Friday, October 23, 2009

No, I'm not dead - not technically

Not much going on here recently, but I wrote a little devotional for our weekly church e-mail newsletter. And I'm prompted to post it here. It's not profound, just true. Maybe someone randomly passing by will read it and find it helpful:

In preparation for this, I realized there’s tons of things I could write about – from the second successful Wall Build this year at Liberty 10 days ago to the Fall Season of Adult Discipleship where people are digging into their faith – knowing & engaging God and the world – and so many things in between. But instead of focusing on the great things being done – this week I want to share with you one simple thought, from three wildly different sources. First, from the famous theologian, pastor, author Henri Nouwen:

Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation, or despair begin to invade the human soul this is not something that comes from God. This sounds very simple and maybe even trite, but very few people know that they are loved without any conditions or limits. (Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus)

Second, from singer/songwriter and worship leader Matt Redman:

This is how we know, This is how we know what love is
Just one look at Your cross
And this is where we see, This is where we see how love works
For You surrendered Your all
And this is how we know, That You have loved us first
This is where we chose, To love You in return
For You so loved the world, That You gave Your only Son
Love amazing, so divine, We will love You in return
For this life that You give, For this death that You have died
Love amazing, so divine, We will love You in reply, Lord

(Redman, This is How we know)

And third, from God himself:

“Pssst! I Love YOU!”
(Bible – esp John 3:16; 17:22-24, Romans 5:5-8; 8:35-39, Colossians 3:12-14)

If everything else goes by the wayside this week – if nothing is crossed off your “to do” list, you disappoint people all around you and you feel physically ill – just remember those three words from God...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Six weeks....

What does it say that I couldn't remember my password when I tried to sign in to my blog...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jonah 3: Resenting the Grace of God

This is the third of 3 sermons I preached on the book of Jonah - it might be my last post for a few weeks as I'm heading out on vacation:

I would hazard a guess that all of us are familiar with the fairy tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes – the story of the wealthy Emperor who is so infatuated with himself, and so gullible, that he purchases the very newest and best fashion ensemble – even though he can’t see it. And of course, there are no clothes at all – but he’s so full of himself that he can’t see what everyone else can see – he’s naked, and it’s not a good thing. Well, this morning we return to Jonah for one final time – and in many ways, Jonah is much like that Emperor. First, he was so focused on himself that he wasn’t going to obey God. But he soon realized that running from God isn’t a profitable endeavour and we saw that even in our running and disobedience, God can still be praised – but what is more, God doesn’t leave us alone, but comes after us and saves us. Last week, we saw how obedience, even a little, can be used by God to turn others hearts toward him – because behind it all, we serve a living God. Today, we pick up the story after God has decided to spare Nineveh – and we turn our attention back to Jonah…

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. [remember, in chapter 3, the last thing that has happened is that God did not bring on Nineveh the threatened destruction] He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate god, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in it shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “it would be better for me to die than live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
(Jonah 4:1-11)

If you’ve got children, had children, or have even seen children, you can probably recognize this scene, right? Heck, we’ve all been children, and we’ve all lived out this scene, right? It’s a giant pity party, starring… (trumpets) – Jonah! The entire final chapter of this story, a story that has told of a catastrophic storm on the sea, a prophet in the belly of a giant fish, the beautiful poetry he wrote in there, and the repentance of an entire wicked city in the blink of an eye – ends with a man, the title character, sitting around and whining. How anti-climatic. Well, before we roll our eyes and dismiss this chapter, lets dissect a few points first.

One thing we should note off the bat is fairly important. We’ve already talked about the prophetic formula, found throughout the Bible – “The Word of God appeared to X, go to Y and say Z – And X, went to Y and said Z” – well, another component to the role of the prophet is the whole idea that there are false prophets, those who would claim to speak on behalf of God and yet their words were nothing more than something they themselves had conjured up. We have many who do the same today. That’s actually why preaching is such an interesting component to the role of a pastor – who’s to say what I say is necessarily the “Word of God”? Well, for a prophet, the community developed a litmus test – a way to tell if a prophet truly spoke the Word of the Lord, or was simply on their own – and it’s documented all throughout the Bible. You could tell a prophet was for real… if what they promised actually came true. If a prophet gave advice to a king to go into battle, because the Hand of the Lord was with them, and they won, you’d know they were a true prophet of God. If a prophet proclaimed doom and gloom that never happened, you’d know they were a false prophet. Based on these facts, we can at least extend a little grace to Jonah. See, he’s spent all this time proclaiming God’s judgment on Nineveh, only to have God decide he’s not going to follow through. Now Jonah – by all accounts – looks like a false prophet, a fraud, a liar. I mean, God’s gracious act toward Nineveh has just made Jonah look like a fool – who wouldn’t be disappointed? Truth be told, as a prophet, his entire livelihood is shot – who’s going to believe anything he has to say anymore? He really would be better off dead.
But another point that must be looked at is that since Jonah knew God, since Jonah knew of God’s compassion and grace, his abundant love – doesn’t it make sense that Jonah should’ve been a little more careful with his message? I mean, seriously! Here we have a God who is able to create a storm on the sea, find a giant fish to harbor a man for 3 days – and spit him back out no worse for wear, and bring upon the destruction of an entire city – yet is known to be compassionate – maybe a little nuance would’ve been nice? Maybe a little more than five words would’ve been good. Maybe a little bit of that gracious side should’ve been shared with Nineveh – maybe then Jonah wouldn’t look like a liar.

My dad was telling be about a “preacher” recently who he hears on the radio – someone who’s all anger and rage, all indignation and finger-pointing – and it’s sad to say that that’s just one among many who say they’re followers of Jesus, and yet spent more time name-calling and brow-beating than they ever do talking about the gracious, slow-to-anger, abounding-in-love God – who’s not just found in the New Testament – but the God who is the same throughout the Scriptures. Jonah, might have found himself in a different predicament if he’d shared the truth that God is waiting, wanting, hoping, pleading with us to turn to him so that we won’t have to face the full affects of our sin.

