ words are not a quote, but they’re an excellent summary of a number of passages from the OT. Oaths were an accepted part of Jewish life in the OT and NT periods. Moreover, even God, wanting to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, … confirmed it with an oath (Heb. 6:17)

God’s intention was not that everything that was said needed to be augmented by oaths. Rather, he permitted oaths to comfort people because their confidence was so often and so easily shaken by  untruths.  Oaths were meant to be a comfort to doubt.

But righteousness is not just about verbal formulas

The comfort of oaths for the doubtful, however, came in Jesus’ day to be shrunk and twisted to such an extent by people that there developed a distinction between oaths that were binding and oaths that were breakable. This was no more than a license to lie and deceive.

Jesus’ response is very clear. This is not the way of disciples who are subjects of the heavenly kingdom.

Surpassing righteousness need no oaths

Jesus says, Do not swear at all…. (Matt. 5:34) Righteousness and honesty do not require oaths for emphasis.

The next thing that Jesus says is a reminder that we are always before a watchful God and this calls for truthfulness at all times. The forms of oaths are irrelevant. Look at how he explains. Mishnah Shebuoth allowed that swearing by heaven and earth were not binding. Jesus said,  Do not swear … either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool…. (Matt. 5:34) To swear by the domain of God untruthfully is to slight him. Jesus continued, Do not swear … by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. (Matt. 5:35)  The Jewish Tosephta Nedarim allowed that if you vowed by Jerusalem it was not binding but if you vowed toward Jerusalem it was. Jesus said, "Nonsense! No matter what your direction or orientation to Jerusalem, you are involving God in your oath and so taking his name lightly.

You could not avoid involving God even if you simply swore by your head!

Jesus said, And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. (Matt. 5:36) His point was that even this involved God because we do not have ultimate control over even the smallest things of our lives. The little hairs on my head are not listening to me–some of them are changing colour; some are growing in strange and exciting ways; others are moving to abandon me permanently!

Jesus simply says, "Don’t!"

Surpassing righteousness is unadorned and keeps its word

If it is righteousness to be serious about oaths; it’s surpassing righteousness when all speech deals in the unvarnished truth.

Jesus said, Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt. 5:37) He’s for reality and truthfulness in the whole range of daily conversations. How can we claim to follow the Son who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) if we deal in untruths? Surpassing righteousness keeps its word.

Jesus’ teaching opens up many areas for application. We should be more careful in our speech: not exaggerating, or using hyperbole, or superlatives to be dishonest, deceive, or emptily flatter people. We shouldn’t slant our stories or pad our resumes. We should keep our promises and our appointments. We should be rock solid in reliable speech to our spouses, our children, our neighbours, our boss, the judge, the government, and above all to God himself.

Surpassing righteousness in the follower of Jesus is demonstrated, among other ways, in unadorned, sturdy speech that has the ring and character of truth and reliability…just like the words of Jesus.

After all, that is the new nature of the subjects of the kingdom of heaven who are the children of the Great King. Truth-telling shows that we bear the family likeness!

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (3-4)

Jarrod Haas is a student in the Cross-cultural Leadership Training Program, CLTP @ Northwest, working towards an undergrad level diploma in preparation for cross-cultural ministry among Asians. [singlepic=163,320,240,,right] CLTP is a one year, mentored, experienced based program that prepares the student for Master’s level seminary studies as well as equips them for ministry either internationally or in Canada. He is currently on a short-term missions trip in Korea to complete his year of studies.

This series of blogs are sections taken from one of his papers (edited with permission) entitled 10 Lessons in Crossing Culture. These ten points outline the major cross-cultural lessons that Jarrod has learned through the CLTP program, which, along with his academic studies, included involvement with International Students Ministries Canada, Gateway and a local Korean Church.

4. The Gospel must be contextualized

Just as the messenger of the Gospel must be contextualized, so must the message itself

Just as the messenger of the Gospel must be contextualized, so must the message itself. Dan Gibson observes that while sin is the central problem faced in reconciliation with God, there are three general paradigms through which all world views deal with the fallout of sin: guilt/innocence, shame/honour, and fear/power.1 Gibson argues that each of these paradigms is represented in the Bible, and that the gospel, at its core, must be contextualized accordingly.2

For example, the “four spiritual laws” and “Romans Road” work well in a western “guilt/innocence” context, but do not speak to key issues faced in other cultures. Middle eastern nations are heavily based in a “honour/shame” paradigm due to the influence of Islam. In this case, the parable of the Prodigal Son becomes not a story of a guilty man restored to innocence, but of a man hopelessly trapped in shame who is restored to honour.

All three of these world views are addressed in the Bible in many places. For example, Romans 8:1 and 5:1 address guilt, Romans 8:15 and 1 John 4:18 address fear, and Leviticus 26:13 and 1 Peter 2:6 address shame.

3.  Contextualization, a path between cultural relevance and compromise, can only occur successfully as a result of complete reliance upon God.

[Jesus] often challenged the culture in ways that offended people

Jesus was incarnated into Jewish culture. However, while he adopted Jewish values and customs, he often challenged the culture in ways that offended people. The missionary must do likewise, but cannot depend on his or her own wisdom to determine when contradiction or acquiescence is appropriate. For example, it is not difficult to imagine that not many of us would, of our own volition, allow a prostitute to wash our feet with her hair in front of the local religious authorities, especially knowing the full significance of that event in its context. Similarly, how many of us, if we were able, would turn 6 vats of water into wine for a wedding? Christ stressed the importance of our reliance upon him: “apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

The whole concept of contextualization is new to me, and I have not had significant exposure to other cultural contexts. The most significant result of my studies so far has been to ensure that I learn and teach these ideas with an emphasis towards reliance upon Christ.

    ____________________

  • 1Müller, R. The Messenger, the Message, and the Community. 140-143.
  • 2ibid., 129-264.

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (7-8)

Jarrod Haas is a student in the Cross-cultural Leadership Training Program, CLTP @ Northwest, working towards an undergrad level diploma in preparation for cross-cultural ministry among Asians. [singlepic=163,320,240,,right] CLTP is a one year, mentored, experienced based program that prepares the student for Master’s level seminary studies as well as equips them for ministry either internationally or in Canada. He is currently on a short-term missions trip in Korea to complete his year of studies.

This series of blogs are sections taken from one of his papers (edited with permission) entitled 10 Lessons in Crossing Culture. These ten points outline the major cross-cultural lessons that Jarrod has learned through the CLTP program, which, along with his academic studies, included involvement with International Students Ministries Canada, Gateway and a local Korean Church.

8. Becoming engaged in a foreign culture requires a balance of sensitivity and boldness

Engaging a foreign culture requires courage

Engaging a foreign culture requires courage. Only one who is willing to take risks and try uncomfortable new things will effectively engage a culture. Cowardice results in missed opportunities. However, boldness needs to be balanced with sensitivity. A lack of humility and sensitivity will result in the offense of the other culture and create obstacles to building relationships. I have erred in both extremes. For example, I found myself in appointed to a position of leadership over some of the other young adult leaders after only a short time. I feel that some of my actions and attitudes in this position were too bold. From this experience, I have learned that it is very important to go into such situations humbly and with a servant heart. It takes time and sensitivity to gain the respect of others, especially if I am ‘stepping on their turf.’

In another case, I was not bold enough to follow up on a ministry opportunity. One woman asked, in the first week I was at the church, if I would come to her house for dinner and encourage her kids towards Christ. I hesitated to follow this up, because it seemed like such an unusual request. Several weeks later, the spirit convicted me that I should respond. I did, and the results were fruitful. However, I did miss some opportunity to speak into the women’s son’s lives because of my delay.

A balance of sensitivity and boldness is found throughout the New Testament. Both Jesus and Paul, for example, strongly challenged those around them, but were also very sensitive to personal needs and cultural practice. Paul both engaged Athenian culture and challenged them to repentance in Acts 17. Christ said in Matt 10:16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

7. Raising support for missions is much more than asking for money.

Missionary work requires that the missionary raise financial support. However, I am learning both through personal fund raising experiences, and through my readings, that this process involves much more than just obtaining money. The “Raising and Keeping Ministry Partners” module at Gateway, as well as the “Teamwork and Partnership for World Mission”1 course with Mark Orr have been instrumental in this learning process in several ways.

First, in addition to raising financial support, I have learned it is also important to raise prayer support.

Second, those who become engaged financially or prayerfully in the mission become partners of the ministry. These people do not just provide for the ‘needy’ missionary, but also gain an opportunity to serve the body (3 John 1:8; Phil 4:18), develop their stewardship character (Mark 12:41-44; Matt 6:2-4), worship God (Phil 4:18), and receive blessings from God (Phil 4:17; Matt 6:4). They also (hopefully) become more aware of the greater work that God is doing in the church body to fulfill the great commission through prayer letters, prayer, or hearing teaching about missions theology from the support raiser.

the missionary comes to know God as provider

Lastly, the process of support raising provides an opportunity for the missionary to grow in faith. Through trust in God, the missionary comes to know God as provider as support emerges through providential circumstances (Matt 6:25-34).

Though my fund raising process went reasonably well this time, next time I hope to speak more about the emphasis of missions partnering. I have also learned that fund raising requires much prayer. The process of getting the money from donor to agency can be arduous at times and needs to be covered in prayer.

    ____________________

  • 1Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation, “Funding for Evangelism and Mission,” Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 56 (2004), under “Lausanne committee for World Evangelisation – Lausanne Documents,” http://www.lausanne.org/documents/2004forum/LOP56_IG27.pdf (accessed March 3, 2008).

Graduation 2008

Graduation this year was held at South Delta Baptist Church. It was a beautiful day for a graduation and the celebration was memorable. Our graduation speaker was our own president, Dr. Larry Perkins. He summarized his address this way:

The theme ACTS has adopted this year is “Come together, Go Further.” By living consciously as part of the body of Christ, we maximize our ministry and together can do great things for God. The metaphor of the great spiritual house God is constructing (1 Peter 2:5,9) illustrates this reality. As God enables us to “come together,” we discover our priesthood and our service. Spiritual formation can only be fully accomplished within the community of Jesus – it is not a solo effort. We cannot mentor ourselves or be a family of one or be a nation of one. Only as we come together can we fulfill the mission God has given to us. As we live and work together “under God’s mighty hand,” He will enable us to do great things to advance the Kingdom. This is why ACTS came into being.

Here are a few photos from the day’s celebration:

[slideshow=9]

Are there hip replacements for limping leaders?

Leading With A LimpDan Allender has provided a provocative look at several serious aspects of ministry leadership in his book “Leading with a Limp.” He writes primarily out of his experience as the founder of Mars Hill Graduate School located near Seattle. His thesis is clear: “to the degree you face and name and deal with your failures as a leader, to that same extent you will create an environment conducive to growing and retaining productive and committed colleagues” (p.2). He then proceeds to discuss common, unhealthy responses to the challenges of leadership and urges ministry leaders to replace them with more effective responses — courage, depth, gratitude, openness and hope. The leadership challenges he identifies are crisis, complexity, betrayal, loneliness and weariness. The phrase “reluctant leader” seems to capture for him essential aspects of a healthy leadership perspective. Any ministry leader would gain considerable benefit from reading and reflecting on Allender’s ideas.

Allender helps us map the interior contours of Christian leadership, a kind of psychology of leadership, incorporating a realism about a leader’s limitations and dependence. Depravity works wondrously well even in the world of Christian leaders. The story of Jacob’s midnight wrestling match with God and his resulting disability — his limp — provides the overarching metaphor for Allender’s presentation. What struck me, however, was the silence regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in restoring, enabling, and guiding Christian leaders to walk with their limp in God-honouring ways. The result is a rather dark view of Christian leadership, lived in a hostile, dangerous and debilitating context. Periods of joy, satisfaction, thankfulness and redemptive accomplishment seem very rare or extremely intermittent. Allender is right to urge leaders to name their failures and walk with humility, but there is another side to this picture. We do lead as Christians in partnership with the Holy Spirit. Surely this awesome reality makes a difference. Does God ever provide “a hip replacement” and enable us to walk “normally”?

Allender rightly points to examples in Scripture of reluctant leaders — Moses, Jeremiah, etc. Yet, there are also many examples of people–Joseph, Joshua, Samuel, Nehemiah, Daniel, Mary, Paul– who embrace God’s calling, fearfully but willingly. . God’s entry into their lives is surprising and filled with change, but I am not sure from the information Scripture gives us that these people were reluctant leaders. We seem to have various responses to the leadership challenge in Scripture. I wonder how Peter’s encouragement for ministry leaders (1 Peter 5:1-4) fits into this idea of “reluctant leader”?

I found it hard to locate the faith community in the picture of ministry leadership that Allender presents. The community seems to be primarily a hostile place, the place where leaders are undone rather than the Kingdom context where God’s power and love triumphs. Undoubtedly Allender writes out of personal experience and many Christian leaders, unfortunately, would have to agree that churches often fail to live up to God’s ideal for his people. Yet, for every bad leadership experience, one could probably name a good church leadership experience. What Allender does help us realize is that naivete is not helpful. Faith communities can be places of devastating animosity for leaders, but they can also be contexts of wonderful support, love and encouragement. To lead with suspicion may not be the best stance. If Christ “loved the church and gave himself for it”, then some of this perspective must also guide our embrace of ministry leadership. Leadership is fundamentally relational. Ministry leaders are given a trust by the people of God to live and lead within the faith community. How does 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 get lived out in Allender’s perception of ministry leadership?

Allender begins by acknowledging that leadership is something for all of God’s people — every disciple is a leader. However, his focus quickly shifts to what he terms “formal leadership”, by which he means a specific leadership role in terms of organizational leadership in church, seminary, non-profit business, etc. Does the leadership model he presents then apply to all followers of Jesus? I think he probably would agree to this, but this is not his focus. But what difference does it make for a ministry leader to see himself as a “limping leader” serving in the midst of a host of “limping leaders”? One of his recurrent emphases is Paul’s confession that he is “the chief of sinners” and the importance for leaders to own this reality for themselves. Again, there is no argument against this reality. But here again the leader operates in a context where all, as disciples of Christ, are leaders and “chief sinners”. This is not a category exclusive to the formal leader. It is the reality in which all disciples live. Perhaps the challenge for the formal leader is to understand how to exercise Kingdom leadership as a “suffering servant” among a group of “chief sinners”.

Every believer is a flawed person. Scripture makes this clear and this is part of our daily confession. However, in Christ we also are “new creations”. This too is an exciting reality. Paul in Galatians urges Christians to “walk/live in the realm of the Spirit” and as we do this “we shall not let the fleshly nature achieve its goals” (Galatians 5:15-16) (my translations). How does this reality fit into the context of Kingdom leadership? We will never lead perfectly and there obviously are times for confession, repentance and restoration in every ministry leader’s experience. But should this be the overwhelming perspective? If a ministry leader is living in submission to the Holy Spirit daily, will the fleshly temptations towards narcissism, fear and addiction gain control? If a ministry leader repeatedly expresses sinful behaviour, does that person have the spiritual maturity to be in a formal leadership role? How do the characteristics and behaviours Paul identifies in 1 Timothy 3 for formal leadership match the paradigm of leadership that Allender proposes? I wonder whether Allender gives too much room for excusing sinful behaviours and fails to give sufficient challenge to pursue the way of the Spriit, the ways of the Kingdom — and the great potential we have to live it.

Taught by God (theodidaktoi – 1 Thessalonians 4:9)

The Psalmist declared “Since my youth, O God, you have taught me” (Psalm 71:17) and he desires that God continually would teach him to do his will (Psalm 143:10). His experience and expectation is that God does instruct him, with the result that he knows God and his ways. While this defines the Psalmist’s relationship with God, it was not true for all in Israel. The prophets yearned for the day when God would restore and rebuild Jerusalem. Sometimes the language borders on the fantastic as they consider how God, using all of his creative power and resources, will fashion Jerusalem from rubies and sapphires. Its walls and buildings will be “sparkling jewels” and “precious stones” (Isaiah 54:11-13). But even more wonderful is that those within its walls will be “taught by the Lord”.

Jeremiah takes this vision a step further. God enables him to foresee a day when God establishes a new covenant with Israel. But it is quite different from the covenant he made at Sinai. Israel did not keep that covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). When this new covenant is implemented “they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34) and no one will have to teach them this knowledge because God “writes it on their hearts” (31:33).

In a first century B.C. document called the Psalms of Solomon, a messianic figure is called “righteous king, taught by God (didaktos hÅ«po theou)” (17:32). Because of these wonderful characteristics this figure is able to restore Israel to the glory God intends. Jesus himself urged his followers to acknowledge only one instructor, the Messiah (Matthew 23:8).

It seems that Paul creates a new word in 1 Thessalonians 4:9 to celebrate the inauguration of God’s new covenant. He commends these new believers for their sincere love for one another. What is perhaps more astonishing is that he attributes this to the fact that “you yourselves are God-taught (theodidaktoi) to love one another” (4:9). There is no evidence that this word existed in Greek before Paul wrote this letter. He creates this word to mark the astonishing change that salvation in Jesus has brought to these people. It has changed fundamentally their ‘place’. When Paul visited Thessalonika, he proclaimed “the gospel of God” (2:8-9) and many in city received it as “the word of God” (2:13). The result is that these followers of Jesus now know “the will of God” because Paul and those with him gave them instructions. They know God, in contrast to “the nations” (4:5). But even more significantly God has “given his Holy Spirit to you” (4:8). All of these actions by God have generated their new status as people who are “God-taught” (theodidaktoi).

The rest of this article is published on Dr. Perkins’ Internet Moments with God’s Word blog site. View it there along with many other similar articles.

“Being Imitators (mimētai) of God”

Paul’s choice of words in his letter to Christians in the province of Galatia reflects careful intention. The issues he confronts are extremely serious, the opponents powerful and persuasive, and his audience somewhat befuddled. Strong warnings mingle with cries of frustration as he encourages these believers to keep running well the discipleship race. He has equally strong words for those unidentified proponents who articulate a “different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7). In the conclusion to his argument Paul tells the Galatian congregations: “Do not err; God is not scorned (muktÄ“rizetai)” (6:7). This is the only place in the New Testament where this verb in its simple form occurs.

The verb muktÄ“rizō and its related compound ekmuktÄ“rizō derive from the noun muktÄ“r, “nose” and have the sense of wrinkling or turning up the nose to demonstrate contempt, scorn, distaste, or ridicule. The idea of mockery or derision is conveyed quite explicitly by various facial expressions, i.e. body language. The nose, for whatever reason, when contorted in certain ways, communicates in many cultures a sense of disagreement based in scorn or contempt. The person finds the message, action or very being of another completely disagreeable and by wrinkling the nose displays this contempt. Of course the reason for this ridicule or contempt needs to be defined. Hellenistic Greek used the noun muktÄ“rismos to describe “sneering” or “derision”.

We discern the contemptuous hostility expressed by the compound form of this verb when Luke uses it to describe the actions of the Jewish rulers towards the crucified Jesus. In his narrative (23:35) these rulers stood watching the proceedings and they “even sneered (exemuktÄ“rizon) at him.”1 The following verse turns our attention to the soldiers and they “mocked (enepaixan) him” (23:36). These two verbs used in parallel define one another to some degree. Luke also used this compound verb (16:14) to describe the Pharisees’ response to Jesus’ teaching. When they hear his teaching that a person cannot serve God and ‘mammon’, according to Luke’s narrative, the Pharisees “were sneering (exemuktÄ“rizon) at him” because they “loved money.”

We catch the wider significance of Luke’s choice of terminology when we examine the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). Although both forms of this verb, as well as the noun muktÄ“rismos occur in the Septuagint, the compound verb ekmuktÄ“rizō only occurs in biblical and post-biblical literature. The sense of these terms is discerned when we see them in context. For example, when Elijah is in contest with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, he “mocked (emuktÄ“risen) and said, ‘Call in a loud voice! For he is a god, for prating occupies him and at same time he is perhaps giving an oracle….”2 The sense of ridicule and contempt is clear. When Hezekiah consults the prophet Isaiah about what to do in response to the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem, God ridicules the Assyrians through the prophet’s word:
“Virgin daughter Sion made nothing of you and sneered at (emuktÄ“risen) you; daughter of Jerusalem shook her head at you.” (2 Kings 19:21)
The Rabshakeh, the leader of the Assyrian forces had taunted the inhabitants of Jerusalem, ridiculing their ability to resist his armies, but God says in response that Jerusalem will “sneer at” the Assyrians and their claims. That night God slays 85,000 Assyrian soldiers and Sennacherib must retreat in disarray.

The rest of this article is published on Dr. Perkins’ Internet Moments with God’s Word blog site.

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  • 1Luke used the imperfect verb form implying a continuous activity.
  • 2New English Translation of the Septuagint.

Resolving Intercultural Tensions: Understanding Leadership in High and Low Power Distance Contexts

The Power Distance Contrast

Pir with disciplesIn Pakistan there is a strong tradition of "holy men" who are called Pirs. One day I had a visit from a young man who informed me that he was the Pir of his village. I was puzzled by this because he was dressed in modern clothes and did not have the religious, spiritual air one would expect from a revered holy man. He explained that in the tradition of his tribe, the honor and authority of the Pir was passed on from father to son and his father had recently passed away. For his part, he did not believe that he was able to give blessings to people, nor that his prayers were especially efficacious. In fact, when his father died and the mantle was passed on to him, he tried to refuse it. He told the people that he didn’t believe and that he didn’t want the responsibility. They replied, "It does not matter what you believe. You are the one chosen for this position and no other."

HPD = High Power Distance

Pakistan is a High Power Distance culture (HPD).  It is the role and status of the leader, rather than his or her particular character or ability that is of greatest concern. In this context a high priority is given to maintaining harmonious relationships and affirming the historical traditions and social structures. Rules of conduct are paramount, and anyone who does not function within that protocol is ostracized, no matter how reasonable or beneficial their proposals might be. In HPD cultures, it is assumed that the status quo is the way life is intended to be; the established hierarchy is ordained, competition is bad, and conformity to tradition and roles is good.

LPD = Low Power Distance

Canada, on the other hand, is a Low Power Distance culture (LPD). Titles and status mean little if the person in charge cannot fulfill their responsibilities. Harmonious relationships may be sacrificed in order to pursue a particular goal and the measurement of success is accomplishment. In LPD cultures, it is assumed that reversal of fortunes is a part of life, competition is good and no one has ordained or fated priority.

When I was doing my master’s thesis on Chronological Bible Storying among the Sindhi people on the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13), one aspect that the Sindhis who were interviewed emphasized over and over again was the importance of the disciple to always obey the teacher. They were appalled at Peter’s audacity when he refused to let Jesus wash his feet, and they found Jesus’ stern response, "You will not have any part of me," to be necessary and appropriate. HPD cultures, like Pakistan, consider the student insubordinate and rude who would question or contradict a teacher. Rote learning is the preferred method of learning as it emphasizes the teacher’s status above the student. In contrast, a teacher in a LPD culture like Canada encourages the student to challenge and question. Ideas and the stimulation of the mind are of first importance.

Due to Power Distance, leadership within a LPD context will function differently than within HPD groups. Awareness of this dynamic in interpersonal relationships along with appropriate adjustments can greatly reduce tension in multicultural churches.

Read the complete Cross-Cultural Impact Article

Cross-cultural ministry classic

The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones, 1925. Abington Press

E. Stanley Jones was a highly influential missionary who worked in India during the time of Gandhi.  The principles for cross-cultural ministry presented in this classic are as valid today and in any context as they were when this book was written.  His understanding of contextual theology is profound as he seeks for an Indian interpretation of Jesus.  His confidence in the supremacy of Christ is evident in his practice of conducting round table dialogues in which each participant explains how their particular faith has impacted their lives spiritually. Consider this following excerpt concerning the transforming power of Christ:

There is no real danger lest Jesus be lost among the many in all this, that it may end up in his being put in the Pantheon of Hinduism.  Greece and Rome tried that and the pantheons amid which he was placed are gone – Jesus lives on.  He is dynamic, disruptive, explosive like the soft tiny rootlets that rend the monuments of man’s pride.  Like the rootlets he quietly and unobtrusively goes down into the crannies of men’s thinking, and lo, old forms and customs are broken up.  Absorb him?  You may as well talk about the moist earth in springtime absorbing the seed!  The seed absorbs it, for it is life.  Jesus is Life.  He will take care of himself.

‘Give us Jesus,’ said a Hindu to me, ‘just Jesus.  Do not be afraid that we will make a human Jesus out of him, for his divinity will shine out of its own accord.’ (pp 167-168)

Images of God

I came across an interesting theory.  People act according to their conviction about the nature of God.  If God is perceived as an autocratic patriarch whose rules must be followed without question, then that is how the leaders of that group will act.  If God is viewed as a stern judge who is inflexible concerning any hint of rebellion or disobedience, that is how fathers will deal with their sons and daughters.  If God is seen as a demanding taskmaster who demands perfection, then mothers will be strict with their children.  If God is understood to be a harsh God of wrath, this justifies a severe response towards those who have broken the law (I recall a protestor’s sign in a Time magazine photo: “God hates gays”).

People act according to their conviction about the nature of God

This theory would seem to be a logical conclusion to being created in God’s image (Gen 1:26,27).  This would be true not only for Christian who are called to be perfect as God is perfect (Mt 5:48), but to other religions as well. The 9-11 attackers lived out their understanding of the nature of God.  We  all try to respond to our situation according to the way we think God would act.  The question is, what does this reveal about the nature of the God we worship?

Our Christian view of God must begin and end with Christ

If the theory is true, then it is of first importance to cultivate a correct belief about the nature of God.  But where do we start when the Bible does present God as the absolute authority, the stern judge, the demanding taskmaster and a God of wrath?  I suggest that all these descriptions must be interpreted through the perspective of God as seen in Christ.  Our Christian view of God must begin and end with Christ and all other revelation must be viewed through the New Testament perspective of God as he has been revealed as a human being.

