Tag Archives: God

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).

Pandemics, Patient Zero and a Theological Reflection



Media coverage of the Swine Flu epidemic is about as extensive as fear of catching the disease, though cases worldwide are relatively few at this point and only beginning to present themselves. The media features images of pigs, shots of the Mexican military handing out surgical masks, empty streets, sports stadiums, and restaurants, and hospital emergency rooms filled with long lines of anxious citizens.

Meanwhile, newscasters press upon guest medical experts questions like, "Will this flu burn itself out with relatively few casualties, or will it become another 1918?" "How many might be likely to die worldwide?" "Who’s at greatest risk?" "Should people be traveling abroad?" and "What precautions can one take to keep from becoming a victim?"

In the meantime, reports continue to roll in on the latest numbers of sick and dead in Mexico City and notices of the disease’s spread to various other countries throughout the world.

The virus holds potential to affect us all because its new, so no one’s immune. The world has grown very small through travel and the disease’s progress has outrun most attempts to contain it. It is also personal to me because my elderly mom, brother and sister-in-law are in Mexico just now. They headed off  before the news had broken clearly, hoping to have a relaxing and uneventful holiday.

If the outbreak becomes a pandemic, it won’t be the first. There have been notable pandemics in 1918, 1968 and 1975. Estimates suggest that the 1918 pandemic claimed between 20 and 50 million lives worldwide. 

This is all very unsettling.

Patient Zero

In the past day or so, there has been increasing media talk about "patient zero." Patient zero is the very first documented case of the disease. That person is of great interest to epidemiological investigation as a possible means to discovering the origin of the disease, mapping its spread and pursuing means to its eradication.

Sometimes there is great controversy and infamy attached to patient zero. Mary Mallon is a celebrated instance. She was an apparently healthy carrier of the disease typhoid fever. Many people were infected by her and she had to be quarantined to stop her spreading the deadly  disease. Dubbed "Typhoid Mary," she came to epitomize the carrier or transmitter of anything undesirable, harmful or catastrophic.

In the case of Mexican Swine flu, "patient zero" may be a little boy named Edgar in a small town called La Gloria. He and his family live near large pig farming operations. He had the disease in March.

A Cure?

The development of a vaccination looks to be weeks or even months away. So the world, it seems, is bound to live for the foreseeable future in an attitude of maximum uncertainty and anxiety.

The drug Tamiflu may be helpful at mitigating symptoms, but it is uncertain whether this is just with milder variations of the flu. The Mexican version of the virus may be more robust and so less responsive. A further problem is that a course of this medication costs about $200. It is out of reach to many millions of people the world over.

With about 3,000 official reported cases in Mexico so far,  and some 150 fatalities, the counsel to "Wash your hands" seems a rather meager stratagem.

 A Theological Reflection

I’d be a fool to assert specifically why this has all happened, beyond the general physical and theological observation that the world is broken and dangerous and we occupy our place in it dangerously and brokenly. But there will, no doubt, be those who confidently nominate themselves God’s spokespersons on this whole affair, declaring in most specific terms that Mexico City committed this or that sin and that is why people are getting sick and dying.

I’m neither a prophet nor an apostle. And I’m certainly not God.

Moreover, I’m cautioned by Jesus himself who ruled out the question of moral cause and effect in the specific circumstance when his own disciples asked it about a man born blind (John 9:1-7). Jesus declared the man’s tragic circumstance the opportunity for a demonstration of the miraculous, healing power of God in his life. 

I do, however, see the present worldwide threat as a powerful illustration–an extended metaphor, as it were–of the human predicament of sin before a holy God.

At Romans 5:12-21, Paul identifies Adam as "patient zero." He writes, "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men…" (v. 12) In this case, patient zero was fully culpable and universally infectious. His single action of rebellious independence from God was, has been, and will continue to be the physical and spiritual death of us all. No amount of human hand-washing or isolation is able to contain or neutralize the virulent contagion. The gates are down; the borders have been breached.

Paul continues that there is only one cure for the human predicament … and it was costly.

He writes, "if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!" (v. 15) As powerful and universally damaging as the "infection" of sin brought into the world by Adam was, God provided through his son Jesus a more powerful and effective "cure." His provision in the death of his son on a Roman cross for our sin is decisively effective and universally available to faith. 

The world desperately needs the cure. It should seize the cure. And it should celebrate the cure.


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."

The Church Transformed

One of the names I have come to trust and respect when it comes to understanding Church dynamics is George Bullard. For years, I have benefited from his analysis of everything from denominational renewal to congregational development. In an age where people seem eager to dismiss the Church, it is refreshing to find a man of wisdom and faith treating the Body of Christ with care. One of the early Church Fathers laid out a profound principle that seems somewhat lost in this generation: "No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother" (St Cyprian of Carthage) It seems as if George Bullard has made it a mission to keep the divine family intact.

Over the last few years, I have referred often to the extensive studies conducted by Bullard through the Columbia Partnership. Since the studies are frequently financed by grants and foundations, the results made available to a wide audience. During the Fall of 2008, has recently produced some interesting discoveries: Enduring Principles of Congregational Transformation.

Bullard introduced the issue by saying: Congregational Transformation, by various names, has been a focus for North American churches since the 1950’s. Over more than 50 various approaches and principles for transformation have been offered by numerous individuals and organizations. Some of these approaches and principles are enduring. Others are not.

I bear witness to the truth of this assessment. Due to a number of factors (not the least of which is the success of our Best Practices for Church Boards workshops) we have engaged in a growing interaction with Churches that are engaged in vision renewal and strategic reformation. TheFEBBC/Y Ministry Centre has initiated consultations to help congregations through the process, and I’ve researched and been trained in at least 5 of the 50 numbered by Bullard.

In light of all of that, Bullard’s Columbia Partnership conducted a survey to put the principles to test. They began with a catalog of 21 enduring principles in terms of perceived validity, strength, importance, and enduring nature. Things like: Continual transformation rather than one-time transformation, being both spiritual and strategic, balancing a focus between past and future, Kingdom growth rather than Church growth, vision plus intentionality.

"This research is confirming some very important principles, and also informing us where principles we believe are very important for the transformation of congregations have not yet caught on," wrote George Bullard.

The preliminary results of the survey are beginning to make their way into the public record, and I would commend them as food for thought. Persons interested in a summary of the complete preliminary results and a PowerPoint presentation that contains a presentation of the results may send a request to client.care@thecolumbiapartnership.org.

At the risk of sounding like the shopping channel: But WAIT, there’s MORE! The survey is still open, and I would encourage pastors and church leaders to weigh in with their results to provide a more robust and full picture that would benefit us all. You can access the survey at:

Oh, and while you are there, I would encourage you to visit the home page for even more resources and even sign up for the free newsletter.

The Anatomy of Atheistic Slogans

I’m sure some have heard the slogans about to appear on city buses, from Montreal to Vancouver, many times before in their lives. Two of them run as follows; "There’s probably No God", or "There is no God so Stop Worrying". O really? Is this the best that atheistic societies can come up with? Why not use the more forceful and certainly more interesting "God is Dead!" slogan on Frederic Nietzsche. You cannot help but feel for these folk as they attempt to come to grips with their minority status in the realm of ideas today. As for "worrying" what God might mean for our lives, this slogan completely misses the mark. Even avid theists stopped worrying about what God means for them long ago. One might call these people ‘theoretical theists but practical atheists’. They populate the pews of nearly every church in the land, including the most conservative of Evangelical churches. We theologians call this condition the late modern religious malaise. Our lives in the west have been so comfortable and self-sustaining over the last 60 plus years that one only need nod in the direction of the divine, now and then. The rest of the time God can be forgotten. If our times have any distinguishing feature it is not atheism or theism but, as the Germans say, Gottesgewissenheit, or ‘God-forgetfulness.’There is no God poster

We might have seen something of a return to concern about our relation to the divine in the current circumstances, perhaps even a substantial increase in such since 9/11, but by and large the last half of the 20th, and the dawn of the 21st, century in the west was hardly marked by a theistically induced angst, given the socio-economic situation. If there is an overwhelming slogan for what is really going on it would be "God is forgotten" or "forget God and live as you please". This was the condition of Israel as stated at the end of the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible where it says "everyone did as he saw fit." (Jdg. 21:25) We in the west have not viewed God as a serious threat to our existence since the rumbling guns of WW I & II faded away in the 1950’s.

While we are perhaps headed for another round of questioning our existence in relation to the divine in the not to distant future, we are hardly there yet. A lot more has to happen before the tenuousness of our existence is so forced on our horizon that we are driven to a re-examination of our lives in relation to the possibility of the existence of the divine. The fact is the softness with which these slogans are putting the question may well engender a new and fresh round of clear, unmitigated theism. Perhaps a better slogan might be "Shush! God is Asleep" or "Please Don’t Wake God." Atheists would have better success in furthering their agenda if they promoted this practical atheism then raising the specter of theoretical atheism, which is sure to be met by an equally ardent theism, especially from the serious followers of God in the so-called "monotheistic faiths." C’mon you can do better than that can’t you. Perhaps the problem is the reverse for atheists that it is for theists. Perhaps they have become so accustomed to living life without God that they secretly miss fighting with God and are now bucking for a fresh brew-ha-ha with the divine, and God’s supporters. One cannot help thinking though that their slogans are just as insipid as the practical atheism of the theists. Picture a big yawn from the current writer at this point, and do wake me up when this is over.

As for the slogan "There’s Probably No God", this is said with all the gusto of a politician, testing the waters to see if he/she should venture the "full Monty" and say outright, "there is no God". Perhaps they are awaiting the polling data on this slogan. This slogan will only invite the opposite sentiment, "perhaps there is a God" in the mind of the reader of such a slogan? What then? How should we live even if God is only ever confined to the realm of probability, either way? Perhaps this is the secret angst that sits at the heart of the late modern religious malaise? We cannot seem to break the spell of Kantanian agnosticism. All of our reasoning either for or against leaves us both wanting more and less of the divine? In fact, the slogan really does point to the real struggle the atheists are having. Since their reason militates against the affirmation of God, but does not permit them absolute proof, they are always suspended in (dis)-belief. They exist in a kind of intellectual "no-mans-land" (with due respect to "women" here). The best they can hope for is that we will be reaffirmed in out late modern religious malaise and continue to forget about God. But again they are begging the question when they put it out there is such a public way. What happens if the net result of their advertising issues in a re-affirmation of strong theism in the land generally. How will they spend the next several years in their discussion groups? What ever will they do with the rest of their advertising money? How will they come to grips with the money they wasted? Here’s a slogan for you theists out there, "There Are No Real Atheists so Stop Worrying." I know I already have. God will be God in the Freedom that is God’s to be God and not a wit of whit from theists or atheist will change that! So good night and sleep tight!

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.

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (1-2)

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.

2. In order to successfully plug in to a culture, I must spend time to get to know people

bridging a culture is the depth of relationships with people in that culture

This seems obvious. However, I have learned that the deception surrounding this issue can be subtle. Although I spent time around people at the Korean church, I needed to expend more prayer, energy, and intention being with people. My time at this church has connected me more solidly with the principle that success at bridging a culture is the depth of relationships with people in that culture. This means not just spending time doing church ministry together, but spending time together doing other things as well. Lingenfelter states:

We cannot hold office hours for the people to whom Christ has called us to minister. We must adjust our time schedules, meeting them whenever they have need and turning to our own tasks only after we have completed our ministry to them…1

One important key here, I believe, is the discipline it takes to get the work done efficiently and at the times God gives. Thus I have been convicted of the importance of time management. Disciplined time management ensures that the windows needed to spend time with people are available and stress-free. In addition to this, prayer combined with focused intent to build relationships provides the means to dig into culture and become a part of it. I think Paul was quite familiar with all of this. He wrote to the Thessalonians (2:8,11-12):

We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us…we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God…

and he also said to the Ephesians (5:14-15): “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

1. The most important lessons in cross-cultural ministry are still the most basic lessons.

While knowledge regarding contextualization, cultural practices, and language acquisition skills is essential, the real heart of cross-cultural ministry remains the same in any situation. I would argue that there are 3 interrelated values that form this core. First, we are called to walk by the Spirit, and not by the flesh (Galatians 5:16-26). This overcoming of sin and Satan in our lives is fundamental to the effective witness of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:27). Overcoming sin is also essential to the second value: our capacity to love and serve others. Third, as we love and serve others and overcome sin, our obedience to God proceeds towards fullness.

the foundation of missions: Christian unity

Philippians 2:1-8 reveals that this fullness of obedience to Christ characterizes our unity. In turn, Christ emphasized unity is essential to our mission in John 17:21: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and also in John 13:35: “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Together, these principles of victory over sin, love and submission to each other, and submission to Christ form the foundation of missions: Christian unity. I do not recall encountering teaching that integrated the concepts of missions in this way.2 It was in the absence of emphasis on the connectedness of these topics this semester that prompted me to think about how basic Scriptural teaching impacts the missionary endeavour. This has been very beneficial to me, because I believe that I can now better integrate these concepts with the other missions theology and concepts I am learning.


  • 1Lingenfelter & Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships 88.
  • 2However see A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Darrell L. Guder, ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998 and Van Gelder, C. The Essence of the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Press, 2001

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 (5-6)

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.