Interestingly enough though, Jonah didn’t put these two things together – he was stuck… focusing on himself. So, God tries giving him a practical example of why he was being silly with his fit pitching, pitty-party, woe-is-me antics. And that’s the vine – which grows and provides shade for Jonah – in the midst of his complaining pitty-party – shielding him from the hot sun. But the next day, that worm comes out and kills the vine, kills the grace – and Jonah complains even louder. God tries to explain to him, that this vine & this worm – they’re representing his situation. He tries to provide an object lesson for Jonah, so that he could understand the big picture, so that he could understand how God feels. Jonah was concerned about a living vine – God was concerned about a living people. Jonah didn’t want the vine to die because it was shielding him from the hot sun – God didn’t want the city to die… because God is a compassionate God!
But what we have here my friends… is a failure to communicate. God’s not able to get through to Jonah – that worm of resentment has wriggled its way into Jonah’s heart and is poisoning his mind. It’s poisoning his thoughts and he’s unable to understand the simple fact that just because God is gracious with someone else – it doesn’t mean that somehow, you’ve lost out! And, from out perspective, the outside observers, we can see that. We know how silly it looks for Jonah to holding a pitty-party over a vine, but he cares not a second for a city of 120 thousand people. He’s camped outside, hoping it’ll be destroyed, he’s waiting for it to happen so he can be proved right. How does that saying go – “would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” – Is that Dr. Phil? Anyway, we see this kind of thing happen all the time, don’t we? I’ve got 2 kids, and I’m sure you’ve seen this scene played out too – the second one of them picks up a toy, the other wants that toy immediately. It doesn’t matter how many other toys are in the bin, or scattered around the room. “You gave that toy to him? Then that’s the toy, I want!” And as outside observers, we recognize how crazy that sounds, how absurd… but when we’re in the middle of it…

Recently, I discovered that my younger sister had been blessed by my parents’ generosity on her way to College – with something I never received a dozen years ago when I went to college. And I have to admit, my first reaction was a little bit of envy – ok, maybe a lot of envy. But the problem with that reaction? It shows us who our focus is on – it’s on me! What did you do for me? Am I going to get something? And that kind of attitude poisons our relationships, it poisons our outlook, it poisons our lives, until like that vine, we end up shriveled up and dead.
Now, there’s an antedote for that poison. There’s a cure for that worm of resentment that wriggles its way into our lives, making us unable to enjoy the grace of God. But it’s not anything we can take, it’s not anything we do – it’s something that needs to be done for us.

CS Lewis, in one of the books in his Chronicles of Narnia series, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” tells the story of a young boy named Eustace. He’s the cousin of Edmund and Lucy and he accompanied the two of them on their third trip to Narnia – but the problem with Eustace is that he’s a rotten, know-it-all boy who complains about everything. While on this voyage, they wind up on an island, where Eustace wonders off by himself, finds a pile of treasure, decides to keep it for himself – and somehow, as he slept, becomes an ugly dragon. All of the ugliness that had been on the inside, seems to make its way out to manifest itself on his outside. After a number of days, he finds that he no longer wants to be the rotten, mean boy he’d been – but he’s a dragon now, and dragons aren’t very good at speaking or writing, so he can’t apologize and he can’t get his friends to help – and that’s when he meets Aslan.

Aslan, the great lion, tells Eustace to remove his clothes and bathe in this water – which Eustace realizes means shedding his skin, kind of like a snake – and yet no matter how many times he does it, he can’t seem to remove it all. That’s when Aslan speaks up
– “You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been…Then he caught hold of me…and threw me into the water…
After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me – I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes…”

God wants us to wear new clothes too – but in order to do that, sometimes he needs to remove the bitterness and resentment we have in us that poison our souls. We need to die to that self – and live as the compassionate, gracious & loving people we were always meant to be – the kind of people who reflect a compassionate, gracious & loving God. Because in the end, resenting God’s grace, when it’s pour out onto someone else is not only silly – it’s down right deadly. Let God remove it from your heart – so you can live the life of freedom he has created for you...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jonah 2: Responding to the Word of God

One of my favourite movies is one starring Robert Duval, Michael Caine & Haley Joel Osment called Secondhand Lions. The movie centers around the young Osment, whose mother drops him off at the rural farm of his two uncles (Duval & Caine), who are curmudgeonly old men who initially don’t talk too much. As the movie progresses, the two take turns telling Osment the most outrageous stories of their earlier exploits as young men as world travelers, adventurers and eventually in love – Duval with the daughter of a very wealthy Sheik – whom they fought for years. Despite the fact that these stories are so fantastical that they couldn’t possibly be true, and the fact that Duval & Caine seem so far removed from the young men they claimed they once were, the young Osment learns many truths about the world and about himself, that eventually lead him to grow up to be a mature young man.
One of the reasons I love this movie, and the reason why I share it now, is that it’s the perfect example of how a story, or stories – no matter how absurd and unbelievable, can still be used to teach us. Today, we’re continuing our trek through our own pretty fantastical story – the prophet Jonah – and when we left him, he’d been swallowed by a giant fish, where he resided for three days. And I’d hazard a guess that there are some, maybe many out there that look at this story and can’t get past the absurdity of it. We read this tale, we chuckle and we put it back up on the shelf with Paul Bunyan the Giant Logger and Hercules the ancient hero. They’re nice stories to tell our children, but we can’t honestly be expected to believe them. And to that, I say no. There’s absolutely no need for you to sit here this morning and believe these four chapters concerning the prophet Jonah are literal history. Just like Haley Joel Osment, you are free to sit and listen, sifting through the historicity to find the nuggets of hidden wisdom within the text. I would propose that there is as much, if not more that we can learn from this story, as simply an inspired tale, than a historical rendering – but it requires us to listen. And last we left Jonah, he was in the belly of a great fish…
And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry Land.
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. (Jonah 2:10-3:3a)

Ok, here we find ourselves in many ways back to square one. God hits the reset button here. Last week, we were reminded that even despite our disobedience and our running from God’s call – God still comes after us, God still cares for us, God still saves us. In this case, God doesn’t simply swallow up Jonah, but he puts him back on dry land, ready for Jonah to respond to God’s Word. God hits the reset button, and we’re back to the prophetic formula. But this time, God’s arise, go and preach is followed by an obedient rising, going and… well, we have to wait to see if Jonah will be completely obedient.
Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.(Jonah 3:3b-6)