Following this assumption, any view of God that undermines the love and justice of the heavenly Father – a love so great that it “surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3;19) – should be dismissed as a misunderstanding or a perversion of the truth.  If God, seen in Jesus, is good, loving and just above all that we can imagine, then any conception of God cannot be correct which views him in a fashion that would make him less loving, merciful, just or good than our perception of the ideal. Any view of God as loving that makes him appear less just, or any view of God as just that makes him appear less loving, needs to be rejected as false.  Our foundational view of God is Christ who gave us the image of the loving Father who makes things right (e.g., the prodigal son in Luke 15).  We must begin there and put aside any thought that takes us off track from that core belief.  If we can imagine a better, more loving or more merciful God than the god we worship, then it is time to reject the God we have created in our minds, for that is not the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When my children speak about the God of their father, I hope they [speak about] a caring, merciful and just heavenly Father

I find this meditation helpful because I need to look carefully at myself and think about what my actions are saying about the God I worship. When I act harshly and justify it in my mind, that justification stems from what I imagine God to be like.  But if that image of God does not fit with the merciful, self-giving God who suffered on the cross so that we can live, then that is idolatry.  When my children speak about the God of their father, I hope they do not speak about an autocratic patriarch, a stern judge or a demanding taskmaster, but a caring, merciful and just heavenly Father.

Dollars and Sense

You can’t get away from it. Everyone’s talking about profits and losses.

The global economy is moving into a deep recession–perhaps even a depression–some say. Others are just as convinced that the markets are moving through a period of "turbulent correction" trying to find "a bottom" from which they will eventually "power upward" again to new highs. Gold bugs are counseling flight from the markets, prophesying an "end of the world" economy and advising a haven in the yellow metal which they predict will reach $3,000 per ounce shortly. Value investment counselors say, "Hold tight. Don’t panic. It looks very bad, but keeping a steady grip will eventually see profitability return to your holdings." The anxious are bailing out of plummeting stocks while their steely opposites are salivating on the sidelines waiting to pick up the ripe economic plums from the panicked.

It’s all very personal too.

Young homeowners are wondering how they’ll be able to manage their mortgage payments. Their jobs are just not that secure in this climate and perhaps they shouldn’t have gotten into the skyrocketing real estate market despite the confidence of their agents and the ready availability of credit. The drop in real estate prices, foreclosure news and bankruptcy statistics only increase their sense of dread. Seniors are deeply frightened by the fact that the whipsawing markets are wreaking havoc upon their retirement nest eggs and threatening to overturn their careful financial plans. How will they survive?

If there is a single truth in all of the above, it is that uncertain economic times intensify the great drivers of greed and fear.

Obviously, believers shouldn’t be ignorant of the dollars and cents realities that are a needful part of wise living. But Christian generosity should not become a casualty either.

Jesus told a difficult parable about a rich man who accused his manager of wasting the money entrusted to him. The manager was called to give an account of his dealings before he was let go. Here was a financial crisis. The manager reasoned that he was too weak for heavy manual labor and too ashamed to beg. He hatched a plan. In the little time that he still had oversight of the rich man’s possessions, he would show great generosity by a significant write down of each of the rich man’s debtors’ accounts. The manager apparently reasoned that the rich man would not peel back the write downs because they made him look very good. But, more importantly, the action would favorably dispose the rich man’s debtors to the manager so that they would show him kind hospitality when he lost his job.

Jesus shocks the hearer by his initial analysis, "The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:8-9)

Obviously, Jesus is not commending the falsifying of books or engaging in illegal behavior. What he is interested in doing is rooting certain truths deeply into our consciousness about a God-honoring attitude toward things: First, we cannot hold onto them–the things we hold are not permanent possessions but a transient entrustment from God. It’s obvious that "you can’t take it with you," but how easily we forget! Second, we should be generous in the face of others’ needs. Such acts of generosity redound to the credit of God’s good name whose managers we are.  That kind of behavior is a powerful witness and may be God’s means to open people’s eyes. Third, God is watching to see if we’ve encarnated the first and the second truths. If so, that’s the demonstration that we’re serving Him and not just slaves to stuff.

Umar and Marvi

The story of Umar and Marvi is a legend of the Sindhi people that expresses a fundamental tribal value of the Sindhi people.  A young, beautiful teenage girl (Marvi) is kidnapped from her tribe by a young prince (Umar) who is enamoured by her and wants to make her his wife.  She is taken to his palace where he, his mother and his sisters promise her wealth, honor, and happiness, if she will marry the prince.  Instead she refuses to deny her loyalty to her tribal values and to the man to whom she was pledged as a little girl. Despite all the joys the world can offer, she refuses even to the extent of pushing away all the delectable food they offer. In the end, relatives of Marvi come searching and Umar gives her up, submitting at last to her wish and unbending will.  She arrives home faithful to the end, but in such a weakened state that she dies.

A western twist on the story would have Marvi and Umar eventually fall in love to demonstrate that romantic love conquers all and is stronger than traditional values. Individual rights, happiness and freedom is a message with strong appeal in the west. But in the Sindhi context nothing is more important than loyalty and conformity to community values.  It is not the individual life of Marvi that counts (she dies in the end), but her willingness to sacrifice all to maintain the traditional values and concerns of her people. The call to loyalty goes beyond individual needs and Marvi becomes the ultimate role model for all Sindhi girls to emulate.

the parable of Marvi … can reveal to the Sindhi people the meaning of Jesus’ life

A “missionary” for equality and individual rights will despise this story as a message that prevents the Sindhi people from embracing “enlightened” western values.  A missionary for the kingdom of God, however, recognizes that such stories can provide bridges for the gospel.  This does not occur through a power struggle to overcome or replace the Sindhi values presented, but by recognizing that the values portrayed have at their heart an eternal truth recognized by the Sindhi that can be enhanced and given fresh meaning through the story of Jesus.

In Jesus’ temptation (Luke 4), the devil offers him many good things: sustenance that gives life, power that convinces the world, control over the earth to make things right.  But the price is to abandon God’s will.  In the end, Jesus’ choice to reject the good things offered and follow God’s will costs him his life.  To hold fast to that which is right and true and eternal in the face of the attractive choices of this world is one understanding of the parable of Marvi that can reveal to the Sindhi people the meaning of Jesus’ life.

In the story of Umar and Marvi, she is praised but mourned by her people.  However, for Jesus, God could not let such an expression of loyalty and love see decay (Acts 2:31) – the Messiah lives!  Moreover the invitation to life given through Christ extends to the Sindhi people – a people who already appreciate the value of such a sacrifice.

Uneasy with Evangelism

It feels impolite and invasive to challenge someone on a personal level

I am uncomfortable with direct methods of evangelism that early on present the hearer with an invitation to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.  Part of my unease has to do with my Canadian upbringing.  It feels impolite and invasive to challenge someone on a personal level in our cultural context. While my attitude cannot be used as an excuse not to give people the opportunity to become followers of Christ – and many people have become believers because of the “forwardness” of faithful disciples – nonetheless other approaches may be more conducive to certain segments of the Canadian population.  Much evangelism training encourages people to becoming bold in calling others to commitment, but perhaps the assumption of an early and direct gospel invitation behind such methods needs to be questioned.

One missiological concern is that while cultural norms do not pre-empt the Great Commission, they need to be taken into account so that the stumbling block of the gospel remains the cross, and not methodologies that may push people away, rather than attract them to salvation in Christ.  The currently running Mr. Sub commercial of the two young “missionaries” presenting their message to a young woman at her home is amusing, but also includes a certain “cringe factor” as I listen to the canned approach.

 A further concern is that the majority of evangelical approaches with their early presentation of a gospel challenge are geared towards those ready to make a faith profession.  While appropriate for some people – as we hear from stories about responses to such programs – to others it feels like manipulation or a proposal given outside of the context of relationship.  For these people such an approach may work as an inoculation against the gospel, indicating that a less direct approach could be more effective in the long run.

However, the main reason I feel uncomfortable with direct methods of evangelism is that an early call to faith can undermine the significance of the commitment.  A commitment to Christ is analogous to that of marriage (cf. Paul’s admonition to husbands in Eph 5:25-33).  I have made two life long vows: one to my wife, and one to my Lord.  What we are seeking from people in evangelism is a commitment to Christ on a level with the commitment a person makes to their life partner.  If a call to salvation in Christ can be considered on the level of a proposal to a future spouse, then one has to make that presentation when the time is right and in a way that validates the importance of the decision (cf. Jesus’ caution to “count the cost” in Lu 14:25-30).

A commitment to Christ is analogous to that of marriage

In our culture the validity and impact of a marriage proposal is dependent upon a pre-existing close personal relationship; the relationship does not occur because of the proposal but is an important step in the development of the relationship.  The courting relationship could last years, the proposal, one evening.  Furthermore, a proposal made too early in the relationship could destroy it.  In the same way, perhaps we need to think in terms of helping people develop a relationship with Christ before commitment. If we do not help people understand how Jesus is relevant to life, alleviate their misunderstandings, work through their hurts, etc., a proposal to commitment could be misrepresented as a call to religious conformity and control rather than a relationship of joy and release.

help people develop a relationship with Christ BEFORE commitment

My intention is not to disparage direct means of evangelism.  There are many people who have come to Christ because of such an approach.  At the same time, there are others in our lives resistant to the gospel who need time and patience to work through their perspectives of Jesus and how the meaning to life is found in him.  Rather than calling them to commitment, our role is to walk with them in their spiritual journey until their attraction to Jesus matures, so much so that a proposal is not only fitting, but unavoidable.

Does this thinking make sense to you?  If so, consider the merits of the SISI system with its focus on learning how to engage others in significant conversations that will bring them into contact with the Kingdom of God.

A Challenge for 2008

I would like to present you with a tough but exciting challenge for 2008 . . . but let me back up a little! 

This past two months I have been somewhat restricted in my activities because of a ruptured achilles tendon.  After 4 weeks in a fiberglass cast and now another almost 4 weeks in a cast boot I am still using crutches to get around and spending much of my time with my foot propped up on a pile of cushions.  At first it was a bit of an adventure to have family and colleagues helping me with such basic things as opening doors or carrying a cup of coffee.  But the adventure aspect wore off quickly and I found myself in a complaining mode.  I didn’t complain to God openly but in my heart there were the sulky "why" questions – you know what I mean! 

I tell you this for two reasons.  First, because I have been so restricted I have found myself with much free time on my hands with only a few options available for filling those hours.  So I have been taking some of my own advice (found here) and have spent considerable time reading and re-reading the book of Hebrews – aloud.  Secondly, the personal result of that exercise has been for me to come to view my torn achilles as a blessing and not a curse.  For the past few weeks I have been soaking in the wonder of who Jesus is and what he has done for me (for us).  Normally I find I can fill my hours with so many good things that I rarely take the time to meditate on the Word in any more than a passing attempt.  Lately I have been "allowed" all the time I need and that has been a blessing.

So back to the challenge for 2008!  I would like to encourage you to carve out the time and space necessary and read the book of Hebrews 12 times this year – once a month – and read it aloud.  The ideal would be to read it in its entirety in one sitting but if you cannot do that break it into two or three chunks and read it that way.  Here is what I would encourage you to do:

  • Make 2008 a year of coming to know Jesus better.  Many years ago when I was a young student at Prairie Bible Institute a visiting speaker, Dr. J. Sidlow Baxter, encouraged us to read the Gospels "pictographically" – in other words with the express purpose of seeing Jesus as the gospelers pictured him.  That is the challenge I pass on to you – read Hebrews pictographically – with a view to seeing Jesus anew.  The writer to the Hebrews himself speaks of Jesus in this way.  In 2:9 he writes, "But we see Jesus…"   In 3:1 he enjoins his readers to "…fix your thoughts on Jesus…" and in 12:2 he exhorts, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…"  Jesus is the centrepiece of Hebrews.  My prayer for you is that you will come to see him afresh this coming year – that you will rejoice in the wonder of who your Savior is, what he has accomplished for you and who you are because of him.
  • Take your time – don’t hurry.  Allow the writer’s passion for Jesus to permeate your soul.
  • Read expressively.  Try to read Hebrews the way the writer intended it to be read.  At first you may not find reading aloud the most comfortable thing to do – but try it – I believe you will like it!
  • Notice how Hebrews weaves a wonderful tapestry of descriptions of Jesus’ person and work, exhortations to live fully in what Jesus has provided, cautions that we not take lightly this marvelous salvation and examples of others – both faith-filled and faith-less.
  • Don’t give up!  This is not an easy challenge – but you will find it very worthwhile!

As the year progresses share with me and other readers of this blog  what you have seen.  Feel free to add  comments to this post.  Return here throughout the year and encourage and be encouraged – that is what the writer of Hebrews tells us to do.

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. (3:13)

…let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (10:25)

I will place a 2008 Challenge link in the sidebar (under Special Topics) so that you can return here easily.  May God richly bless you this year and may you daily rejoice in the wonder of this Hebrews benediction:

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Manly Orthodoxy

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself increasingly distressed by the quality of evangelical worship, or lack thereof. It’s gotten to the point where I have to discipline myself from ranting over the loss of the deep symbols of our faith, the absence of holy moments and spiritual drama, and the general illiteracy of our treasury of liturgy. It’s troubling.

But, while I seek to contain my rant, I have to share an article written by Frederica Matthewes-Green published on the internet site Beliefnet.com on November 6, 2007. It’s title: Why Orthodox Men Love Church. It was the product of a study she had conducted due to a unique phenomenon: In a time when churches of every description are faced with Vanishing Male Syndrome, men are showing up at Eastern Orthodox churches in numbers that, if not numerically impressive, are proportionately intriguing. This may be the only church which attracts and holds men in numbers equal to women … rather than quess why this is, I [contacted] several hundred Orthodox men, most of whom joined the church as adults. What do they think makes this church particularly attractive to men? There responses … may spark some ideas for leaders in other churches who are looking for ways to keep guys in the pews.

While Frederica Matthews-Green identified 7 key reasons, there was one specific spirit that emerged from the comments: Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding … I am challenged in a deep way, not to “feel good about myself” but to become holy. It is rigorous, and in that rigor, I find liberation. Among the 7 reasons, I was struck by the robust dynamic created by profound worship: It’s easier for guys to express themselves in worship if there are guidelines about how it’s supposed to work … learning clear-cut physical actions that are expected to form character and understanding … learning immediately through ritual and symbolism … the regimen of discipline making one mindful of one’s relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets..

There is something manly to worship. Matthew-Green reports: the men who wrote me expressed hearty dislike for what they perceive as a soft Western Jesus … a Christianity that has been feminized … presents Jesus as a friend, a lover, someone who walks with me and talks with me … This is fine rapturous imagery for [those] who need a social life … [but] lines like “reaching out for his embrace”, “wanting to touch His face” while “being overwhelmed by the power of his love” are difficult songs for one man to sing to another Man.”

One man said that worship at his … church had been “largely an emotional experience. Feelings, Tears … singing emotional songs, swaying with hands aloft. … from a Deacon, “Evangelical churches call men to be passive and nice [think Mr. Rogers]. Orthodox churches call me to be courageous and act [think BraveHeart.]

The thoughts are well worth pondering. Ideas worth consideration.

New Testament Talk: Defining “Evangelical”

Considerable discussion is occurring about the appropriate way to define an "Evangelical". John Stackhouse (Church and Faith Trends volume 1, issue 1, EFC website) proposes a definition that includes the following elements:  orthodox and orthoprax, crucicentric, biblicist, conversionist, missional, and transdenominational. There is much to commend such a definition, although personally I think it emphasizes the individual aspects of the Christian reality too much and does not express the ecclesial community that marks the Evangelical  reality. Yet, it will serve well for the purposes of historical and sociological study.It is important for us to use terms with understanding, lest we talk past one another.

But trying to define ‘Evangelical’ does raise the question as to which term we might use to most adequately describe a follower of Jesus. The term ‘Evangelical’ may well serve this purpose within intra-Christian discussion and dialogue. However, when we consider the New Testament, particularly the epistle literature, the descriptor most frequently used is "holy ones" (or "saints" as rendered in the King James Version). The focus seems to be not so much on confession of specific Gospel content (i.e. evangelical) which one affirms, but rather on a positional or relational reality (i.e. holy by virtue of position in Christ or relationship with God). In Acts the writer identifies followers of Jesus as "disciples" (e.g. Acts 6:7; 9:19). The emphasis in this term defines the learning that occurs, as a person follows a teacher or philosopher or religious savant  and is mentored in the process. Frequently the New Testament leaders will refer to fellow believers simply as "brothers" (a somewhat generic relational term). In the case of the terms disciple and brothers, again the emphasis is on position (i.e. learner) or relationship. These terms are used by Christians to describe themselves.

When followers of Jesus become sufficiently numerous to be noted, their opponents used diverse terms to describe them. These include "followers of the Way" (Acts 9:2; 24:14); "Adherents to the Christ party" (i.e. "Christianoi", Acts 11:26: 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16); and "the Nazarene sect" (Acts 24:5).

It seems to me that the term ‘Evangelical’ serves to distinguish a certain type of Christian from another kind of Christian. It’s function would be similar to terms Paul used in intra-Christian debate to describe "Judaizers", i.e. Christians who thought Gentile believers should adopt Jewish practices in order to be included within the covenant.  For this reason non-Evangelicals might find it useful to type or categorize a certain segment within Christendom. However, for those within "Evangelicalism" it cannot be a sufficient expression of who we are, because it does not identify sufficiently well our relationship to God and Christ, or our relationship with one another. Here the biblical terms in the first category, i.e. holy ones, disciples, brothers, speak more eloquently and forcefully of our identity in Christ.

Our language reveals the way we think about things. The term "Evangelical" expresses a distinctiveness from other diverse groups. It is exclusive language, in a sense. So when it is used, it separates, it makes divisions. This is sometimes necessary and in certain contexts very helpful.  Within the early church reflected in the New Testament literature,  the language chosen by those within the church to describe followers of Jesus is  positional and relational, emphasizing their oneness in Christ, loyalty to Him as Lord and Saviour, and commitment to fulfilling his mission. As followers of Jesus we may need from time to time to describe ourselves to those without as "Evangelicals" because this term defines us in certain respects. However, when talking among ourselves as followers of Jesus, we might be better served to emphasize the New Testament terms such as disciples, brothers/sisters, holy ones.  It will make us more conscious and aware of our essential relationship with one another in Christ and partnership in Kingdom progress.

Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture

The Common hunger of Humanity
What we as human beings search for and value in life is the “meaningful” and the “good.”

With regard to the “meaningful,” we are always trying to make sense of our world. Hopelessness, which is what we seek to avoid, is the antithesis of the “meaningful” and happens when the world does not make sense. Children from dysfunctional families, for example, are more prone to be careless of themselves and others – smoking, dangerous activities, lack of respect for boundaries, etc. Their world is not making sense and much of what they do is a cry of despair of the senselessness of it all. They deliberately do what they have been warned against, partly in reaction to the pain that they experience from those aspects of society considered to be places of security and meaning. Ultimately, the lack of meaning leads to suicide, as in the case of the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

the issue for evangelism is no longer (if it ever was) about finding the right delivery system

Tied to this, and which is also a matter of universal human concern, is the search for and desire to experience and center our lives on “good.” We desire and search for that which is conducive to human flourishing. This corresponds with Jesus’ view of humanity. He had pity on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were in need of what is good and they were seeking for it, but they were looking in the wrong places.

what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern

In other words, what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern, the questions of human existence: What should I do? Why are we here? What may I hope?

Implications for our post-Christian Environment
Common approaches to evangelism assume that we as Christians have the answers to these questions and look for “delivery systems” whereby these answers can be provided. Church services, evangelistic meetings, tracts, etc., are all designed with the desire to deliver the Christian message. These approaches do work for some, but, if statistics Canada is correct, not for the majority of Canadians.

Read the rest of this entry in Cross-cultural Impact #57

Seeker Becomes Self-Feeder

 
            As full disclosure, I should confess that I’ve been a fan of Willow Creek before Willow Ceek was Willow Creek. In the mid-1970’s the youth pastor of my home church in Park Ridge, Illinois was a Trinity College student named Bill Hybels. I always enjoyed coming home on holidays from Seminary just to see what was happening with Bill and the youth group at South Park Church. In the vocabulary of the ‘70’s, it was a “happening!” High School kids were showing up by the carload, each week more than the last. When I heard one of the elderly people complain, it was the first time I heard a phrase that has since become an evangelical mantra: we are just being sensitive to the seeker.
            The term “seeker-sensitive” has become so much the standard for evangelical style that I was a bit shocked to read the recent confession from Willow Creek reported by Bob Burney in the Baptist Press [November 6, 2007.] As the result of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their philosophy of ministry, the Willow Creek leaders discovered that while they have reached large numbers of people, they have not been producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ.
            The studies, published by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins in a new book entitled “Reveal: Where Are You?”  produced a remarkable confession from my friend, Bill. “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that hey have to take responsibility to become “self-feeders.” We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
            It’s a remarkable moment. And I can’t help but think that we may begin to hear another term added to our vocabulary next to “seeker-sensitive” … “self-feeder.” It will be fascinating to see what that will begin to mean.

Crossing Cultures with the Bible

Three ways to understand the Bible
My wife, Karen, heard a message by a young woman with no theological training on Jer 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you….” The young woman spoke of the verse as if it was addressed to us today and talked about the plans God has for us.  Although God has revealed his will for us as human beings in his word, this was a misapplication of the verse because God was not speaking to us in this verse, he was speaking to another people in a different historical time and place; we are not part of those particular plans.

A better, and common, approach is to recognize that while the verse is a promise to people of another age, we can still ask, “What lesson can we learn from this that is applicable to us?”  That is, even though the words are not written to us, the message is still, in some less direct sense, for us.  

A third approach which is my primary concern in reading the Bible cross-culturally is to examine this interaction of God with his people in order to discover his character and his heart.  This perspective recognizes that the passage provides a revelation of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and asks, “What can I learn from this to know him better?  How can I shape my thoughts, speech and action to fit with the image that emerges from God’s revelation of himself?”

there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself

The Bible as revelation of the nature of God
The latter approach is based on the conviction that there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself.  The primary purpose of the written word is not to give us instructions on how to live, but to be a witness to the Living Word who in turn reveals to us the nature and heart of God.  It is within that broader perspective of discovering God that we become shaped into the image of Christ and respond in worship.

Read the rest of this entry in Cross-cultural Impact #56

Scratching the Surface of Non-Belief

In the last few months, I have encountered a number of people who seem “taken” by the current campaign to promote the message of atheism. Such books as God is Not Great, and The God Delusion seem to suggest that there is something solid to the life and belief of the unbelievers. Which is why I was intrigued by the recent findings of George Barna.

The June update of the Barna Report dealt with the impact of the current promotional campaign being waged by Atheists. It was, in part, research for a new book by David Kinnaman entitled unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. On the surface, the issue seems to be formidable to anyone in ministry. But, digging a bit deeper into the data, I was encouraged by the opportunities we have to address people who appear uncomfortable with un-belief. Consider the following, from the Barna research [www.barna.org]:

But atheists and agnostics shouldn’t be too surprised that we would be confused about the issue. After all, this demographic group, which comprises 8% of the U.S. adult population, certainly acts in peculiar ways for religious skeptics. According to surveys conducted by The Barna Group:

  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics say that every person has a soul
  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics believes that Heaven and Hell exist
  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics believes that there is life after death.
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics talks about faith-related matters during a typical week. 
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics prayed to God, in past 7 days
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics want ‘creationism” taught in the public schools
  • 1 out of every 8 atheists and agnostics believe that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible.
  • 1 out of every 10 atheists and agnostics believes that absolute moral truth exist
  • 1 out of every 12 atheists and agnostics read from the Bible, other than while at church, in past 7 days
  • 1 out of every 25 atheists and agnostics attended a church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or funeral, in past 7 days

If an atheist reads the bible, goes to church, believes in the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, life after death, teaching creationism, absolute morals, and prayer, are they considered a “heretic” by their fellow non-believers?

I would take it one step further: would they be considered a “lost sheep” looking for a way home?

Disillusioned with the Sunday meeting expression of church

The following is a response from my wife, Karen, to a couple of recent blogs found on this site:

In his Oct 17 blog "The Foundation for Hearing God," Loren Warkentin wrote:

We Christians have become acculturated to this [fast-paced] style of living and I believe it has affected our spiritual lives. We are easily bored. If a “worship service” doesn’t entertain us sufficiently we move elsewhere. Long sermons and church services tire us. But maybe more deadly is the effect this lifestyle has on our personal, devotional relationship with God – it has become fragmented, stretched thin, missing even – and so we look for a fix. We still want to hear from Him, but….

YES! We desperately want to hear from Him!! But maybe the problem is not our expectation but the "worship service."

I don’t believe most Christians go to a church service looking to be entertained. We go seeking God. My great desire is to be engaged – my mind, heart, will and spirit – but when it comes to church services, I have all but given up. Most often I come home from a service knowing that I have (yet again) missed God.

My great desire is to be engaged – my mind, heart, will and spirit

Music moves me so if the "worship team" is decent and the songs are good (by that I mean there is some substance and content to the lyrics), then I can worship.

But the vast majority of sermons I hear do not engage me. I recently attended a friend’s very charismatic church. I am not a charismatic by theology, preference, experience, desire, personality or history, but if I lived in that town, that’s the church I would go to.

the vast majority of sermons I hear do not engage me

Why? Because I met God there. It was clear that the leaders were communicating their heart and more importantly, God’s heart. The sermons (I heard 3 over the weekend) came out of their lives and what God was teaching them, not from a commentary.