6. Failure to learn and understand a foreign culture can incapacitate the credibility of the missionary

In Islam, the Qur’an itself is considered a Holy Artifact. It is never allowed to rest directly on the ground, but must be placed on a special stand. Western Christianity, on the other hand, often downplays the significance of any object or ritual. This is usually done in order to avoid idolatry, and to place emphasis on the holiness of God. Thus for Westerners, the Bible is often perceived as ‘another book.’ We often have no trouble using the Bible in less than ‘holy’ ways such as placing it on the floor. Should Muslims observe a Christian missionary treating the word of God in our usual fashion, they could consider Christians as having no reverence toward God. The Christian would lose his or her credibility as a messenger of the Gospel.

people from cultures with a high reverence for spiritual things may perceive my prayers as irreverent

I can relate to this experience somewhat. During the semester I developed a relationship with a man from Iran. On one occasion, I offered to pray for his business, which was having trouble hiring an employee. After the prayer I realized that I often use very casual and informal language when praying, especially with those who are not Christians. While this may work in a Canadian context, people from cultures with a high reverence for spiritual things may perceive my prayers as irreverent. This could cause me to lose credibility as a messenger of God. I need to be cautious of this dynamic in cross-cultural ministry situations. Paul noted his own desire to remain credible in 1 Corinthians 19-22.

5. Be aware of the tendency towards ‘cultural imperialism.’

The tendency for missionaries (and humans in general) is to perceive their own culture as the ‘right way’ of doing things .1 There have been many examples of Western missionaries who insisted that planted churches mirror those in from the West. This imposition of Western culture makes evangelism less effective, and limits the relevance of the Gospel message. There is a bigger picture here as well. As noted by Alister E. McGrath, theologies allowed to grow “organically” in a foreign culture add creative insight to the global theological spectrum that Western theology, on its own, cannot produce.2

[There is a] need to discern the interaction between the authority of Scripture and culture

This has made me more aware of the need to discern the interaction between the authority of Scripture and culture. When teaching Biblical principles in a multi-ethnic setting (or any setting for that matter), I need to be conscious of how my own cultural lens may be affecting what I am presenting. Additionally, I will need to be sensitive of my fleshly tendency to judge other culture practices according to my culture, and not according to Scripture.


  • 1Sherwood G. Lingenfelter & Marvin K. Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 22.
  • 2Alister E. McGrath, The Future of Christianity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002), 140-144.

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).

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (9-10)

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.

10. Be aware of creating dependencies

In the “Overseas Life Issues” module at Gateway, a story of a church planting project was recounted. The story occurred in a developing country that had little resources. The church building constructed there by outsiders was far more advanced than locals could do using their own resources. Later, it became apparent that the locals were not building any of their own churches. The missionaries realized that this was because the locals felt that their ability to build church buildings was inadequate. The locals believed that the missionaries had constructed an “ideal” church. They felt powerless to meet that standard, since they lacked the resources and supplies necessary. Unable to function on their own, the locals became dependent upon the missionaries.

help in a way that does not create dependent relationships

This concept may find Biblical support from Acts 3:1-10. Peter and John did not give the crippled man money as per his request, but healed him in a way that would allow him to leave his life of dependency.

This has relevance for my local international student ministry. We want to meet the felt needs of students, but we must be careful in how we do so. International students can sensitive about receiving too much support, especially if they belong to a shame/honour based culture. Though these international students are in a position of need because of their newness to our culture, lack of transportation etc., our ministry needs to be very conscious to help in a way that does not create dependent relationships, make students feel ‘needy,’ or otherwise hinder the true spiritual impact that is required.

9. Different cultures have strengths and weaknesses in their expressions of church.

these strengths come from the Korean culture

When I first attended a Korean church I found that it had two strengths over churches that I have been a member of. The first was their hospitality and sense of community. Each Sunday I attend 3 services: a morning service for leadership, a late morning service for the English speaking Koreans, and an afternoon service for young adults. Each of these services is separated by a fellowship time where everyone gathers in the cafeteria. Brunch and Lunch are served. Hospitality was shown as well–several people made efforts to welcome me. The second thing that attracted me to the church was the sheer volume of people involved in serving the church. The number of pastoral staff, Sunday school teachers, worship team members, choir members, kitchen staff, and others is leagues beyond what I remember seeing in my own home churches. Both hospitality and service to the church community seem to be core values, and as far as I can see, these strengths come from the Korean culture.

What appears on the outside as servant hearted idealism is not without is flaws, however. Several young people I talked reported that people are appointed in leadership who are not ready to be in teaching or leadership positions. Additionally, some of the younger leaders seem to be overworked, or very close to it. While member involvement seems to be a strength in the Korean church, there are areas for growth here as well.

Personally, this has opened my eyes to the importance of engaging a different cross cultural context to see different perspectives of church expression. This helps me both to understand my personal church expression, as well as to see ways in which it can improve. I think John S. Leonard made a good point: “[the church in between cultures] would see sin where monocultural churches do not and call for repentance. It could just be the church that is capable of leading God’s people into whatever the future might be.”1


  • 1 John S. Leonard. “The Church in Between Cultures: Rethinking the Church in the Light of the Globalization of Immigration,” EMQ Vol 40 No. 1 (Jan 2004): 70.

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:


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.

Who’s Ready For Change?

When we first began to address the health of church leadership through the Best Practices for Church Boards workshops, it didn’t take long to realize the wide range of potential that existed. Soon after the first workshop, the need to train individuals for board leadership was expressed … answered by the Personal Edition. Immediately, church boards began to express a shared desire to explore critical issues … giving rise to the Advanced Workshop. All along the way, we have been building a toolbox of resources for church leaders. So, it was only natural that churches would propel us to a higher level of response.

One of the more critical requests that emerged was for the sort of personal consultation that a church would receive as help in plotting out a future plan. The Advanced Workshop of 2007 focused on that process. The Role of the Board in Strategic Planning and Vision Development, as prepared by Dr. Horita, helped chart a process that would help church leaders fulfill the first of their two board governing imperatives: To Direct. [The second imperative, as identified by Jim Brown in his book The Imperfect Board Member … is “to protect”, but that’s another topic in itself.]

To Direct … the mandate to sense God’s unique purpose [vision] for a congregation and plot a specific course into that future [strategic plan.] As an initial topic, the advanced workshop only whetted the appetite. Over the last year, we’ve begun to discover just how many churches would ask for help to pursue the process.

For over a year, I have focused my research on various agencies who provide such help: consultation, coaching… At last count, I had reviewed 12 different programmed responses, and received training and certification in 4. These range from Outreach Canada’s Vision Renewal to Christian Swartz’s Natural Church Development … to Church Central’s Church Coaching, George Bullard’s Spiritual Journeys … the list is long. It’s been a fascinating study. I’ve discovered a number of features that are unique to each. I’ve also discovered that each have their own similar outline.

One of the great assets that we have gained as the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches has been the experience of our new president, Dr. John Kaiser. His partnership with Dr. Paul Borden has given us an inside view of  a process [Growing Healthy Churches] that has led to the Church Consultation Process that Dr. Horita has begun to deploy. That, along with the wide variety of resources that we’ve studied has open a repertoire of tools that allows us to address the unique character of each church.

One of the central issues that unlocks the process in any congregation is a readiness to change. I was fascinated to note, in my research, that change is a natural element to institutional life. In one study, it was noted that thirty years ago, churches could expect programs to have a life-cycle of approximately 5 years. It would take one to two years for people to settle on a mission, and a method, and start a ministry – that would remain effective for approximately 5 years before it would lose it’s impact and need to change.

For any number of reasons, the speed of society has shrunk the “shelf-life” of ministry. In 2006, a study posted online with Leadership Journal reported that programs now have a life-cycle of 2 to 3 years. The required time for preparation has remained the same. But, the speed of life has accelerated the need for change.

Several weeks ago, I met with a group of church leaders who have expressed a desire for a Church Consultation. As I sought to expose them to the path that they would face, we began by addressing the word: Change.

In one of the better books I’ve found on the subject, Leading Change in the Congregation [Alban Institute Publications, 2001] Gilbert Rendle writes “Working with congregations in change is not a dispassionate proposition. While working with goals and programs of the congregation, leaders will also be confronted with emotions … It is important for leaders to know what they and their congregation are feeling …The more helpful response of leaders is to wonder and question what message the feelings being expressed carry for the congregation.” [p. 106-107]

I found that it was really helpful to adapt an exercise from Rendle’s book [The Roller Coaster of Change] by asking the leaders to assess their personal attitude toward risk and change. I know it sounds simple, but my suspicion is that when you boil it down, people have one of two fears when it comes to change: They fear that there will be TOO MUCH change … or … they fear that there will be TOO LITTLE change.

We used a simple scale 1 to 5. 1 represented those who tend to fear ANY change as too much: they value stability above all else. The thought of change can be hateful to them. 5, on the other hand, represented those who delight in change and fear that they won’t get enough to satisfy their eagerness: they value creativity and flexibility.

Once we settled on the definitions, I asked the leaders to do three things: Using the scale – a line of 1 to 5 – they were to, each one, put 3 letters: M – where they felt that the majority of the membership in the congregation would land … L – where they felt that the leadership of the church was most comfortable as a group … and I – where they, personal, would identify their own attitude toward change.

The results were fascinating. They discovered that as a group of leaders, they shared more than they had expected – and were “readier” than they had thought to face the challenge. They also discovered, after some conversation, how they would be able to care for the congregation as they began to discuss new directions for the future. It gave them a place to begin.

It’s an assessment, I believe, that every group of leaders should take according to the responsibility to provide direction. As the advertisements say, results may vary … but insight is required as leaders seek to refresh vision, renew commitments, focus with clarity and serve with great effect.

“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.


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

Into Great Silence

I’ll confess to enjoying good movie, especially ones that evoke a sense of meaning. So, when ChristianityTodayMovies came out with their top 10 Critic’s choice movies of 2007, I was intrigued by #10 on the list: Into Great Silence. Once I read the review [http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/commentaries/quiettime.html] I knew that I had to see the movie.
In 1984, the German documentarist, Philip Groning, sought permission to film life at the monastery of Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble in the French Alps. The monastery is of the Carthusian order, the most ascetic – and silent – of all monastic orders. It’s no surprise that having written his request in 1984 it took 16 years before he received a reply allowing him [and only him – no film crew, no artificial lighting – just him and a camera] to record life with the monks for 6 months. The product is a film, 162 minutes long, composed of silent prayers, simple tasks, tender rituals, and a rare excursion. [My favorite is of the monks – both young and old – enjoying a rare day of conversation and fellowship while sledding down a hillside of snow on their robes. Who knew that men, so silent, could whoop it up like children.]
Unlike any movie I’ve ever seen, at first I couldn’t detect a plot. There were no car chases, and sometimes the only action in the span of five minutes was the occasional movement of lips or flutter of an eyelash as a monk was bowed in prayer. Just watching the film was a conviction that I was witnessing a discipline of spirit totally foreign to my experience. In one frame, a blind monk simply sits in prayer. At first, it appeared to be a still shot. But, in the background, through a window, you could see the clouds sweeping past the mountain peaks in time-lapse photography. The artistry of the moment continues to haunt me as a vision of something utterly eternal [prayer] circled by the currents of time and space.
It’s a movie of impressions, and while I thought that it was without a plot, I’ve since discovered that the plot is in fact much more profound even as it was so much more subtle. I have found myself revisiting the scenes frequently, unlike any other movie, intrigued as I reflect on a dimension of life and soul that challenge me. As Brandon Fibbs wrote in his review: You are aware, while watching, of just how much you have and just how much you lack; of the omnipresence of the divine in the most mundane of activities; of the pervasive majesty of the natural world utterly squelched by our urban lives; of the inspiration these men arouse. To watch this film is to be humbled. To watch this film is to be in awe. Into Great Silence is a transformative theatrical experience, a spiritual encounter, an exercise in contemplation and introspection, a profound meditation on what it means to give oneself totally and completely, reserving nothing, to God.
Twice in the last week, I have had quiet and tender conversations with very dear friends. Both have been struck by illnesses that have forced them into stillness. Both have lived accomplished lives and freely express their addiction to business as well as busyness. But, now, both are coming to terms with stillness. One, unable to move without aid, the other unable to sustain much energy. Both struggle with finding meaning in their day. And, yet, there is a way where God makes His presence known. It is not easy. Just watching a movie left me exhausted after two hours. I struggle to imagine what it would be like to live a sustained [and enforced] life of stillness. It’s a discipline, but one with a reward for those willing to learn.

The perception of a loving church depends on where you stand

In the book UnChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), which deals with research from the Barna group, David Kinnaman refers to a survey which asked the participants to agree or disagree with the statement, “Christian churches accept and love people unconditionally, regardless of how people look or what they do” (p. 185). 20% of non church goers (outsiders) agreed strongly, just over 40 % of church goers agreed strongly, but 76% of pastors strongly agreed that this statement described Christian churches.

The discrepancy is intriguing. Do the pastors have a good sense of reality based on personal experience, or is this an expression of their desire for this statement to be true? Have the outsiders been biased by unfair reports, or have they had negative experiences that contradict the statement?