Ok, pause for a second. Turns out, Jonah is a way better preacher than anyone has given him credit for. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” – Billy Graham has nothing on this guy! In fact, in the Hebrew, there are only five words used here. Imagine, a five word sermon – hold on a second – come back to me. I’m not good enough to get the point across in only five words. You’re stuck with a few more from me. But maybe that’s the point. Jonah’s message actually lacks some of the more common components of a prophetic message. No, “thus says the LORD” no attestation of “declares the LORD” – nothing. So, it’s probably safe to assume that Jonah’s curt proclamation is not only, not the reason for the immediate response, but it’s probably not even the actual message given to him, at least not in its entirety. And yet the response of the Ninevites is both immediate and impressive. They believe¸they fast and they put on sackcloth. Faith, followed by penitence, followed by humility. But if that’s not amazing enough – it gets better:
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation to Nineveh:
‘By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’(Jonah 3:6-9)

Ok, lets back-track to get our bearings for a second. Jonah has run away from God’s call because he didn’t want to have to go to this bloodthirsty and wicked city of Nineveh – hated enemies of the Hebrew people. So he runs from God, which is a losing battle, and eventually ends up obediently responding to God’s prophetic call to go to Nineveh – but when he gets there, he barely gets into the city and proclaims only five words, and the response is so dramatic and so amazing that not only the people believe in God, fast & put on sackcloth, but the King makes a declaration that even the animals participate in this humiliating ritual. Is this really the wicked city that we were expecting? Is this really the reception that Jonah, that we were expecting for him? Probably not.
Jonah’s response to God, while obedient, doesn’t seem too enthusiastic – and yet what happens is amazing. We saw last week how even in Jonah’s disobedience, God was praised – by the sailors & captain on his ship. Should we expect anything less from Jonah’s obedience, even if it isn’t perfect? No way. Whether Nineveh is as wicked as we’re lead to believe or not, we can’t expect anything less than a total upheaval, a total 180 when they’re faced with God – even God truncated in the person of the prophet Jonah. Because once again, this story is not about Jonah, it’s not even about this great city of Nineveh – which takes 3 days to cross, and is even great in God’s eyes – this is a story about God. And when God gets involved, look out. We heard and saw last week what God was willing to do for one man, Jonah, who was disobedient and defiant and ran away – and we see this week what God’s willing to do for an entire city of people who are wicked. God turns their hearts. And I’ll bet we can guess God’s response here:
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

Yeah, didn’t see that one coming did we… of course we did! We know this God. This God that cares for a disobedient runaway prophet – how much more does he care for an entire city of disobedient men and women. The king, in his declaration says something interesting – “Who knows? God may yet relent…” –As the king responds to God’s message through Jonah, he has no clue. He turns from his wickedness out of fear and out of hope. But as we read this story, we know the answer because we’ve already experienced it. We gather here today not out of blind fear, but out of a shared history, out of an experience of God’s grace that leads us into the future.
At one time, we too were probably in the King of Nineveh’s shoes. We too, came face to face with the fact that we weren’t perfect, that sin and death knelt at our door, waiting to consume us. And in desperation, we turned to God. We responded by turning over our lives to him. And in so doing – God responded with grace and compassion. So, as we read this, we know God’s response. Author, pastor, professor Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “our present trust is sustained by memory on the one hand and hope on the other.”
And so, we live our lives today in the same space inhabited by the King of Nineveh – with just a little more knowledge. Because we know what God has done and like him, we hope for what God will do. Not only for us, but for our entire city, for our entire world. We hope, that despite all we see, all we feel, all we hear – God will yet redeem it.
And our part? Respond. Respond to God’s word – turn to him. Respond to God’s call – live it out. And if we’re half as half-hearted as Jonah was, I’ll bet we’ll see some pretty amazing results. Because God will be at work, in our work.
And speaking of God being at work… There’s a great twist at the end of the movie Secondhand Lions – the grown Osment gets a call from the local Sheriff – his uncles have died – flying a WW1 bi-plane into their barn. As they survey the scene on the farm, out of nowhere, a helicopter descends. On the door, the name “Western Sahara Petroleum” – a man gets out, he introduces himself as the grandson of a wealthy Sheik, who was raised on stories of these two brave & valiant men – the greatest adversaries of the Sheik. And he wanted to come to pay his respects. And then, his young son jumps out of the helicopter, and is scooped up into his father’s arms. As this happens, the young boy looks at the scene around him and says “so, those two men from great grandfather’s stories, they really lived?”
Jonah being in the belly of a giant fish for 3 days, and his exploits in Nineveh may be the stuff of legend – or they may be as real as you and I – we’ll probably never know. But one thing we can be sure of. That story is first and foremost about God – a God who cares as much about us, as he does about the wicked people we want nothing to do with. And if we’ll just respond to God, we’ll see God do some pretty amazing things, because yes – he really lives!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Today is the Greatest...

Day I've ever known.

9 years ago today, I married up. Bridgette has been with me for over a decade, 9 years of those as my wife. I dragged her across the country and halfway back again in the last 5 years and she's said nary a word. I've "given" her 2 boys (technically, I'm told, it was my chromosomes that decided their sex) - that she's lovingly cared for, despite their penchant for taking after me in certain areas of their behaviour. I even LEFT her with these two boys for a week at a time on multiple occasions - and she STILL stays married to me.

THIS woman is awesome, and it's been awesome to be married to her for these 9 exciting years. I can only imagine what she's got in store for me in the years ahead. I encourage everybody to share your sympathies with her for her life sentence to me on this day, and pray that she survives... ;)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jonah 1: Running from the Call of God

This is the first in my summer sermon series on Jonah. You can also hear the preached version Here thru iTunes or here, eventually on the church website.