I find that in sermons the grand themes in the Bible are often reduced to the bottom line "be nice" and so much of what I hear is the "same, old, same, old." I love the "old, old story," don’t get me wrong. But the way it is presented is like eating dusty, stale crackers.

I have met numerous people who no longer attend church, not because they aren’t entertained, but because they miss God when they go.  Initially they think the problem is with them, that somehow their expectations are out of line. Some of them keep going out of habit, others keep attending because they have kids and others just give up (I have talked to all of the above).

I have so many questions but have no place to ask them

Although evangelicals say we base our lives and beliefs on the Bible, there is little Bible reading. At one service I attended the preacher read 1.5 verses and then told us that even though the verses meant something different, he would still use those verses to preach on his chosen subject. At such services I look around at the people and think – Do they really find these words a life giving message? or is coming to church a habit and good way to see friends?

I have so many questions but have no place to ask them. Most of them start with "yes, I see what you’re saying…but what about this? and this? and this?” Does the preacher not have the same questions? If he (most are men) doesn’t, why not? Am I that off the charts? Do the people around me not have similar questions?

In Kent Anderson’s Oct 19 blog, "Apologetic Preaching," he writes in reference to J.P. Moreland:

People, he said, need more than just to hear what the Bible says and how to apply it, because people don’t actually believe the Bible very strongly. People today are looking for passion and some sense that the preacher knows what she or he is talking about. Pastors need to be brokers of knowledge just like doctors.

[The problem with church services is not] the lack of entertainment, but the lack of substance

I believe that passion comes not just from knowing God, but from knowing God this past week; from working through doubts, questions, injustices and opportunities. I don’t think we need to develop a database of God’s miraculous interventions (Moreland’s suggestion as reported in Kent’s blog) because most people don’t live life like that. But we do want to know how to meet God in our ordinary, every day life.

Church services are a prime opportunity to bring people into God’s presence so they can hear from Him. At least the vast majority of resources are geared towards constructing and maintaining very expensive buildings so there can be a corporate gathering. But when that doesn’t happen the discouragement can lead to disillusionment. It is not about the lack of entertainment, but the lack of substance.

maybe church is just (mediocre) entertainment and isn’t meant to be a place where life and the gospel come together

 Coincidentally, I am reading about the Veritas Forum, a movement in universities that faces the hard questions of life in the light of who Jesus is. Experts in many different fields offer expertise to students who can respond and interact. Their messages do not reduce the gospel to a trite "be nice," but honestly grapple with the relevance of God’s revelation in the context of a secularized worldview.

I find the Sunday meeting expression of church to be very unsatisfying because it is one dimensional. Much time and effort is put into this one expression and yet it falls short of what it could be: a gathering of people who need and want to meet with God, who have come to worship and to be in God’s presence. Yet week after week some of us leave so frustrated. Eventually we learn that maybe church is just (mediocre) entertainment and isn’t meant to be a place where life and the gospel come together.

 

The REAL Examination

It’s that time of the semester once again. The Registrar’s office has asked each professor to indicate whether they are requiring an examination that needs to be scheduled into the examination week for their courses. The schedule is out and professors and students are all now aware of when each examination will need to be sat.

By and large, most of our students do a good to great job in writing their exams. Sometimes, there is a feeling of uncertainty about their answer to this or that question, but generally, there is a sense of satisfaction and relief as they leave the examination hall. They studied hard, retaining much. And during the exam, what was committed to memory was laid out in answers to questions or synthesized and made the basis of responses to cases presented for analysis. With the completion of the examination, they have done their part in the course and all that awaits is the professor’s grading of the work and the formal posting of the student’s final mark for the course.

It is not a new thought, but it occurred to me that most of our exams are not the real examination. Indeed, the real exam is taken when the knowledge is put into practice for the benefit of those who will be served or helped. The real examination occurs after the exam for the course. In the knowledge of that truth, I’ve taken to adding a little note at the bottom of each examination sheet following my Christmas wish to the student. In the hermeneutics exam sheet, for example, it reads, "Remember, the real examination for this course takes place every time you open your Bible to translate, study, preach, teach and counsel." 

 The principle holds not only in the academy, but also in the church and in life generally for the Christian. The real test of what we’ve heard in the sermon, or the Bible study class, or the home group is not that we were in attendance, or even whether we can replicate the content flawlessly. It is, rather, what we’ll do with what we’ve heard. The test is action.

Using the image of building, Jesus taught that hearing his words only and hearing them so as to do them are the difference between the foolish and the wise respectively (Matthew 7:24-27). The book of James puts it even more succinctly, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." (James 1:22)

Apologetic Preaching

J. P. Moreland of Talbot Seminary was the keynote speaker at this year’s meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. He took the opportunity to offer a proposal for “apologetic preaching.” While such an approach is not new, Moreland seemed to suggest that apologetics could and should take a much higher place in our thinking about preaching in this highly-secularized period.

This is, he said, the most divided time in American history since the civil war. On the secular side are the media, the universities, and the entertainment industry. On the the other side (according to USA Today) the leaders are the evangelical churches. It scarcely seems a fair fight.

It is out of this millieu, Moreland says, that the current evangelical church has been formed. We have, he said, felt forced to retreat to a largely privatized faith. We have conceived of our beliefs as matters of faith and not of knowledge, thus ceding the realm of knowledge to the scientists. It is the doctors and scientists who are the keepers of empirical knowledge. Truth is no longer adequate. It is knowledge of truth that reigns supreme. Because preachers trade in truths that can’t be known, we have been marginalized to the realm of private belief.

Moreland offered Oprah as an example. She can wax eloquent about theology without any expertise, he said, because she understands that there is no hard knowledge available this kind of truth. She tells people that they can pray in any manner that they want and to any God whom they might see as helpful. Of course, she wouldn’t dream of offering such counsel with respect to something like smallpox, because we have hard scientific knowledge about smallpox. We know that you cannot vaccinate yourself effectively with coffee or with chocolate. When it comes to faith, however, we think that no such conviction is possible and so we relegate it to the realm of individual discernment and desire.

This, Moreland suggests, is unnecessary and ultimately untenable. The Bible, he says, is a source of hard knowledge. Paul, for example, spoke about the power of thinking rightly (Phil. 4:8,9) long before Sigmund Freud ever thought it was a good idea. We need, he said, to build faith in listeners by preaching such that they increase their confidence in the ability to know things about God and about eternity based on the teachings of the Scriptures.

Belief, he said, is a “degreed property,” which is to say that belief happens whenever we are between 51 and 100% certain of the truth of a thing. Belief is like ‘cloudiness’. A dog is a dog is a dog. But cloudiness can exist to a greater or lesser degree. The same is true with beliefs. I believe in my own existence, more strongly than I believe in the existence of God, he said, though the two are very close. The task of the preacher, then, is to bump people up so that they believe the right things and that they hold them more strongly than they previously did. As preachers, we ought to assume that people don’t believe the things they believe with a great deal of strength and that it is our task to help them believe more strongly.

People, he said, need more than just to hear what the Bible says and how to apply it, because people don’t actually believe the Bible very strongly. People today are looking for passion and some sense that the preacher knows what she or he is talking about. Pastors need to be brokers of knowledge just like doctors.

Thus, he said, we need to be developing two skills in preachers: (1) to develop a habit of reading worldview in culture, and (2) to communicate what the Bible has to say on public issues – to show, that the Bible is an intelligent book written by thoughtful people. Specifically, and more controversially, he suggested that we develop a database of experiences of God breaking into the world, like undeniable instances of God speaking in the world, miraculous circumstances, healings, and even encounters with angels and demons.

Personally, I found myself challenged and interested in Moreland’s ideas about working deliberately to build faith in the people who listen to my preaching. I even found myself appreciating the idea that I should catalog the instances in my own experience where God has made himself evident.

That being said, I think that perhaps Moreland underplayed the nature of faith in preaching and in the life of those we speak to. My sense is that we need to integrate both faith and reason such that our experience of God’s working finds its place alongside a reasoned appreciation of the truths that Scripture teaches. I once suggested that this is akin to aligning the two gospel songs, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, and “you ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.

Further, while I appreciate that the Bible is a source of knowledge, I think it also fair to say that as human subjects, our ability to know truth is limited by our finitude and fallenness. We are dependent, then, on God to reveal truth to us by his Spirit. I don’t despair that this overly privatizes my access to faith, because I believe that God is active by his Spirit, throughout the world, to build faith in the people he is reaching. It encourages me that he often uses preachers in that task.

Churchtalk: Responding to the Breakdown of Tolerance

In a recent issue of Mcleans a lead article raised the alarm that our Canadian commitment to multiculturalism may be eroding. The key question that Canadians are debating is this:  what reasonable accommodations should Canadians make to cultural and religious minorities? Where should the limits be drawn? The writer claimed that many in Canada are "utterly conflicted" on this question. Recently violent responses to religious and cultural minorities have occurred in various regions of Canada.

If as followers of Jesus all we can muster is tolerance for those who hold different values and dress differently, then we have not understood Jesus’ teaching.

Many suggest that the answer to these conflicts lies in transforming Canada into a purely secular society. If we accomplish this, we will enthrone tolerance. Apparently religious values or ethnic values cause intolerance. This sounds to me like the argument used in the past that the rape victim was somehow responsible for being raped! If these religious and cultural minorities just stopped being different, then we could tolerate them. A retreat to secular values, however, will not solve the problem, because even within secularism there are many diverse values vying for priority. Where in the world do we find a secular society that is free from intolerance?

Maybe the growing reaction against multiculturalism and intolerance towards religious and ethnic minorities in our Canadian society is presenting Evangelical Christians with a new opportunity to demonstrate the love of Jesus and show another and better way to live.

For Christians tolerance is an insufficient response to human differences. Jesus challenged his followers to "love your enemies" and to "pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Tolerance is not good enough for kingdom people. If as followers of Jesus all we can muster is tolerance for those who hold different values and dress differently, then we have not understood Jesus’ teaching.  Paul struggled with this issue and declared that in the Messiah Jesus no cultural or economic distinctions count (Galatians 3:28). Paul claims that God is "no respecter of persons", i.e. he does not play favourites. God loves "the world" and expects His people to do the same. Maybe the growing reaction against multiculturalism and intolerance towards religious and ethnic minorities in our Canadian society is presenting Evangelical Christians with a new opportunity to demonstrate the love of Jesus and show another and better way to live. God’s Kingdom embraces people from all cultures and in our church communities, as we are empowered by God’s Spirit, we can truly "love one another."

Evangelical Christians should note, however, that they are a religious minority in Canada. This means that sooner or later their Christian values will conflict with generally accepted Canadian values. When this happens, the government or courts will judge what ‘reasonable accommodation’ should be in specific cases. Perhaps we already see this happening in the issue of same-sex marriage. How should we respond when our values are regarded as ‘unreasonable’ and accommodation to them will violate Canadian values? Each situation will require great wisdom. However, we should not be surprised that such things happen, because we are different. Jesus has made us new and together we form his "holy nation".

No alpha, beta or RC1 releases – a reason for Thanksgiving!

Warning!!
"if you don’t know what an alpha release is, don’t use this software!!"

I love the concept of free web software – a web application that has been designed by someone out there in cyberland who has put it up on the net to be downloaded and used freely (donations always appreciated). It is in this context that I have chuckled in the past couple of days as I have been searching for some very specific plugins (small web applications) for WordPress (the web software on which this site runs). In the process I have come across several websites that describe their particular plugin as an "alpha release" – with the following warning- "if you don’t know what an alpha release is, don’t use this software!!" Warning heeded!!

It is common for web software programmers to release a version of the software they are developing to the public – a version that is not fully tested or does not have complete functionality – in order to give the internet community an opportunity get a sneak preview or even to help in the debugging of the program. In this way users will often help with suggestions as to what additional functionality might be added to the software in order to make it a useful tool. These releases are labeled "alpha" or "beta" versions and if the software is deemed to be almost complete, "release candidate 1 or 2" (RC1, etc.). I have occasionally experimented with web software that was still in the "beta" stage.

Sometimes, however, it is frustrating when I am looking at a piece of software that is advertised to do just what I want it to do – but it is still "beta"! Do I dare use it on my "precious" website? Can I trust it? Other times it is quite annoying when software touted as the ultimate answer for a particular need does not live up to its promise. But that is the world of software offered on the web and those are the risks you take when you use a "beta" version.

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving Day and I was reflecting on what I had to be thankful about and thinking about some of the experiences I have had with "beta releases" it occurred to me that when Jesus provided the "Ultimate Answer" to mankind’s deepest need he provided the only and final release, free and absolutely complete!

Jesus…prepared for every contingency, every possibility, every condition and every era. He did not take any shortcuts or half measures and did not leave any functionality out.

When Jesus provided salvation for us He prepared for every contingency, every possibility, every condition and every era. He did not take any shortcuts or half measures and did not leave any functionality out. He did not forget anything or ignore anything. He knew every need we would ever possibly have and provided for them all. When He died on the Cross to save mankind from sin he did not take a trial and error approach – he went all the way and did it perfectly – first time! His "plan" for us has never needed debugging, security updates, patches or fixes. It is perfect, there will never be any other versions or releases – and it is free for the receiving! In fact donations are not even possible and to attempt payment nullifies the "plan".

So, to recap! The salvation Jesus has provided is absolutely perfect, absolutely complete, absolutely efficacious, absolutely trustworthy and absolutely free. Now that is something for which I can be very thankful – and so can you!.

In the realm of web software I will continue to experiment with the occasional "beta" release. In the spiritual realm, however, I have settled on Jesus’ perfect "plan"- His provision for eternal salvation.

Significant Conversations

Five aspects of evangelism common to our churches that need to change if we are to make a gospel impact in our communities:

a.    The individualistic nature of evangelism.  People commonly view Sunday worship as their expression of church, while the rest of the week is lived without church involvement. For example, I have seen written over the exit in some churches: “You are entering the mission field.”  While the focus on missions is laudable, the understanding for many is that while we are in the building we are part of a congregation, but when we leave, we are on our own!  The common assumption is that those who “do evangelism” with their acquaintances, do it by themselves.  This perception is inadvertently advanced by the testimony of those who are gifted evangelists because the interaction is often presented as a private affair.  But this approach ignores the great potential for developing a support network with other believers.

b.    Defining ministry as church based activity. The ministries of the church are usually understood as the activities that are on the ledger (teacher, usher, maintenance, etc.), and the personal spiritual interaction that people have in their every day relationships are not viewed as church ministry. This perspective needs to be reversed.  Each person’s primary church ministry should be the way they reflect Christ in their daily lives, while the tasks associated with church programs are support ministries.

Each person’s primary church ministry should be the way they reflect Christ in their daily lives

c.    Evangelism as the task of the church.  At one level this is true, but the emphasis often results in downplaying the reality that it is God who has a mission to the world and it is his Spirit that changes hearts.  Salvation does not depend on our ability to convict and convince.  Rather we need to discover what God is up to in people’s lives and have a conversation. We look for where God is working and explore the significance of that spiritual interest with them.

d.    The guilt aspect. In light of people on their way to hell, we feel enormous pressure to give people a gospel message – like medical staff in the emergency room.  However, in my experience this perspective actually works against the effectiveness of motivating people to the task.  We need to trust that God will do what is right with each individual and not put more responsibility for a person’s eternal destiny on ourselves than is warranted by Scripture.  A more appealing and less intimidating paradigm is the view that we are on a spiritual journey and want to walk with others who are also on a journey.

e.    The program approach to evangelism. Very often the plea is “bring your friends to church or to our evangelistic outreach” with the implication that “the expert” is best equipped to tell the gospel.  However, any one who is a true follower of Christ has a gospel message inside them that their friends are more than likely willing to hear and which would make a greater impact.  In the long run, a more productive focus will be to develop a support network so that believers can explore the spiritual joys and challenges of engaging the significant people in their lives.

I would like to suggest a simple grassroots approach to evangelism that relieves the pressure on believers to “present a gospel message” and replaces that with a freedom to enjoy significant conversations with people. This approach creates a conversational space where there are no winners or losers, just people who are able to express what is significant to them.  For the true believer, this is opportunity for Jesus to shine. 

The SISI system is designed to mitigate the weaknesses noted above.

Download the SISI brochure in which the process is explained together with important assumptions and / or contact me at via the form below. 

You are also invited to read the CCI article entitled “Why I don’t do ‘Evangelism’” which chronicles my own spiritual journey in coming to this position of seeking significant conversations.

 

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A Father’s Baptism

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at Albion Church. The fellowship–an energetic, young congregation of some 70-80 believers–meets in the local community hall on the north bank of the Fraser River. Their pastor who invited me to preach is Dan Ost. My decision to say yes was a ‘no brainer.’

Dan’s emailed invitation was more of a 911 call. I quote: "I received a call last night from my 76 year old father who just became a Christian a little over a year ago–he’s over-the-top excited about his new found faith and is going to be baptized next Sunday…and I don’t want to miss it! So, …I’m looking for a last minute preacher who could fill in here at Albion…."

Who wouldn’t want to be at his own dad’s baptism? 76 years old! That number alone tells me a story. It tells me that the greatest length of the life pathway for Dan’s dad has been filled with incomprehension and not a little resistance to Jesus. Every pathway has measures of those elements. That Dan has been a Christian far longer than his dad I’m sure means that he was both concerned and hopeful for his dad’s eventual conversion to Christ. I don’t doubt that Dan’s daily prayers to God gave good time to ask for a transformed mind for his dad so that he could understand that the good news about a new life in Jesus was good news for him. There have probably been many conversations between father and son regarding what it means to be a Christian in terms of costs and blessings. I’m sure Dan had to balance the urgency to insistently tell with respect for his dad and realization that if anything happened, it would ultimately be God’s doing and in God’s time.

Well, God came through–big time!

It makes me wonder, though. If we imagined everyone we know who needs to hear the good news about salvation in Jesus’ name as a beloved father, mother, or child, would we be more consciously prayerful for their salvation, more available to relate to them, more respectfully insistent in raising the matter about Jesus, and more patient and persistent out of a great hopefulness and confidence to see God come through?

Dan had the joy of seeing his father in his late years come to a whole new life through faith in Jesus and be baptized this past Sunday. It should make us all want to pursue that joy as well.

The Wonder of Sulfa and Penicillin – or Salt and Light

On my way to work this morning the radio station to which I was listening had an announcement regarding some of the up-coming fall TV shows. I found myself reacting to the announcer’s casual monologue. What he was describing was entertainment comprised of watching godless and adulterous relationships, of watching actors and actresses portraying a society whose values consisted of lust, deceit, betrayal, violence, murder and virtually any other godless form of lifestyle. The radio announcer described the opening scenes of a new season of one popular TV serial as "dark and twisted"! Hmmm…, just what I was needing to build me up in my faith and my daily walk with God.

I wonder if Jesus might have used the analogy of sulfa and penicillin!

I turned the radio off and was musing about the role of the Christian in society. Here we are, God’s holy people, living squarely in the middle of this culture of ours with its sordid view of entertainment. We are in it but not to be “of it”. God has kept us here for a reason. Jesus told us we are to be salt and light. As we interact with our culture, what does that look like?

It is the prerogative of the Gospel to transcend culture – to transform culture! We are to be culture influencers! It seems to me, however, that we also need to be very careful that the opposite does not happen – that our culture does not exert a godless influence on us through the “entertainment” that it serves up.

Here are some questions with which I wrestle:

1. Are we allowing our “personal culture” to be influenced daily by the transforming power of the Gospel? Do we vigorously clear away from our lives anything that would restrict that process? What safeguards have we put in place to ensure that this happens? With such a pervasive godlessness in our culture’s entertainment how do we keep ourselves from being influenced? Do we divorce ourselves completely from radio, TV, movies and the like? If not, where do we draw the line at what we allow ourselves to watch – to be entertained by? There are definite dangers – how do we recognize them? For example, can our entertainment so accustom our ears to the kind of speech that the Bible defines as “corrupt, foolish or coarse” (Eph. 4:29 & 5:3,4) that we become desensitized to it? That is only one of the many areas where moral desensitization can set in. Are there areas in our “comfortableness” with the culture of our society where we have been blinded by it? 

2. Are we allowing the Gospel’s transforming power to flow through us to the culture around us? In all the spheres where we have relationships with people, what positive, godly effect does our being there have on those around us? Is there a measure of intentionality about it? Do we ever stop and contemplate how we are influencing others? Last night at the badminton club I am part of one of the guys was casually throwing around some rather offensive language. I wrestled with how to respond? What did salt and light look like in this situation?

3. How important is all of this to us? Is it a priority in our lives?

God used that transformation as a means to explain another transformation that God wanted to work in their lives – the Gospel.

I remember as a child watching a marvelous transformational metaphor take place. My parents were missionaries in a very remote village on the island of Kalimantan, Indonesia. The people among whom we were living were plagued with a bizarre condition called Yaws or tropical ulcers. These putrid, infected lesions were both debilitating and disfiguring. It is also extremely contagious. When my parents first arrived in the village a large percentage of the local population was affected by this condition. Parts of arms, legs, hands and faces were eaten away. To this day I can still smell it.  It was horrific. 

With minimal medical experience and limited resources my parents began to treat the villagers. These people had never been exposed to sulfa drugs or penicillin and within weeks of initial treatment those dreadful sores completely dried up and healed. It was nothing short of miraculous. God used that transformation as a means for my dad and mom to explain to the villagers another transformation that God wanted to work in their lives – the Gospel. 

To me that is a picture of what we as Christians are to be in the society and culture in which we have been placed?  What miracles might we witness as we allow the Gospel to be radiated through our lives to our culture and the people of our culture?   I wonder if Jesus might have used the analogy of sulfa and penicillin!

Don’t Discuss, DO

For the past couple of years I have been leading a Bible study on the theme “touching the robe of Christ.”  This was adopted as a paradigm for the desire to break past misleading interpretations, religious terminology and church traditions and trappings in order to connect with God through Christ, to experience the reality of the Spirit’s power.  As part of the approach towards this, we read through the first six chapters of Mark as if we had never read them before and never heard of Jesus.  We tried for a fresh look at Jesus, who he claimed to be and what he taught.  Through that exercise we gained a number of valuable and enlightening insights.

To begin the fall session, we reviewed our progress.  Are we closer to “touching the robe of Christ”? Have we experienced this?  The answer was unequivocally, “no.”  Some were still puzzled about what that experience would “feel” like, while one person stated, “I think I have touched the robe, but nothing happened.”

Jesus taught us to LIVE the life, not just DISCUSS the life

I came away from the Bible study uncertain of the next step.  However, on the way to a pastors’ breakfast with the pastor of our church, Jared White, we discussed the Bible study and he suggested that perhaps “doing” was the element we were missing. We had been neglecting the reality that the text is given to us for the purpose of FOLLOWING, not discussion. Jesus taught us to LIVE the life, not just DISCUSS the life. So it is no surprise that we had not been able to “grasp the robe,” or in grasping had not experienced any “bells and whistles.”  What Jesus calls us to is obedience, to do what he commands. If we do not, then all discussion is like chasing smoke.  It is like trying to analyze love without living and experiencing love.  It is only by following and obeying that we are transformed into Christ’s image: into the wholeness and perfection, the harmony with God, the fulfillment of what our Father intended in our creation and sees in our potential.

So the question I will be raising in our study is no longer “how can we touch the robe,” for that is now within our grasp. Rather, with the robe in sight, the call is to follow. Will we act upon its implication and thus experience the robe through obedience to his commands?

Translation Theology

No, this is not an attack on any Bible translation. But it is a serious question — how do our translations of the Bible  influence the forming of our Christian worldview? We believe that God intended his Word to be translated into every language. Yet as we make the transition from Greek or Hebrew text to English or some other language, meaning is modified, often in subtle ways and without intention. The trust that Bible translators carry is immense, to say the least.

Does it make a difference whether we call John "the baptizer" or "the immerser" (Mark 1:4)? After all, the term "baptize" is a transliteration of the Greek, not a translation. And what has been the effect of using "Christ" (Mark 1:1) to render the Greek word for Messiah, i.e. anointed one? Or what image is created in our minds when we read the Jesus "preached the word"  (Mark 2:2)to the crowds gathered at his house in Capernaum? Was it a three pointer? Topical or expository? Or one wonders why the New International Version (NIV) translates euaggelion as "gospel" in Mark 1:1 and then "good news" in Mark 1:14-15, and then reverts to "gospel" in all the other occurrences in Mark until Mark 16:15 when suddenly it is "good news" again. What contextual factors would lead to such variance? Does this kind of alternation affect how we understand God’s Word and influence the theology that we formulate?

In Mark 2:15-17 the word hamartoloi is translated "sinners". It is placed in quotation marks in verses 15-16, but not in verse 17. In the Markan text "sinners" is differentiated from tax-collectors in 2:15-16. But when we hear the word, our grid tends to be formed by the Pauline understanding, i.e. "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." But obviously this is not the kind of "sinner" that the Greek text of Mark 2:15-16 is  describing. But then in 2:17 we suddenly find the word "sinner" used in Jesus’ response, but without any quotation marks around it.  Presumably the contrast in his words between "righteous" and "sinner" changes the nuance of the term in the mind of the translator, from describing a social category, to describing a spiritual category.  When we come to the story of Jesus’ betrayal in Mark 14:41, Jesus says that "the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." The NIV does not place any quotation marks around the word "sinners" in this context. But what did Jesus mean by using this term in 14:41? Is he placing his betrayers in the social category defined by the scribes in Mark 2:15-16 or is he defining them as "sinners", i.e. sinful human beings?

Examples could be multiplied and while the NIV is used as an example here, all translations struggle with this problem. But these instances beg the question about the way these renderings, read by millions of people and liturgically intoned countless times in the hearing of the faithful, shape or perhaps mis-shape the theology of the average believer.