I suspect that part of the discrepancy has to do with the difference between standing inside looking out verses standing outside and looking in. For example, I have a love / hate relationship with hospitals. I think they are wonderful but I am happiest if I don’t have to be inside one. When visiting I feel quite out of place and uncertain about what I am permitted to do and am always relieved to leave. On the other hand, my daughter, Becky, has just completed her nurse’s training. She enjoys the environment, loves to be busy and experiences significance as she helps the patients. The hospital is the same, it is our separate and distinct relationships with and experience of the hospital that is different. It is a matter of perspective.

those of us who are church goers need to learn to speak another language of love

This illustration may parallel the contrasting perspectives between pastors and the outsiders described by Kinnaman. What looks like love to the pastors is seen through another lens by the outsiders and experienced as uncomfortable, judgmental or cold. Most likely the relationships and environment of church speak differently to outsiders. Perhaps their language of love is different from what is normally expressed in church. If this is so, then those of us who are church goers need to learn to speak another language of love, one that is understood by those outside of the church.

This missional stance – becoming like others, as opposed to inviting others to become like us – has even greater urgency when relating cross-culturally. What is considered comfortable, familiar and accepting varies from culture to culture. Cross-cultural experiences tend to be stressful due to the many unfamiliar cues which bombard the person who is not used to the setting, cues that need to be interpreted. In that context even expressions intended to communicate love and acceptance can be misunderstood or judged negatively. On the other hand, when God’s people learn how to make people from another culture feel comfortable and accepted by speaking that people group’s language of love, rather than waiting for others to conform to the church’s way of relating, then the experience of the outsider will correspond to the perspective of the insider.

The Prayer That Never Fails…

In February I wrote a posting about the book series Home To Harmony by Philip Gulley. My suspicion is that just about every pastor I know has enough material to write their own series of stories. A theological version of All Creatures Great and Small, if you will. While few of us pastors who will actually sit down and do the hard work of writing “memoirs” whether fictionalized or not, there are a few out there that have written stories that bring ministry to life.
One well-meaning friend sniffed at my suggestion that “as much could be learned about pastoral theology by reading such books as by reading a Systematic theology.” It was as if human tales were too base or crass for the elevated vocation of the pastorate. I begged to differ. If anything, my experience is that it’s in the simple corners of life where theology comes alive. It’s where I’ve learned my most enduring lessons of what there is about God that is true, and there is about the Gospel that endures.
It’s with that thought that I add another series of stories for the record. For many, the name is so familiar: The Mitford Years and The Father Tim novels  by Jan Karon [http://www.mitfordbooks.com/] Once again, the stories are drawn from a small town, this time in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The pastor, an Episcopalian [Anglican for Canadians] priest named Father Tim lives out a ministry among a “crazy quilt of saints and sinners – lovable eccentrics all.” It’s a faith that is simple, daily, gentle and routine. His life isn’t driven by growth statistics. Instead, it’s the sum of an abundance of subtle mysteries and tender miracles.
Throughout the stories, there is a reference made to “the prayer that never fails.” It seems that whenever Father Tim or someone close is facing an insurmountable situation, the phrase is used. In her book Out To Canaan, I finally found out what that prayer was. The only prayer that never fails? Thy will be done… Simple words, yet utterly profound. And, today, Maundy Thursday – a date on the liturgical calendar largely lost to too many – there’s an echo, not just of the Lord’s Prayer which we should all be praying … but the Lord as He prayed with His own unique introduction: nevertheless, not my will … but Thine be done.

Squeezed into a Mold

The Christian life is filled with delightful "coincidences"–confluences of life events with Scripture that give an unmistakable impression of the active oversight of God.

Conformity to the world is as deeply and extensively damaging as  transformation by the renewing of our minds is deeply and extensively beneficial and God-honouring.

This past week I had an email interchange with my pastor. He was preaching on Romans 12:2 which declares, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approved what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will." The question was whether conformity to the world is merely an outward shallow act and transformation is inward. That’s what a few of the older commentaries say.

We discovered through the conversation and the resources we looked at together that "Paul is not merely concerned that believers will outwardly conform to this age. He is worried that their adaptation to this world will shape them in every dimension of their lives." (T. Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 646f.) Conformity to the world is as deeply and extensively damaging as  transformation by the renewing of our minds is deeply and extensively beneficial and God-honouring.

This really strikes at the lie we too frequently tell ourselves that we are only "shadowing" the world’s tastes and behaviours and that it won’t affect us "deep down" because we’re Christians and that’s not "where we really live." So, the distinction is a false one and we’re only getting ourselves into profound spiritual trouble by entertaining the negative when we should be rejecting it in favour of the alternative embrace of "transformation."

As circumstance would have it, I learned first hand that being squeezed into a mold is not just external or superficial.

Brian in a plaster moldThat same week, my daughter asked me to model for her for a major art show she is preparing. It consisted in adopting a pose and staying still while she applied plaster of paris to me to create a full body mold. The event was memorable! I donned track shorts and an old t-shirt and she put me into a prone position on the tile floor. By the way, she asked, had I gone to the bathroom? Once the plaster was applied, I wouldn’t be able to move for as long as an hour or so.

Being squeezed into a mold is definitely not superficial. As I lay on tile floor and the plaster was applied, I began to feel the increasing weight and pressure on every place that was covered. Soon, as the plaster began to harden, it was not the weight alone but an increasing constriction of movement that began to intrude. I was entombed!

My daughter warned me that as the plaster began to harden it would heat up a bit. A bit! Not only did it heat up, but my daughter began to move around my encased and gradually hardening cocoon applying further heat with a hair dryer to hasten the hardening!

As the mold hardened around me, I became completely constricted. Muscles and joints don’t do very well when completely immobilized. I started to cramp.

I was immensely relieved to be removed out of the mold after the required hardening time. What an ordeal! Weight, heat, constriction, immobility … and pain!

Pastor, I can now tell you from a very personal experience, being pressed into a mold does go deep deep down.  It’s far from a superficial thing. I’ll choose transformation!

Home to Harmony

One of my greater joys comes from time shared with my “A-Team” which I affectionately call the tiny band of brothers and sisters in our CLD Affinity Group. The group has grown over the years to several dozen, each called by God into a wide array of ministry in the church. They study hard. The course material is intense and demanding. But, I guess that my job is make it real. After all, ministry is much more than the formulas taught in books. The reality is that theories dissolve into the fabric of human life.

The subject of study this semester is Power, Change, and Conflict. To be honest, I am impressed with the material that the students are expected to read. But, if it were up to me, I’d add a few books to the list. And, I’d probably start with one – Home to Harmony by Philip Gulley.

Philip is a simple, Quaker pastor in Danville, Indiana – gifted with the grace of story. He has written what has become a series of books about a simple, Quaker pastor in the fictional village of Harmony, Indiana. Some have likened his stories to James Harriott’s All Creatures Great and Small or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon tales. will probably never be compared to Lyle Schaller or John Maxwell or any other authority in Leadership studies – but, it’s evident, he knows the life of pastoral leadership with an intimacy that befits ministry.

His stories include an array of characters all too familiar to too many pastors: petty “dictators” like Dale Hinshaw, congregational “queens” like Fern Hampton, wizened saints like Miriam Hodge. There are theories that help discern the dynamics of power, change and conflict – but somehow finding them come alive in a story makes it so much more human. And, I have to believe that when pastoral ministry is seen in humanity, it becomes much more divine.

So, for just a moment, allow me the heresy of suggesting that you set aside Barth’s Theology, or Maxwell’s Leadership or even Anderson’s Preaching [forgive me!] for just a moment – and read what happens when people become church, and pastors become people. For a sample, give it a try: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/151/story_15151_1.html

Northwest Alumni Connections Magazine – 2008

Update: April15, 2008

It is here!  The 2008 Northwest Alumni Connections magazine is off the press!  If you have not received one by the end of April and would like one see the order form below.


Dear Fellow Alumni,

For each of the past 4 years connecting with Northwest Alumni and publishing the Northwest Alumni Connections magazine has been a great highlight for me.  Hearing from fellow Alumni has reminded me again and again why I do what I do.

We are poised to publish the 2008 edition of the magazine – NAC 2008 – and I want to hear from you.  You can email me at loren.warkentin@twu.ca or you can use this form to send me an update on yourself, your family and what God has called you to participate in for His kingdom’s sake.  Because I want to fit in as many alumni as I can, please keep your write-up concise. I can only use between 140 and 180 words each.

I would also like you to send me a color digital photo of your self (and your family).  If you are using this internet submission form then you will need to also send me an e-mail with the photo attached to it (my address is above).  Here are some things to keep in mind for the photo:

  • Make sure it is a color photo – since the magazine is in color.
  • Make sure the photo has good lighting and isn’t out of focus.
  • Be sure that faces fill the main part of the photo.  I like scenery shots but that is not what this magazine is about.
  • Please be sure to identify everyone in the photo. 
  • The photo must be of a high resolution – so unless the photo is over 1 megabyte in size don’t compress it when you e-mail it (sometimes email programs like Microsoft Outlook will ask before you attach a photo).  If the "print size" is a 4"X6" or a 5"X7" at 300dpi that will give me lots to work with.

Please make sure that your mailing information is correct so that I can send your copy as soon as it is off the press.  The target date for that is the beginning of April.  You can use the form below to update your information.

I am looking forward to hearing from you.  Thank you for your participation. 


Loren Warkentin

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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.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology #3

Reason #3.

Philosophy Needs Theology

Why do we need theology when we already have philosophy? Precisely the reason we need theology! Theology, at a minimum, is a constant reminder to human wisdom that a transcendent judgment stands over all human attempts to arrive at God through pure human sapentia alone. God’s wisdom stands over against human wisdom. The real basis of human wisdom as such must be found in God’s own self-revelation. Thus theology must be the real ground of all love of wisdom.

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.

More Prayer

When I had once mentioned that I collected prayers, a friend quickly sent me a copy of the Prayer of Jabez, a book written by Bruce Wilkinson in 2000 based on a prayer found in I Chronicles 4:9-10: And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep from evil that I may not cause pain.” So, God granted him what he requested.

On the surface, the prayer seemed innocent enough. But, I found the instructions that came in the book a bit troubling. It was a word of challenge that Wilkinson gave: I challenge you to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life. To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit.

The book became a bestseller, number one on the New York Times non-fiction list, selling over nine million copies. I suppose what troubled me wasn’t the matter of prayer, but the practice it inspired. I quickly became aware of many friends who took it to heart – fully expecting prosperity to break out in all corners of their life. I’m not convinced that the prayer, itself, carried the promise of affluence or success. But for many, that became the aspiration.

Which was why I was attracted to a brief article, written in Christianity Today by Adam Hamilton, a pastor in Leawood, Kansas. As a church-planter, he discovered that church leaders needed to be focused not on themselves and their own personal success, but on the Will of God and the purpose of Christ. As he wrote: Some have found in the Prayer of Jabez a foundation upon which to build their lives. For me and our church family, it is one of John Wesley’s prayers that has shaped us – heart and soul … a prayer often called the “Wesleyan Covenant.”

While I’ve added the Prayer of Jabez to my list of prayers, the Wesleyan Covenant has become a guide in prayer toward to the essence of what it means for me to be a man of God:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it. Amen.

John Wesley

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.

Chronological Bible Storying

My friend and mentor, Grant Lovejoy, sent me a link this morning to the new website for Chronological Bible Storying. The website offers the methodology, research, and reports from the field into this powerful way of preaching to oral and indigenous cultures.

According to the website, "Chronological Bible Storying (CBS) is the process of encountering God by telling the stories of the Bible. In CBS we tell Bible stories without interruption or comment and we tell them in the order that they happened in time. Afterward we discuss each story and its significance for our lives. Each story builds on those that came before; as a result, the overarching message of the Bible becomes clear and we discover our own place in God’s story."

The oral nature of communication within many of the people groups of the world is a major motivator for those championing CBS. "Though literacy has developed and spread its reach around the globe, a majority of the world’s people still live day to day by the spoken word, by orality. Some people live by oral communication out of necessity; their language may not have a written form or they may not have acquired literacy in school."

When people live primarily by means of orality, memory becomes a major feature in everyday life. People in oral cultures prefer the familiar and are slow to accept new information, especially when it does not come in a memorable format. Chronological Bible Storying is a way of communicating the truths of Scripture in a format that is both memorable and familiar to the recipients.

The good news is that this format is an effective way of training locals to communicate the gospel. The opportunity for the spread of the gospel is exponential. In a report from South Asia, for example, training in CBS is multiplying its impact. A missionary reports, "The 48 men who have now finished their first year of training say that they are formally training another 553 storytellers. Of these, 439 have 10-15 men and women each to whom they are telling the stories.  So every story we teach is perhaps being taught to 5,000 people immediately–most of whom are not yet believers. You can imagine the potential for God’s Word to work in these thousands of lives!"

Other helpful websites on this theme include oralbible.com and wycliffe.org. Chronological Bible Storying is an initiative of the International Mission Board.

Snowflake Prayer

I was intrigued by a comment that I overheard some time ago to the effect that “prior to the age of Sunday School, the most influential instrument used to instruct Christians was Worship.” It was through the liturgy of worship that people learned theology – as they recited the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed from week to week. It was through the liturgy of worship that people learned to read and make sense of the Scripture as it was read, week to week. And, it was through the liturgy of worship that people learned the language of prayer as together they prayed prayers of confession and shared litany’s of request and thanksgiving.

In recent years, as I’ve sensed a decline in Sunday School for adult education, I suspect that we have returned to the place where the burden of instruction is to be found in worship. And that troubles me, especially when it comes to prayer. Too often the prayers I’ve experienced in evangelical worship have not reflected careful thought, nor have they drawn out the voice of God’s people – which only makes me value the treasury of prayer that I’ve been collecting over the years.