One of the first things that I discovered I was good at was running. I don’t know that I’m particularly gifted at athletics, but it seems that nearly every sport involves running, so the fact that I was quick on my feet often made up for any other lack of athletic talent. Running has become quite an international phenomenon too. At one time, running was only for the crazy few, but now it’s become amazingly popular. During the warmer months, it’s hard not to find some kind of 5k or marathon happening somewhere nearby. I still remember when Bridgette called me up and said that she and two of our friends were going to train and compete in the LA Marathon together – 3 women who’d never run before in their lives, but all of the sudden, got the urge to run. Magazines and websites are dedicated to following running. Software programs for your mobile phones can track your route and your time. Nike – the sports apparel giant, began as a little shoe manufacturer in Oregon – making running shoes. I still remember shots of the former President, Bill Clinton, running around DC with his secret service detail. When the President is running – that seemed to solidify that running was on the map

This morning, we’re going to begin a 3 week trek through the Old Testament book of Jonah – one of the more well-known of the minor Prophets. His story, appropriately enough, begins with a little running too…

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai...:

Our story begins this morning with two characters – God and Jonah. It begins with a fairly familiar set of phrasings – The word of the LORD came to X, go to Y and say Z. The normal follow-up to this would be that X, in this case Jonah, would go to Y, in this case Nineveh, and say Z, in this case, a warning and judgment on its wickedness. But right off the bat, this formula is thrown for a loop. The Word of the Lord comes to Jonah, and his response… is to run off in the opposite direction! The great Assyrian city of Ninevah is East, and Jonah hops a boat, on the West Coast, bound for a city even further West. Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? God asks you to do something – maybe not quite as grandiose as Jonah – maybe it’s give money to the homeless guy on the street, call a friend or family member you haven’t talk to in awhile, or simply smile and say hello to that awkward person you know… But instead of doing it, you put your head down and walk away. Instead of making the call, you fill your mind with other things and simply say “I’ll do it later.” At one time or another, I think we all have.

Then the LORD sent a great wind...

What’s interesting about the story as it continues, is the poetic imagery – Jonah, in running from God has gone down to Joppa and in comes through better in the Hebrew but he goes down into the ship – and despite the storm that rages outside, he’s in a deep sleep – which is similar to death. In running from God, Jonah has taken himself about as far as he could possibly go – down into the depths, on the verge of death to run away from God. And the irony, is that the captain goes down into the depths of the ship, to rouse Jonah, so that Jonah will pray to his God – the same God Jonah’s running from! Here we have this outsider captain, whose going down to nudge Jonah – hey, maybe you should talk to that God of yours. When we run from God – how many times are we faced with a person who invites us to return? How many times does God bring someone in our life who comes alongside and helps us to go home?

Then the sailors said...

Here we have quite an interesting exchange between Jonah and the sailors. You can almost feel the tension mount. The captain has gone below to rouse the one person not either praying to their god or helping keep the ship from sinking – and when he arrives, they throw dice to figure out who is responsible for the problem – and Jonah comes up with snake eyes. He’s outed. And they want to know who he is – who’s this guy who’s running away to Tarshish? Who are you that your god is causing this storm? What have you done? See, they know something Jonah didn’t know – it never pays to run from God.
See, Jonah thought he could get away. He thought he could get on a boat, and sail to the far side of the sea. He thought he could descend to the depths of a ship and cut himself off from the call God had given him – the mission God had entrusted him with. But all it did was put him in peril – even more, it put everyone around him in peril. Here he was, on a ship in the middle of the sea, running away from God, and every single one of them was in danger of drowning – all because Jonah wouldn’t accept the call – all because Jonah ran way – all because Jonah wouldn’t obey. Running from God’s call isn’t a great idea.

The Sea was getting rougher...

Now, this is where the story gets pretty amazing. First, it’s important to recognize that to the first hearers of this story, the Hebrew people, Jonah represents an insider, he represents them – and the sailors – they represent everyone else – all of the unclean, unholy, unchosen people they believed God wasn’t concerned about. They were just as bad as those wicked Ninevites – and yet when Jonah tells them to throw him overboard, when Jonah finally fesses up and admits that he’s been wrongly running from God, these outsiders, these heathens, do everything in their power to save him. They’ve already thrown cargo overboard, now they start rowing for shore – because they don’t want to kill Jonah. They’re not bloodthirsty men, unredeemable wretches – they’re humane and decent men who care about the welfare of others. Actually, they come off more caring and compassionate than Jonah – and in doing so, they call into question the whole idea that us insiders are good and those outsiders are bad.
And second, Jonah seems hardly the kind of guy who’s going to give a striking portrait of the great LORD God. Yet even in the midst of his running, even in the midst of his disobedience, God still ends up being introduced and being worshipped by these outsider, heathen sailors. Despite all that Jonah has done to run from God’s call, we still end up with a boat load of men, who’d never heard of this Lord of heaven who made the sea and the land, worshipping him, praising him and making vows to him. Jonah, who had grown up with God from birth, was steeped in the saving grace of God in the Exodus, immersed in the blessings of God to his ancestors – Abraham, Isaac & Jacob, living under the law of Moses as a covenanted son of God – while this Jonah disobeyed, turned tail and ran – his life, even his disobedience, spoke to these sailors – and God used it for his glory. That’s pretty amazing.
When it’s us running from God – never doubt that God is still at work. Never doubt that God cannot use even our disobedience, even our stubborn rejection of Him, for his glory. God is not above using our flat-out denial of his call to speak to others around us. And even more, even in our running, God doesn’t give up on us…

But the LORD provided...

After all this running Jonah has been doing, all this dodging of God’s call – you’d think that God might have given up on him. Or better yet, God was seeking his revenge on Jonah. “Oh yeah, think you can run from me? I’ll show you – take that – bam!” But God’s not like that is he? God’s not capricious or malicious. God doesn’t strike out at us in order to enact some kind of punishment. God doesn’t chase us down only to smack us upside the head. See, when God calls us to do something, it’s for a reason. And even if he’s got to go to the far side of the world, to the depths of the sea – even into death itself, God will do that to reach us, to save us, to give us life and the opportunity to live into the call he gives us.
Jonah did everything he could to get away from God’s call, to run away – but it didn’t matter. You can’t run from God. And when all seemed lost, God didn’t abandon him either. God rescued him – maybe a little unorthodox – but he rescued him nonetheless. Because the last word is never our rejection of God, our running away from our call. The last word belongs to God – it’s a word of love and grace and salvation. So next time you’re tempted to run away from God – remember Jonah and remember – it’s simply not worth it...

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Myth of Impartiality

By now you've probably heard all about Sonia Sotomayor, who the Senate confirmed today to the US Supreme Court. I should probably preface what follows with the note that I haven't gone looking into her legal record, I don't know how she would vote on hypothetical cases. I simply don't have the time to get into it. But I'm happy for her. I'm happy for a number of reasons:

1) Anytime a bunch of people talk smack about you, it's hard not to root for them anyway.
2) When you hear about her bio, it's just one more reason to root for her.
3) A Supreme court filled with white men, no matter how brilliant they are, is lacking something.