I do not raise this question to create doubt about the trustworthiness of good Bible translations. Rather, I draw attention to this reality — our theology does get shaped by how we read these translations, whether we like it or not. Frequent reference to the Greek or Hebrew text becomes more important, not less, as the number, type and quality of English Bible translations continues to multiply. Preachers and teachers have a significant responsibility to make sure they "divide the Word of God rightly." Perhaps competence in New Testament Greek or biblical Hebrew is becoming more important, not less, so that ministry leaders guide and form God’s people as diligently as possible. If we take short cuts here, what might be the unintended consequences?

The love of the Father

Over the years of my Christian life I have often grappled with the questions, "How can I have a relationship with someone I cannot see, hear or touch?  What kind of a relationship is it if one party is limited by being bound to this humanity?"  I know, and have preached on the theologically correct answers to these questions.  I recall J. Sidlow Baxter preaching a series of messages back during my bible college days where he encouraged us to read the Gospels photographically and see Jesus as the Gospel writers portray Him – a practice I have often undertaken over the 30 or so years since. As I have read through John’s Gospel I have taken careful note of Jesus words in 14:7 "If you have known me, you will also know my Father. From now on you know him and have seen him."  As I have grown in the Christian disciplines and pursued my walk with God I have learned to hear from his Word and rejoice in intimate fellowship with Him.  But there still arise those moments when ‘feelings’ and faith seem to be on opposite sides of the experience pendulum.

This past summer I read a book that had a profound impact on my perception of my relationship with God. The book is The Shack by William P. Young.  It is a powerful story of a father’s overwhelming grief in the face of horrific tragedy and how God turns that grief into an opportunity to get to know the Heavenly Father.  It is difficult to classify this book. Is it fiction?  Eugene Peterson’s comment on the book cover seems to imply that it is allegory.  As I read it, I couldn’t help but try to get into the author’s mind and ask, "what motivated this book?" Is it autobiographical?  What ever the genre the impact on me was telling. As I was reading it on the plane I kept looking around to see if anyone was noticing my tears.  I wept out of sheer joy as my perspective of what God desired in relationship was deepened.  I wept out of a profound sense of being humbled by the Father’s passionate love.  I wept out of a refreshed intense longing to know Jesus more. I wept as the Spirit took that story and breathed into my soul a new understanding of His desire to draw me closer.

The Shack  is a book I would recommend to every Christian. You will be drawn into a fresh understanding at God’s ineffable love for his children and the kind of relationship we were intended to have with Him.

9/11 and Being Remembered

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of 9/11.  Many media pieces featured some aspect or other of the tragedy. Some were retrospectives of the event itself. Others covered planned commemorations. I watched one that discussed the engineering implications of 9/11 for high rise building safety.

Among them, two reports in particular struck me.  One was a radio report that memorial service attendance near the site of the World Trade Center this year was only 3,500; down by 1,000 from last year. The other was a news piece by a reporter who asked people on the street what 9/11 was. I was appalled at how many didn’t have a clue what 9/11 was. One person actually asked, "Wasn’t that when we invaded Iraq?"

Perhaps the noblest human motive in remembering the departed is the wish to keep them alive after a fashion, to confer upon them a kind of life beyond the grave in memory. But as massively nightmarish and horrible as 9/11 was, and as much as a nation pledged itself in the days following to cherish the nearly 3,000 dead, it is clear that memory is fading.  Human beings are miserably bad saviors that way.

Who can keep us from being forgotten; from becoming meaningless names and dates chiseled in weathering stone, statistics in a register, or even less? I have no faith in strangers or even my own family to keep me thus. And even if they could do it, where’s the joy or satisfaction in it for them or for me?

If there is salvation in being remembered, who’s able to commit us to the fullest memory so that it is meaningful to the rememberer and the remembered and so that the memory creates more than a sense of loss and deep pain? Can anyone remember us in this way?

I recall the evangelist Luke’s account of two men who hung on crosses within earshot of one another. Both were destined to die that day–one justly for crimes he admitted he had committed; the other innocently, yet without complaint. The former was a criminal sorry to God for what he’d done; the latter was God’s own son.

As life slipped away from both, a remarkable conversation occurred. The guilty man asked the innocent one, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  The innocent one replied, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

That’s how I want to be remembered. That’s who I want to be remembered by.

Ministrytalk: Spiritual Formation — is it all good?

Great interest now focuses upon fostering spiritual formation within all segments of Christianity. In its best forms, Christian spiritual formation uses various exercises and disciplines to form us to be like Christ, in thought, word and deed. Jesus himself taught his followers to pray, to resist evil, to love, to serve, to pursue righteousness, to study God’s word, to think as God thinks. But are all the exercises proposed today to assist Christian spiritual formation equally helpful and aligned with Christian values and understanding?

…the encouragement from the biblical examples is to be "meditating on God’s word day and night", as the basis for contemplative prayer. The outcome sought is the deep intimacy of knowing God as we reflect intensely upon his person displayed through his incredible actions.

In the first decades of the Christian movement some believers were convinced that being circumcised and obeying the Old Testament ‘law’ was the most appropriate pattern for stimulating spiritual growth. Yet Paul had to disabuse such believers of this idea, arguing that for non-Jews, circumcision as a spiritual exercise was actually harmful. Jesus criticized the Jewish religious leaders for requiring a Sabbath practice that inhibited spiritual formation. Paul warns believers at Corinth about the spiritual damage caused by participating thoughtlessly in the Lord’s Supper. It is not just an improper spiritual exercise that can cause problems, but the attitude our hearts have as we participate in it.

One of the spiritual exercises currently encouraged is called "contemplative prayer." Major prayers recorded in the Bible tend to be rehearsals of what God has done, meditations on the acts of God and their implications, which in turn give an encouragement for the petitioner to ask, trust and quietly wait for God’s response. I cannot locate any occasion in the Bible where God’s people are instructed to engage in prayer by empyting their minds and waiting for some thought, some image, some message to come. Rather, the encouragement from the biblical examples is to be "meditating on God’s word day and night", as the basis for contemplative prayer. The outcome sought is the deep intimacy of knowing God as we reflect intensely upon his person displayed through his incredible actions.

We need to distinguish carefully this Christian form of contemplative prayer from the use of contemplative prayer in other religious traditions. The constant repetition of a single phrase (a mantra) or the effort to focus the mind on nothing, or the attempt to open oneself up to spiritual forces — none of this is spiritual formation as defined or exemplified in Scripture.  In helping believers to form good spiritual habits, pastors and spiritual mentors, like an exercise coach, must be careful to provide the best advice, lest  the  person be harmed. The practices of Christian spirituality must be crafted in alignment with biblical principles, no matter what historical or contemporary Christian mystics might suggest. We also have to be careful about the spiritual practices some urge us to borrow from other religious traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam. And even from within the very broad stream of Christian tradition, we have to examine carefully the theological basis that spiritual practitioners may offer to justify certain spiritual formation exercises.

Just like the wrong form of physical exercise can damage severely muscle, tendons, and joints, so too blithely embracing all and sundry forms of human religious practice will result in soul harm. Satan can use spiritual formation exercises to mislead and deceive a believer, just as he can use anything else — even the form of an angel.

God’s Economy

Have you ever been bemused by God’s way of doing things?  I have, and in the end have stood in awe of His timing, patience, grace and goodness.

A number of years ago (in another world) I taught at a Bible college deep in the jungles of Kalimantan (formerly known as Borneo).  For several years I had a student who was a source of great consternation to me.  It seemed that no matter what subject I had him for he just could not "get it"!  His academic situation came up repeatedly in our faculty meetings but no one had the heart to say, "Sorry, he just isn’t making it – let him go!"  So from year to year we granted him a provisional pass to the next level of study and every year we wondered.  But he kept pressing on.  Everyone loved him.  His gentleness, humility and transparency captivated all who knew him.

I was responsible for student accounts at the time and one day he came to my office to ask for some money from his account.  I had just reviewed the books and his account was more than empty, so I asked him, "On what basis are you asking me this?" (literal translation).  He pulled himself up straight and declared, "On the basis of the grace of God!"  I could hardly contain myself and found some extra funds that we had for just such an occasion – grace funds!  Total dependence on the grace of God seemed to be the theme of his life.

In his fourth and final year I was assigned to be his practicum supervisor and evaluator.  He was pastoring a church in a nearby village and I went with him several Sundays to evaluate.  I had taught him homiletics but his sermons bore no resemblance to anything we had studied.  I was seriously considering recommending to the school that he was not cut out for the ministry.  However, after the services I went with him as he walked from home to home in that village, praying for people, encouraging them to be strong in their faith, counselling, advising and loving – and the people loved him in return.  The church in that village had never been so healthy and vigorous.  We graduated him that year (with no little sense of misgiving) and that was the last I saw of him for 14 years as my wife and I were denied extensions to our visas and returned to Canada that summer.  In the intervening years we have often wondered.

I had the privilege this summer of returning to Kalimantan and visiting in this same young man’s home and witnessing the amazing grace of God.  He is married with three children.  He and his wife are involved together in a marvelous cross-cultural ministry.  As we spoke I learned that he has already planted a church amongst a very difficult people group. He has turned that church over to another man to continue the pastoral work and is now in the process of building a second work which involves not just a church plant but also a Christian school as well – again, in the midst of a most difficult ethnic group. It defies human explanation.

Oh, the wonderful grace of Jesus!  God’s economy is one of utter grace.

Of Collapsed Bridges and Bad Theology

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Yesterday, August 1st at 6:05 pm, an extended section of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota suddenly collapsed, sending dozens of vehicles, together with their drivers and passengers, plunging into the Mississippi River.  The images yesterday were of emergency personnel and citizens on the scene scrambling amid the tons of twisted metal and broken concrete to rescue survivors.

Today, the images and commentary in the news are different.  Various local, state and federal officials are appearing on camera to pledge material support and vowing to find answers to the engineering and administrative questions.  Anguished family members are being interviewed as they wait for word on loved ones who did not return home last night and have not called.  Reporters’ commentary has shifted from rescue to talk of safe recovery of bodies and there is a general dread that the victim count–remarkably low to this point–is poised to rise.

Invariably, amid the words and images of the media, a few sound bites will be given over to theological reflection. Much of the theology will be, at best, unhelpful and some of it will be downright bad.

Some pundits will challenge God’s greatness–where was He when the bridge went down, claiming the innocents? They will accuse God of either sleeping on the job or not really being in charge.  Others will challenge God’s goodness, concluding from the collapse and a superabundance of other tragedies the world over that such a malignant world must be overseen by an equally malignant God. Yet others will risk accusations of callous heartlessness by exploring the dangerous territory of particular human deserving. Far too many, sadly, will simply dismiss the God question as antiquated, naive and irrelevant.

Jesus was pressed by contemporaries in his day for a theological sound bite in a similar situation (Luke 13:1-9). His response was interesting.  He questioned neither the goodness nor the greatness of God. These were givens. While He forcefully resisted the notion of being able to assign greater or lesser guilt to individuals on the basis of what happened to them, he was equally adamant that there are no innocents on the road, notwithstanding human assessments. Everyone is a sinner, he asserted.

What was Jesus’ advice? The structure will eventually collapse for everyone and particular collapses are a warning of the breathtaking shortness of human life. Smooth crossings presently are a divine grace against our deserving.  Therefore, we should take them as our opportunity to humbly draw close to God and honour him through a generous, well-lived life.

 

Mark 1:1 — The Beginning of the Gospel or the Norm for the Gospel or both?

Eugene Boring in his new commentary on Mark’s Gospel published in the New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) proposes that the first word in Mark’s Gospel (archÄ“) signifies both beginning or origin, and norm, which he proposes should be translated as "the norm for the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ" (32). There are at least two problems with this proposal.

First, it would be unusual for one word to carry two separate and distinct significances in the same context. Would this not comprise a  hermeneutical fallacy, unless something in the text would signal that a double meaning was intended by the writer? Surely one has to choose one or the other, but not propose that both equally are valid and were intended by the author.

Second, there is the question whether the term archÄ“ means "norm" or "yardstick" in the New Testament, and especially in Mark’s Gospel. The term does signify ruler, in the sense of an authority figure in the New Testament and Boring does reference such usage. However, there is no clear example in the New Testament where this word conveys the sense of norm or yardstick. In fact, I think one would be hard pressed to find examples of this usage in Greek literature outside of the New Testament. It can signify ‘first principle’ in philosophical and cosmological discussion, but even here the sense of ‘norm’ would be rather unusual.

Certainly within the Markan narrative (10:6; 13:8,19) this term carries the meaning of ‘beginning’ with reference to creation or to the starting point of persecution. As well, the analogies we find in the Greek Old Testament (e.g. Hosea 1:2 "the beginning of the word of the Lord to Hosea") would suggest that the sense of ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’ defines Mark’s intended meaning in 1:1 — "The beginning/origin of the gospel of Jesus Messiah Son of God…."

It may well be that Mark intends to compose "a narrative that both communicates the message from and about Jesus and provides the norm for the continuation of the proclamation in the mission of the church", but I do not think he can base such a conclusion on the use of archē in Mark 1:1. That must be argued on other grounds.

 

“Led to the Lord”

Every now and again I hear the phrase “how many people have you led to the Lord?” The meaning of this evangelical lingo is “how many people have committed their lives to Christ under your guidance as you have explained the gospel message?” Although my desire is for people to commit their lives to Christ, this question makes me quite uncomfortable for a few reasons.

First, the implication is that bringing a person to such a commitment to Christ is in our control. The message seems to be that if we only approached people with enough skill, boldness and a clear witness many would become Christians. But, “the only thing that counts in ministry is the one thing that is impossible for us – to change peoples hearts.” It is the Spirit that convicts of sin and turns people to Christ.

Second, if we have not been involved in such experiences, this suggests we have not been faithful to our call as followers of Christ. The result is that many Christians who have not been privileged in this way feel envy towards those who can relate such experiences and they view themselves as less than worthy followers of Christ. Feelings of joy over the news that someone has come to Christ are mitigated by a struggle with guilt.

Third, it reduces other aspects of Christian ministry to secondary status. The “ideal Christian” is the one that “leads many people to Christ” so that they commit their lives to Christ. This perception contradicts the complementary description of believers as parts of a body working together to bring glory to God. A spiritual hierarchy based on a person’s success in “leading people to Christ” is lacking in Scripture.

However, rather than deleting the phrase from our vocabulary, I would suggest changing its meaning to “being an influence in another person’s life so that the beauty of Jesus and his kingdom has been revealed to them.” This is something we have been called to and have been given the freedom and power to do: “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16 TNIV). Therefore, even if people refuse to pursue the way of Christ, they have been given a taste of what could be. A young woman was relating to me the devastation and hurt that occurred through the divorce of her parents. During the course of the conversation I said, “That is why God hates divorce. He has created us for love, commitment and security in relationship. When there is betrayal of that ideal, the brokenness and anguish affects the heart of God.” Did she become a follower of Christ? Not yet. But she saw a little bit of the light of a loving father. Perhaps this a better meaning of “leading someone to the Lord,” because we can all do this on daily basis whether through word or deed, and let Jesus have the glory that comes when people commit their lives to him.

Around Our Table

Our house has been a-hum with guests most of this month. But as busy as we’ve been, the joy has been greater. Sitting around the crowded dinner table laden with good things this week, I’ve been reminded of how many times in the past my family and I have been the beneficiaries of God’s great kindnesses through the generous hospitality of Christian acquaintances and friends. One never loses in the act of hospitality. The act is always overwhelmed by returning gains—personal, relational and spiritual.Dinner Table

 What binds us to these guests around our table is a golden thread that stretches back to the years 1987 through 1992, when our family lived in Aberdeen, Scotland while I pursued a PhD. 

 Maureen and her son Joel are at our table. She and her husband Mark were among our first friends in Scotland. They opened their hearts and their home to us when we were Christian strangers just newly arrived, helping us in many ways to settle in to an unfamiliar environment. We were overwhelmed.  Joel was only 3 or 4 years old then; he’s 24 now and looks remarkably like his dad, who passed away just this year. Joanna’s at our table too. She and our daughters became best of friends in those five golden years as did our respective families. The Atlantic has been crossed several times to maintain the connection. As I listen to her news of mom and dad and sisters, I recall wonderful memories made during our five years in Scotland. Peter is at our table and so is his friend Andy. Peter’s uncle Philip was the teaching elder in the small Christian fellowship where we worshipped. They love the Lord Jesus and both are pursuing meaningful professions and expressing their Christian commitment in them. 

 Hospitality, it seems, has always been a peculiar distinctive and calling of the people of God. The Old Testament patriarchs set food before strangers on divinely ordained missions. In Luke’s Gospel, two disciples prevailed upon a fellow traveler to stay with them and share a meal on the road to Emmaus, discovering later that they had given hospitality to their risen Lord. In the Book of Acts early Christians were known for signs and wonders, but also for breaking bread from house to house. And believers continued to be challenged in the book of Hebrews to inexhaustible kindness in hospitality, lest they miss the potential of entertaining angels unawares. 

 The saints are sitting around our table. It’s been a wonderful summer thus far!

Who is the Happiest Canadian?

Macleans magazine did their annual ‘happiness’ poll of Canadians on our national holiday. While some aspects of Canadian life generate stress and disappointment, the trend continues to show that Canadians, by an overwhelming majority are happy — in fact may be one of the happiest people living on this planet. Of course, the degree of happiness felt is related to feeling good about oneself, feeling loved, having a satisfying job, and having a reasonable income. Tune into a phonein radio show or read a community paper  and you may wonder about the accuracy of these results! We may be happy, but our ability to complain has achieved the level of an art form!

What seems astonishing is the discovery that "there is no statistically significant difference in happiness levels between atheists and those who have a religion." Yet there is an exception: "The survey’s small sample of evangelical Christians found a 100 per cent satisfaction level with their relationships." A similar score was noted among Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Bhuddists. Perhaps the depth of happiness reported is related to the degree of religious commitment or the confidence such believers have in God.

What the Macleans article does not do is to define ‘happiness’. So we are left wondering what Canadians are really saying when they respond to this survey. Are we happy because there is no military conflict within our borders and social institutions continue to function with a modicum of reliability? Is happiness a function of financial security? Are we happy because we have food to eat, a reasonable place to live, and some degree of self worth? If Canadians are so happy, why do we find so many of our fellow citizens addicted to drugs, living in alcoholic stupor, getting divorced as frequently as they get married, mired in debt,  and generally disappointed with life?

Jesus warned people to measure happiness correctly. First, we must consider the eternal scale. If we define happiness merely in terms of this life and its situation, then we will be wildly misled. Jesus told the story of the rich farmer whose harvests made him incredibly wealthy. Preoccupied with plans to build new barns and expand his operation, he neglected eternal realities — death that would separate him from all of these material things and require him to give an account to God for his living. We have to measure happiness in terms of our eternal destiny.

Second, Jesus taught that happiness means receiving God’s approval. We only discover blessedness when we are reconciled with God and belong to his family. Jesus told the story of the wise person who listened to his words and obeyed them, in contrast to the foolish person who disregarded him. The wise person was compared to the housing contractor who built his house on a rock foundation. The foolish person was like the builder who constructed his house on the sandbar in the creek bed. When the winter rains came, the swollen waters of the creek destroyed the house of the foolish person, but these storms could not dislodge the wise person’s house. God’s approval rests on those who follow Jesus.

Third, Jesus showed us by his own life that true happiness is to be found in serving others — giving ourselves so that others might be helped. There may be ‘pain in the offering’, but we know as well the blessing of God. Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 13. If we have all the wealth in the world, if we are the most generous people in the world, if have all the knowledge and wisdom in the world, but lack God’s love in our lives, we are nothing.

If we use the measurements for happiness the Jesus taught and Paul expressed, then I think we would find the survey results drastically changed.

Shaping the Message

One of the primary responsibilities of the cross-cultural Christian worker is to discover how God’s revelation of himself in both the written word (the Bible) and the living Word (Jesus) resonates with the cultural group with whom she or he is developing a relationship. In our ministry among the Sindhi people, we discovered that both the message and the method needed to be formed and expressed by relevant cultural images and values in order to provide a spiritual impact. Consider these examples:

Honor for one’s teacher is a very important value for the Sindhi people. Part of the reason rote learning is the preferred method in schools is because honor is expressed through unquestioning acceptance and trust of the teacher. This contrasts with the heavy dependence upon rational thinking found in western education. As a result, an important aspect of the person of Jesus Christ for the Sindhi people is that of teacher. During the washing of the disciples’ feet, Peter at first refuses to have his feet washed (Jn 13:8). The Sindhi reader is quite offended by this and views his refusal as an act of disloyalty. In the Sindhi mind a student obeys the teacher without question even if it is a matter of honor. If the student is unable to trust the teacher, then he or she should not be a disciple.

Tied to this value is the interesting observation that Sindhi believers do not require an “assurance of salvation,” a common lesson in discipleship manuals for new believers. The need for this is because many western believers seem plagued with doubt and at times wonder if they are saved. However, the Sindhi believer does not contemplate such a question. They have made a commitment to their Teacher Jesus, and any doubt or questioning would be considered an act of dishonor to him.

In the Sindhi context as well, baptism becomes the primary act of commitment through which one pledges his or her life to Christ. While individual prayers and expressions of faith play a role in the development of the believer, it is this public act of commitment and submission to the Teacher – an acted out prayer – that expresses the point of full allegiance. Through this act they gain a new identity as a disciple of Jesus bound together with other committed followers. Individual faith thus finds its expression and fulfillment in a communal context.

The Canadian context is increasingly a mosaic of many cultures. The variety of values and perspectives requires cross-cultural workers to discover the heart language of the people they are working with in order to shape both the method and message of Jesus Christ in a way that will resonate with the worldview of those people.

Gentle Summer Thought

Okay, trivia fans, here’s a question. How many steps can a sparrow take in a minute? It’s summertime and as I was lounging in the shade of my deck, thinking of what I could post on this web space, I found myself watching a flock of sparrows bouncing around the yard. And I began to count. How many steps can a sparrow take in a minute? My scientific poll came to an average of 80 to 100.

Is there a point to this? I’m just repeating a study referred to by Jesus in Matthew 10:29 when He said: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of you Father.”

Some people assume that the sparrow’s “fall” refers to it’s death which, as far as I know, happens only once. But [and here my learned colleagues may correct my understanding of Greek vocabulary] the word used by Jesus may also mean to take a step with a foot, or hop. As it applies to sparrows, I believe that “hop” would be the proper use. And, if that was what Jesus meant, then it strikes me that God has His work cut out as He keeps track of every single hop of every little sparrow. They are studies in perpetual motion, hot-footing it to a primitive beat. And God cares for each step.

But, you may ask, what does He care about? My guess is that the answer has something to do with what makes sparrows hop. As I watched my little friends, I discovered several reasons: 1. fear – those little guys are on constant red-alert, 2. need – those little guys are on a constant hunt for food, 3. weakness – they may have the right stuff to soar in the air, but they struggle when it comes to ground transportation.

Is God just keeping count of their steps? As I lazed in the summer sun, it dawned on me that it’s His will to sense their fears, needs and weaknesses – and whatever else keeps them hopping. And even more. Jesus continued, don’t be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.

What a comforting thought. Another reminder that God really does love us, enough to embrace everything that keeps us on our toes: fears, needs, weaknesses and so much more. A gentle thought to take into the day.

Missional Leadership: Does this Emperor have Clothes?

The missional church movement calls the church to rediscover its kingdom identity and purpose as the people of God. Now we hear that churches will require a new kind of leadership – missional leadership – to guide their re-development as missional congregations. Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk in The Missional Leader. Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World articulate how current ministry leaders can become missional leaders and be equipped to lead churches in the transition from current modes of being church, to the missional mode – “a community of God’s people who live into the imagination that they are, by very nature, God’s missionary people living as a demonstration of what God plans to do in and for all of creation in Jesus Christ”(xv).

What kind of leader will this transition take? Does it require a new kind of leader? Roxburgh and Romanuk argue that it does and that old patterns of ministry leadership no longer serve. Consider their comparison and contrast between ‘pastoral’ and ‘missional’ models of leadership (12-13).

As I reflected on their materials, I wondered how different such missional leadership really is?

In the first part of their book they offer good advice and perspective about the new postmodern cultural context in which many congregations now function. The changes are real and in many cases dramatic and if congregations do not pay attention to these changes and seriously inquire how to be authentic, hospitable people of God in this new reality, then they will become missionally irrelevant. But these issues of contextualization, cultural exegesis, and biblically-faithful community surely have surfaced as key issues in congregational life again and again. They form the very stuff of being God’s people. During the past twenty years these issues have formed core elements in ministry leadership development.

Do we need to give continual attention to the matter of contextualization and incarnational Christian living? Of course, but it will be led by ministry leaders who possess both pastoral and missional abilities. Roxburgh and Romanuk rightly call ministry leaders to re-engage this task with fervour, understanding, imagination and a sense of hope.

They correctly caution ministry leaders against borrowing unthinkingly leadership practices espoused in the corporate world. They have concerns, for instance, that common strategic planning processes may be too linear, too structured and too top-down, If applied in a straightforward way within the congregational context these processes may violate the community context and prevent significant vision and meaningful change from emerging. These are salutary cautions.

Roxburgh and Romanuk, however, borrow freely from the work of sociologists and psychologists, but rarely do they offer any theological critique of the ideas they use.

For example, they use ideas from Steven Johnson’s publication Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. As well Surfing the Edge of Chaos by Richard Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja is cited to support the idea that congregations, if given opportunity, have the capacity to discern a new future, one not “already determined by a leader.” Yet they do not show how these ideas are coordinate with the patterns which developed in the first generation church and witnessed in the New Testament. Was there a major response to new critical issues in the New Testament church that did not receive some direction from key ministry leaders?