Years ago, I began to collect what I discovered to be significant prayers. A significant prayer being one crafted with care, able to give voice to the depth of heart, and one that stimulates even greater expression of prayer as it is prayed again and again and again.

Some of the prayers are quite simple. One that I’ve included in my cycle of daily devotion I discovered in an old tattered used book simply titled Pray by Charles Francis Whiston. It was called the “snowflake” prayer, a title just odd enough to capture my imagination. As Whiston explained, an isolated snowflake melts quickly. But, when joined by other snowflakes over time, a snowflake becomes a glacier – able to carve channels through the hardest rock. It was a way to describe the discipline of prayer, especially commending the practice of using the outline of one prayer as a template for each day. The outline of this prayer has, over time, gained a glacial weight in my life. And, for that reason, I find my self commending it to anyone who wants it. It’s my adaptation:

Gracious Heavenly Father, in obedience to Your claim on my life, I surrender myself to You this day. All that I am, all that I have, to be wholly and unconditionally to You and for Your using. Take me away from myself, and my sinful preoccupation with self, and use me as You will, when You will, and with whom You will. Take away by loving force all that I will not give to You. And help me to know that having been crucified with Christ, I no longer live but that He lives in me, so that the life I love today, I would live by faith in the One who loved me and gave Himself for me. This I pray in His name, and for His sake. Amen

Church Talk: Discerning New Ministry Leaders

In 2007 Amal Henein and Francoise Morissette published Made in Canada Leadership. Wisdom from the Nation’s Best and Brightest on Leadership Practice and Development. They argue that "in each of us rests the potential for leadership, but the response and measure depend on us….We are all called to lead"(58). They discovered that parental influence and leadership identity are linked. Parents can model what leadership looks like — making it visible for their children.

They also discovered the some "have a passion and disposition for leadership early on", but in contrast some individuals "stumble upon leadership by accident"(61).  Those who enter leadership by accident tend to be reluctant participants,  but, motivated by a desire to serve, they step forward, often when things are in crisis and no one else is willing to do it. The innate leader, however, instinctually grasps leadership opportunities. Over time both kinds of experience result in effective leadership.

What I found surprising is that two thirds of current leaders placed themselves in the accidental category and only one third in the innate group.

I think their results have significant implications for our understanding of ministry leadership development in the church. Every believer is called by God to exercise influence for the Gospel, i.e. to be a leader. The Holy Spirit within us empowers us to grasp and accomplish this leadership. Some will exercise leadership in the church as pastors or missionaries or youth directors. Others will express a quieter leadership, mentoring others one on one, parenting their families, leading a small group, being responsible for maintaining good facilities — there are countless ways.

What we need to grasp is that ‘accidental leaders’ must learn "to see themselves as leaders through others’ eyes first"(64). Someone else has to awaken them to their potential and encourage them to try. "For accidentals the challenge is to turn leadership on"(67). If this dynamic is operative within the church setting, then ministry leaders need to understand this reality. If we only respond to innate leaders, those with a surging creativity to express leadership, then we run the risk of ignoring 66% of the potential, gifted leaders that God has placed within the body of Christ, the accidental leaders.

How then do we create the right conditions so that the majority of people who fit the accidental leader category will have the opportunity to respond to God’s calling in their lives? Plainly we have to help them discern their leadership potential, be encouraged to step out and test their ability, and be there to support them in their first tentative steps. We have to help them "see themselves as leaders."

I would suggest that we have a huge untapped resource of potential leadership capacity in our churches because we are quite unaware of the accidental/innate leadership distinction. What could you do within your sphere of ministry leadership to help accidental leaders emerge and discover their potential?

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.

God’s New Year

When God led Israel out of Egypt, he told them to change their calendars. Their year would now begin in the month when the last plague occurred, when Israel experienced Passover, and when Israel left Egypt. In Exodus 12:1 we read "This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year." In the days and months that followed Israel witnessed the miracle at the Red Sea, the provision of food and water, victory over the Amalekites, and God’s revelation of His covenant at Sinai. What a year! It was God’s new year for Israel.

As Moses led Israel in celebrating and praising God for some of these wonders, they affirmed, "In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed" (Exodus 15:13). God drew the map for Israel to follow and provided the navigational aids so they would not get lost. They might have preferred different latitude and longitude, a speedier schedule, less arduous terrain or  a safer route. Sometimes they failed to discern God’s "unfailing love" as the journey unfolded. Fear, anxiety, doubt, and anger characterized their response when their water supply was running out in wilderness, when starvation seemed imminent, and when hostile forces attacked. Instead of seeing God’s love in these circumstances, they saw a threat by God to destroy them! In Exodus 16:3 they claimed that Moses, God’s representative, has led them into this wilderness "to starve this entire assembly to death." This was only two or three weeks after their celebratory confession expressed in Exodus 15:13. God’s new year did not unfold in accordance with Israel’s expectations. Yet, at the end of the day, they have water, they have food, they are preserved from their enemies, and they met God at Sinai! Incredible challenges still faced the Israelites, but God demonstrated His complete faithfulness.

What will God’s new year, the year of 2008, hold for His people? It is beginning with rather ominous news — violence, riots, economic recession, threats of nuclear war, imminent ecological disaster, risk of pandemics, rising cost of oil. Will we experience God’s unfailing love in the midst of such dire circumstances? Will we be willing and able to discern God’s unfailing love in all that we experience? Who will explain for us how God is at work? How patient will we  be  in allowing God to set the timetable?  When  difficult things happen, how quickly will we begin to complain or  become angry with God?

After God led Israel into Canaan and as Joshua was preparing to die, he could look back on all that Israel had experienced and confess "every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed" (Joshua 23:14). We can enter God’s new year of 2008 with the same confidence. We know that God’s "goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life" (Psalm 23:6). May His Holy Spirit enable us to perceive His goodness and rejoice in His mercy, i.e. His unfailing love. May you know and experience this kind of confidence in God in 2008.

Divine Hours

There seems to have been a revival of interest in ancient forms of spiritual discipline, notably in the area of prayer. From the early Church, the day was marked by regular hours. As early as the Didache in 60 A.D. Christians were encouraged to pray with regularity – the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, the Psalter throughout the day. By the time of the Church fathers [Clement, Origen, Tertullian] the hours of the day were marked by prayer: the terce, the sext, the none …

There are websites that provide guidance through these hours, mostly from the Orthodox traditions [http://www.agpeya.org/index.html] Over this last year, as I’ve sought to elevate my own discipline of meaningful prayer, I’ve benefitted from the manuals for prayer written by Phyllis Tickle [The Divine Hours.] Written as a Trilogy: Autumn/Winter; Spring; Summer … the books are more than a matter of prayer. They are a guide for the type of worship that is woven through time and space. As she explained: Christians, wherever they practice the discipline of fixed-hour prayer frequently find themselves filled with a conscious awareness that they are handing their worship, at its final “Amen” on to other Christians in the next time zone. Like relay runners passing a lighted torch, those who do the work of fixed-hour prayer create thereby a continuous cascade of praise before the throne of God.

As Christmas approaches, there is an evening [or Compline] prayer that is ending each day. As I pray it in these few remaining days before Christmas, it seems to add more meaning: O God, you have caused the holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light; Grant that I, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with You and the Holy Spirit He lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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.

Eat This Book!

I’ve just completed Eugene Peterson’s improbably titled, Eat This Book and I cannot recommend it highly enough. This “conversation in the art of spiritual reading” both values Scripture while helping us see its accessibility. The book argues for the validity and necessity of exegesis for spiritual growth. It describes in detail the practice of Lectio Divina. In one of my favorite sections, Peterson uses his personal experience writing The Message to describe the limits and value of Bible translation for each new generation. In addition, the book offers a fascinating description of the history of the Bible’s transmission and translation.

The subjects Peterson deals with are deep, but the writing isn’t. See if the following quotations don’t stimulate your thinking and when your appetite for more…

On the use of story… We live today in a world impoverished of story; so it is not surprising that many of us have picked up the bad habit of extracting “truths” from the stories we read: we summarize “principles” that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion; we distill a “moral” that we use as a slogan on a poster or as a motto on our desk. We are taught to do this in our schools so that we can pass examinations on novels and plays. It is no wonder that we continue this abstracting, story-mutilating practice when we read our Bibles. “Story” is not serious; “story” is for children and campfires. So we continuously convert our stories into the “serious” speech of information and motivation. We hardly notice that we have lost the form, the form that is provided to shape our lives largely and coherently. Our spirituality-shaping text is reduced to disembodied fragments of “truth” and “insight,” dismembered bones of information and motivation. (48)

On the value of exegesis…
Exegesis introduces another dimension into our relation to this text. The text as story carries us along, we are in on something larger than ourselves, we let the story take us where it will. But exegesis is focused attention, asking questions, sorting through possible meanings. Exegesis is rigorous, disciplined, intellectual work. It rarely feels “spiritual.” Men and women who are, as we say, “into” spirituality, frequently give exegesis short shrift, preferring to rely on inspiration and intuition. But the long and broad consensus in the community of God’s people has always insisted on a vigorous and meticulous exegesis: Give long and close learned attention to this text! All our masters in spirituality were and are master exegetes. There’s a lot going on here; we don’t want to miss any of it; we don’t want to sleepwalk through this text. (50)

On the challenge of utilizing language… Because we speak our language so casually, it is easy to fall into the habit of treating it casually. But language is persistently difficult to understand. We spend our early lives learning the language, and just when we think we have it mastered our spouse says, “You don’t understand thing I’m saying, do you?” We teach our children to talk, and just about the time we think they might be getting it, they quit talking to us; and when we overhear them talking to their friends, we find we can’t understand more than one out of every eight or nine words they say. A close relationship doesn’t guarantee understanding. A long affection doesn’t guarantee understanding. In fact, the closer we are to another and the more intimate our relations, the more care we must exercise to hear accurately, to understand thoroughly, to answer appropriately. (53)

On the proof-texting of Scripture… What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of Sibylline Oracles, verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history. … The practice of dividing the Bible into number chapters and verses has abetted this “sibylline complex.” it gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken open at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit. (101)

This is a book I wish I could have written. Numerous times I found myself exclaiming, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.” Read it yourself and see if you don’t feel the same.

Peterson, Eugene. Eat This Book: Conversations in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.

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?

Preaching with Variety

_Preaching with Variety: How to Re-create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres_. By Jeffrey D. Arthurs. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007, 978-0-8254-2019-1, 238 pp., $15.99, paperback.

Several years ago I embarked upon a project. Having been given a short interim preaching opportunity at a nearby church, I decided to choose a different biblical genre for every sermon text. I wondered what might happen if I gave as much attention to the form of the text as I did to its content. The series turned out to be a wonderful exploration of the biblical terrain, but it would have gone a lot better if I had been able to read Jeff Arthurs’ book.

“The form of a text is not simply the husk surrounding the seed;” Arthurs says, “it is the way the authors manage their relationship with their readers (201).” People come from a variety of backgrounds bringing with them an array of preferred learning styles. The biblical writers not only appreciated this fact, but they modeled it, sharing truth by means of an abundance of literary styles. Our preaching should do no less.

This is inarguable. I have long wondered why, in the attempt to exposit faithfully the biblical text, we have felt it necessary to distill the content from the form. It is as if, to use Arthur’s metaphor, the textual form was mere chaff to be blown off as worthless. Sure, we have utilized the form for its interpretive value as a means of getting to the core truth of the text. Yet, should not those of us committed to exposition be just as concerned with the manner of communication used by the biblical text as we are with the content of it’s communication? Would not the attempt to replicate the form of the text in the form of our preaching be even more faithful to the intent of exposition?

Jeff Arthurs thinks so. His book is more than just an argument for a fully “formed” preaching of God’s word. In the tradition of Sidney Greidanus and Thomas Long, the book leads the reader through an exploration of various textual forms, offering guidance and advice to aid in the preaching of those forms. The book, then, serves as more than just a good and helpful read. It is a reference work that can be consulted whenever we move to preach from a different part of the Bible. I, for one, expect to consult it regularly as I move from proverb to epistle to psalm.

The great thing about genre-enriched preaching is that it doesn’t just represent a more faithful approach to exposition. It also makes for more interesting preaching for the listener. Preachers who feel they may be going a little stale will benefit from this reading, perhaps leading to a more holistic and integrated approach to their task.

Arthurs writes well, as one might expect given his subject. He also doesn’t overstate his case. One of his opening “9.5 Theses” is that “some things are more important than the topic of this book (15).” The preacher’s “ethos” or character is more important, as is the “telos” or theological objective of the sermon. This kind of humility plays well to the reader confronted with the many textbooks on preaching that are currently in print.

_Jeff Arthurs, is associate professor of preaching and communication, and dean of the chapel at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary._

It’s NOT about the Information

I am slow. I have come to the realization – at least a full decade after more perceptive and observant thinkers – that we are no longer in the information age; we are in the networking age.  Facebook is not about information, but about connecting. Due to the ease of access and overwhelming quantity of knowledge, information is no longer a priority nor a valued commodity per se.  What is valued is the networking with others that directs us to the quality and relevance of knowledge that is required to fulfill our goals.  An obsession with gaining personal knowledge about a particular subject in this age is self-defeating because as individuals we cannot absorb, process or evaluate all the available information.  On the other hand, gaining skills to evaluate and use knowledge in relevant ways is important.  Moreover, the ability to connect synergistically with those who have different skill sets exponentially increases the ability to apply knowledge to tasks and problems considered significant.