And that last point is what a lot of people are complaining about - she's Latino, and she's proud of it, and she doesn't pretend she's not. Stephen Colbert did a Brilliant Job with this awhile back, and ever since then it's been in the back of my mind. Many Conservative pundits were complaining that Sotomayor would let the fact that she's a Latino woman affect the way she rules on cases. They complained she couldn't be impartial, and for that reason, she wouldn't be a good judge. But the problem with this line of thinking is, impartiality is a myth!

The image of justice is a blindfolded woman, because it evokes the idea that she doesn't take into account context, just the facts. Justice is blind. That maybe the case, but those who seek to judge are not. Juries prejudge, which is why we eliminate jurors. Lawyers prejudge, which is why they decline taking cases, or get fees up front. And when we make decisions, we take into account everything we know. But when you have a group of like-minded people making judgments, they're simply not taking into account what they don't know. What a bunch of white men don't know is what a Latino woman went through, what she saw, what she experienced. And that's valuable. That's why she needs to be on the supreme court.

We create laws out of our experiences, and we change laws out of our experiences, we shouldn't pretend that when it comes to interpreting those laws that those same experiences have no place. We're lying if we buy into the myth that any one of us is completely able to act and think impartially. If postmodernity has taught us anything, it's that there is no way for us humans to act or think completely outside of our experiences. We are bound to them, and so we should accept them. Having Sotomayor serve on the Supreme Court gets a little closer to balancing the scales of experience so that maybe, just maybe, the myth of impartiality will not distort the justice that they seek to serve...

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

God - resonating & reverberating

When was the last time you were talking with someone or maybe a few people, and as they spoke, the truth of their words resonated with you so deeply that the hair on the back of you neck stood up? When was the last time you experienced that jolt of excitement as your heart pounded and your breath caught because what was being said was exactly how you’d been feeling, or was exactly what you needed to hear, right in that moment? Maybe it was yesterday. Maybe it was last week. Maybe it’s been so long that you can barely remember. And maybe, just maybe you’ve never experienced that feeling – and yet you’ve longed for it.

These are some very special moments in our lives. And I am utterly convinced that it is the church, it is the body of believers that are called to cultivate the space so that these moments can happen. Because I honestly believe that these moments are often sacred moments, moments where the very hand of God is reaching out and touching us – the very Spirit of God is moving across our brow. These moments do not happen by chance. They happen when two or more people are engaged at a deep level, baring their souls, sharing with each other from the deepest regions of their hearts. Sometimes over coffee in a quaint & quiet shop, sometimes in a noisy classroom filled with friends and so many other places in between. They happen when we are intentional about seeking each other out, learning from each other, learning from God, and open to God’s presence and word to us.

I've certainly had my fair share of these moments - and some recently. Last night I lead our baptism counseling class - it was so awesome to talk about our continued participation in God's grace. Yesterday, I had coffee with a pastor and friend whose been a great encouragement and all of the sudden, something was said that brought clarity to a murky question - all God. We yearn for these moments, I yearn for these moments, and each one of them reminds me of why I am alive, and why I'm doing what I'm doing. My task, is to remove all of those things that so clutter my life, that I cannot have MORE of these moments...

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Me & my boys

Well, it was one of those stretches that just finished up. I was in a somewhat self-imposed blogging exile. Bridgette was out of town for 4.5 days and I stayed home and took "vacation" with the boys. During my "vacation" - I officiated 2 weddings, 1 funeral and participated in VBS & Sunday worship. So, it was about as much of a vacation as any day in the office ever is - probably even less so. I certainly found more respect for what Bridgette does, and even more, I couldn't imagine being a single parent. Not that I couldn't handle it, or couldn't do what Bridgette does on a daily basis. But I couldn't imagine doing it alone, on top of a fulltime job to pay the bills.

In the midst of crazy schedules & a sick boy (which meant I got much less sleep than I would've liked, we did find some time to have fun. But I learned a valuable lesson. When Bridgette goes away in September, leaving me with the boys again - I'm going away too! I'm taking the boys to Canada for the weekend...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I've recently had a couple of conversations regarding health care in the US and particularly as it pertains to President Obama's plans for reform and the potential of ending up "like Canada." First, it's important to remember that I AM CANADIAN, and I have 20+ years of experiencing the "socialized medicine" that exists there. I also have 10+ years of experiencing the US side of medical health, so I'd like to think I have a perspective that most talking heads, pundits and members of the general public DO NOT have.

One particular thing that I HATE hearing is all of the generic comments about people waiting so long that they die because they cannot get treatment for cancer or a transplant, etc. My brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer over a year ago. He got aggressive treatment with very little wait, at a great cancer treatment facility in Hamilton. Unlike in the US, he didn't have to go into debt to receive treatment.

The Miami Herald actually published an article recently that referenced a study conducted of 1000 Americans & 1000 Canadians, asking them different questions about their health care. While the wait times were recognized to be higher in the Canadian system, what is most shocking is the gap in those who thought they could AFFORD care.

This gets right down to my personal pet peeve in the whole discussion. If you HAVE care, you complain about the wait times. If you have NO CARE you'd take that over a wait time ANY DAY of the week! And right now, those with care are the reasons why so many are going without. Because, it doesn't matter if you can walk into an ER, your doctor or a specialist and get seen right away - if you can't afford the treatment they prescribe - or can't even afford to sit down and meet with them because you can't afford the insurance premiums.

I have to say, growing up in Canada, I took it for granted that I could go to the DR and not have to pay a dime. I didn't need to choose between $20 in my tank or a $20 co-pay, but in the US, some people do. It frustrates me when people of power like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of KY, start using personal stories as propaganda for political gain. There's a great piece here about CNN's coverage and the unreported components of the "we're going to have universal healthcare and everyone will die because we're like Canada" crap being spouted by some.

When you get right down to it - every day, care is denied by insurance companies for various reasons. You have to wait everywhere for EVERYTHING, some places longer than others. But if it's not even an option, than it's a moot argument. As a Christian, I can't understand how we shouldn't be in favour of providing healthcare for everyone - whether we pay for it for them or not...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where's the Wheat?

Here's part of the sermon I preached today, all about God's Kingdom, which doesn't come about with Power & Purity, at least not the way we might thing.