The second part of their book addresses the missional leader specifically. Again, they offer good, sound advice. Ministry leaders need to “model patterns and habits of life” as an effective means of providing leadership for the congregation, rather than depending on organizational restructuring or new forms of polity(115).  But again, does one have to choose between these two or will there be situations where both are important and necessary? The authors believe that the complex sociological contexts in which congregations live requires leaders who “know the basic principles of leading people, forming effective staff, developing teams, or communicating processes”(117). I would agree, but ask what is new about this? Developing these skills has formed part of the standard curriculum for ministry leaders for the last decade or two.

On the one hand Roxburgh and Romanuk argue that ministry leaders do not help the church by creating change processes or measure quantitative growth (120). Rather, ministry leaders must give their attention to the formation of the people of God and through this, change will emerge and perhaps growth as well. They must focus on forming “alternative communities of the kingdom shaped by theological and biblical narrative”(123). On the other hand, if the goal is missional transformation of the congregation, then change must occur and some process of change must be followed. The methods employed to secure change may be different, but some process of change will be embraced.  According to Roxburgh and Romanuk the missional leader prepares the stage or perhaps even takes specific steps to iniatiate such change, even if through quiet, dialogical means.

They have a chapter devoted to “The Character of a Missional Leader”(125-141). Again, what is emphasized is helpful. They urge ministry leaders to foster credible and authentic character, which exhibits four personal qualities: “maturity, conflict management, personal courage, and trustworthiness and trusting”(127). I would question whether conflict management is a ‘personal quality’ rather than a competency, but ministry leaders certainly need these qualities. Again I ask what is new here? Paul seems to me to mention these very things in his list of qualifications for ministry leaders in 1 Timothy 3.

So is missional leadership really a different form of leadership or the wise application of well-known ministry leadership competencies to help congregations deal both with change and transition? Roxburgh and Romanuk emphasize the importance of ministry leaders enabling congregations to discern their identity as kingdom communities and develop processes for missional engagegment that are coherent with this reality. Time, dialogue, and attention to spiritual formation are significant elements. I wonder whether their model works best with rather small congregations, given the dialogical and intimate nature of the process.

In the end I am not convinced that missional leadership, as they define it, is essentially different from good, pastoral leadership that has led congregations historically through periods of significant social change and enabled these communities to develop new ways of being church.

Blinded by Familiarity

Beatrix PotterLast night our family had a dinner and DVD night at home.  After a delicious taco salad, we settled in to watch Miss Potter, about the famed children’s author Beatrix Potter who gave the world Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-duck and a host of other characters and their various adventures.  A significant sub-theme in the movie was the struggle that Beatrix’s parents had in coming to terms with the reality that their daughter was not just a published author, but a very famous one at that. They only came to see their daughter in a new light rather late. That’s parents for you. But, then, that seems to be all of us! We tend to be blinded by assumed familiarity.

Notwithstanding angels, signs and prophecies (Matt. 1; Luke 1—2), Jesus’ parents had great trouble coming to terms with their eldest. It was the same with the neighbors— “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” (Matt. 13:54-56)

The movie reminded me that when a parent allows him or herself to be blinded by assumed familiarity, it can steal the joy of celebrating a child’s achievements. It can pose a threat to the health—or even the survival—of a parent-child relationship.

How much more costly the risks in being blinded by an assumed familiarity with the Galilean preacher, the Son of God and only Savior of the world?

Commitment vs Decision

A number of years ago after delivering a sermon I was rebuked by a young woman. It would be nice to say that this was a unique occurrence, but unfortunately, such is not the case. I had made some disparaging remarks about the "Four Spiritual Laws," a tract that provides a four step understanding of the gospel message. She had been introduced to the gospel through one of those tracts and it was significant to her spiritual history.

I was duly chastened and learned that the sermon is not the place for such insensitivity and I praise God for people with the courage to approach and correct me when I fall short. Nonetheless, even though evangelism programs and tracts have played a role in the salvation of many people, I am still disturbed by the reduction of the good news of Jesus to a few well rehearsed lines no matter how well crafted.

Becoming a follower of Christ is not a "decision," like deciding to buy a house. Rather it is a commitment, like getting married. It is a momentous covenantal step when one vows a lifetime commitment to Jesus as Lord. It involves a "burning of bridges": all other ultimate commitments are now off limits, even as in my marriage to Karen, all other women became off limits in terms of intimate personal relationships.

In our western culture, the vows of marriage come as the culmination of a number of decisions that have shaped the relationship to the point of declaration before God and community of the permanent and sole choice for a life partner. Similarly, children in their formative years, or a person newly introduced to the gospel can make decisions in the development of their love for Jesus. But the covenantal commitment made before God and community that is required of a follower of Christ (the point of baptism as I understand it), is so profound and life shaping, that it should not be made prematurely, even as a marriage should not be entered into without an understanding of and commitment to the consequences. A booklet on the "Four laws of marriage," can be very helpful in introducing a couple to the significance of marriage, but it would be inadvisable to move directly from the presentation of such a booklet to a wedding proposal.

Godliness, Again!

I am curious about Paul’s usage of the word ‘godliness’ (eusebia) in his letter to Titus on several counts.  The first is that Paul makes it clear throughout the letter that the pursuit of godliness is a normal practice in the life of the believer.  In the very first sentence he writes:

From Paul,a slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God’s chosen ones and the knowledge of the truth that is in keeping with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began.  (NET Bible)

Second, each passage in this letter that deals with the core teaching on salvation (i.e. that salvation is provided freely by God’s grace and mercy and not because of any of our doing) inevitably concludes with an exhortation to godliness being expressed through good works (2:11-14; 3:4-8).  Godliness, then, is the outworking of the inner work of salvation and it is expressed in good works.  The entire letter seems dedicated to describing what godliness must look like in the lives of God’s people.  That ‘look’ is linked to living righteously, "denying ungodliness", and doing good works.

Third, Paul exhorts Titus to challenge all of his listeners to lives of godliness.  The challenge is thrown out to church leaders (elders and overseers), to men and women, to husbands and wives, to young and old, to slaves and freemen – godliness is for all.

Stay With the Man in the Boat

While there is a debate on about the extent of global warming, there are a few things that are sure: Storms will come and we all experience them. We may lose a few shingles off our roof. On the other hand, we may lose the whole house! This is also true in a metaphorical sense. There are health storms, economic storms, emotional storms, and relational storms—they are real and they do come. ShipwreckAs surely as we each experience physical storms, there will come a time when we will be caught up in one, another, or several storms. Our lives may be bashed and buffeted until we think that the ship of our life will sink and our faith in a God who cares will drown.

How can you survive life’s storms with faith intact and strong?

At Mark 4:35-41, Jesus and the disciples experienced a storm. As the disciples desperately rowed, Jesus was asleep on the cushion, apparently unconcerned by the threat on all of their lives. Finally, in a tone of resentment and rebuke, they woke him with the words, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (38) Clearly, Jesus did care. Mark writes that he “rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’” (40) The storm abated instantly and there was a great calm. Then Jesus asked them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Their response was terror and astonishment, “Who is this?” Who indeed!

In the inevitable and threatening storms that will come, Christians may ask the question, “Don’t you care if we drown?” The answer to that question is a second question—Who is the man in the boat of your life? It is often our prejudice to take accurate measures of every dimension of the storms we are in, but to forget to reckon with the identity of the One we fancy to be carelessly sleeping in the boat of our lives. Such calculation is shortsighted. This passage encourages that we stay with the man in our boat.

SAY A WORD
Brian M. Rapske © 2005

The carpenter is sleeping so still,
As you row through the storms and the chill
He is there, he is there
And he cares, and he cares
As you row through the storms and the chill

You must stay with the man in the boat
Even though it’s just barely afloat
That is faith, its real faith
You believe, you believe
Even though it’s just barely afloat.

Say a word, sleeping man
Say a word now … or then!
Peace be still
Peace be still
Peace be still!

What is Godliness?

A friend e-mailed me a response to my June 18 article on the topic, "Godliness in Everyday Shoe Leather." After describing the lives of Christian friends, family and acquaintances, with some of the accompanying struggles and issues that Christians can and do face, the following was the observation made and the question posed in the e-mail: "These are real life examples of people whose lives are about knowing and following God. But the standards, choices and activities may not fit the criteria for godliness….or do they? What is godliness?" Although Scripture does not state a cut and dried definition of godliness per se it does hold up the example toward which our pursuit of godliness is to be directed. That example is Jesus. In his writing on godliness the apostle Peter writes of becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Is that an impossible standard for us? In our own strength and abilities, yes! Should we adjust the standard so that it is attainable? No! God has prepared all the resources we need. Here is what Peter writes:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:3-7)1

The Scriptures, then, with the portrait they paint of Jesus must always be our standard when we ask "What is godliness?" But I wonder if the biblical concept of godliness is not so much about living up to a particular set of criteria as it is about pressing on in the pursuit of becoming more and more like Jesus. It is more of a process to be struggled through, with victories to be won, cherished and celebrated together, than it is to "have a product", so to speak, to be held up for scrutiny and comparison. It is true that Jesus told us that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). That is an absolute standard. But Paul made it very clear that in his own journey of faith he had not yet attained but was still in process (Philippians 3). He wrote of pressing on, with a calling ringing in his ears and a shimmering goal beckoning ahead! Interestingly, the Scriptures do describe what godliness is not. Peter, in the passage above, describes the contrast as, ""having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire." The contrast between ‘fleeing’ and ‘pursuing’ to which Paul exhorts Timothy give a good sense of what things war against our pursuit of godliness (1 Timothy 6:11). In his exhortation to Titus, Paul writes:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).1

In several passages (Ephesians 4 and 5; Galatians 5) Paul contrasts the old life of the flesh with the new life in the Spirit giving us a clear picture of what godliness is, and isn’t. However, as my friend’s e-mail pointed out each of us has his or her own story of how godliness is being pursued in our individual lives. One Christian might marvel at another’s "Christian experience" and long to taste similar victories. Another might look around at other Christians and wonder why they are struggling so with something that has long been conquered in his or her life. Another might wonder why there seems to be no evidence of victory or even struggle in the life of a particular Christian or group of Christians with some practice deemed to be "ungodly". A danger I see in all of this is that when we look around at others we take our eyes off of our ultimate standard – Jesus. So, in my life, I have viewed the pursuit of godliness, not so much as trying to live up to a set of carefully detailed criteria but rather nurturing a deep passion to grow in Christ-likeness (in grace, mercy, love, joy, forgiveness, peace, contentment etc.) and to help others to grow similarly. Recognizing that I come with my own "unique" set of weaknesses and challenges I take Paul’s example to heart and keep pressing on, watching for those around me who I might be able to encourage along the way. Practically, then, what does it mean to become more like Jesus? Scripture tells us that Jesus "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). Here some basics:

  • Jesus was absolutely committed to doing the Father’s will. His life was marked by obedience. That is a good starting point for the pursuit of godliness – obedience to the revealed will of God. The corollary there is that obedience requires knowledge – which leads us to the importance of diligent study of His Word (we cannot obey if we are unfamiliar with His desires).
  • Jesus was completely dependent upon the Spirit’s enabling. He spent much time in prayer. As I read the stories of godly men and women of the past and of today prayerfulness is a recurring theme.
  • Jesus loved others. He reached out to the outcasts of society — the unloved and forsaken and gave them hope. We will grow in godliness as we grow in loving one another. Jesus commanded this of his followers and said that they would be known as his followers by this very characteristic.
  • Jesus proclaimed the Good News wherever He went. He has commanded us to do the same.

Why don’t you share a few thoughts on this website? In what ways have you been following Jesus? What "good works" do Christians today need to be focusing on? Has someone encouraged you in your walk of faith – challenged you to keep pressing on? My wife and I were discussing this article and she was quick to point out that mine was not the last word on the topic of godliness. So, let’s continue the conversation and as I enjoined us in my first article on this topic, let’s continue to encourage one another to keep pressing on. Here are some conversational threads that I see in the Scripture passages mentioned above.

Our pursuit of godliness involves determined effort (2 Peter 1:5)
Our pursuit of godliness requires strict training (1 Tim. 4:7)
Our pursuit of godliness entails a renunciation of ungodliness (Titus 2:12)
Our pursuit of godliness will be characterized by/produce a zeal for good works (Titus 2:14)
Our pursuit of godliness has been resourced richly (2 Peter 1:3,4)
Our pursuit of godliness has an ultimate goal in view (Titus 2:13 and many other passages)

Feel free to log in and register and respond to this article via this website. A poem I wrote back during high school days seems appropriate here:

With patience I shall run the race,
I’ll lay aside each heavy weight,
No falt’ring step, no change in pace,
I’ll not stray from the course called ‘straight’!
My goal? Toward the mark I press!
The mark? The prize of God in Christ!
The prize? All else shall count for less
When winning Him, I’m found in Christ.

    ____________________

  • 1Scriptures quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV Text Edition: 2007 (emphases mine).

Imitating The Example

This past week, I’ve been teaching a course on the letter to the Philippians. Written by the apostle Paul out of the troubled circumstances of an imprisonment, it is addressed to one of his most beloved congregations who themselves were going through much trouble and persecution.

Do you know the good and the great embodiments of the Christian life in your church context? Look for them and, when you’ve found them, follow their pattern!

There is a very real risk of the Philippian church’s unraveling under the assault. Paul’s concern is to help them persevere in faith and unity. His strategy is to provide them with a number of life examples of how to move through trouble.

Jesus is the supreme exemplar of self-humbling for the purpose of service to others. Paul says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5) Paul can remind the Philippians that belief and suffering are both a matter of Christian calling and bid them consider his own life as both confirmation and example of that reality. (Phil 1:29-30) As he sends the Philippian helper Epaphroditus back to his home church, he encourages the church to mark the quality of Epaphroditus’ service to Paul on their behalf because he nearly died doing so. PhilippiThey should not only celebrate Epaphroditus but also honor others who are like him. (Phil. 2:29-30) These are not the only exemplars commended—there are others; positive ones to be imitated and negative ones to be avoided.

The church today has been seriously compromised by the notion that solitary Christianity is a viable option. It’s not! We need each other and particularly the consistent pattern of a great example. Paul said, in effect, “Cast your gaze about for great examples of what I’m talking about and then celebrate and emulate them.”

Do you know the good and the great embodiments of the Christian life in your church context? What are their names and for what Christian virtues are they to be admired? Look for them and when you’ve found them, follow their pattern!

Godliness in Everyday Shoe Leather

For the past several weeks our care group has been studying the topic of godliness. We have looked at a number of passages of Scripture that speak to the subject. The theme question we have posed for this study has been, “What does godliness look like in everyday shoe leather?

The apostle Peter, speaking of Jesus, tells us that, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.(2 Peter 1:3-4 ESV) Peter goes on to encourage his readers, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with [among a list of other virtues] …godliness…” Reading Peter’s words, one gets a sense of urgency in this exhortation. The pursuit of godliness is important – vital even! Later on in the same letter after describing the end of time and the coming of the Lord, Peter asks, in light of all of this “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness…?” (2 Peter 3:11)

Over a number of weeks our group also looked at such verses as 1 Timothy 4:7 where Paul speaks of training one’s self for godliness and 1 Timothy 6:11 where Paul exhorts Timothy to “pursue…godliness”. This past week we reviewed Paul’s testimony of his personal pursuit of godliness as recorded in Philippians chapter 3. He declares in verse 12, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Both Peter and Paul expressed a passion for godliness and a purposefulness in pursuing it.

As I prepared for the study each week and reflected on personal application, and then as I listened to the discussion in the group two areas of query kept cropping up.

1. Are we really passionate about pursuing godliness and what it “looks like in every day shoe leather” in our lives personally? Or do we merely give lip service to it? Can we say like Paul does, “… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14 ESV)?

2. Do we speak enough among ourselves about godliness? Is this topic a natural part of our conversation as Christians? Do we encourage each other in godliness? Do we hold each other accountable in the pursuit of godliness?

Considering those two questions, allow me to encourage you to keep “pressing on” in the pursuit of becoming like Jesus – of pursuing godliness. Be passionate about it – this is what Jesus came, died and rose again for – to call out a godly people for His glory and honour. Then take the next step and encourage that brother or sister next to you in their pursuit of godliness.

Let’s put godliness into everyday shoe leather and walk it!

CAN YOUR FAITH BE SEEN?

Two weekends back, I reflected upon our church’s process in searching for a new lead pastor and youth minister (“Searching for the New Pastor” NBS Blog). The search culminated in a very busy weekend of meetings as both candidates were interviewed and interacted with us in a variety of contexts. It was exhausting and exhilarating! On Tuesday of last week, our church membership discerned that it was indeed God’s good pleasure that we call both candidates to the respective ministries for which they had been considered. The vote was unanimous! Several days later, both candidates had responded positively, so we now have a new lead pastor and a new youth minister. Praise God! The key issue after considerations of whether these men and our church were a good “fit” in every other respect was, of course, finances. It’s going to be a stretch well beyond the status quo giving of our congregation as our new pastors come to be with us. At one point, someone during the intense but very positive three hour business meeting said, “We have had faith to believe that God will bring the servants of his choosing to our church. Now that we have them, we must show that we can believe God for the finances to bring this off.” I was fascinated by that comment. It sounded so … biblical! The call for and expression of an active and visible faith is everywhere in the Scriptures. True faith has a concrete, material dynamic to it. It’s expressed not only in words but in the fabric of flesh and blood actions. “Show me your faith without deeds,” says James, “and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18 my italics) I’m reminded of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed. They believed in their hearts he could do it. But this truth about them was not expressed in words. Rather, it was heard and seen in the risky business of tearing through a roof so they could lower their friend to where Jesus was. In the dusty, splintering industry of deconstruction, Mark writes, Jesus “saw their faith” (Mark 2:5). So, when we pray for a new pastor and then commit ourselves to pay for him, it’s all about faith. Faith in God must be heard and seen. It’s highly spiritual and very muscular. It’s expressed from the depths of our souls and out of the inside of our wallets.

Hearing God’s Message – Luke 2:26

In the infancy stories of Jesus recounted in Luke and Matthew God actively directs events to preserve his Son and to inform participants about the significance of these occurrences. For example twice in Matthew 2 God reveals (chrēmatizō) “by dream” his divine decree to the Magi and to Joseph. In the case of Joseph this expression parallels the employment by God of “the angel of the Lord appearing in a dream” (Matthew 1:20; 2:19) to give him instructions. In the case of the Magi, God used the special star to guide them. Luke tells us (Luke 2:26) that God “had revealed (ēn…kechrēmatismenon) to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he should see the Lord’s Messiah.”

The verb chrēmatizō occurs 9 times in the New Testament. In broad Hellenistic usage it generally signifies to negotiate or have dealings with, often in a business setting or with reference to an official responding to a petition for help. When a deity is involved, then there are overtones of revelation, i.e. an oracle given in response to a petition. The sense of official declaration comes to be used in contexts where a person or a group is named or given a title.

The most frequent usage of chrēmatizō in the New Testament defines occasions when God issues decrees or gives direction. This is its usage in the Gospels. Josephus employs the verb similarly. For example, he tells the story of the Jewish high priest Jaddūs and his encounter with Alexander the Great. The high priest feared what Alexander might do and so asked God for direction. Josephus describes how Jaddūs fell asleep after making a sacrifice and “God spoke oracularly (echrēmatisen) to him in his sleep” and told him what action to take.[1] When Josephus retells the story of Achan’s sin (Joshua 7), he says that Joshua asked God what he should do and God responded (chēmatisantos) with clear instructions.[2] Continue reading

Different ways of belonging

GroupMy wife, Karen, and I belong to a Bible study connected with our church with participants who are extremely diverse in their Christian faith. One person saw God as a finite being who came into existence at the Big Bang. Another refers to himself as a “lapsed Catholic” who views God as an impersonal force. A third comes from an atheistic background, but with the conviction that there is a spiritual reality that we need to connect to. Of those with an evangelical faith, some have a modernist mindset (“Start with the historical facts and build your life on that”), while others have a post-modern perspective (“I do not have the capacity to be certain. I will believe and trust”). What we have in common is an admiration for Jesus and the hope that he can guide us into a significant and life giving connection with God.

. . . how can we function within this fluid dynamic to build significant relationships that bring people closer to Christ?

This Spring one of the participants – the “lapsed Catholic” – presented us with the challenge to read the first 6 chapters of Mark as if we had never read them before and did not know about Jesus. We would then share what we understood and experienced with each other. This has led to significant, enlightening and, at times, not altogether comfortable, observations about Jesus. The one with the atheistic background at one point exclaimed that Jesus appeared to be an “arrogant and crazy prophet”! This, however, in the minds of some of us, represented progress past the rather stifling view of Christ as a moral teacher. I present this small group as an example of how people “belong” in our Canadian context. Although some of the group are not qualified to be “members” of the church, all the participants see their connection to the church as significant. None of them are seeking to change their commitment to the church, yet all are involved in developing their understanding and commitment to Christ within one expression of the church. In our Canadian society people are very comfortable to belong to a church with differing levels of commitment (from dedicated member to casual participant) and within a variety of expressions (small groups, worship services or special programs) chosen to meet their current felt needs. With my missionary mindset of exploring ways to make the gospel relevant to specific contexts, I find this intriguing and educational. Rather than motivating people to pledge a long-term commitment to a particular ideal of membership, how can we function within this fluid dynamic to build significant relationships that bring people closer to Christ? In such a context, boundaries and definitions of who is “in” and who is “out” become less important than the direction people are moving in.

Read more of Mark’s articles at Cross-Cultural Impact in the 21st Century

When Life Intrudes on Preaching

I received this message from one of my former students, Shawn Barden, last week. Shawn is pastoring a great church in Fernie, BC. His message encouraged me and I thought it might encourage you as well. Hey Kent Just wanted to share a note that might make you smile and feel encouraged. On Wednesday last week a couple in our church was involved in a devastating motorcycle accident. Resulting in a broken neck (C-1) -astoundingly not death (by the doctor’s own admission) and half a foot amputated at the accident scene as well as numerous broken bones etc. The couple are good friends of mine (Jamie was in the C’n’C group I pastored in Regina and we were accountability partners there). EmergencySuddenly I became reacquainted with the reality of living in a fallen world. All of my ministry plans for the week seemed insignificant in the light of what happened. So I spent three days going from hospital to hospital to hospital as their condition grew more serious, ending up in Calgary. So much prayer for them was labored over by many, and we saw answers, I mean jaw-dropping answers to prayer! And I felt shamefully surprised. Surprised, not because I doubt God can answer prayers, but often I doubt he’ll answer my prayers! But He can, and He does, thank you Jesus. Anyway, I rushed back from Calgary with minutes to spare before I had to lead our overnight Alpha retreat. It was so intense and good – seeing all the emotional shrapnel that results when there is a collision between real lives and Jesus. So by Saturday night I was so exhausted. I just wanted the weekend to be over. That Sunday morning, for the first time in my life, I got up to preach without having been able to prepare a sermon. And fittingly the pre-scheduled topic was on the power and work of the Holy Spirit. It was one of the most raw, authentic, powerful Sunday mornings we’ve ever had. There was this weight of presence over us. There was this sense that we weren’t hearing our voices – in song, or prayer, or preaching, we were hearing God’s voice. The thought of it right now chokes me up. I’m am so thankful, that we have a Word that is living, and a Spirit that really does teach and speak and convict and encourage the hearts of men and women. So while I am carefully preparing a sermon for this week on John 14, I feel a renewed humility at where the power of pulpit rests. We can build the alter, but He provides the fire. God bless, and I hope His work here encourages you there!

Visit Kent’s site on preaching? www.preaching.org

The First Major Translation Project in History –
the Challenge of Cultural Change

It was the beginning of the third century before Christ. Alexander the Great had died and his empire divided among four generals. Greek language and culture swept through the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine. Large numbers of Jewish people were relocating to the emerging metropolis of Alexandria in Egypt. Caught up in all of this change and ferment Jewish people living in Egypt adopted the Greek language and were losing their ability to read and understand Hebrew, the language in which their sacred scriptures were written. Alexandria was an intellectual centre, containing one of the great libraries in antiquity. The king of Egypt at that time desired to include every major writing in this collection. When he heard about the Hebrew scriptures, he wanted a copy (at least this is how the story emerges in later writers) and mandated the librarian to have a translation made and placed in his collection.

Probably the convergence of various factors stimulated the first major translation project in human history – the translation of the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) from Hebrew into Greek. The impact of this project still affects us today because the names we use to describe these books in our Bibles reflect the Greek names, not the Hebrew names.

This translation project has had influence far beyond the imagination of those who initiated it and actually did it. For example, this translation or later revisions of it was used by the New Testament writers as the biblical text they tended to quote in their letters and Gospels. As the Apostles led the church to implement the Great Commission beyond the borders of Palestine, they used the Greek translation of the Old Testament as their primary scriptures. When Paul talks to Timothy about the scriptures he has known “from infancy” (2 Timothy 3:15), he is probably referring to the Greek translation of the Old Testament because Timothy was a product of the Jewish dispersion in Asia Minor.

When Christians today find themselves living in new cultural situations, translation of the scriptures into the language of that culture becomes a primary means, if not a necessity, for establishing a living church.

One of the more significant decisions made by the translators was the selection of the word LORD to translate God’s proper name Yahweh (Jehovah). In the New Testament Jesus is also described by this same term, i.e. the Lord Jesus Christ. On several occasions where the New Testament writer is quoting from an Old Testament text that describes Yahweh’s (the LORD’s) activity, the context makes it clear that the “Lord Jesus Christ” is in fact being identified as Yahweh. Paul’s message in Romans 10:9-13 blends references from Isaiah 28:16 and Joel 2:32 with the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” However, the “LORD” in Isaiah 28 and Joel 2 is Yahweh, but the “Lord” in Romans 10 is Jesus. The implications for the deity of Jesus are considerable.