With respect to seminaries, Dr. Edmund Gibbs was probably accurate in a statement made during the NBS “Between Gospel and Culture” conference held on the TWU campus in March, 2007: seminaries should not sell knowledge or information, but give it away freely.  The cost will be in the mentoring relationships and guidance to apply the right knowledge in the right situation.

What is required is the teaching of Old Testament and New Testament RELEVANCE to the lives of the believers

The implication of this shift for missions is quite profound.  A common approach in missions has been to teach a “survey of the Old Testament” or a “survey of the New Testament” to new believers. As an attempt to increase the quantity of biblical knowledge, it does little to build up the body of Christ.  The amount of knowledge available is beyond the ability of any one person to access, let alone absorb and utilize. Moreover, the knowledge gained from such courses is generally easily accessible when needed. What is required is the teaching of Old Testament and New Testament relevance to the lives of the believers. It is insufficient and misguided for missionaries to provide general Bible teaching as if any and all biblical information is equally worthwhile. Rather, a primary concern must be to work out the relevance of God’s revelation within that particular cultural setting.  This requires the development of a network of people with a variety of skill sets rather than a one way dispensing of knowledge from the teacher.

As an example of the importance of networking in missions, consider Bible translation.  The task is too vast and complex to be trusted to one person.  However, by utilizing the skills of a variety of people – translators whose mother tongue capability allows them to communicate the message coherently and fluently, scholars who are able to consider the accuracy of meaning, consultants whose experience leads them to ask penetrating questions – the final product has a level of quality and significance that would not otherwise be possible.  

Does The Universe Have A Purpose?

In the last year, Athiests have hit the best-seller book list with such titles as The God Delusion [Richard Dawkins], God is Not Great [Christopher Hitchens], and Letters to a Christian Nation [Sam Harris]. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it seems as if there is a coordinated assault on the concept of God being carried forward, not by fringe eccentrics like Madelyn Murray O’Hair – but by academic and scientific elites. In September, I read a report of … a recent forum sponsored by the Science Network at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, the tone of intolerance reached such a peak that anthropologist Melvin J. Konner commented: "The viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

With that in mind, I was intrigued by a project of the John Templeton Foundation, a series of conversations about the “Big Questions” conducted among leading scientists and scholars worldwide. The first “Big Question” that appeared on October 25, 2007 was “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” Fascinating reading! Of the first 12 who responded, only two said“No” – Peter Atkins, an Oxford professor and Christian de Duve, a Nobel Prize winning biochemist. The majority said “Yes” while a number responded with “perhaps, not sure, I hope so…” The reasons given by each are thought-provoking and well worth reading: www.templeton.org/questions/purpose

Karen’s Sermon Art

Yesterday my wife participated in our pastor’s sermon by illustrating his sermon with a simultaneous sermon painting. What’s that, you ask? Let me try to explain.

Brian Stewart was preaching from Philippians 2:15 about how we are to shine as lights for Christ in the places we’re located. He had a lot to say about light and darkness. For example, most of the service took place in a semi-darkened worship center. As the sermon came to a close, people were invited to light candles, signifying their commitment to live as lights for Christ. The sanctuary brightened noticeably as people came forward to express their commitment.

The whole time Karen was painting at the front of the church. The canvas began as a flat black surface with the outline of a closed door, the handle barely visible, a hint of light coming through the bottom of the door. Karen began painting as the worship team began to lead in singing and she continued through the sermon time, concluding the piece at the end of the service. As she painted, she deliberately moved around the piece, allowing the image to emerge bit by bit.

The image she offered showed a young girl opening her bedroom door so that the light from the hallway began to flood the darkness of her room. You could imagine the comfort of a loving mother or father on the other side of the door. It was fascinating to watch how the door opened as the painting progressed, literally leading the viewer from darkness to light.

This was no small challenge for Karen. She has always believed that her art should communicate something meaningful. She wanted to support the preaching of the sermon and not distract from it, but she also wanted to avoid overly obvious or kitschy images in favor of something that would be interesting and evocative. In this case, she didn’t have the luxury of presenting a finished product, but had to ‘perform’ the art in the presence of the congregation. Wishing to use this as an advantage she tried to bring a sense of motion to the piece, having the door open as she painted, the light growing and spreading as the service progressed.

All this in 45 minutes!

I am proud of my wife and I’m proud of our church. I was thrilled to see Karen have the opportunity to express the gift that God had given her in support of the preaching of God’s word. I think it would be a good thing if other churches could be this open to finding creative ways for people to express their gifting for the glory of God and for the spread of the gospel.

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.


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".

The Foundation for Hearing God

There is, today, a proliferation of articles, books and speakers discussing the topic of “hearing God”.  Several well known evangelical preachers and leaders have weighed in with their contributions. I did a web search on the words “hearing God” and was fascinated by what came up. Page after page listing web sites, books, articles and other links all with some sort of answer to the questions, “Can I hear God?” “Does God speak today?” “If He is speaking today, how does He speak?”, “How do I recognize His voice?”, “How do I discern divine guidance?”

Our society pressures us to live speedy lives. We find all sorts of things to occupy us. Good things or useless things – they all clamor for our time.

I have been researching these questions for my Bible Study/Care Group. The initial study of several popular books and articles caused me to wonder what the stimulus was behind this wave of interest in the topic.  What is driving this quest?  There seems to be a renewed hunger to hear from God. That can be a good thing or it can indicate a problem.   My research has drawn me to ask the question “Is there something lacking in our postmodern, western, evangelical culture? Is there a scarcity of “hearing from God"?  We, as Bible believing Christians, know that God has spoken (Hebrews 1:1,2) so why are we not hearing? Are we not listening? Are we listening to the wrong words? Are there too many other voices?

As I have reflected on these questions and the current buzz about “hearing God” one fact stands clear. God designed us for relationship – relationship, in the first instance,  with Him.  Thus the desire to hear from Him.

Healthy, fulfilling relationships require time and effort to develop. Knowing God, knowing His mind, His ways, His character, His purposes all require spending uninterrupted, quality time with Him – through the Scriptures – as He has already revealed Himself to us.  When we do not take sufficient time to develop that kind of intimacy we are left with a relational void. My read on the current culture-wide hunger to hear from God is that it stems, in part, from a hurried, stunted, shortchanged relationship with Him. The relationship we have begun to experience with our Saviour has informed our spiritual senses that there is more. But here is the rub, that “more” requires more of us.

Our society pressures us to live speedy lives. We find all sorts of things to occupy us. Good things or useless things – they all clamor for our time. We flit from one new experience to the next. We drive through life so fast we have to get our food at drive-through windows. We learn early the value our society places on “multitasking”. The media knows that our individual attention spans are short so we are bombarded with fast-paced “clips”. 

We Christians have become acculturated to this 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…

As Christians, living in the context of this society, we are just not geared to slowing down and taking the time to build our personal relationship with God. Even the literature that I found on “learning to hear from God” often promoted a certain number of “steps to be followed” in the process, which points again to our cultural need to organize, to be efficient, to “not waste time”. But how do you organize a relationship, a friendship?

Carve out for your self sufficient space in your life to take the time to listen to what God has already said in His written Word.

Are you grappling with these questions? Are you yearning to hear God’s voice? Allow me to recommend something – a practice that I believe will develop in you and me the essential foundation for hearing from God.  This is a time-tested practice based on both biblical teaching and biblical example. It is not a difficult practice but in our culture it can be very challenging.

Carve out for your self sufficient space in your life to take the time to listen to what God has already said in His written Word – the Old and New Testaments.  Make it a priority practice in your life to set aside a significant portion of time each week to spend a leisurely, relationship-developing season with God. Find a location where no one will interrupt and you will not bother anyone. Take your Bible and begin to read out loud (the reason for this is to avoid rushing through your reading). Read in a translation that is designed to be read aloud – where you will not be stumbling over awkward sentence structure. Read an extended passage – a whole book or several (Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews, a Gospel, several Psalms etc).  Read with understanding and emphasis. Meditate as you read. Be free to pause frequently and ponder what you have read. Read with observing eyes and mind. Read with a questing heart. Read in faith but don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

As you read, allow your heart to be lifted to your Heavenly Father in praise and adoration.  Allow the Spirit of God to illumine His Word to your heart. Shut out the hurry and worry of the pressure cooker lives we live and take the time to grow your relationship with Him.

Guard this time! Don’t allow sermon or Bible lesson preparation encroach upon it. This is holy ground – just between you and God.  This is relationship time.

A few years ago I began to study and memorize Psalm 119. I was intrigued by the great value the psalmist placed on God’s Word. He refers to his delight in it at least 9 times. I took special note of the exclamations and declarations the psalmist makes in response to his delight in God’s Word. “I will obey…I will not neglect…I will meditate…I have set my heart on…I will never forget…I have put my hope in…I stand in awe…they are the joy of my heart.” May this be our response to our practice of meeting God in His already revealed truth – the Scriptures. Then we will truly hear.

Some additional thoughts:

  1. If it seems difficult at first – don’t flit to the next popular book or website – persevere! Don’t be afraid to tell Him what you are struggling with – this is a relationship.
  2. Commit Scripture to memory. If you are just beginning – start with a familiar passage – something you may have memorized in the past. Do not try to take on too much at once – but once you start, be consistent – don’t quit!
  3. This is not primarily a time to bring petitions to God – but He does want to hear from you, so don’t rush back into the fast lane without pausing to speak with Him in prayer.
  4. If you would like to meditate on a passage of Scripture that speaks to this practice that I am recommending go to Psalm 119 and spend some time in it.

Team Blog

Just as I was scratching my head, thinking of what to share as a blog an enewsletter arrived with a feature article entitled ‘The Death of Blogs” [Ted Olson, Christianity Today.] While it sounded like an obituary, I found the comments worth passing on:

… As weblogs proliferated earlier this decade, Andy Warhol’s famous aphorism was modified to read “in the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people.” Thanks to widespread bog burnout, everyone will be famous to 15 people for 15 minutes. Tech researcher Gartner, Inc. reported earlier this year that 200 million people have given up blogging, more than twice as many as are active … given the average lifespan of a blogger and the current growth rate of blogs, Gartner says blogging has probably peaked.”

My first reaction was to set this blog aside and move on to other things. But, as I read further, I changed my mind. Blogs have proved valuable for two reasons: 1. they provide quality insight and resourceful conversation, and 2. they appear with frequency. Remove either factor, and blogs die. With that in mind, Ted Olson revealed a secret: the secret of the top God blogs is that they’re team efforts.” Which is what you get by reading this – and may be the secret for any Church that seeks to keep the Blog alive.

MinistryTalk: “Resourcing the Vision”

According to Robert Quinn in Deep Change a legitimate vision must exceed perceived resources.  If our vision fits neatly within our current resources it is merely a plan, not a vision. Planning is important, but it will not result in "deep change", according to Quinn. Only vision enables an organization to discern a future that moves it from current destruction dilemmas into new, fruitful spaces.

Sounds good! But can our vision outstrip the potential resources? I think we have to say yes. Visions are energizing, captivating, motivating, but they can also be too big for an organization to sustain. In such cases those involved in the enterprise can become discouraged, fatigued, and frustrated because their vision is beyond their reach. How do we measure whether our organization has the capacity to achieve its preferred vision?

    1. Develop clear strategies that demonstrate in a step-by-step fashion how the vision can be achieved. If you cannot conceptualize this in ways that make sense to you and others, then the vision is idealistic but has little chance of being achieved.

   2.  Consult with others who have adopted challenging visions and seen them achieved. Take advantage of their wisdom and experience to gauge whether your vision has similar potential.

   3.  Discern whether there is a deep, independently confirmed consensus within the organization that the preferred vision is the way to proceed. Sometimes leaders have great vision, but no one else in the organization has come to a similar view of the potential. While there may be occasions where such a ‘prophetic’ insight occurs, within church contexts we would believe that the Spirit will confirm the vision’s potential through various voices.

   4.  Ultimately, a church’s decision to embrace and pursue a vision is a matter of faith and trust in God, as well as personal integrity. If the status quo is not enabling the church to achieve its mission, then Christian integrity requires us to step out and grow forward. We will not see every step of the way clearly, but will believe that God will provide wisdom and resources when necessary.

 When we reflect on Paul’s vision to take the Gospel to non-Jewish people, we quickly discern that his vision was astounding, but he was not quite sure how this would work out. He initiated some missionary journeys without knowing where specifically he would be going. He trusted God to guide him on the way and He did, because he was faithful to the vision. At times he did not know where he would find the resources to continue, yet often we discover churches or individuals sending resources to assist at just the right time. Paul helps us discern the fine line between faith, vision, and presumption.

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?

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology #4

Reason #4.

Simply put, neither science nor philosophy can supply all the answers to some of life’s most perplexing questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? and whither are we going? Where they draw a blank on these questions theology comes in with solid answers that give hope and explain an otherwise inexplicable universe. To be sure these answers do not always coincide with scientific answers, but where science and philosophy are silent, theology can and does speak. Don’t you want more than just “we don’t know?” For more see John Polkinghorn’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science.