Digging in the Dirt

So, as part of Jesus’ mission on earth, he’s proclaiming the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven – and one of the ways he does this is to share stories, to tell parables of what the Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven is like. Now it’s important to note that the concept of Kingdom is something very important to the Jewish people. The establishment of a Kingdom and the blessing of a king goes back to David – God promised that if he remained faithful, God would remain faithful and a member of his family would rule forever. This is where the promise of God’s chosen comes from, the promised Messiah, who will return the people to God, who will reunite the divided fragments of the kingdom of Israel and once again rule a free people, who worship God in Jerusalem.

At Jesus’ time, there are several different ideas of how this Kingdom would come about, and most of them focus on two things – Purity and Power. Some believed that God would simply bless those who were willing to rise up and violently overthrow the Roman oppressors. All they needed to do was seize power by force and God would bless them and the Kingdom would come. The Zealots, akin to present-day terrorists, were the people who exemplified this belief. Others believed that it was impossible to force God’s kingdom into existence by power, and instead believed that God’s kingdom would only be real when it was completely pure – and so they removed themselves from the world and formed small, tight knit communities who would observe the law without influence from their sinful surroundings. These Essene communities pocketed the dessert landscape at that time. And some others believed that if they could just remove enough of the sin, if they could remove enough of the sinful people, if they could just get everyone to keep Moses’ commandments and the laws, by force or by shame – then God would finally redeem Israel, send the Messiah, and remove the oppressive Roman rulers from their promised land. The Pharisees represented this strand of thought.

It is in the face of these and other concepts of the Kingdom of God and how it would come about, that Jesus shares this story, amid others. It doesn’t capture everything about the Kingdom – but it does deal very specifically with two things: Purity and Power.

The story begins with the man planting good seed – which Jesus, a few verses later, explains is the Son of Man, sowing good seeds in the world, who are literally, “sons of the kingdom.” But then his enemy, while everyone is sleeping, plants weeds. No one sees them, no one understands where they came from or how they ended up in the middle of the good seeds, but they’re there, mixed in.

Jesus continues the story with the servants or slaves of the man, as the wheat begins to grow and so too the weeds, recognize that there are weeds among the good seed. They recognize that the planned field of wheat, is not pure, it’s not perfectly good. And they raise the alarm, they tell the farmer, and they ask if he wants them to weed the garden. But, the farmer knows about the weeds. He knows that they’re there, he knows how they got there, and he is unconcerned. He’s not distraught, he knows that the field is not perfectly pure, and his instructions to his servants are wise beyond belief – “while you’re picking the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them – leave them… let them grow, don’t worry. I’ve got it taken care of.” What’s more, “it’s not your job”

Interestingly enough, the plan for the wheat and the weeds has nothing to do with the servants who recognize the problem. In Jesus’ description and decoding in verses 36-44, Jesus has no role for the servants. It is the harvesters, the angels he says, that will harvest the wheat and the weeds. It’s not the servants. Implicitly understood is this: the job of the servant is to help everything grow – because it’s possible that the servants cannot distinguish between the weeds and the wheat. Maybe, what looks like a weed is actually an immature seed of wheat? It’s not the job of the servant to determine the work of the harvester. It is simply not their job to judge. And that’s what Purity and Power are all about isn’t it? Judging?

And judging comes so easy to us, doesn’t it? It’s so easy for me to judge a poor driver (there are tons of them around). It’s easy for us to judge a poorly cooked steak. It’s also easy for us to judge each other. Oh he’s a jerk, she’s a snob. Oh yeah and that person, they’re just plain evil! I don’t want to have anything to do with them. But maybe the next time we’re judging, we can ask ourselves this question – is it possible, they’re not as bad as I think – maybe they’re just not fully matured. Maybe it would be better if I didn’t dig in their dirt.

In this parable about God’s Kingdom, Jesus makes it very clear – Purity and Power are not the concerns of the servants, they’re not our concerns at all. The world will not become God’s Kingdom by the force of our hands – forcefully weeding out the impure from the pure. Our community, the local church, will not become the Kingdom of God by our powerful exertion, by our judging and removing those that are not pure enough from our midst. What is more, we cannot even make the Kingdom come in our own lives by forcibly creating a pure life of our own. The weeds remain, amidst the wheat, the good remains amidst the bad. There’s simply no use digging in the dirt – no use digging in the dirt in the world, no use digging in the dirt of our community, no use digging in the dirt of our own lives. That’s not our job.

This parable doesn’t end in the dirt, doesn’t end with the work of the servants or even with the angels themselves who will complete that final harvest. It ends with the good news of the gathering of all that is good into the barn. It ends with the good work of God coming to completion, the reminder that God is unwilling to let evil win, unwilling to let the bad remain, God is unwilling to allow anything but the good to live on in constant communion with him. Thomas Long, in his Biblical commentary on the book of Matthew, regarding this passage, puts it this way:

“the promise of this parable is that God will finally not tolerate anything that deadens humanity or corrupts God’s world. Whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God will, thank the Lord, be burned up in the fires of God’s everlasting love.”(Thomas Long)

Despite the fact that we’re good at it, despite the fact that we’ve got a long history of being excellent judges of others and ourselves. It’s time we reconceived what God’s kingdom looks like. It’s high time to get out of the power and purity game, stop digging in the dirt, and start reveling in the goodness of God’s grace – until he welcomes us into his great Barn!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Change of Plans

A week ago today, I was supposed to be returning from Honduras. I was looking forward to some amazing worship experiences and the fellowship we had with our Honduran brothers and sisters, and how great it was to see friends that I’d made from previous trips. But the situation in Honduras – where political problems gave rise to enough instability and demonstrations that we were forced to postpone our team, kept our team from going.

But what not going to Honduras allowed me to do, was to connect with some people here, some people I probably would have missed had I been in Honduras. And it got me to think – how often do we miss things that are right in front of us, as we live our lives for something way out there? Don’t get me wrong, we need to plan. We also need to experience the world outside ourselves, other cultures, other perspectives and be willing to step outside our comfort zones to participate in God’s work. But isn’t it true, that sometimes as we plan, sometimes as we go we miss out on the present moment, we miss out on our present location, and those that are right around the corner?

Summer is a time where we are supposed to rest more, relax more and enjoy more. But all too often, at least in my life, it seems to only mimic the other 9 months out of the year – it’s lived way too full of plans for the future which don’t allow me to experience what God has for me here and now. Summer is supposed to be that time where we finally stop and smell the roses, we take vacations, which often require more planning and preparation to pull off than living our normal lives. I was recently told by a friend that his way to stay sane was to take a month of vacation in the summer. Maybe, like another good friend of mine said recently, we instead need to live lives at a pace which do not require us to run away from them in order to rest.