When Christians today find themselves living in new cultural situations, translation of the scriptures into the language of that culture becomes a primary means, if not a necessity, for establishing a living church. The initiative taken three centuries before Jesus came continues to serve as a model for contemporary Bible translation. The issues those Jewish translators encountered remain the same issues modern Christians face as they seek to contextualize the Gospel without changing it.

The Septuagint Institute at ACTS Seminaries (Septuagint is the technical name given to the Greek Translation of the Old Testament) seeks to enable research into this translation and its continuing influence within the Christian world today.

Thank You Father for a Grandson!

Last week I held my grandson in my arms for the first time. My heart was lifted up to my heavenly Father in adoration and praise as I gazed down on that tiny, frail, absolutely dependent, but intricately and beautifully formed bit of humanity. I could not help but ponder the fact that in this small child was another reminder of how the Eternal God gave us His ultimate revelation of Himself. This was how Jesus came. What incredible humility, what awesome condescension, what amazing love – that He, the creator and sustainer of all should have taken on this humanity, this utter dependence. My mind struggled with the incomprehensibility of the truths ascribed to Him in the accolade of Colossians 1:15-20.

And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. [NASB]

Did He, the One who holds all things together, constrain Himself to the confines of the likes of this newborn infant, who was so totally dependent on my capability to hold him safely? I gazed down at my grandson and watched as his miniature hands and feet flailed and his tiny fingers grasped my thumb reflexively but with no ability to do anything other than to convey the sense of utter helplessness. What wonder is wrapped up in the mystery of the incarnation! Did Jesus come like this? Only a mighty, loving and gracious God could have planned this!

Holding that babe in my arms and pondering the next few words of that glorious hymn from the pen of the Apostle Paul created strong stirrings of adoration and thanksgiving in my heart.

He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. [NASB]

Thank you Eternal Father for sending your Son, Jesus. Thank you Loving Father for sending this little grandson! Through him you have reminded me of your awesome love and compassion – of your audacious plan for our redemption.

The Blame Game

In a recent Macleans article (April 16, 2007) Brian Bethune reviews recent writings by several atheists who “blame God for every social problem from Darfur to child abuse.” Strong voices – Hitchens, Onfray, Dawkins, Harris – argue the case for atheism afresh, claiming that religion is purely and only a human creation – toxic in all its forms. The tragic circumstances of 9/11 have generated a new, virulent attack upon all religious expression.

…religion is toxic, because religion cannot and does not deal with human sin. The result is that religion becomes merely another context in which human sinfulness manifests itself.

Christianity comes in for its share of criticism, much of it quite abusive, caustic, and contemptuous. Of course, history offers numerous examples of evil done in the name of Christianity, as well as other religions. Given their location within Western Culture, these apologists for atheism level their most virulent attacks against Christianity, particularly its American versions. Fear that religiously-committed individuals will gain political power and enforce their ideology on all and sundry seems to motivate their stridency.

What does a sincere Christian say in response to such vocal and public attacks? I think one thing that must be said repeatedly is that they conveniently forget the horrors that atheistic systems such as communism perpetrated upon those under its power. The gulags remain constant reminders of terrible abuse – all in the name of atheism. So atheism has no claim to be the answer for a productive human future. Further the claim that we should praise the French Revolution because it turned churches into hospitals is rather naïve in that it conveniently forgets the terrible injustices and murder that this revolution perpetrated, all in its attempt to be free from religion.

Religious hypocrisy still remains the fundamental stumbling-block preventing people from truly hearing the Good News about Jesus.

Further, I would suggest that followers of Jesus would tend to agree that religion is toxic, because religion cannot and does not deal with human sin. The result is that religion becomes merely another context in which human sinfulness manifests itself. Christians are not surprised by this. What humanity needs is not more religion, but rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. God gets blamed for a lot of things that Satan does. Probably this is a devilish stratagem.

Finally, if atheism is the best way for humans to live, where do we see this demonstrated in any human society in the world today? Many religious persons would claim that the secularists are in charge now in most Western countries, but fail to see how society has improved or is any better for it. How is the abortion of millions of children annually beneficial? How has atheism helped those trapped in addictions or sexual oppression? It seems strange that so few human beings seem to have seen the light of atheism! Is this all due to the ability of religious organizations to dupe human beings, as the atheists claim? What does this say about human ability and intelligence?

What humanity needs is not more religion, but rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps, however, these voices do help us see how important it is for followers of Jesus to walk carefully in the power of God’s Spirit so that God’s name does not get sullied because of our sinful actions. Religious hypocrisy still remains the fundamental stumbling-block preventing people from truly hearing the Good News about Jesus.

In Jesus we discover true freedom from chains of sinful thinking and doctrinaire foolishness of human thinking.

The Promise of Matthew 24:14
(en holēi tēi oikoumenēi = in all the Roman Empire)

In his final segment of extended teaching to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus outlined their mission beyond the cross and urges them to be faithful to the end. In response to his prophesy that the temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed, his disciples asked “When will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and end of the age?” (24:3). What follows in the remainder of Matthew 24-25 is Jesus’ response to their questions.Matthew 24:14 in some sense contains the answer to their second question about “the end of the age” as Jesus declares “and then the end will come.” Until the kingdom mission is completed, i.e. “this Gospel of the kingdom shall be proclaimed …for a witness to all the ethnesin (nations? or people groups? or Gentiles?)”, the end will not come. Jesus assures his followers that the forces of evil cannot derail or cut short God’s program. Until all the diverse, non-Jewish1 peoples observe the Gospel proclaimed, the end will not occur. Of course, we strive to discern what this proclaiming activity entails and because of this prophesy some urge the church forward in the Great Commission program as a means of hastening the return of the Lord Jesus. However, Jesus probably was not placing in human hands a mechanism to bring about the second coming. In this context Matthew uses the term oikomenos to represent another limitation that Jesus provides in this answer. The Gospel will be proclaimed “en holÄ“i tÄ“i oikoumenÄ“i”, usually translated “in the whole world”. This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where this word occurs. Mark does not record it in the parallel passage (Mark 13:10). Even though Luke uses this term eight times in Luke-Acts, he does not use it in the parallel passage (Luke 21:13). So Matthew seems to use this expression for some emphasis within Jesus’ teaching. Before we explore this question, however, we should note that apart from its occurrence in Luke-Acts, this term also is used in Revelation (3:10; 12:9; 16:14), Hebrew (1:6; 2:5) and in a quote from the Old Testament (Psalm 19:5) by Paul in Romans (10:18). It generally refers to the ‘inhabited world’. For example, in Luke 4:5 Satan shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the inhabited world (tÄ“s oikoumenÄ“s).” In Athens Paul proclaimed that God had appointed a day when He would “judge the inhabited world (tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n)” (Acts 17:31). In Revelation 3:10 John reports that he saw in his vision Jesus promising the church in Philadelphia that he would preserve them “from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole inhabited world (epi tÄ“s oikoumenÄ“s holÄ“s).” It can also have a more limited sense and refer to the Roman Empire. We probably find this sense in Luke 2:1 where the writer reports Caesar’s command that “a census should be taken of the entire Roman world (pasan tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n).” Perhaps this is also the sense in Acts 24:5 where Paul is accused of being a troublemaker, “stirring up riots among the Jews all over the Roman world (tois kata tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n).” When we come to Matthew 24:14, we have to ask whether Jesus meant that the Gospel would be proclaimed “in all the Roman world” or “in all the inhabited world.” Jesus also said in this verse that this Gospel would be “for a witness to all the Gentiles.” . . > . . > . . >

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  • 1. There remains a Jewish mission, but normally in Matthew’s Gospel the term ethnÄ“ refers to Gentiles.

Missions and the Heart of a Dad

I said goodbye to my baby girl this week. Becky and I, along with a number of other friends and relatives saw her off from the Seattle airport in the wee hours of Monday morning as she and her team of 7 began their missions odyssey to Thailand. She is only 23 and from this dad’s perspective “far too young” to have committed herself to a three-year stint involving a year of language study and two years of church related ministry in the Golden Triangle area of Northern Thailand.

Ever since she returned from that first journey to Thailand we knew this day was coming. We had seen it in her eyes, heard it in virtually every conversation. My daughter had lost her heart to her God and to the people of Thailand – and we were delighted. But that did not change the things that were happening to my heart on Monday.

The drive home from the airport was a blur. Fortunately my friend Jon had been tasked with the responsibility of keeping me awake so that I would get us home safely – at which he did a superb job. After an all-too-short sleep, morning came, and with it an odd mixture of thoughts and emotions. I found myself thinking that she was just in the other room. I would walk into the kitchen and half expect to still see her sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the fire place working on her computer or reading a book. When the front door would open my ears half expected to hear her cheery “Hi! I’m home!” It’s not as though she had never been away from home before. At 19 she did a year in Europe and at 21 she spent 9 months in Thailand. But somehow this was different. She had made a specific commitment of time to serve as a “full-time missionary”. Ever since she returned from that first journey to Thailand we knew this day was coming. We had seen it in her eyes, heard it in virtually every conversation. My daughter had lost her heart to her God and to the people of Thailand – and we were delighted. But that did not change the things that were happening to my heart on Monday. In the intervening year, since she had returned from Thailand, we enjoyed a delightful time of getting to know our youngest as she lived at home while preparing herself for this adventure. The three of us shared many delightful evenings together and both Becky and I felt that we got to know our daughter in a whole new way. We took in movies together. We enjoyed meals together along with many cups of coffee. We debriefed the joys and struggles of our days together. We teased each other and grew in love and respect for one another. Now she was gone and a corner of my heart was gone too – I believe it followed her to Thailand. There is another emotion in my heart – deep gratitude to my Heavenly Father. I remember a time when Becky and I wondered and worried what would ever become of our willful youngest child. But God, in His boundless mercy, got hold of that will (and of her heart) and she surrendered her life to Him. Now she was on an adventure with Him – following her Lord where ever He might lead. So we celebrated her departure. There were no regrets. At some point last week we all had a chuckle together as we realized that we probably would not shed any tears at the airport – that is just not how we do it in our family. We might shed them later, privately! But even those tears are not tears of grief over missed opportunities or unfinished business or unforgiven grievances. We were able to see her off with no regrets! We are just plain and simply going to miss her. As I pondered these conflicting emotions in my heart I paused to ask, “I wonder what happened in the heart of the Father when he sent His Son on the ultimate missions trip?” Is it in any way possible for me as a human dad to comprehend the heart of the Heavenly Father? I took a few moments to considered the depths that lie behind the statement “For God so loved that he gave …” (John 3:16) This experience has made me appreciate Galatians 4:4 a little more. “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son …” There is an unfathomable vastness to those simple words. The Eternal Son, who throughout that eternity had never left the Father’s side (John 1:18), was now stepping into time and space and into the human experience to undertake the greatest missionary adventure of all as He “…came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) It is comforting to know that my daughter is following in His footsteps.

Visit my daughter’s blog and read of her adventure with Jesus

It’s Something Else

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a course on the Book of Acts in Seoul, South Korea. When my teaching was done, a couple of the students were charged by my hosts to show me the sites of the city in the few daylight hours that remained that day. They asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to see. I asked to see the Yoido Full Gospel Church. The Yoido church’s claim to fame is that it is arguably the largest church in the world, with over 800,000 members.My guides showed me many sites around and outside the city until well past sunset. After that, we went to a restaurant and I was treated to an absolutely sumptuous meal. My impression was that the lateness of the evening meant that the Yoido church had been struck off the schedule of things to see. We arrived at the Yoido church sometime past 10:30 pm. My thought was, “I guess they’ll drive by the building so I can see how big it is.” We pulled into a massive parking area and made our way into the building. A prayer service was underway. One of my guides apologized that the attendance was less than usual—only about 30,000 people or so were there. I was astonished! It put me in mind of a book I read about this church and its pastor Yonggi Cho. At one point the author reflected on North American Christians’ infatuation with methods and programs as the means to church growth. He related how a group of American pastors came to Pastor Cho, asking what method he followed. Cho replied, “All kinds!” Essentially, he was disclaiming that method had led to the growth. The key was…something else. But what was it?

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) Jesus was the first to help his followers in the matter of the “something else” by which the witness to him, and the community subsequently established, would grow. He told his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The means of the realization of Jesus’ picture of advance and growth was not human stratagems or schemes; rather, it was the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. Methods can be quite helpful, but they will not ultimately realize a divine plan—for that to occur it takes God himself!

Smart, Healthy and Disciplined

We are in the midst of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Because the Vancouver Canucks have won the right to participate, our city is appropriately excited. What the fans hope for is a team that is ‘smart, healthy, and disciplined,’ presuming that this formula will bring them success. Of course, flashes of brilliant hockey finesse also will go a long way to securing victory.Jim Brown uses these same words – smart, healthy, disciplined – to describe a board that operates creatively and with excellence.1 He seeks to help corporate and non-profit boards develop the disciplines that enable them to be great. Many church board members are reading Brown’s book and with benefit. Yet, because he is not writing specifically for the spiritual context of a Christian church, we have to consider carefully how to evaluate his advice from a Christian point of view. I am aware that at the conclusion to his book, Brown “gives thanks to God, who gives meaning and purpose to all [my] life. Everything I am and do is dedicated to you.”2 The Imperfect Board MemberSo when we apply these terms “smart, healthy, disciplined” to define the way a church board should operate, what should they mean? Churches expect their leadership teams similarly to function with wisdom, spiritual maturity and good practices. They have given to their boards a significant trust. The word ‘smart’ combines wisdom, creativity, cleverness and savvy. A smart church board understands the spiritual struggle in which the faith community operates. It is not business as usual because we face a strong and clever enemy who seeks to destroy God’s work in and among us. This board hears the words of Jesus that we must be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” when evaluating issues and dealing with community relations. Christian ‘smarts’ will include the ability to see things from God’s perspective – evaluating on the basis of divine values and goals as revealed in the Bible. The missional sense of being engaged with God in “heralding the Good News of the Kingdom to all the nations” will dominate and guide our thinking. A healthy church board will demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in its internal relationships its treatment of employees. The values of agape-love, humbleness, respect and integrity will envelope the board’s operations. Health will show itself in the care the board takes to develop careful policies that will result in good spiritual care for the congregation, prayerful support and care for the pastoral leadership, and the advancement of the church’s mission. Good minutes, good agendas, good orientation, good chairing all serve to support excellence and enable the board to be healthy. Within Scripture the term ‘discipline’ relates to discipleship – following Jesus in obedient living and being accountable to Him as Lord and Saviour. A church board that is disciplined will keep on task, will expect each member to use the Spirit’s giftedness to advance the vision, and will pursue the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Thus it will work diligently, consult carefully, engage prayerfully, and educate itself deeply. Within the spiritual setting of God’s kingdom, it is the Spirit that enables believers to live and work in a smart, healthy, disciplined way. These things are God’s gifts to us, if we ask for them and sincerely walk together as boards according to the Spirit’s cadence and for the advancement of the church’s mission.

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  • 1. Jim Brown, The Imperfect Board Member (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006):xv-xvii.
  • 2. Ibid., 201.

Reflections from Rome

It has been interesting for me to think about spiritual formation from a different perspective spending these days in Rome. I suppose that when I arrived here I was prepared for the Coliseum, the Forum and all the vestiges of Imperial Rome. I was less prepared for the influence of the Roman Catholic experience. It has been interesting to ride buses and walk the streets in close proximity with nuns, monks, and priests. Yesterday, my wife and I entered at least eight different cathedrals, all stunning in their beauty and complexity. Today we walked down Catherine of Sienna street. A few impressions… St. PetersOn Saturday we managed to get tickets (free – but nonetheless rare) for the Pascal Vigil which is a three-hour service beginning at 10pm. This was pre-resurrection worship in anticipation of what would happen the following morning. We sat a few dozen feet from the alter inside the vast St. Peter’s Basilica, the very seat of Roman Pontifical power, and just a few dozen feet from the Pope himself. Once we were able to get past the stunning beauty and scale of our surroundings, we were able to settle in and try to understand what was happening. Given that about 90% of the proceedings were either in Latin or Italian, this was difficult. Still, we were able to sense something of the wonder that Catholics bring to the experience of celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord. I remembered how just a few days earlier, I had led communion in a small evangelical Baptist church in Hope, BC. It seemed worlds apart. While I loved the sincerity and meaning of that small protestant service, I found myself feeling that our celebration was a little weak in comparison to all the drama we experienced at St. Peter’s. Karen and I did not go forward to receive the mass, perhaps in solidarity with our free church reformation protestant forebears who would have been aghast that we were there at all. I’ve got some huge issues with the Catholic church. The veneration of Mary, prayers for the dead, and the general misuse of money and power so in evidence throughout this city, leave me cold. Still, these people love Jesus. This afternoon we looked at paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio, not to mention Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. I want to tell you that it was as much a worship experience as a tourist experience for me. Yesterday, we visited the catacombs and thought about the tremendous faith practiced by the early Roman Christians. We visited the prison where Peter and Paul were incarcerated and stood inside a cell that may very well have been their own. I was deeply moved to think about how our faith is not some mythological story about gods that never actually lived. Our faith is rooted in real history and it has changed the world. Scala SantaIn the afternoon we stumbled across a chapel in the Lateran section of town where was housed the Scala Sancta. Tradition holds that these were the actual stairs that Jesus used when he climbed to meet with Pilate to be judged. The stairs were said to have been brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother, Helena. While this cannot be proved, the possibility is plausible as these were real people and real places. Whether or not the stairs really were as reputed, I was moved by the devotion of people who climb the stairs one by one on their knees. The sides of the staircase are adorned with frescoes (mural paintings) depicting the passion of Christ. I watched these people kneeling on each step individually to think about the pictures and to offer prayer to God. Say what you will about the possibility of their superstition, but rightly directed I could see how this could be a powerful worship experience. I guess I was too Baptist to participate, but I did pause to thank my God for his sacrifice for me. On Easter Sunday morning we stood in St. Peter’s square (it’s actually round) with at least 100,000 of our closest friends. The Pope’s sermon (what we could gather of it) spoke about resurrection and hope. He denounced terrorism and the war in the middle east. I’ll never be a Roman Catholic, but standing in that place filled with hopeful people, seeing people wave their flags from every corner of the world (including more than a few Canadian flags), I thought about the old Sunday school song we used to sing… "Red and yellow, black and white. All are precious in his sight."

Earth Day 2007

Earth day 2007 has come and gone. What did you do to help preserve planet earth and its delicate ecosystems? The fervency of the rhetoric matches that of revival preachers from a bygone era. Guilt is heaped upon those who refuse to comply. “Make the culprits pay!” advocates shout. The activities of the human species, like some deadly virus or parasite, are degrading, corrupting and destroying the earth. Human beings are viewed as part of the earth system, but a part that is out of control, a rogue element that must be stopped. Earth For some the saving of planet earth is a religious quest. “Gaia” is their god and ecology their religious faith. Others support these measures out of self-interest. They like to swim in clear oceans and vacation in pristine wilderness. However, some adopt strategies to be eco-responsible because they have children and grandchildren and desire them to have access to the same wonders of nature that their generation enjoyed. Others are skeptical, seeing the vastness of the planet and wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, the earth in the view of some is billions of years old and has managed to survive countless disasters. It’s been hot and then cold and then hot again. If human beings are part of the evolutionary sequence, then their activity becomes just one more development that earth will cope with in some way. If dinosaurs became extinct in the course of evolution, then probably other species will become extinct too. So what’s the worry? Believers in Jesus seek to find a way through these debates and claims so that they are true to God and His Word, and also by their actions add to his reputation, not detract from it. For us earth day can be the opportunity:

  • to praise our Creator for the wonders of this earth and the entire universe. He made it all!
  • to evaluate our own personal and corporate stewardship of the planet and its resources. How much of its resources are being expended on our own selfish and sinful pursuits, rather than those that would help human beings live and flourish in health and peace? As part of the industrial complex, what can we do to use these resources more responsibly?
  • to express that the earth is more than a physical place, it is also a spiritual place. There is good and evil alive and well on planet earth. The ecosystem is not just biological or geological, but is also theological.
  • to express our hope that one day God will create a new heaven and a new earth in which there will be no pollution – moral or otherwise.
  • to emphasize the special role that God has given to human beings in this earth as stewards of his creation.

As the Psalmist said, “The earth is the Lord’s!” To celebrate earth day rightly, we must also celebrate its Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps next year you church might celebrate earth day, but in a way that honours God as Creator, and Jesus Christ as its sustainer.

Reactions to the News of Jesus’ Resurrection

In the various Gospels we have complementary accounts of the resurrection of Jesus and the diverse responses that people had to this news. We tend to think that these first century people easily accepted that God had raised Jesus from the dead. However, that is not the reality, at least as we find it in the Gospels. It took repeated appearances and stern words from Jesus himself before some were ready to believe that his resurrection had happened. The implications of such an event were enormous and people wanted firm evidence that it was true before accepting that Jesus truly was Messiah. After all, a dead Messiah, in any Jewish setting, was a contradiction in terms. One of the more surprising responses is reported by Luke (24:11). Women went early on Sunday morning to complete the burial preparations for Jesus. When they arrived at the tomb they found the stone door no longer blocking the tomb’s entrance. They entered the tomb and found no body. While they were considering this, two angels appeared and announced Jesus’ resurrection, in accordance with Jesus’ own words. The women rush back to report this “to the eleven and the rest” (24:9). Luke tells us this group of women included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the rest with them (24:10). However, to the eleven “these matters appeared before them as nonsense (lÄ“ros).” This is the only occurrence of this word in the New Testament. Why did Luke choose this word to describe the response of the eleven to the women’s witness about Jesus’ resurrection?…

Rolls-Royce Never Fails

The following story was told by Mac Brunson of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida in his sermon, The Purpose of the Passion which you can hear on the most recent Preaching Today Audio CD (#283). For more information on this audio series and for other online features check out PreachingToday.com. A man who lived in England came over to the United States to go to a resort for several months, and he wanted to bring his car – his Rolls-Royce – over. It was packaged up and shipped over so he could drive his car while he was in the United States. But, while he was here, something happened to the car. There was a mechanical failure. And so he called over to England and said: “I’ve got this problem with my car. I think this is what it is.” And Rolls-Royce told him: “That’s fine. Within 48 hours, we’ll have a mechanic with the auto parts there to fix it for you.” They put a mechanic with some car parts on a plane and flew him to the United States. He worked on the guy’s car out in the parking lot at this resort, fixed it, got on a plane, and flew back to England. The man drove his car the rest of the time. Then he packaged it back up, put it one a ship, and sent it back. He was back home for nearly a year before he discovered he had never got a bill from Rolls-Royce. So he wrote the company. He said: “This date last year I called – there was something wrong with my Rolls-Royce, and you flew a mechanic over. You fixed it, but I’ve never received a bill. If you’ll find that bill in your office, I’ll be happy to pay the bill for fixing my car.” He received a letter back from Rolls-Royce that said this: “In the files at the headquarters of Rolls-Royce, there is no accounting that anything has ever been wrong with a Rolls-Royce anywhere.” Brunson said, “Now that’s justification. When you get to heaven and Satan wants to holler and scream about all your sin, Jesus is going to look through the files, turn around and say: We don’t have a file on him here at all.”

What Makes A Christian Relevant?

I never met E. Stanley Jones, but over the years he has served as a Mentor to me. His book Song of Ascents is one that is a constant source of insight and wisdom … and perspective. Over the last couple of years it’s been hard to find perspective. Not since the Jesus people revolution of the ‘60’s have I detected a spirit of struggle among pastors and churches desperate to be “relevant.” It’s hard enough to define what it means to be “post-modern, seeker-sensitive, emergent, and missional.” It’s even harder to prove that you are all-of-the-above. And, if you aren’t? Well, to mangle a phrase from Hughie Lewis and the News, “it ain’t hip to be square.” Carrying all of this angst about being irrelevant, I turned to my Mentor and on page 132 of Song of Ascents found a truth that set me free. There, E. Stanley Jones described his first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. As a young missionary in India, he went straight to the point, “You are, perhaps, the leading Hindu of India. Could you tell me what you think we, as Christians, should do to make Christianity more naturalized in India. Not a foreign thing … but a part of the national life…? He immediately replied: “I would suggest four things: First, that all you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, that you practice your religion without adulterating it, or toning it down. Third, that you emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, that you study the non-Christian religions sympathetically to find the good in them.” “This is genius” Stanley wrote. The sheer simplicity of the idea that to be more “naturalized” or relevant to a society is to be more Christian freed him from trying to be something he wasn’t in order to simply be who he was – a Christian, and work by love. Stanley was astonished that it took the leading non-Christian of the world to give him permission. After offering a few examples to support this perspective, Jones then wrote a paragraph that I wish everyone who struggles with the search for relevance would take to heart: “People say that we must adopt the language and culture of the day to be relevant to today. That is a mistake. If the church marries itself to the spirit of the times, it will be a widow in the next generation. There is a universal language – the language of reality and the language of love. Have those two things and you’ll be understood and appreciated in any situation, anywhere, in any age. [page 133]” Tucked away in the passage is a phrase that gives balance to my heart: to be home in any given situation, be like Christ…be just what I am – a Christian – and work by love!

So, What’s Different?

OK. It’s Monday, the day after the Easter weekend. So, what’s different? I attended two services—one on Good Friday at which a number of churches attended and one on Sunday in my home church. Regular church-goers like me and C & Es—Christmas and Easter only types—were reminded of the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The sermons we heard took different tacks as they crisscrossed various texts. I heard a couple of good ones—one from a youthful preacher and another from a man who’s been in the ministry for over fifty years. As the sails of their sermons each caught gusts of relevance, I was thrilled at the sudden quickening.

“True understanding builds a life on what is heard.”

But, what’s different?

 

When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he concluded by telling people that true understanding was not merely attaining to a personal intellectual “click” point. Rather, true understanding builds a life on what is heard; its hearing and doing. Jesus likened it to a man wisely building a house on a solid place so that it would withstand storms (Matt. 7:24). I heard the preachers. They were helpful. But did I really get it? How will that part of the world I touch be different because I’m building upon what I heard this past weekend? What’s going to be different?