Searching for a Home Church

My daughters, who’ve recently left home and struck out on their own, are searching for a home church. Sunday they tried out a young congregation meeting at a local movie theater. When we asked them, they described what had gone on that morning during the service. It was great! Earlier in their search they’d found and worshiped with a young, energetic congregation in an old church building that is undergoing a significant physical refit to accommodate all the exciting ministries and growth.

There’s a quite apparent vibrancy and a great excitement in those churches to be God’s communities where they are and to serve the non-Christian community needs which are apparent. We know the churches to have a firm grip upon the faith passed down through the ages and they are both quite passionate about members incarnating the truths of Scripture. There is a positive sense of the congregations’ selves and a fearless sense of mission in them which is refreshing.

How can parents be anything but encouraged when the search turns to such options?

The girls are both keenly aware that there is no such thing as a perfect church–at least not this side of eternity.  But we’re encouraged that they have engaged the search out of a realization of the critical value of being in community.  Paul Tournier wrote, "There are two things we cannot do alone; one is to be married and the other is be a Christian."

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.

Moving from STM to Career

I received a good question from Missions Catalyst e-Magazine.  Shane Bennett writes,

So, how have you seen short-termers transformed into long-termers? I’m thinking of good examples in which sharp people end up in significant, well-fitting roles. I’m imagining non-manipulative methods in which people are invited to recognize their gifts, are provided with proper stepping stones to long-term commitment, and are shepherded into a successful cross-cultural career.

This is an excellent question and one that a lot of missions agencies (including Fellowship International Ministries) have discussed often.  If you have any ideas or experience in this, please let me know.  Do you know someone who went from short term missions to career missions?  If so, how did that transition occur?  Can we discover a pattern or a means for greater impact that would encourage people towards a long term investment in international ministry?  If you have any ideas, drop me a line via the form below.

One concern that I have is that the strong cultural emphasis on individualism in our churches mitigates against the possibility of a communal decision to appoint someone to missions.  We have personal decisions, a personal walk with Christ, personal devotions and a personal calling to ministry.  When pastors decide to move on they make a personal decision and then involve the church in the process.  All major decisions are personal, and while professional advice is often sought, communal involvement in personal decision making (job, spouse, education, etc.) is unusual.  I am not opposed to this system; it is a reflection of our cultural orientation and comfort zone because, as Canadians, we are quite reserved about having direct involvement in those aspects of other people’s lives considered "personal".
However, the downside of this is the reticence we have to provide others with direction and insight for a calling into cross-cultural ministry.  As churches we give general invitations, but rarely identify individuals as capable of international service and challenge them in that direction.  Perhaps this lack of input in people’s lives keeps them unaware of their potential to serve God in missions.  The general sense in that anyone can go on a STM trip, but in our context it feels presumptuous to take the initiative in proposing a career in missions for someone else.

Do you agree with this assessment or are there other, more important factors?

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We’re Not Okay, But That’s Okay

The work we’ve been working with Church Boards over the last year has created a number of opportunities to expand our ability to help raise the levels of congregational health on a more personal level. To do that well, I have been getting trained in various Church Coaching systems. Along the way, one of my greatest joys has been developing a partnership with my friend, Cam Taylor – an associate with Outreach Canada. We share the legacy of pastoral ministry. In the September edition of his Connections Newsletter, he offered a review of the book The Toxic Congregation by G. Lloyd Rediger.
His review outlined four different categories of congregations in need of care, each with their own stories. It’s like reading a medical casebook of symptoms … and potential cures.
I have to admit that reading about toxic congregations depresses me. With all the time and effort that is spent trying to find a cure for congregational ailments, I begin to despair at the thought that Church Health may ever be achieved. In sharing my angst with a friend, the thought hit me. Maybe we’re looking at this from the wrong angle. Maybe, just possibly, the natural condition of the church is that ILL is normal. Oh, not that it is acceptable, but that it should be expected.
After all, the human condition, no matter how fit a person may be at any given time, is prone to illness. I am reminded of the insight shared by my friend, Dr. Robert Webber, as he enjoyed a brief moment of remission from the cancer that killed him. He learned to add to his daily prayer a word of thanksgiving for “the healing of today.” We often assume that healing is permanent, and that health is expected standard of normal. The fact is, each day has its own set of troubles and none of us are immune from brokenness or the need to live in steady dependence on the God who loves us and keeps giving Himself for us.
If we have to live our lives that way, it stands to reason that we should be willing to share our fellowship that way as well. Somehow, I take comfort in that perspective. It eases the mind as I get back to work, serving this fragile and sometimes cracked crucible called the church.
For more information regarding the Leadership Network – and to access Cam’s review on Toxic churches: http://en.outreach.ca/WhatWeDo/Networks/tabid/1069/Default.aspx

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.

The Word Must Be Heard

We have a new lead pastor at our church (Parkland Fellowship) and we couldn’t be happier. Yesterday, Brian Stewart offered us a dramatic recitation of the entire book of Philippians, from memory! I had memorized the book of Philippians some years ago, but I had never had the courage (or the wisdom) to offer it in public. My mistake.

Open Bible Brian’s presentation was masterful. He began, early in the service, with a brief setup to the book, helping us appreciate its broad themes. Later in the service he actually recited the book. He was dressed in ordinary casual clothing. His only prop was a heavy chain. His presentation was deeply felt, communicating with conviction, enthusiasm, and sensitivity. Like an actor, he made the ideas in the Scripture come alive for everyone present. It is Brian’s intention to preach through the entire book over the next several weeks and so this was to serve as a kind of introduction, but we found it to be so much more than that. It was as if Paul himself had brought the sermon to us on this Sunday.

I have often thought that sometimes we as preachers get in the way of God’s Word. If we really believe that the Scriptures are the very words of God, then we ought to be able to just read them to the congregation and let the Spirit of God do his thing. Yesterday’s presentation confirmed that line of thinking for me.

I still believe that the preaching of the Word helps people hear the Word, but I guess I’m reflecting on the fact that in so much of our preaching the Bible isn’t heard much at all. We may reflect on the occasional verse or put it on the powerpoint screen, but do we give people time to soak in the Scriptures? Could we let the Scriptures speak for themselves before we get to commenting?

For years now, I’ve made it my practice to read the text in full before getting into the sermon. I like the idea that the people hear the Word itself before I get to messing it up with my stories and ideas. I remember one Sunday many years ago when I was dealing with a particularly long passage, trying to decide whether or not there was time to read the whole thing. I was a little concerned whether people would want to hang with me for such a long time, but in the end decided to go ahead and read it all. After the service, a woman thanked me profusely for taking to time to read the passage. “I’ve always appreciated that about you,” she said. “You’ve always been willing to take the time for us to actually hear the Word of God.” I have taken her comments to heart. I’ve learned that when the Scripture is read well, it has its impact.

The Word of God must not only be talked about. The Word must be heard.

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.

Search all of Northwest Online Resources

We have added a new search routine to our site so that all of our online resources can be searched from a single search. It is a Google Custom Search and it will search our NBSeminary.com (main site) plus Dr. Larry Perkins’ Internet Moments With God’s Word plus Mark Naylor’s Cross-cultural Impact for the 21st Century plus Dr. Lyle Schrag’s Leadership site.  This search utility is to be found on our main menu under Resources >> Search ALL Northwest Online Resources.

As we have been adding online resources regularly it has become necessary for us to be able to do this sort of a search in order to maximize our resources and get the greatest possible value out of them.

I trust that you will find our online resources to be a valuable source of information on various topics.  Have you checked out our "Category Index" (which is something like a subject index)?  You will find this also under the Resources >> View Archived Daily Posts by Category on the menu above.

A Call for a Complementary view of Bible Versions

As a missionary involved in Bible translation for the past 18 years, I was disappointed with the tone of the article “‘Packer’s Bible’ now bestseller” appearing in the BC Christian News, August 2007 Vol 27 #8 < http://www.canadianchristianity.com/bc/bccn/0807/01bible>. During the course of celebrating the growth in sales of the English Standard Verson (ESV) – a welcome addition to a number of excellent formal translations such as the NRSV and the NASB – disparaging and unhelpful remarks were made against other translations and translation philosophies (such as the “meaning based” philosophy that lies behind those invaluable translations that provide the spiritually hungry reader with “what was meant”). 

This unfortunate perspective was carried on in a sidebar entitled “’Dueling’ Translations” in which three Bible verses were presented from a variety of Bible versions. This negative and combative attitude not only confuses the average Christian and creates unnecessary divisions over minor issues, but it undermines the benefits we can gain from the multitude of translations available to us. 

Continue reading

In Praise of Process

As I’ve been working with church boards over the last year, I’ve noticed how many churches sense the need to refresh their vision, strategy, and mission. They struggle with finding the right structure for their leadership to perform their ministry effectively. They wrestle with finding a simple focus that would galvanize their fellowship. As they grapple with this issue, some have questions as to whether or not strategic planning is a Biblical concept.

In order to address the question, I have studied the Scriptures and collected a number of studies on the subject [Christianity Today has a wonderful article in it’s archives: Is Strategic Planning Biblical? By Mark Marshall] and have come to the conclusion that not only is strategic planning Biblical, it’s a mandate. It’s also hard work. Why? Because it is the product of a process.

Process is defined as “a series of actions directed toward a specific aim.” It consumes time, it demands thought, it requires conversation and it involves viewpoints. It is hard work, and because it is hard work is too often devalued. We want answers, and want them now. We want solutions, and not discussions. I’ve become increasingly aware of the need to promote process as a Biblical value, even more than I have had to endorse planning. The simple statement is that strategic planning is a Biblical concept, and careful process is God’s chosen method.

It’s a principle that I’ve had to endorse when a pastor wants to launch an initiative without having communicated with leaders, or consulted with others. It’s a principle that I’ve had to raise when a church wants to draft a set of ministry goals without having surveyed their people or their community. It’s become such a recurring theme that I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to be a successful pastor – you must be process-oriented, and if you want to have a healthy church – it must be process-friendly.

In his Journal, George Bullard [www.bullardjournal.blogs] asked the question: Just How Important is Process? He begins with a series of questions: In making a decision in a congregation, how important is the process used? On a scale of one to ten with ten being high, how high would you rate the importance of process? How high th e importance of outcome or decision? How high the importance of impact or application of the decision?

He then applies the question to any number of congregational scenarios: the calling of a new pastor, the construction of a new building, the initiation of a new worship service, the launching of a ministry, the statement of a doctrinal stance, the management of a disciplinary issue. None of these are solved by quick solutions or handy edicts. To the contrary. When leaders exercise wisdom by mapping out a deliberate process and follow it with diligent care, not only is God able to guide them to a solution – He is able to build a more mature community.

Bullard draws the conclusion from the scenarios [I add my own bold-font for emphasis]: In many decision-making situations in congregations, process is at least as important as the decision to be made and its resulting actions. Process is not everything, but it is significant. Process is not more important than core values, although healthy process may be a core value. Process is important enough to make sure that even when people ultimately disagree, everyone has been treated as a person of worth created in the Image of God to live and love … Healthy process builds the capacity of a congregation to handle the really tough challenges of life and ministry in community.

He ends with a question that I find myself asking more and more with each church leader I meet: Just how important is process in your congregation? The response answers so many questions.

MinistryTalk: “Leading From the Second Chair”

In their book Leading from the Second Chair Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson have provided an excellent discussion of the challenges and opportunities people in associate ministry leadership roles face on a daily basis. Their goal is to help such individuals thrive and discern good, creative ways to cope with tensions that inevitably define this role. They express their thesis in these terms:

"Being in the second chair is the ultimate leadership paradox. It is the paradox of being a leader and a subordinate, having a deep role and a wide one, and being content with the present while continuing to dream about the future." (page xiii)

Each of the three major sections in the book considers the implications of one of these paradoxes. As well, at the end of each section they also include a word to the lead pastor, intending to help such individuals understand more clearly how to help the second chair flourish in his or her role.

They forcefully address the issue of learning to work productively within the limitations of the role. For example, they stress the importance of keeping the lead pastor informed, lest a hint of insubordination emerge and disrupt the ministry of the church. The priority of the church’s ministry over and above individual wants and desires gets due attention. They also urge second chair leaders to take full advantage of the learning opportunities they have in such roles. And then, they deal frankly with the question of future ministry leadership roles. A second chair leader must learn to give 100% in the current role, even while he or she may be waiting on God’s timing for an opportunity to be a lead pastor.

Two questions were raised as I considered their ideas. First, I am not convinced that the paradoxes they proposed and described are unique to second chair leaders. It seems to me that lead pastors or ‘first chair leaders’ have to struggle equally with these three paradoxes. In some senses the role of lead pastor is more restricted than that of the second chair. Greater responsibility requires greater commitment to serving others. Perhaps that is why second chair leaders need to learn how to thrive in the midst of these paradoxes, if they are going to fill the role of lead pastor.

Second, the authors use the example of Joseph to provide biblical foundation for their advice to second chair leaders. But does Joseph really function in this capacity? He undoubtedly served as a subordinate leader in some periods of his life, particularly when he was the slave in Potiphar’s house. However, when he was the first minister of Egypt under Pharoah, he had all the authority of Pharoah and was not a second chair leader. Perhaps a more pertinent example might be someone such as Timothy or Mark in relation to Paul or Joshua in his relationship to Moses.