I share this at a very interesting moment - I'm about to officiate a wedding, I'm preaching tomorrow and after that we've got 3 events for the rest of the afternoon Sunday. But I'm working toward finding that rest in the midst of what I'm doing, here and now...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Shack - a "Review"

About 2 months ago I finally finished William P. Young's The Shack. The first thing I want to acknowledge is the simple fact that this book has sold millions of copies, and has many, MANY people talking & sharing & reviewing and that this is merely a drop in the bucket. With that said, I also want to acknowledge that this book has a back story, a context that is important to know, especially if you want to slam it. And Chad Estes on his Captain's blog, does a great two-parter on it here: here (part 1) and here (part 2).

With that out of the way, the main thing I want to say is how glad I am that people are connecting with God through this book. That's awesome. To know the backstory, how it was self-published & written only for Young's kids, and yet it's been ready by over 7 million people. You can't make that up. That's definitely God. So it's hard to complain when you see that happening.

One thing I love is that the Shack takes head-on a very serious issue - evil in the world. It's an issue you can't really come up with an answer for. It's there, it sucks, it's absolutely painful. Young doesn't dodge that. But he also doesn't try the pat answers. He wrestles with it. He digs into it. He experiences (the main character, the supporting characters, and by extension the readers) the pain. There's a great line towards the end by God the Father - "just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors."(p. 185)

A second thing to commend is the dealing with the trinity. Certainly, it's not a systematic theological treatise. But honestly, it took hundreds of years for faithful Christians, dialoguing together, to come up with the concept of the Trinity in the first place. And still not everyone was happy. So the presentation of the Trinity in the Shack isn't going to be perfect, but it's a lot better than most come up with. What you've got to remember when reading it is that it's a parable. It sheds light on the Trinity. You can't critique it for what it's not.

So, with those positives, I want to throw out one point that I disagree with. It's minor, but in a way it's significant. In the middle of the book, God is talking with Mack, the main character, about Jesus on the cross, and he says "Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him." Now, it totally serves the purposes of the book. I can't complain about that. But personally, I've hung my hat on something that I still believe pretty strongly in. It's an ontological issue, which is probably way beyond the scope of a novel like this, but I think it's pretty powerful and accessible nonetheless. I actually do think that God the Father was separated, ontologically from God the Son (Jesus), at the moment of his death. Sin did that to God.

I know there are many who would disagree, but briefly, here's why I think it's actually MORE powerful, to understand the atonement like this: God's internal separation allowed God to experience the separation that we feel from God. God, in Jesus, not only felt physical pain, emotional pain and all of the other experiences and emotions that make up the human condition, Jesus even actually felt estrangement, separation from God. That's the most important difference between God in the trinity and humanity - that connection that was lost after the Fall. But in the death of Jesus, God experienced internally the estrangement that humanity felt and has felt, and what is more, God did something about it in re-connecting internally, in re-making the Trinity in the resurrection and therefore re-making humanity. God, as the parable of the prodical son so aptly describes, was not willing to allow the internal relationship among the Trinity, nor the external relationship with humanity to remain estranged. God, rolled up His robes and did something about it - in the parable, running to the son - reaching out before the son had completed his return journey, and not even allowing him to complete his repentance.

If anything, the Shack actually epitomizes this view of God & humanity's relationship in the opening chapter, as Mack receives the note from "Papa" - God wasn't willing to have Mack's relationship severed. God reached out. But God did so because God has felt that separation, experienced that internal estrangement, which makes God's empathy that much greater.

Overall, I thought the book was good. There's spots of hoky-ness, but can you ever get away with that? Life is hoky sometimes. If I was rating it on some kind of scale, which I haven't done before, I'd probably give it 4.5 "shacks" out of 5.

One final comment - to any detractors that complain about God the Father as an Black woman called "Papa" or God the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman called "Sarayu" - seriously?! Read the bible. Wisdom is personified as a woman throughout. Song of Songs is all about sex. Jesus' parables are some of the most risque stories about God, and that's one of the reasons he was dubbed as a heretic by the religious authorities of his day. Seriously?! Don't we have better things to do as Christians than to throw stones? Happy reading...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Missional - Part V: The Inner Life

It's been way too long that I've spent on this. Since it's more for me than anything else, and I've nearly stopped up the rest of my blogging for this, I'm moving forward here & now.

What I've shared before centered around what the Missional church is not & that it's directly focused on the world outside the walls of the church building. (See below for the 4 previous posts in this series). But there's a tension that's undeniable that must be dealt with, both on a practical level and on a theological level. Practically, you can't be an organization if you don't have structure, if you don't have any internal apparatus that keeps you together. Without that inner life, you die on the vine, serving others. Absolutely true. The scary thing of course is that the theological response to that is simply to look at Jesus - who lived his live fully & completely for others, in accordance with God's will & ended up on a Roman cross, bruised & beaten - dead without a spouse or children at the young age of 33 (or so). So MAYBE that internal life of the church isn't quite as important as some of us might think.

That said, the theological component I want to engage in this stems from Barth & Newbigin who use a couple of different concepts to say roughly the same thing. In Barth's Dogmatics IV.3.2 section "The Community for the World" Barth describes the Christian community as a "likeness of the prophecy of Christ...[which] points beyond itself to what he intends to indicate and represent using it." This can, and should (thanks Darrell Guder) be re-translated as "parable" - that the Christian community acts as a parable of the Kingdom of God - particularly in how it lives that inner life. How it forgives, and experiences joy and serves each other - in these ways it exists as a community (the inner life), a parable of the KoG, for the world.

In Lesslie Newbigin's Gospel in a Pluralist Society, he says nearly the same thing in his final chapter titled The Congregation as a Hermeneutic of the Gospel. Here is an extended quotation:

I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation...the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it... Jesus, as I said earlier, did not write a book but formed a community... If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our will only be by movements that be in with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced..." (231-232)

What both Barth & Newbigin are saying is this: to be a Missional congregation, or to actually be the Christian community in any context, is to have and live as a community, experiencing the grace of God and extending it to others as part of an inner life of the community, so that the outward movement of that community, the living for the world, might indeed be authentic and sustained.

This has been cathartic to write this mini-series but it's also been a strain to put down, accurately and succinctly, what I both believe and feel on this topic. And it's taken so long to finish. The previous posts are linked below.