Visual Preaching

The other day I had the pleasure of hearing my good friend, Dr. John Auxier preach. John is Dean of Trinity Western University and an expert in marriage and family counseling. He is also a very fine preacher. His sermon was taken from John 11 and 12, focusing on the dinner party where Mary of Bethany washed the feet of Jesus. It was a wonderful sermon, well assimilated, and thoughtfully conceived. One of the striking things that John did, however, was to set up an actual table and chairs in order to be able to physically describe the circumstances of the event – who would likely have been sitting where and what it might have indicated. It was a very simple way to help us visualize the text – not complicated in its execution, but very helpful just the same. In recent days my students in class have used many such visual aids – hollow eggs, t-shirts emblazoned with various messages, a book of family history, and an antique lantern, among other things, all designed to enhance the learning experience for the listeners. I’ve been a little surprised by this given that I have not required it nor spoken a great deal to the students about it. Nevertheless, they have found these “object lessons” to be helpful in communicating their message to their audience. In my experience, the simpler these objects are, the better. They also ought to be central to the theme of the message. A physical object will be a striking element and should not be used to describe extraneous aspects of the sermon. This is a great way to take our sermons to another level. In my friend John’s case, he used the table in the second service but not in the first. In his view, the visual display greatly enhanced the impact of the sermon in that second service.

Visit Kent’s site on preaching? www.preaching.org

Removing Shame Through the Cross

The prodigal son had shamed his father, shamed his family and shamed his religion. As the crowd listened to Jesus reach the climax of the story with the father running towards the son, some of the listeners – Prodigal Sonthose who had shamed their religion through compromise with the Romans, those who had shamed their families through prostitution, those who had shamed their fathers through neglect and rebellion – winced as they waited for the inevitable punishment to fall. What other action could a just, holy and righteous father take? Other listeners – the Pharisees who deeply felt the dishonor borne by father – anticipated with satisfaction the blow to fall on the son. How else could the shame be purged from the family name?

"…the father is not tainted by the impurity of the son but instead transforms the son once again into his image with a robe, shoes and a ring symbolizing an astounding renewed identity as an honored child."

In Pakistan there exists an infamous tradition of Karo Kari – black boy, black girl – the killing of the defiled daughter. A few years ago at a wedding a teenage girl was dancing and celebrating with other girls when a young man came up and grabbed her hand. She snatched her hand away, but it was too late, an uncle from the balcony had seen this exchange take place. The girl was dragged from the celebration, taken outside and stoned to death. There can be only one answer to shame: to purge it through death. In the story the father reaches the son but instead of the anticipated blow, his arms open and he draws the son into a strong, accepting embrace. The crowd is stunned as they realize what has taken place. The father has taken the shame upon his own self, he has embraced and absorbed the dishonor. As this totally unexpected story unfolds the father is not tainted by the impurity of the son but instead transforms the son once again into his image with a robe, shoes and a ring symbolizing an astounding renewed identity as an honored child. Can it be that there is redemption for shame? This is a theology of the cross for an honor – shame culture: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole”’ (Gal 3:13 TNIV). The cross is the act of the father to those of us living in shame. “I am not worthy!” and we wait for the blow to fall, only to be surprised by the grace of the Father’s embrace. There is a deeper and more profound answer to shame. The cross of Jesus is God’s embrace of humanity, taking our shame and bringing transformation.

Read more of Mark’s articles at Cross-Cultural Impact in the 21st Century

Easter Surprise!

While I love Christmas and Easter, over the years as a pastor I found it an annual challenge to find something fresh to add to my preaching. I would thrill at any new insight that would add a new voice to the message. One year the Pastor of the College Church in Wheaton Illinois, Kent Hughes, introduced me to a familiar passage with an added twist. At his advice, I turned to Matthew 27 and attempted to relive the scene of Pilate’s final judgment from a prison cell on death row with a convicted felon named Barabbas. In verses 16 and 17, it was apparent that Barabbas was living on a bubble. His crimes deserved death, but his name was up for the annual pardon. It takes a bit of imagination, but it’s easy to picture him listening intently to the sounds of the crowd through the bars of his prison window. It would have been almost impossible for him to hear Pilate give the crowd a choice in verse 21. But it would have been impossible for him not to hear the crowd roar out his name: Barabbas! That got his attention. From that point, the only voice he could hear would have been the crowd as it continued to shout out: Crucify Him (verse 22), Crucify Him! (verse 23) Let his blood be on us and on our children! (verse 25.)

"But, I thought I was the one to die?! Isn’t that what the crowd wanted? Isn’t that what my verdict says? Isn’t that what I deserve?"

He had heard all he needed to hear. His life was at an end. It was judgment day. The sound of the crowd would have been in his heart as he heard the guards open the door to his cell. Forget a pardon, it was time to die. Except there was a voice he hadn’t heard. The one that said, “release Barabbas, crucify Jesus [verse 26.]” You can imagine the mental confusion: But, I thought I was the one to die?! Isn’t that what the crowd wanted? Isn’t that what my verdict says? Isn’t that what I deserve? All of that was true, except for one thing. Somehow, by a divine plan, Jesus intervened. The Bible says of Jesus, “He was pierced for our transgressions…crushed for our iniquities…the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5,6)” Somehow, I have to think that Barabbas was the first human to fully appreciate the sheer intensity of that fact. And, somehow, I’d like to think that what he discovered would give me, give all of us, even greater reason to give thanks!

Read Lyle’s Northwest Centre for Leadership Development newsletters

Of ‘Impossible People’ and Iceburgs

Before he became a follower of Jesus, the apostle Paul was a persecutor of Christians. Scripture relates how he “began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3) and of his “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” (Acts 9:1f.) He did not look to be a likely prospect for conversion. In fact, he seemed an “impossible case.” Image:Iceberg IlulissatAnanias thought that. When the Lord commissioned Ananias to go to see Paul, his response was shock. He rather audaciously reminded the Lord that Paul was a Christ-hater and persecutor (Acts 9:13f.)—he was an impossible case. Ananias may have been far more convinced that Paul would kill him than that he would become a follower of Jesus! What Ananias didn’t know at the time—but what we know from Acts 9:3-16—is that Paul had, a short while before, been shaken to his core by a meeting with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul had had a vision in which a man named Ananias came to restore his sight. Ananias didn’t know that the Lord had some very big plans for Paul. God was ‘on the case’ long before Ananias arrived on the scene.

"Someone has said that God’s action is a lot like icebergs-9/10ths of what he’s doing is below the surface, beyond the field of human vision."

Few conversions are ‘out of the blue.’ Almost always there has been an incubation period.God is preparing unsaved people through life experiences and circumstances long before we ever arrive on the scene. In fact, he can work even through the very things we might think make our friends ‘impossible cases.’ Someone has said that God’s action is a lot like icebergs—9/10ths of what he’s doing is below the surface, beyond the field of human vision. Think of your ‘impossible’ person—God is and has already been working in their life, even though they and we may see nothing at all. That’s part of the great news of this passage—God is working and can save ‘impossible’ people. So, don’t be discouraged!

Secular – Is the word useful anymore?

Secular often is used in opposition to the idea of the sacred. The Latin word saeculum, meaning this age, is the etymological root for our English word “secular”. It tends to describe a view of things that ignores the reality of God and sees natural processes or human agency as the final cause of things, eliminating God from the equation. It also comes to define a way of thinking that lacks religious sensibility.

If we intend to define some idea as ‘non-Christian’, this may not mean it is secular, it may only mean it represents religious values that are not Christian.

As we look across our Canadian social landscape, we often hear it described as a secular wasteland, particularly if our viewpoint is Christian. But when we define it as secular, is this an accurate portrayal? Is religion in fact a dead or dying influence in our Canadian reality? I would suggest that the opposite is the case. All the surveys that I have seen about the values that Canadians hold indicate a deep sense of religious commitment defines us. The sacred, defined in different ways, influences Canadians significantly. Those that would claim to be atheist are a very small minority. The vast majority of Canadians are religious people, to some degree. The role that god(s) play personally or socially will vary, but god(s) are alive and well in Canada. If we colour our society as secular, we overlook this essential religious reality. The percentage of people who adhere to a religious understanding that is non-Christian is increasing, but this does not make them secular. SpringAs we seek to express the Kingdom reality of the Gospel personally and in our faith communities, perhaps we need to revise our perception of the Canadian who is our neighbour. The odds are that our neighbours are religious people. When we seek to share our religious beliefs, they can appreciate that we are religious. They may be curious about the religious ideas and practices we follow and why such things are important to us. We may discover that they are committed to similar values – family, integrity, value of life, etc. When we share our faith and encourage them to consider the claims of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we are in fact asking them to abandon their current religious framework, something that is often deeply intertwined with their culture and sense of personal identity. To urge them to enter into a relationship with Jesus, i.e. become Christian, requires them to engage in a deep, significant transformation. We should not be surprised that they will need time to consider such matters and evaluate the implications of such a change very carefully. We would do the same.

The percentage of people who adhere to a religious understanding that is non-Christian is increasing, but this does not make them secular.

Perhaps there are some true secularists in the neighbourhood, but they probably are a rather rare breed. Some groups in our society have a secular agenda, seeking to erase any influence or effects that religious values may exercise in Canada. However, most Canadians and most of the groups in which they are involved endorse some kind of religious perspective. Our culture essentially is a religious fabric. We should use the term ‘secular’ then with some restraint. If we intend to define some idea as ‘non-Christian’, this may not mean it is secular, it may only mean it represents religious values that are not Christian. Helping the poor and seeking justice, for instance, are profoundly religious values. Advocating for good health care expresses a desire for quality of life and compassionate concern for those who suffer. Being good stewards of the environment honours the mandate God has given for us to exercise care for His creation.

The Difference Between Multi-Ethnic and Multi-Cultural

At a recent seminar a pastor posed the question: “What is the difference between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural?” Ethnicity primarily refers to group identity arising from a common history, kinship and language. Culture refers to the way members of a particular ethnic group relate to their environment and each other. This includes legends, laws, priorities, structures, customs and artifacts. Multi-ethnic, therefore, refers to members of a variety of ethnic groups interacting within a particular forum (such as a multi-ethnic church). Such forums require a common structure or format with which all members agree to conform in order for this multi-ethnic interaction to function successfully (e.g., for multi-ethnic churches in Canada this is generally the church practice of the dominant Canadian culture).

The hope is that churches will be able to clarify their own particular identity as they navigate the passage between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural that will result in healthy and liberating expressions of the church of Jesus Christ.

Multi-cultural, on the other hand, is much more complex, harder to envision and fraught with conflict. The concept is that members of a variety of ethnic groups interact while maintaining their distinct cultural practices and priorities. In reality, this is a paradox because while cultures are defined by their distinctiveness, community and interaction rely upon commonalities to establish unity. In order to have intercultural relationships, some accommodation must be made on one or both sides of the cultural divide. But the act of accommodation represents, to some degree, a compromise and loss of cultural values.

In my experience, most of our Fellowship churches that are multi-ethnic are not multi-cultural. These churches have embraced a number of ethnic groups within a culturally Canadian expression of church life. My article on setting an intercultural agenda for our churches in the recently published book by NBS, Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community, recounts a discussion of cultural issues with a Punjabi couple (p. 26). Although they attended a multi-ethnic local church, they expressed appreciation for the opportunity to occasionally attend a worship service with a mono-cultural Punjabi congregation some distance away. The attraction was the specifically Punjabi cultural elements such as singing the Psalms in Punjabi with traditional musical instruments. In order for them to participate in their multi-ethnic local church, they were required to relinquish much of their Punjabi heritage as it relates to church life.

Our Cross-cultural Think Tank has prepared a seminar on cultural diversity designed to help our Fellowship churches work through the cultural tensions that arise within our multi-ethnic churches. The hope is that churches will be able to clarify their own particular identity as they navigate the passage between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural that will result in healthy and liberating expressions of the church of Jesus Christ. For further information contact Mark via the form below.

 

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Naïve or Sophisticated Belief?

Many people today consider the New Testament documents to be the expression of a naïve, easy believism. “After all,” they ask, “weren’t people in the first century AD quite unsophisticated and unscientific? It would have been easy to put one over on them.”

The documents actually tell quite a different story.

Jesus’ resurrection and first appearances didn’t catch all the disciples at the same time.  There were some who weren’t present and so would not necessarily have known what to make of their fellow disciples’ assertions of the resurrection of Jesus and of his bodily appearance to them.  The Gospel of John 20:24-29, for example, tells us that the disciple Thomas was one.

Notwithstanding the other disciples’ repeated and vigorous affirmations (“they kept on saying”) that they had seen the risen Lord, Thomas declared he would remain unconvinced until he himself had incontrovertible evidence. John records Thomas to have said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

He would not content himself with hearing from others; or even seeing for himself. Thomas would believe only after both visual and full tactile confirmation. This sounds both sophisticated and scientific!

John writes that “a week later,” Thomas was with the other disciples in the meeting place.  He notes further that “though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them” and at his appearing, he declared to them “Peace be with you!” Turning to Thomas, Jesus then said, “Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” He was challenging Thomas to satisfy himself through physically probing the wounds in confirmation that he was indeed Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.  Jesus chided Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.”

Seeing Jesus was apparently enough.  John says at v. 28 that Thomas declared, ‘My Lord and my God!’”  These are the titles of deity!

A “Cheating Culture”

A recent study conducted among undergraduate students at Canadian universities and colleges revealed that more than 50% of students surveyed admitted to “cheating on written work”. This included copying sentences from online or other sources, as well as cheating on exams. 22% of graduate students admitted to engaging in some forms of plagiarism. It is estimated that the web has led to a 5 to 10% increase in the amount of plagiarism occurring. Up to a quarter of undergraduate students falsify or fabricate lab data. Often students with high grade point averages cheat – to maintain their standing. A primary reason why students are doing this, by their own admission, is that they see leaders in business, sports and journalism, high profile cheaters, getting away with it. Sometimes cheating occurs because faculty are not teaching well or are grading in ways perceived to be unfair. Very few Canadian universities have codes of academic integrity that they require students to sign and faculty to follow. This kind of information shakes one’s faith in the educational system. How can we trust the credibility of degrees people earn if they are cheating their way to success? As critical as this concern should be, it led me to reflect on the ‘cheating culture’ that flourishes in churches. Jesus had another word for it – hypocrisy, i.e. pretending to be religiously sincere and genuine. We look around and see many people claiming to be Christian and not taking very seriously the words of Jesus. So we begin to adopt a similar kind of haphazard approach to our spirituality. Or we begin to excuse our failure to live obediently – little lies, little thefts, little jealousies, little frauds, little lusts. The cumulative effect of these little sins is terribly corrosive. The Spirit’s voice becomes less authoritative and compelling. What of the effect of this creeping hypocrisy on those outside of the Kingdom? How damaging our religious cheating becomes to the credibility of the Good News of Jesus. If we claim to love one another, but fail to demonstrate this sincerely, what good is our claim? As James says, without works, our faith is dead. A sincere and genuine love for God and others lies at the root of our Christian experience. Spiritual leaders should consider whether they are contributing to religious cheating by not making clear Jesus’ standards, or by not modeling and urging obedient discipleship. If we can reduce academic cheating through education and the use of pledges of academic integrity, surely we can take similar action to reduce religious cheating. Checking on whether religious cheating is occurring and naming it, may be one of the most effective strategies. Accountability is part of kingdom living, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:15-20. The regular involvement of Christians in the Lord’s Table provides a singular opportunity to recalibrate our spiritual lives.

Secret Spirituality

Lately I’ve been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, particularly chapter six and Jesus’ requirement that the forms of spiritual formation be kept secret. When you give, he says, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you pray, go into the closet and lock the door. When you fast, have a shower and clean up so that no one knows what you have been up to. In short, spiritual formation is supposed to happen in secret. It is what we do with God and for God. It is not about making the right kind of impression on others. My struggle with all this has been that as a leader and as a parent I find myself wanting to set a good example. I find that I want to be seen to be spiritual so that I’m modeling patterns of spiritual formation for my children and for others around me. I want them to see my praying and giving and living out the disciplines of the faith because I want them to pick up on these same things. But it’s hard to get past what Jesus is saying. The forms of spiritual discipline are not to be displayed. It is the fruit of the Spirit that ought to be observable. Spiritual discipline is like the skeleton that supports the system on the inside, but it is not supposed to be visible from the outside. We must pray, we must give, we must be disciplined, it’s just that these are not the things that ought to show. Rather than being known as a person who does spiritual things, I want to be known as a person who displays the character of God. I want to be known as a person who displays the fruits of the spiritual life – displaying a love, joy, peace, and patience so profound that people want to know where it comes from and what it’s all about. Our spiritual practice is for God’s eyes only.

The Tomb of Jesus – Empty or Still Occupied?

Has all the hype surrounding the "documentary" film The Lost Tomb of Jesus caught you off guard? The film’s website proclaims, “An incredible archaeological discovery in Israel changes history and shocks the world.” Well, what about it? The website contains a "proviso" stating that they are not disputing the resurrection of Jesus. The film makers claim, “Even if Jesus were moved from one tomb to another, this does not negate the possibility that he was resurrected from the second tomb” and then add in relation to the ascension: “If Jesus’ mortal remains have indeed been found, this would contradict only the idea of a physical ascension. However, it says nothing against the possibility of a spiritual one nor does it dispute the idea of the Ascension.” The fact remains that, if it is true that Jesus’ bones are contained in an ossuary somewhere in present day Jerusalem, then Peter’s statement in Acts 2:22-24* "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him." (emphasis added); and Paul’s declaration in Acts 13:34 "… God raised him from the dead, never to decay…", are nothing but empty lies! If, in fact, Jesus did not rise from the dead, victorious over sin and the curse, death and the grave, then in Paul’s words, we have believed in vain! But have we? What does the New Testament record tell us? Here is what Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth – countering the claims of some, who even in that day were disputing the possibility of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-25 – headings and emphasis added).

The Case: (1) Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. (2) By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. The Claim: (3) For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (4) that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, The Evidence: (5)and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. (6) After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (7) Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, (8)and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. The Summary: (9) For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (10) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them-yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (11) Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. The Question: (12)But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? The Stakes: (13) If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. (14) And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (15) More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. (16) For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. (17) And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (18) Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. (19) If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. The Fact: (20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. The Theology: (21) For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. (22) For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (23) But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (24) Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. (25) For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The apostle Paul continues in Acts 13:37 “… the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay” and in Romans 6:9-10 he declares, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” Allow the import of the necessity of the bodily resurrection, ascension and imminent return of Jesus penetrate deeply into your soul. The New Testament is replete with eye-witness accounts and public declarations of the physical resurrection of Jesus. When the disciples first saw Jesus after the resurrection they wondered if he were a ghost. Jesus told them to both look at him and touch him to assure themselves that he was the flesh and blood Jesus – and if that were not enough he asked for some food to eat in their presence (Luke 24:36-43). Later when Thomas doubted, Jesus urged him to touch the very scars and believe (John 20:27). It was Jesus’ intention that his followers have full assurance that he was physically alive. Now listen to the words of the two men to the watching disciples on the morning of the Ascension, “ ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ ” (Acts 1:11) This same physically alive Jesus has promised to return and take us to be with him (John 14) Here is the hope we have; "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you." (Romans 8:11) Let us rejoice together with all Christians everywhere that “He is risen indeed!” *All Scripture quotations are from the NIV Bible

Unitask Living in a Multitask Universe

Christians aspire to the kind of unitasking Christian focus of the apostle Paul when he declares, “For to me, to live is Christ….” The reality, however, is that we live in a world that shouts from every corner, “Multitask!” Life is full of commitments that urgently cry out and distractions that enticingly call out for our attention. The Corinthians could identify. The good news about Jesus had caught them up in its net as they stood in the midst of the complexities of their lives—some were married and others not; some were free and others slaves; some were wealthy and well positioned and many others were not. Now they were confronted with a great question: “How does one live a unitask life in a multitask universe?” Paul advises the Corinthians that living with consummate focus to honor Christ is called for because there is urgency. Live that way because “the time is short” (1 Cor. 7:29), he says. Paul denies that time yawns out and meanders before us without end. There is an abrupt focal point—it is the second coming of Christ. And Paul sees a kind of compression in the time between our “now” and the “then” of Christ’s return. The Christian life is lived with focus because it is lived in light of the end. Paul is also realistic about multiple demands; he admits their presence and that we do have to answer to them. But he counsels an intense resolution through those multiple demands to live life “as if not.” Paul explains it this way:

“From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.” (1 Cor. 7:29-30)

An “as if not” life is calculatingly deliberate; it is focused to honour Christ. Where others are involved, it negotiates through to permissions and synergies that free up energies and time to honour Christ. An “as if not” life goes through the great ups and downs of human existence, but returns immediately from wild emotional gyrations to the magnetic north of honouring Christ. An “as if not” life acknowledges the requirement of things but disallows entanglements to them, preferring to see things as means to honour Christ. When Christian philanthropist Maxey Jarman reflected that he had only lost what he’d kept, but that what he’d given away was safe, he was acknowledging an “as if not” life through multiple demands (Fred Smith, “What I Learned from Maxey Jarman,” Leadership 2.1 [1981]). The “as if not” life should be energized, Paul reminds, by the sober conviction that “this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:31) Live in light of the end. Live “as if not.” It makes good, God-honouring, Christian sense.

The Tomb of Jesus???

News media have posed the question “Has film crew found the DNA of Jesus?” or “Have we discovered the tomb of Jesus?” Journalist Simcha Jacobovici and producer James Cameron recently released a documentary film claiming that they had discovered Jesus’ tomb. Is this a credible claim? The tomb they refer to was discovered in 1980, located in Talpiyot, a suburb of Jerusalem. Within it the archaeologist Amos Kloner found six ossuaries, limestone chests in which the bones of deceased persons were placed. On these ossuaries were inscriptions in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, including the names Yeshua bar Yosef, Maria, Matia (Matthew), Yose, Yehuda bar Yeshua, Mariamne or Mara. The claim is that Yeshua is Jesus, Joseph was his father, Mary refers to Jesus mother, Jesus also had a son named Judah and perhaps Mariamne was Jesus’ wife. Quite a series of claims! If we accept them, it means that the stories of Jesus’ burial in the New Testament Gospels are false! However, the data does not support the claims. First, the name “Yeshua” was very common in first century Judea. Josephus the Jewish historian refers to more than fifty different people who had this name. Second, the burial details provided in the Gospels tell a different story. Joseph of Arimathea, a pious Jew, asks Pilate for Jesus’ body so that it could be buried before Sabbath began on Friday evening at sundown. He placed the body in a rock-hewn tomb, wrapping it in a shroud and placing it in one of the niches (loculi) cut into the walls of the tomb. The entrance to the tomb was sealed with a stone. Only very wealthy people could afford a tomb of this nature. Jesus’ family was poor and Joseph of Arimathea’s actions indicate they owned no rock-hewn tomb in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Normally poorer people would be buried in an earthen grave, much as we do today. The Jewish practice was to gather the bones of deceased placed in tombs, after considerable time had passed, and place them in a ossuary, making room for other bodies to be interred. However, if the body was buried in the earth, the bones would not be dug up. So ossuaries are only associated with rock-cut tombs. According to the Gospels, when Jesus’ followers went to the tomb on Sunday morning, they found it empty. Christians believe this occurred because of the resurrection. The Jewish leadership argued that Jesus’ disciples stole the body. If they had stolen it, probably they would have buried it in an earthen grave. Either way, there would be no bones to put in an ossuary! Third, studies of the ossuaries found in Israel indicate that when a person who lived outside of Jerusalem was buried in the city, the deceased’s place of origin would be noted on the ossuary, i.e. Simon of Ptolemais (this is similar to calling Jesus “Jesus of Nazareth”). However, if the person lived in Jerusalem, then his or her ancestry would be noted, i.e. Judah son of John. In the case of the Talpiyot ossuaries, if they held the remains of Jesus’ family, one would expect that some of the people would be identified by towns outside of Jerusalem, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth. The formulae used in the inscriptions point rather to a Jerusalem family. Fourth, nowhere in any of the Gospels do we read that Jesus had a brother named Matthew. Fifth, identifying Mariamne as Mary Magdalene by interpreting the word ‘Mara’ as the Aramaic term for ‘master’ and then saying this means she was a teacher and leader, goes far beyond the data. These claims contradict the Gospel details that show conformity with known burial practices in first century Judea. Further, the claims are not consistent with what we know about the way that Jewish people buried their dead in the first century, particularly people in the poorer segments of society. Jesus rose from the dead. This ‘documentary’ film should not cast any doubt on this central feature of the Good News.

Jesus’ Grave — Full or Empty?