However, these are relatively minor issues perhaps. If you are looking for a resource that might strengthen the understanding of the dynamics involved in team ministry and provide opportunity for candid discussion about relationships and roles in such contexts, Bonem and Patterson’s book would be a provocative tool to use.

Theology and photography

It was while Karen and I were visiting the Bridal Veil waterfall outside of Hope that we discovered that we had neglected to bring our camera. For some people I know, this would have been reason to travel the 5 hours back home to get it. However, we have always been apathetic (or just pathetic) photographers and so we shrugged and continued on with the important issue of experiencing the beauty of the falls. We tend to have a skeptical attitude towards cameras. They never seem to capture the beauty and fullness of the experience. The result is only a narrow window, a moment, that was so much more at the time, but now is reduced to a flash of color. It remains a true picture, but a picture that is so much less than the reality of the experience.

This is a metaphor for theology. Theology is a human attempt to describe, systematize and analyze the vast reality of God as he has revealed himself and relates to the world. However true and accurate the description, it will always fall short of the reality, even as a photo fails to capture the fullness that exists in the drama of our lives. Theological descriptions are good, even as photos are good. But they are no substitute to living the moment and experiencing the overwhelming beauty that gives us life.

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.

Fundamentalist Atheists

I read a particularly intelligent response  to Richard Dawkins’ fundamentalist atheism in my morning newspaper. Margaret Somerville is becoming as a critic of Dawkins, partly because she doesn’t seem to be coming from a Christian perspective. As founding director of the Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University (Montreal) she brings a credible academic pedigree and a reasoned voice to the debate. While I think that an avowed Christian voice could say a little more, I think that her approach is telling.

Somerville makes a number of points, including the charge that Dawkins "confuses religion and the use of religion." Just as science can be used for good or for evil, so can religion. "Dawkins," she writes, "looks only at the evil uses of religion – never the good it effects – and only the good uses of science – never the harm it does."

"Dawkins basic presumption," she says, "is that there is no God and, therefore, that those who believe there is must prove it. The equally valid basic presumption is that there is a God and those who don’t believe that must prove it. Because neither basic presumption can be proved or disproved, both are tenable and, therefore, both must be accommodated in a secular society."

"We should stop automatically associating having liberal secular values with being open minded and having conservative religious values with being closed minded – liberal people can be very closed minded and conservative people open minded." On this point, Somerville has personal experience. She has been roundly criticized for her position on same sex marriage, suggesting that such marriage ought to be curtailed on the grounds that "compromises the right for all children to be raised by both genders and to know their biological parents".

These points have been obvious to many of us, but it is nice to read them being put by someone in her position.

Appreciating the beauty of God

At the beginning of August Karen and I visited the Bridal Veil waterfall outside of Hope. At the foot of the falls there is a fenced off area for observers with a large “CAUTION” sign warning people to keep back and enjoy the falls from a distance. The falls are beautiful – almost mesmerizing – as they continually change while remaining the same and cover the observers with a fine, fresh smelling mist. We noted and complied with the sign and the fence, but we just as quickly dismissed them from our minds as our attention was held captive by the rush of water.

This experience became a metaphor in an ongoing discussion Karen and I have concerning the Bible, the place of the local church and our experience of God’s presence through our daily lives. The Bible and the local church are like the sign and fence. The waterfall is the reality of God’s presence in our lives. We read God’s word and we connect with other believers in our spiritual journey towards conformity to Christ. But the significant issue is our connection to God is our daily lives. Knowledge and instruction, however important, are but “dealers in second hand goods” if we are not enveloped with the wonder of living in God’s presence. The signs and the fence are there in order to ensure a positive experience of the waterfall. We mustn’t get so caught up in studying the wording of the sign or considering the structure of the fence that we neglect the beauty for which they were constructed.

Global Warming and the Ability to Know

I’m a global warming skeptic. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment. As a child of God I understand my responsibility as a steward of creation and I take it seriously. It’s just that I’m not sure I can believe all of the hype surrounding climate change.

This morning, for instance, I read that the so-called NASA “hockey stick” graph that showed stable temperatures for 1,000 years followed by dramatic increases in temperature in the last half of the twentieth century was based on a faulty calculation. This graph has been used prominently by the UN and nearly every major environmental lobby group to prove that there has been dramatic climate change in recent years. (Read the report in the The National Post.)

As it turns out, it’s not true. Last week, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies corrected an error in its data based on analysis done by Canadian researcher Steve McIntyre. This correction has resulted in significant changes to the data that has supported much of the rhetoric around global warming.

The data now indicates that the hottest year since 1880 was 1934 and not 1998 (which is just second hottest) as previously reported. 1921 is the third hottest year. Four of the 10 hottest years were in the 1930s and only three in the last decade. The 15 hottest years since 1880 are spread over seven decades. Eight occurred before atmospheric carbon dioxide began its recent rise; seven occurred afterwards. This is hardly the stuff of impending disaster.

Of course none of this eliminates our need to handle God’s creation with care. Clearly, we humans can do a lot of damage to our world, and in many ways do. Further, it may be that other studies or changes in the future will modify our perspective. What it does do, however, is raise the level of skepticism about the science that is so often reported in our media.

This is a matter of postmodern epistemology. What do we know in this world and how do we know it? For secular moderns, science is the only sure footing for knowledge about life in the world. But what we are discovering is that science is incredibly complex and difficult both to understand and to communicate. The reporting of science is inevitably biased by the personal, political, and sometimes even theological perspectives of the ones reporting the ‘facts’. The truth is, the universe (and the God who created it) is much bigger than our ability to understand so that even our best scientific discoveries must be couched in the language of theory and hypothesis. We just don’t know anywhere near as much as we would like to think that we do. Sub-atomic research yields the “uncertainty principles” of quantum mechanics. Deep space research only multiplies the number of questions. Hey, we can’t even measure temperatures on our own planet correctly.

Which is why I am so deeply dependent upon God’s self-revelation. What I know about God and about his will and plan for the world he created I know because he revealed it to me through his Word. Granted, I take this by faith, but then most science is taken by faith as well – faith in the rules of logic and the laws of physics. Such things don’t always allow for certainty, given the limits and the bias’ we bring as humans.

I don’t trust everything I hear or read unless I hear it from God or read it in the Bible. Beyond that, I listen to the scientists and the secular prophets with patience, with humility, and with a healthy skepticism.

Someone asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew for certain that Christ would return that day. “I would plant a tree,” he said, offering wisdom of both theological and environmentally proportions. I myself planted two trees on my property last week. I love to watch God make things grow, and if things do eventually get warmer, then I will appreciate the shade.

Patriarchy and Understanding the Bible

 “That’s just NOT right!” exclaimed a woman in a Bible study I was conducting. The object of her disapproval was Naomi’s instructions for Ruth to approach Boaz while he was sleeping (see Ruth 3). She was correct in that she recognized the inappropriateness of such an action within our society. She was incorrect because she failed to recognize the cultural values of the Hebrew context (particularly patriarchy) during the time of the “judges”, which validated Ruth’s approach to Boaz.

The Bible is God’s revelation of his will to humanity given within a cultural context that is very different from our situation today. Although the Bible remains God’s revelation of his will for us, it was originally written to people whose language, culture and worldview greatly contrasts with ours. Thus, the more the values, beliefs and situation of the original audience are understood by today’s reader, the better the meaning of the divine message can be comprehended. Similarly, the more we comprehend our own culture and society, the better equipped we are to understand how the biblical revelation can be expressed and applied in our context.

The implications of this reality are profound for the Bible translator and the cross-cultural worker as well as for all those who want to understand the relevance of God’s word for them. We cannot understand and appreciate the way the Bible relates to us without first recognizing that God spoke his message to people both through and because of their situation. To the degree our modern context is similar to the context of original audience, the original message will have direct relevance for us. However, differences between the ancient and modern cultures require us to adopt a two step process of interpretation.

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The Marks of an Unspiritual Leader

In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right.
Judges 21:44

Eli the priest of God at Shiloh was the default leader of Israel at the opening of the book of 1 Samuel.  He was elderly and his two sons, Hophni and Phinnehas, performed the regular priestly duties at the Tent of Meeting.  The second chapter of 1 Samuel records that those two sons were evil, ruthless, dissolute, immoral and godless men. How is it that they were allowed to continue to "minister before the Lord"?  The answer is found in the fact that their father was a leader with a profound lack of spiritual understanding.  He was not a spiritual man.  It seems to me that the culture of the day that we find mentioned at the end of the book of Judges has seriously affected this leader of his people and clouded his spiritual understanding.  As I read the account I find the following indicators.

1. Spiritual insensitivity

With Hannah – Eli assumed she was drunk (1:14).  Maybe it is a statement on Eli’s spiritual expectations that his natural reaction to Hannah’s weeping before the Lord in the tabernacle was to accuse her of drunkenness. Why would he jump to that conclusion unless his ability at spiritual discernment  was severely dulled.

With Samuel – it took three attempts to wake Eli to the fact that God was calling the young boy (3:1-9)

2. Spiritual inattention

With his sons – Eli disregarded their wickedness (2:22).  Despite one feeble rebuke recorded in 2:22-25 the condemnation was leveled at him by an unknown messenger from God that he was honoring his sons above God.  He had lost sight of spiritual priorities.

With God – God’s visitations to his people were rare and His word was rarely heard in those days (3:1).  It would seem that the reason for the scarcity of God’s revelation was because Eli, the priest, was not listening to God.  He was not spiritually inclined to seek for the voice of God and so it became silent.

3. Spiritual ignorance

The ‘man of God’ who came to Eli and warned him of God’s impending judgment had to remind Eli of God’s calling and anointing on the priestly lineage (2:27,28).  It is quite an indictment that the man of God levels at Eli.  The rhetorical questions, "Did I not…" imply that Eli has either forgotten or is totally ignorant of God’s dealing with Israel and particularly God’s appointment of the priestly line.

4. Spiritual imprudence

In the account of Eli’s death it is recorded that he was old and very fat (4:18).  When the man of God rebuked Eli he condemned him because he had made himself fat off the illicit spoils provided by his sons (2:29).  Gluttony blurred Eli’s capacity to think and act as a spiritual leader should.

5. Spiritual indifference

When told of God’s judgment he shrugged it off almost fatalistically (3:18).  His response, "He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him" stands in stark contrast to David’s casting himself on God’s mercy after being rebuked by the prophet Nathan.  Once again this points to a lack of a true understanding of God’s nature and God’s dealings with people.

It seems to me that the story of Eli should make every Christian (and particularly those in leadership) take a long hard look at their own spirituality.  Are there areas of our lives where the culture of the day has dimmed our spiritual vision or dulled our sensitivity?  What do our lives demonstrate as to the quality of our spirituality.  Do we need to wake up and take stock?

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.


The Problem with Preaching

Mike Mawhorter sent me a link to this article by David Allis which I found to be one of the more helpful of the current critiques of preaching: CLICK HERE

My response is that much of what he says is truthful. Preaching, for instance, is expensive. Preachers often can’t be trusted. At the same time, I think that what is actually being critiqued is not that we preach, but that we preach monologically in the traditional sense.

I still believe that the monologue works in most settings – especially larger ones. If it didn’t, I can’t imagine so many would keep coming to listen. At the same time, the traditional sermon does not represent all that preaching can or ought to be. What we do in care groups or in classrooms can still be considered preaching if the goal is to understand the word of God and to persuade others of its truth.

I was a little troubled by Allis’ suggestion that biblical preaching was entirely for the evangelization of the non-believer. Clearly, the New Testament encourages the instruction and training of believers as well. To try to distinguish between preaching and teaching for the purpose of dumping on the traditional sermon is not helpful, in my view. The distinction between the two is little more than a differentiation in form.

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.

A Father’s Contribution to the Development of a Great Leader

As the dark years of Israel’s history, recounted for us in the book of Judges, draw to a close and we see the transition of national identity from cowering fugitives into a great kingdom – a remarkable leader is used by God to bring Israel back to Himself.  That leader is the prophet and judge of Israel, Samuel.  Given the cultural, social and religious milieu at the time of his birth and early childhood it is even more remarkable that he became the man that he did.  In a previous article we looked at the influence of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, on her son’s development into a highly respected leader.  It was her faith, prayer, nurture, perseverance, integrity and care that deeply influenced this little boy and encouraged him to become the man he did.

But there is another person who, I believe, also had a profound influence on Samuel’s growing up years.  That person is his father Elkanah.  Here is what I observe about this man from 1 Samuel 1-3.

1. He was an ordinary man, husband, father in the context of his society and culture. But he was also a man who stood tall above the cultural anarchy and religious apathy of the day. (c.f. Judges 21:25)

2. He was not a national or religious figure. He was not a tribal head or clan elder but he was an upstanding leader in his own home and family. (1 Samuel 1-3)

3. He, personally, was a faithful, God-fearing, deeply religious man as evidenced by his regular pilgrimages to the tabernacle in Shiloh to offer up sacrifices to the Lord (1:3).

4. He did not keep his religion to himself but faithfully led his family in the worship of the One True God – encouraging their individual participation.  It is noteworthy that the writer of 1 Samuel took the time to detail how Elkanah gave portions to each member of his family – adults and children.  He was doing his best to ensure that his family knew God and followed in His ways (1:4).

5. In his conversation with Hannah in 1:8 we get the sense that he is a devoted, loving and tender husband.  This one factor alone would be significant in Samuel’s healthy emotional and social development.