Excuse my cynicism, but we must be nearing the Easter season! There’s another sensational docudrama in the wind. It’s about Jesus and, unsurprisingly, has profoundly negative implications for the Christian faith traditionally understood. After seeding a media frenzy as prelude to the event itself, the TV faithful have been gathered from far and wide to be awed and troubled yet again by a new “gospel.” The Garden TombAs usual, the claims of the docudrama are bold; the scripting and cinematography, as slick and convincing as any CSI episode; and the basis in fact, inconsistent with both the content of first century New Testament description and the findings of scientific archaeology. This time round it’s a TV piece by the Discovery Channel called “The Lost Tomb of Christ,” directed by Simcha Jacobovici and produced by James Cameron (of movie Titanic fame). They make a sensational claim that the tomb of Jesus’ family has been discovered in the Talpiyot suburb of Jerusalem. And it’s full! The bones of the whole family are there, including those of Jesus, his wife Mary and their son Judah. DNA proves it! The Talpiyot tomb is not a new discovery. Archaologist Amos Kloner excavated the site and published his findings some 27 years ago. Moreover, Kloner and many others in the archaeological fraternity emphatically do not reach the easy conclusions of Jacobovici and Cameron. Space forbids an extended discussion of the rather compelling reasons why the Talpiyot tomb cannot be that of Jesus. But check out the response of Jodi Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to the archaeological and biblical issues . You’ll find it quite interesting! (Click here…) Magness, for her part, has focused upon the Gospels, which is quite logical. But there is even earlier canonical tradition relating to the tomb. It’s in 1 Corinthians. Written by the apostle Paul, this New Testament letter is probably older than the Gospels. It dates to around 54/5 AD, some 25 years after the Easter events. But what Paul includes in the letter about the tomb of Jesus is even older. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is a brief and almost poetic piece of ancient Christian tradition that Paul himself had received from others. If this is what Paul received following his conversion, it dates to only a few years after the Easter events themselves. It reads thus: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles….” (NIV) Notice, “he was buried”—that means the tomb; and, “he was raised on the third day”—that means the empty tomb. The bold list of appearances of the risen Lord to various individuals and groups served confident notice to those who wished to trouble themselves, that one could conduct interviews to satisfy questions. We may agree with Jacobovici and Cameron that there is a tomb somewhere about the environs of ancient Jerusalem and in it Jesus’ lifeless body was laid; but, against Jacobovici and Cameron, Jesus’ tomb, wherever it presently is, was only briefly occupied by Jesus before his resurrection.

Mesmerized with hell

A friend of mine discovered that he was suffering from what he termed a spiritual "Stockholm syndrome", the phenomenon of kidnapped victims bonding with their captors as they look desperately for mercy or an act of kindness. In his previous evangelical faith a dark shadow of hell made my friend hungry for any indication of mercy and love from God. A believing friend was recently confronted by her son who said, "What kind of God would send people to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus?" In a Bible study I attend one participant said that he wants to believe in a God who loves all people, but he has been brought up believing that the Bible teaches there are people God hates and who are chosen for hell. All of these perspectives are perversions of the clearest picture we have of God which is found in the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ: a Deity so determined that humanity would be redeemed to life that he suffered the indignity and pain of the cross in the person of his son rather than let us be destroyed. It is not eternal torment that is the essential truth of the universe, but the love of God. It is not hell that has the last word, but the Lord Jesus Christ who makes all things right and brings the whole universe back to God (Col 1:20). (Do not read between the lines here and label me a universalist: Jesus also taught that God does not forgive those who are unmerciful, uncaring and unrepentant ­ e.g., Matt 18 & 25). My concern is with the picture of God people are gaining from the gospel message. If our presentations of the gospel of Christ are being perceived as promoting arbitrariness, callousness and injustice on the part of God, then we are misrepresenting the salvation Christ offers. If people are hearing the love of God presented with a dark side of his satisfaction in the eternal torture of his creatures, then we are undermining the message of the cross. I am amazed at how many people exposed to evangelical messages of salvation are repulsed by the image of a God who doesn’t love the world, whose mercy is limited and who refuses to accept the meek and humble. Is there something wrong in the way we present the gospel that people fail to be confronted with the vast, unbounded grace of the Father longing to wrap his arms around the prodigal?

My Non-Christian Friend is an Evangelist?!

When you next meet with your non-Christian friend, make the case to her that she’s an evangelist and ask her about her message and its effect. Whether people have great faith in Jesus Christ or none at all, everyone is “preaching” a message. When they hear the word “evangelist,” most folks think of Billy Graham. Billy’s preached the plain, unadorned gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to over 200 million people and, through various media, to multiple millions more. But Adolf Hitler was an “evangelist” too! His message, in a book called Mein Kampf, was Aryan European supremacy and that destiny included the needful extermination of all Jews. The cost of his “evangel” was 62 million lives, including nearly 6 million Jews. Both men were evangelists; their messages and the results, however, were incredibly different!Gospel Of course, the world is full of different “evangels”—some are hateful and destructive like Hitler’s; many, many more are hardly positive or helpful because they are the result of people’s being hurt or simply self-absorbed. Your friend would probably agree that many evangelists and their messages could stand improvement at least, if not complete transformation. At Mark 5:1-20 we meet a man with a message. Possessed by demons, his “evangel” was to hurt himself and the people around him. Jesus, out of love and concern, effected a miraculous transformation of both the man (v. 15) and his message (v. 19). Put in his right mind, the man was told, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” New man; new message! Make the case to your non-Christian friend that she, like everyone else, is an evangelist. See where it leads. Of course, she may ask you what your “evangel” is. What will you tell her?

Evangel: from the Greek euangelion – translated gospel – click for wikipedia article

“I am in kindergarten and I know everything!”

“I am in kindergarten and I know everything!” exclaimed my granddaughter. It took me a moment to process this amazing declaration. I then realized what my problem had been – I never attended kindergarten and so I now understood why it took me twenty years to reach the end of my formal education. If only my parents had sent me to kindergarten! Girl and Grandpa Human beings have a wonderful, but dangerous tendency to think they know it all. How many times do we presume we know the truth and the right response, only to discover our perception was quite skewed! Leadership is sometimes defined as ‘sense-making’, but this human capacity for self-deception should create considerable caution in our attempts to help others make sense of their lives, individually and corporately, or make sense of an organization’s ministry. Jesus warned his followers that “if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:23). While we may not be clear about everything Jesus wanted to teach through this saying, he certainly was emphasizing the human problem of distorted perception and knowing. He said the cause lies in our human constitution – our eyes are bad! Our sinful disposition and creatureliness lead to futile thinking and living in the dark (Ephesians 4:27-24). Because of near-sightedness personally I have had to wear glasses for many years. I know how bad eyes create dangerous misconceptions. But I also know that steps can be taken to correct this handicap. Jesus encourages us to believe that our eyes can be good and our “whole body” can be “full of light” (Matthew 6:22). What steps can a ministry leader take to ensure that his or her “eyes are good” and that the sense being discerned is indeed true, valid, and trustworthy? One strategy is to make sure our loyalty is fully given to God and the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we are living with integrity and not in hypocrisy. A second help comes in realizing that God’s Spirit speaks through His people and that our collective ‘vision’ may be more accurate than one individual’s perception. Third, the greater clarity we have about Kingdom principles, the more capable we will be to discern God’s direction. Fourth, God encourages us to pray for wisdom – the ability to see things through His eyes – and He promises He will give it generously. Finally, humbleness is a critical component. We must recognize and live contentedly with our limitations, relying happily on the assistance that God provides us from others in His family. Paul warns us that without love all of our knowing is useless because we “are nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). We may be right and we may be smart and we may be clever – but without love, this sacrificial desire to bring benefit into the lives of others for the sake of Jesus – these gifs and abilities produce nothing that is useful to God. True belief creates true seeing. Discernment takes time, persistence, and considerable patience.

Listening for the Tremors of Faith

I’m told that British Columbia, being part of the Pacific "ring of fire," has quite frequent earthquakes. Our province can experience as many as 30 or more quakes per month, which is pretty average. Of those quakes, five are magnitude three and only one is magnitude four. It’s a curiosity to me that I’ve only actually been aware of two or three of those quakes in my whole life. Maybe I’m not that sensitive. But there are seismologists who record every quake, determining its intensity and its focus and monitoring the many smaller aftershocks. I’m not that sensitive to the earth’s movements, but the earth’s movements are their whole job. Jesus listens for tremors of faith in people with infinitely more passion and commitment than any seismologist. When the woman plagued by a chronic bleeding problem touched Jesus’ clothes in faith as he was making his way through a jostling crowd, Jesus knew it immediately (Mark 5:24-34). The lesser motives of the crowd and their pawing were unremarkable to him. But the slight touch of faith stopped him in his tracks. He turned around to ask, "Who touched me?" …….. There was a second reason for his question. Jesus didn’t want for the woman to be an anonymous believer in him and, just as much, he didn’t want to be an anonymous Savior and helper to her. That’s why He called her openly to confess what had happened. As she did, Jesus declared, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." (v. 34) In all of the pushing and shoving of the crowds on the way to Capernaum that day Jesus was listening. In all of the activities in churches round the world Sunday by Sunday and in the world everywhere, Jesus is listening. This is a great encouragement to everyone-but especially to the beleaguered, the newcomer and the quite timid who reach out to him. Faith in him will effect transformation. But he does call for an open confession. Your faith in Jesus is the most important thing!

Doing it ‘the Lord’s Way’

In a post-Super Bowl comment, winning coach Tony Dungy is quoted as saying, ".more than anything else, Lovie Smith and I are not only African-American, but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord’s way." He doesn’t drink or rant and rave at his players or curse them. Such things are not necessary for good coaching. You can coach in the NFL using God’s values and still reach the top. The ability to control what you say reflects an attitude of heart, a personal discipline that is committed to goodness. Today, Northwest Baptist Seminary is launching a newly redesigned website. Our first desire is to promote thoughtful, godly discussion around key contemporary issues, seeking the Lord’s way in such matters to the best of our ability. Secondly, we want to provide useful resources that will help ministry leaders in churches and other Christian agencies fulfill their calling with excellence, doing things the Lord’s way. And thirdly, we want to demonstrate what it means to think Christianly, applying our minds to follow the Lord’s way. Doing things the Lord’s way is a discipline of learned obedience. Only when we know and understand the Lord’s way can we possibly discern its influence on and implications for our daily living. In his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) Jesus pressed his followers to live the Lord’s way. Wise people will listen to him, learn and respond; fools will hear, disregard him and crash. The Lord’s way begins by going through a ‘narrow gate’, the way of salvation as Jesus defined it, and follows a pressured road, but it leads to life. The Lord’s way is not popular or the way most frequently chosen. Jesus said there were few who would find it. But he also promised that if we truly seek it, God will disclose the way and enable us to find it. The Lord’s way provides ‘the salt’ and ‘the light’ that our world needs. Our prayer is that this website will be one way through which people might discern, discover and find life in the Lord’s way.

At the Origins of the Christian Claim – Luigi Giussani

Luigi Giussani, At the Origins of the Christian Claim Trans. V. Hewitt; Montreal & Kingston:  McGill-Queens University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-7735-1714-6 (Cloth): ISBN 0-7735-1627-1 (Paper)

In his “Religious Sense”, Luigi Giussani laid the foundations for a defense of the inherent religious impulse of the human that requires a totalizing answer to the “utmost questions” of human life and existence.  Giussani is now prepared to offer an initial answer to the question laid bare at the end of his first enterprise, namely, does the Christian God, understood as Father, provide the most reasonable solution to this human religious dilemma?  The answer lies, as the title suggests, At the Origins of the Christian Claim.

This second part of Giussani’s trilogy amounts to an investigation into how the ultimate questions of the earliest disciples were decisively answered by the totalizing message of Jesus Christ the risen Lord.  This was a conclusion at which they arrived simply because life “spurs reason to search for a solution.  Indeed reason’s very nature implies that a solution exists.” (Introduction, p. 9)  The “religious creativity of man” [sic], which is the “entire expression” of human imaginative efforts to “possess the mysterium tremendum” has left us with a “spectrum of hypothesis” regarding the “truth” of any one religion.  1)  Either we must know all religions in order to make a rational and dignified choice or; 2)  Know at least the major religions and risk the loss of any truth in minority religions.  3) Perhaps we should aim at a form of enlightenment syncretism which synthesizes the best of all religious truths or still; 4) Allow for the truthfulness of all religious on an empirical basis, requiring adherence to ones native religion only.  All of these options, which express our human imaginative attempts at grasping the divine, require us to posit a freedom on the part of the “mysterium tremendum” which transcends, interrupts and challenges our “religious imaginations”.  That is, human reason must be “confirmed by revelation”.  Reason cries out for it and launches itself toward this hypothesis, “which is so rational and so much part of our nature that, to some degree, it always emerges.” [p. 21]  This impulse toward revelation is inherent in our drive for knowledge, our need for mediators of knowledge, our experience of proximity to God, our common appeal to revelation, and our western appeal to the faith of Israel.  If there is a crime that can be leveled at this universal religious impulse, as conceived by culture today, it would be that of the claim to “exclusive truth.”  Yet, Christianity does just this.  For Giussani this is a claim that can only be justified or not, when we return to the “origins of the Christian claim.”

Considered on its own merits as a human construct, Christianity would certainly be wrong to make such a claim in the face of other religions.  If, however, we understand the Christian claim to be an expression of the “enigma” as a fact within the history of this human religious trajectory, then this fact must be regarded or examined on its own merits.  Were we to suppose that the enigma (mystery, God) became flesh then this “supposition would correspond to the need for revelation”.  To deny this would be irrational and contrary to the human religious sense.  Were this to be the case then could not Christianity prove to be “a more human synthesis, a more complete way of valuing the factors at play.” [p. 30]  Taken in this way the Christian claim is no longer an hypothesis but a problem that must be solved.  Announced as a fact of history, the Christian claim must be taken seriously as a problem to be solved, not as a “despotic irrational claim”.  It concerns a question of fact, i.e. incarnation, not opinion.

Given that Christianity, as a factual problem, has a history, the place to begin solving the problem is with an attuning to the singular event of Christianity, the Incarnation.  “The mystery chose to enter the history of man through a life story identical to that of any other man.”  As imperceptible as this divine entry into time was in terms of recorded history, nevertheless history records a certainty on the part of the disciples of having found the Messiah.  The imperceptible became perceptible as a conviction among a few which produced a “profound certainty over time.”  If one follows faithfully the “itinerary” of their conviction one comes to the certainty that this incomparably great man of power and goodness was a master to be followed in freedom as the Messiah, indeed as the forgiving one whose new ethic inaugurates a new kingdom.

So the origin of the problem as a fact of history lies not so much in the event itself as in the “perceptive experience of the earliest disciples” and their careful formulation of the primitive “Christology” or Messianism.  While the event is a mystery, almost imperceptible, the conviction is the fulfillment of humanities deepest longings, needs and questions.  It was, as such, a totalizing event.

But Giussani is not satisfied to lay all the weight of the exclusive claims of Christianity on the basis of the experience of the earliest disciples.  He takes great pains to point out that Christ himself, through a “slow pedagogy”, taught his disciples to think of him as “God”.  Jesus’ claim is simply a fact that lays bare “the basic position of the human heart – whether closed or open – to the mystery of being.” [p. 79]  As such the Christian problem is resolved in the same terms in which it presents itself:  “either we are dealing with madness or this man, who says he is God, really is God.” [p. 79]  Our free decision to penetrate this mystery “is a decision with hidden roots bound to our attitude to reality as a whole.”  It is that “supreme something” which sees Jesus as the ultimate good and worth our free commitment.

To understand this Christian claim we must be educated into “Christ’s conception of life” which is an education in “morality for understanding”.  What is at stake is the “correspondence of human existence as a whole to the form of Christ.” [p. 83]  Jesus own outlook on the value of humanity, dependence on the Divine, self existence, sin and human freedom answers the ultimate questions about these core human realities in a definitive way.  “Following Christ (faith) thus generates a characteristic existential attitude by which man walks upright and untiring towards a destination not yet reached although sure (hope).” [p. 83]  Thus, the event of the Incarnation, as mystery, is an “ethical urgency”, and an “education to the ideal”.  It was “an extra ordinary historical reality” in which Jesus moved his disciples from “awe to conviction” because the answers he gave to the questions of ultimate concern convinced them that he was the “God-man”.  The greatest task of Christianity is to announce, with the same conviction that was present “at the origins of the Christian claim”, that Jesus of Nazareth is God.  Furthermore;

“The task of the Christian is not only the greatest, but also the most tremendous in history because it is destined to provoke unreasonable reactions; yet it is supremely reasonable to face and to verify an hypothesis on its own terms, and here is precisely an event which happened in history.”

This task is the reason for the Church’s existence, from which place the message will be proclaimed and worked out in society.

Some Reflections

Once again Giussani has surprised us with his unique ability to combine profound concepts with a well illustrated and very readable style.  As with The Religious Sense, one has the feeling of not being in the classroom but rather sitting by the fire listening to the sage expound on the most important events in life with story, poem and prose.  Catholics, whether clergy or laity, should embrace this almost folksy rendition of contemporary Catholic Christianity with enthusiasm and a desire to go deeper with Giussani.  Though this work is shorter and less detailed than the previous volume, The Religious Sense, it is no less a serious call to reconsider the Incarnation as a natural, historical event that gave rise to an historical consciousness of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  Similar treatments in the history of Christian theology from Schleiermacher to Schillebeeckx have taken many more pages and done it less justice than Giussani’s brevity.  As with the previous volume, this one will have to be reckoned with by Protestants and Catholics alike; whether scholar, clergy or lay person.  It will be intriguing to see how such a religious sense is worked out in the Church, the bearer of the historical claim to answers of ultimate concern.

A serious question remains, however.  Despite his brevity, clarity and intellectual power, Giussani has still failed to answer the question of the relationship between revelation and experience.  The Incarnation as event is almost eclipsed by the disciples experience of it.  The attempt to uncover the “religious sense” of today will always be a dubious exercise because of the gulf between our time and theirs.  Without a clear starting point in revelation as the event of the Word of God, we are left with only a surmising of how that event affected the first followers.  Their experience must be secondary to the event and not constitutive of it.  Giussani needs to be clear on this.

Intentionality – The Key Ingredient

In the process of researching leadership development programs, I’ve discovered that one word keeps appearing. In Building Leaders, Aubrey Malphurs defines the term “leadership development” as the intentional process of helping established and emerging leaders at every level of ministry to assess and develop their Christian character and to acquire, reinforce, and refine their ministry knowledge and skills [p. 23].  In Leadership Baton, the creators of the Center for Church-Based Training describe an intentional process of Discipleship Training and Leadership Development [title.] In The Equipping Church, Sue Mallory talks about the equipping culture of a church as having systems that intentionally change lives [p. 51.]

Intention…Intention…Intention… It’s the critical ingredient that breathes life into ministry. It’s what takes inert programs and fills them with purpose and meaning.

When I first started as the director of the Northwest Centre for Leadership Development, a number of wise advisors warned me: Lyle, whatever you do…whatever you do…don’t fixate on program. Make sure you understand process. Don’t obsess on curriculum. Make sure you grasp the plan first and foremost. Great advice! Wise counsel!

Too often, in ministry, the pressures of the moment demand an swift, effective, and urgent response. I have to confess the tendency to look for products that work without asking the question “why.”

With the warning, my advisors provided a word of assurance: Lyle, when you understand the appropriate process that connects what God wants, how God’s people are designed and how the Fellowship Baptist systems work…then finding curriculum won’t be a problem.  It’s true. Over the years, I’ve been exposed to over 50 programs for leadership development, seen more books on leadership development than I can read, and discovered a world full of glossy courses and classes. The easy thing for anyone in church leadership would be to simply open a checkbook and start buying.

But, that just fulfills an old Chinese proverb: If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

Intention…Intention…Intention. I can’t read the Bible without realizing how important that word is to God. He created the world by design. He created humans for a purpose. He guides lives with a will. He fills life with meaning. He conducts Himself according to Intentions…and it’s no surprise that He would expect the same from us.

I love the way Phillips translates God’s command in Ephesians 5:15: Live life with a due sense of responsibility, not as those who do not know the meaning of life…but as those who do!

Every step taken toward Spiritual Maturity has to be “on purpose. Becoming a believer is an intentional act: if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord”, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.. Romans 10:9. Forming Spiritual disciplines is an intentional process: …make disciples…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded… Matthew 28:18-20. Learning to serve demands intentions: …each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms…I Peter 4:10.

In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of Leadership Development as process intended to prepare God’s people for works of service. It’s not hard to look at leadership development and expect it to be guided by required learning objectives and measured ministry experience. But, the fact is, that’s not where Intentions begin…it’s where they continue.

Over the next few months, I will be producing a number of initiatives from the Centre. After working with a design team representing 11 churches over the winter, I will be circulating the first template of a template for an in-church certificate in Christian Ministry: The Next Step. In April at the Convention, and then in May in a Centre-sponsored workshop, I will be initiating a leadership conversation network with church leaders. As I prepare for each initiative, I am duty-bound to focus on process first…and an intentional process at that.

I’ve discovered that the churches who provide the very best environment for leaders to grow are churches who don’t wait until it’s time to train leaders. That’s not where their intentions begin…it’s where they continue. In fact, the churches who have become the best culture to raise leaders are those who have made every step of discipleship a clearly understood path of purpose and meaning.

Turning the Chinese proverb around, they are churches who “know where they are going, and pave a road to get there!”

Key principles that God uses to get our attention

God’s Calling – Next Step. Identifying key principles that God uses to get our attention.

In the Bible, the term "call" does not simply describe God’s invitation for an elite few who might enter full-time ministry. In the last issue of Leadership Connection, ALL BELIEVERS were identified as "called people." Calling describes the way God expresses His will for Human lives: Believers are "called" to salvation – because it is God’s desire "that anyone perish, but everyone come to repentance" [II Peter 3:9]. When God expresses His will, you could say that the "voice" He uses issues a "Call." For whatever reason, whether it’s His will for people to find Him in salvation, grow in discipleship, or serve in ministry, when people respond to His call they do it is an act of faith, belief, and obedience. In essence, they become "bodies in motion." Each step they take in obedience creates a sense of momentum that God is able to direct and lead their lives.

That’s an important principle for believer’s to grasp. Not only because it extends the dignity of "calling" to all believers, but because it activates God’s presence into every corner of a believer’s life. It is this sense of Calling that makes all the difference in a believer’s life.

Not too long ago, I read what appeared to be a remarkable insightful assessment of North American Christianity written by the Swiss Theologian, Philip Schaff: [it is] more Petrine than Johannean; more like busy Martha than like the pensive Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. It expands more in breadth than in depth. It is often carried on like a secular business, and in a mechanical or utilitarian spirit. It lacks the beautiful enamel of deep fervor and heartiness, the true mysticism, an appreciation of history and the church; it wants the substratum of a profound and spiritual theology; and under the mask of orthodoxy it not infrequently conceals, without intending or knowing it, the tendency to abstract intellectualism and superficial rationalism. This is especially evident in the doctrine of the church and of the Sacraments, and in the meagerness of the worship … (wherein) nothing is left but preaching, free prayer, and singing.

Would it surprise anyone that Dr. Schaff wrote this assessment in 1854? In a century and a half, it doesn’t appear that much has changed. If anything, the spirit of "mechanical utilitarianism" [I  love the richness of that phrase] has become the hallmark of Church life and ministry. We don’t lack for an abundance of business or busyness in our fellowship. What we lack is a thorough sense of "calling" that enlivens every moment of life, including the moments invested in Kingdom service. Without the profound sense of God’s presence – of God’s involvement in every corner of life, ministry can become just another job, a sterile responsibility.and occupational drudgery.

That’s not the heritage God intended for His people. The most powerful voices of the Reformation, Calvin and Martin Luther rightfully identified the Biblical teaching that included ordinary work, ordinary life, as a matter of  spiritual "Calling." In 1520, Martin Luther put forth the case in The Babylonian Captivity – that the farmer in the field, or the farmer’s wife in the farmhouse, if they are doing their work by faith for the glory of God, are fulfilling as high and holy a calling as the pastor in the pulpit. The whole of life, lived in obedience to God’s will, becomes a matter of dignity and honor.

In his wonderful book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, Os Guinness writes If there is no Caller, there are no callings, only work. I have to think that every believer has the responsibility to recognize God’s interest in every corner of life. To deny His ability to "make the call" in simple things is a tragic mistake. It mutes His ability to speak in strategic ways at crucial moments.

We have the choice to make a critical decision with our life. We can choose to live ordinary lives doing ordinary things in ordinary ways without any extraordinary sense of purpose. Or, we can choose to invest time, talent, and treasure in obedience to God’s will and direction, no matter how simple it may seem, knowing that even the most simple investment welcomes the God who Speaks, who Calls, who Directs.

There is a word for the first choice, the ordinary option. It’s a life as Occupation. For too many, that’s about all there. Occupy, occupy a spot, a place, for a period of time. God intends so much more for all His people. For those who deliberately make the first choice, there is another, a treasured word that describes each moment of their day. Vocation. Whether it is washing dishes or composing sermons, their labor possesses the dignity that comes from purpose and meaning. It is an expression of obedience, it is Vocation.

Vocation is rooted in the Latin word vocare, [rooted in the Latin word vox – voice] which is exactly the same word call, which has an Anglo-Saxon root. If we were to be painstaking in our theology, the word Vocare would appear on the list of God’s attributes as one of His imminent qualities. He is a Calling God, one who speaks with clarity. When He speaks with a Vox and we respond with obedience, we discover Vocation, a life of divine presence and personal purpose and.

When it comes to discerning God’s Call, the most obvious questions tend to measure a sensitivity to God’s Work and Ministry needs: Is this a work God wants me to do? Is it a work that I am able to do? In reality, there are a deeper set of questions that measure that assess the quality of the human heart: Have I become a person able to find God present in all areas of life? Have I been faithful in even little things? What areas of my life have been reserved for God and His purpose? How could the rest of my life been lived to His service? Do I rely on His resources for only certain actions, or have I learned to depend on Him for it all? If I were to look in the quiet corners of life, do I sense the presence of God? What lessons has He taught me in those corners?

In an earlier generation, Brother Lawrence learned the nature and value of such discipline. His book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he refused to discriminate between the chores of life and the labor of ministry. He was determined to find the presence of God whether he was working in his kitchen or worshipping in his church. He had a simple daily prayer that opened a whole new realm of understanding, Lord of all pots and pans and things.make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.

It’s a curious thing to think that God would "make a saint" using simple chores. And, yet, that’s where the important lessons of ministry are learned.and discerned. Are you capable of faithfulness? Do you live in reliance upon God? Are you humble at heart? Are you able to serve? Are you willing to move according to His leading? [Next issue: 8 Heart-felt lessons that Measure God’s greater call.]