6. Elkanah fully supported Hannah in the fulfillment of her commitment to the Lord regarding Samuel (1:23).  Penninah, the rival, aside – one gets the sense of a family unit that are in one in heart to follow God.

In an age of religious turmoil, waywardness and spiritual ignorance, Elkanah stands tall as a godly man, loving husband and competent father.  Samuel, his son, could not have been anything other than indelibly influenced by his father’s example.

Dads! The challenge is there for us.  Let’s never underestimate the power of the example of a godly, faithful and committed father to influence the next generation.  Some will even go on to become great leaders.


The “Ministry Leadership Team” – the Best Model?

George Cladis, Leading the Team-Based Church. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999. vii-xv, 1-189.

According to Cladis the best of kind of leadership model for the North American church in this postmodern era is the ministry leadership team. He begins by grounding his model in Trinitarian theology. Then he defines seven specific characteristics, based on his understanding of the Trinity, that such a team should cultivate and exhibit, discerning along the way connections between these characteristics and the contours of postmodernism. Effective ministry teams will be covenanting, visionary, culture-creating, collaborative, trusting, empowering, and learning. In the second section of his book Cladis treats each of these elements in detail, providing examples of their effectiveness and importance to the success of a ministry team leadership model.

When I saw that his first chapter would establish a theological foundation for ministry leadership teams in the way the Trinity operates, I was eager engage his ideas. He makes reference to Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity, with the three persons pictured as sitting, perhaps on thrones, around a central table. Intense, intimate, but calm discussion seems to be occurring among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Cladis correctly discerns that Rublev was expressing the concept of perichoresis, the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. Continue reading

Summer Reading

One of the pleasant perks that comes from living close to the ocean is that I am able to grab my beach chair and a book and read while listening to the gentle sounds of wind and waves. My reading this summer has ranged from real-life adventure [The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz; Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins] to historical novels [The Religion, an epic story along the lines of the battle of Thermopile of the last battle of the crusades waged on the island of Malta between the Ottoman hoard and a small band of Knights of St. John, by Tim Willocks.] Tucked away in my list of summer reading is one book that has captured my imagination: The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century, by John Harper.

I’ll admit, from the sound of the title, this book does not sound like beach-reading. But, it has been so refreshing to rediscover what one writer has called the missing jewel of the church … Worship. After sitting through an endless stream of services composed of two sets of worship choruses [three choruses a piece], a somewhat thoughtless prayer [we thank you, God, for being God], sprinkled with an abundance of announcements followed by an offering, topped by a sermon, it’s been stimulating to encounter the rich tapestry of treasures that belong to worship.

Consider a few of the following quotes:

“The praise of the Almighty was for Christians the highest and most important of human activities, deserving the best of their energy, artistic endeavor, and wealth. The rich heritage…reflects this.” 

“Medieval liturgy was not only highly sophisticated; it was often the principal pursuit of communities of men or women whose whole lives [often from childhood] were dominated by daily worship.”

“But, the communities of clerks, priests, monks and nuns who animated these rich resources are gone. Gone too are the aesthetic, spiritual and theological backgrounds and the social framework that supported these communities.”

Each line begs for reflection. I’m just a bit unsure how far such reflection will go.

I was sharing some of my thoughts with a few dear friends who dismissed the subject with a quick “well, that liturgy stuff is dry and meaningless, just dead ritual.”

As I read more of the way worship can be expressed, I can’t help but form a mental picture of the quality of the banquet God has spread before us. Carefully prepared expressions of gourmet artistry, deep symbols, shared voices, rich textures of holy things. It’s hard to imagine that we would reject them all in favor of peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and consider ourselves nourished.

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.

Samuel, a Mother’s Contribution to a Great Leader

Recommended reading: 1 Samuel 1-8

I am intrigued with the rise of Samuel’s leadership as described in the first few chapters of 1 Samuel.  After the years of Israel’s spiritual, moral and national decline as described in the book of Judges the years of Samuel’s leadership stand sturdy and tall.  Under his faithful and godly guidance Israel regains her faith in God as well as her sense of nationhood under God.  Samuel was a giant among leaders. What fascinates me are the people surrounding him during his growing up years. 

What contributed to his development as a leader? What about the people surrounding him? In his earliest years there is his mother, Hannah; there is Hannah’s rival Peninah (with all her children) and there is his father, Elkanah.  Later, as he begins his tenure as the understudy for the temple there is Eli, the priest and default leader of the day along with his two evil sons Hophni and Phinehas.  Then there were the Israelite worshipers who came to the tent of meeting there in Shiloh to offer sacrifices and worship the One True God.  What influence did these people have on young Samuel?  What did they contribute to the development of this great leader to be?

Hannah is the first influence in his life.  Imagine with me young Samuel growing up under Hannah’s godly care.  I get the sense from the conversation between Hannah and Elkanah in 1:21-23 that Hannah intended to pour herself into her little boy during the years that she had him and before she was to give him into the Lord’s service.  It is likely that from his earliest recall he would hear the stories of Hannah’s sorrow and ultimate blessing.  Hannah probably retold many times how God answered her prayers.  I am sure Samuel was also quite aware from early on of his mother’s promise to God.  My guess is that Hannah had a great deal to do with Samuel’s growing up with a deep sense of awe of God and His goodness. 

Samuel probably could see early on the contrast between his mother and that other woman, Peninah.  The gentleness contrasted with the sneering, the selfelessness contrasted with the pettyness…  Even though we are not given many details, I doubt that Peninah’s character changed much with the birth of Samuel and the contrast must have been instructive to him.  His mother’s character and godliness were great influences in his life.

Hannah was a woman of prayer.  She understood prayer as communing with God.  When Eli questioned her in the tabernacle, Hannah described her prayer as "Pouring out my soul to the Lord" (1:15).  I believe Samuel’s deep and close relationship with God began here on Hannah’s knees. Hannah’s prayer in chapter 2, recorded for all succeeding ages, gives us a little glimpse of this woman’s considerable understanding of God and his ways.  I believe it can be safely infered that she did not stint in communicating these truths to her young son.

Commentators vary on how old Samuel might have been when he was presented to the Lord at the temple.  But short time or long, Hannah was probably the most influential person in the development of this leader. 

Put yourself into the picture of the yearly pilgrimages from Ramah to Shiloh.  Imagine with me the excitement preceeding the event.  Samuel in Shiloh waiting impatiently for the day to come when his mother and family would arrive.  Hannah in Ramah, lovingly putting the finishing touches on the garment she made for her little man every year.  There is a faraway look in her eye, a tiny smile tugs at the corners of her mouth.  She will see her little boy soon. "How tall will he be by now"? 

It is what the text does not tell us that intrigues me.  Was Hannah’s heart lifted to God daily on behalf of this little man?  Did she ever worry?  Did doubts ever creep in? – "Did I do the right thing?"  "Did I really have to give him to God for all of his life?" Did intense longing for her first-born ever cloud her eyes with tears?

What influence do you and I have in the lives of the youngsters around us? What do they see in us?  Are we praying for the children in our sphere of influence?  Are we contributing to the development of tomorrow’s godly leaders?  Allow me to encourage us to take another look at the influence of this godly woman on an entire nation through her influence on her son and let’s ask God how we can be used of Him in similar ways.

Note: The topic for the fall ACTS Seminaries Pastors’ & Mentors’ Day is "Children Matter"

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?

Roast Preacher

Preachers need to have thick skin. Whenever a person gets up in front of a crowd to speak, people are going to evaluate what they have to say – which may be a mild way of describing the kind of scrutiny under which a preacher is placed. Roast Preacher is the most common dish served for Sunday dinner.

Of course if our skin is too thick, we run the risk of not caring for our listeners. Our sermons will come off sounding hard and uncaring. I remember my mother telling me about a conversation she had with a friend when I had just mentioned my interest in getting involved in ministry. "Does he have a soft heart," she asked. "Yes, he does," said my Mother. "Then I’m glad – but at the same time, I’m sorry," my mother’s friend responded.

That’s it exactly. We won’t be any good to our people if our skin is too tough, but if we can’t stand up to the scrutiny we are going to fall apart and be little good to anyone.

The key, of course, is to be deeply grounded in God’s love. When we understand how much God loves us, we will be less susceptible to the pain that people cause. Further, understanding that what we do as preachers is the exercise of God’s love helps to shield us from personal criticism. We preach because God loves. If people don’t like it, they can take it up with God.

It should be added that sometimes people’s criticisms are on the mark. A good preacher will listen for what can be learned from the the things that people say about our preaching. It’s just that we don’t have to take the mean-spirited comments and own them. God loves us and that’s enough. In the freedom his love brings we are able to pursue excellence in our calling so that people hear God’s word and his kingdom is established.

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.

Alistair McGrath and the New Atheism

Here are a few notes taken from a lecture I heard by Alistair McGrath at the International Congress on Preaching in April. The address, titled “Preaching Truth in the Shadow of the Idol of Science” was directed at the recent writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom seem to be angry that Christianity and religion in general has not gone away.

McGrath dispenses with the idea that belief in God is simply delusional along the lines of believing in Santa Claus. How many people start believing in Santa at the age of 50 or 60, he asked? What about all the believing intellectuals? It’s just not true that science leads to unbelief. C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in God the way I believe in the Sun, for not only do I see the sun, but by the sun I see everything else.

Richard Dawkins says that there is a scientific explanation for the fact that many believe. But this is a loaded argument, McGrath said, because it overlooks the most natural explanation. We’re told that belief in God is a “virus of the mind.” So then, McGrath asks, are all beliefs viral or only just the ones that Dawkins doesn’t like?

McGrath suggests that the Christian gospel actually makes a lot of sense in explaining much of science. Take Psalm 19, for example. For the atheist, the heavens are depressing because of their vastness and the lack of hope that they offer. For the Christian, the beauty of nature displays the beauty of God who can be known in Christ. Dawkins says that thinking of God diminishes nature, but this is not so. We study science so as to glorify God. In other words, we need to encourage the scientists in our congregations.

“Preaching has helped me grow,” McGrath said. “Preaching is the way that God resources his church. So don’t criticize science from the pulpit. Criticize what some people are doing with science.”

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.

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).

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!


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.

Stolen Sermons

Thomas Long has written a tremendous piece on pulpit plagiarism that you can find here in it’s entirety: Stolen Goods. The article traces the arguments for and against using materials developed by others in the pulpit. Long comes down on the issue of honesty and integrity. He writes… Thomas LongA good test of this point is to ask, What would happen if the preacher told the truth? ‘Hey folks, it’s been a busy week and I didn’t have time to work on a sermon, and honestly, I’m not all that creative anyway. So this is a little something I found on the ‘net’.’ The fact that the air would immediately go out of the room is a reliable indicator that the tacit agreement of the sermon event has been violated. This is why plagiarists, for all their blather about God’s words being free for all, never confess their true sources and always imply that these words are coming straight from the heart. Yes, Augustine made space for preachers to memorize the words of other, more eloquent proclaimers, but note well that he added the test of truth: ‘supposing them to do it without deception.’ Perhaps even more powerfully, Long describes giving credit as more than just doing the right thing. He writes… Giving credit to others is not merely a matter of keeping our ethical noses clean; it is also a part of bearing witness to the gospel. No sermon stands alone, but instead takes its place in a ‘cloud of witnesses.’ The proclamation of the gospel does not spring forth from our cleverness or ability to generate novelty. To borrow words from others and to show that one’s sermon dips into the deep well of shared wisdom is itself part of Christian testimony, a fresh expression of Paul’s confession, ‘I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.’ I couldn’t agree more.

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

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


Our church has just emerged from a very busy weekend. Not one but two search committees have been working simultaneously through past months in pursuit of individuals to serve our church in the respective capacities of Lead Pastor and Youth Associate. The searches culminated for both committees as both the recommended candidates were invited to a process of mutual acquaintance and exploration with the church—on the same weekend!

The proclamation and modeling of the gospel are the calling and ministry of us all! The traits and patterns listed at 1 Timothy 3:1-7 are not merely prerequisites to the ministry, they also are the ministry.

Of course, there was much to explore regarding the specifics of our church and its ministry hopes and aspirations as well as the candidates’ respective histories and how they see their futures under God’s direction. There have been many questions and answers; much talking and listening; and there has been a lot of reflection and prayer.

It has been a time especially to reacquaint ourselves with the Scriptural directions regarding leaders and the leadership task.

The instructions at 1 Timothy 3:1-7 concerning those who aspire to eldership have not been far from our minds through the earlier interviews and in the culminating visits of the candidates. An elder must be “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”

This passage has reminded me again of two things: First, the things mentioned are actually more than a mere list of “qualifications” or “prerequisites” to the ministry. In a very real sense, they are the ministry. That’s because the gospel is both something to be proclaimed and something to be modeled by the church’s leaders. Second, while we look to find these Christian character traits and life patterns in our leaders with peculiar strength and consistency, the traits and patterns are not peculiarly leadership traits. They are, after all, Christian character traits and life patterns to which we should all aspire and grow.

We’ll see where we’ve gotten to in our “search for the new pastor” in not too many days. It’s been a great, if somewhat exhausting, weekend and I’m confident that all is safely in God’s hands. What I’ve learned again through this process is that when the ministries of the new Lead Pastor and Youth Associate begin, ours don’t stop.

The proclamation and modeling of the gospel are the calling and ministry of us all!