Missional - Part I: The New Christian Buzzword
Missional - Part II: The very Nature of the Church
Missional - Part III: Living For the World
Missional - Part IV: Not Just Missions

Monday, June 22, 2009

Missional - Part IV - Not Just Missions

Ok, I'm still struggling with how to put together my thoughts on the next step in my Missional posting. Unfortunately, that's only part of why it's been 3 weeks since I posted. I got out of the habit and into the thought of "if I can't make it perfect, it doesn't deserve to go up" - which is wrong. If this is indeed a Spiritual Discipline, as I've planned this blog to be - not just for everyone else, as if I'm publishing something millions are reading, but a way for me to interact with God & myself, then it simply needs to go up. Well, here's the middle ground: I'm adding a step in here, to say simply, that Missional is not simply bringing 19th & 20th Century "missions" into a more prominent place in the Church.

Granted, I'm less than 2 weeks from returning to Honduras with another Mission team from our church. This will be my 4th team in 15 months, and I've only been at Liberty for 2 years come July 1. So, there's still part of me that is taking part in Missions the "old fashioned way" if you want to say that, but that's not all missional is. And, this probably doesn't get much better of a segue into what I've been wanting to say than this - being Missional, being the church, isn't just about doing missions "out there." While the outward focused, living for the world is a the heart of Missional, at the heart of the church (since it, by it's very nature exists for the world), there still remains a certain interior life, and this interior life of the Church is not divorced from God's Mission, it is not secondary, it is not tertiary, it is not subservient to the outward movement of the body of Christ. The Life Together to borrow from another German Pastor/Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is that other side of the Christian Community's life lived for the world. And if it is indeed the hand-in-glove, mirror image of that, Missions, as experienced and participated in for years by the Christian church in the West is NOT what it means to be missional. It's not something we do apart from the "regular" work of the church. It's not something others do apart from what we do that is the work of the church.

So next, on to this interior life and how it IS part of a proper understanding of the Missional Nature of the Church...

Missional - Part I: The New Christian Buzzword
Missional - Part II: The very Nature of the Church
Missional - Part III: Living For the World

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Discerning... (miniature hiatus - Missional Coming)

The next segment in the Missional Discussion is coming soon. I've been wrestling with how best to look at the dichotomy of the outside versus inside existence of the church. Not so much the "in-but-not-of" that many discuss, but more of a discussion of the internal relationality of the church not at the expense of the external mission. It's also being informed by a book I'm slowly reading - Van Gelder's the ministry of the missional church, which I'd taken a mini break from as well.

Part of the lack of finishing off this thought process has also been a lack of fueling the fire, which simply cannot be a way to exist in ministry, let alone live. I expect to return to the series by the end of the week. In the meantime, something that's recently come up is recognizing the leading of God in the Holy Spirit and how we recognize what to do with a given word or concept.

Two cases in point: I've had 3-4 conversations regarding Adult Sunday School - something we don't have as a program, at Liberty. We don't have a simple place to direct new/young believers to or to encourage people with to grow/deepen their faith. It's on the "agenda" but wasn't #1 - until 3-4 conversations prompted it toward the front of my mind, followed by a committee meeting Monday night, where it bubbled to the top, without my leading. In fact, it was on the agenda as a topic for another meeting - way down at the bottom.

The second is more personal. I was offered the use of a home for vacation/rest as someone was prompted by God in worship, combined with multiple personal events & a couple people sharing their own issues with rest/sabbath. This issue, unlike the other, looks to have a time sensitivity that does not allow me to act immediately. I don't think I could take a vacation in the next 3 months aside from what we're already doing. And when I look at my schedule in 3-4 months, I can't imagine that's a good idea either. So, I took this thought process down to a much smaller level - maybe there's something I can do right now, or in a day or two - take a mini spiritual retreat.

Personally, I believe God is continually at work through the Holy Spirit, leading & guiding us into things and places where we can be effective in being who we are, in being healthy people, in taking part in God's mission in the world. The key it seems to me, is discerning how we pick up on what we see & hear, how we're prompted, what that leads to. There are always so very many moving pieces in discerning the direction of God's leading. I'm always curious to hear what people use as their rubric for determining how to finally act...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Missional part III: Living For the World

Picking up where I left off, Missional has become a buzzword that in many ways needs to be carefully defined, and it is best understood as the very nature of the Church. The Christian Church was founded as a mission – a human community formed to continue carrying out the very mission of God, as begun with Jesus’ sending from God the Father.

Backtracking a bit for a second now, Missional is not a Church Growth movement, it is not a method of evangelism, it is not the social gospel recast for a new generation. It is the an accurate description of the Church – a community that lives not for it’s own sake, but for the sake of the world.

All right, so I’m going to show some of my cards with this one. It’s my belief that the word Missional in describing the church borrows heavily from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics and particularly from Vol IV.3.2 Barth begins, (quoting from (IV.3.2, S72) as I did above, with the call into existence, by stating ”that the Christian community exists as called into existence and maintained in existence by Jesus Christ as the people of His witnesses bound, engaged and committed to Him.” It is also the ”action of the Holy Spirit…[which] is the basis and secret of the existence of the Christian community.” Barth goes on to further describe how it is that the Christian community is to be for the world in the following ways:

1) It knows the world, it’s origins & purpose, and it understands the covenant relationship between the world and God.

2) It is to practice solidarity with the world meaning full commitment to it, unreserved participation in its situation, in the promise given it by creation, in its responsibility for the arrogance, sloth and falsehood which reign within it, in its suffering under the resultant distress, but primarily and supremely in the free grace of God demonstrated and addressed to it in Jesus Christ, and therefore in its hope.”

3) It is obliged to the world in that responsibility for the world is put on the Christian community – meaning the Church is to minister to, serve, help the world just as the Samaritan helped in Jesus’ parable.

This outward movement, this existence for the world as spelled out here through Barth, leads to the obvious question – at what price to the community as it exists as an entity, as an organism, as an organization, does the Church do this? All of the practical questions well up – methods of evangelism, appropriate teaching, form of worship – if the Christian community, the Church itself exists not for its own, but always for the world, how can it even exist in any sense? At what point do the walls become so porous as to be not walls at all? At what point does the Church itself, cease to be the Church and simply be the world to & for which it exists? The answer to this will come from both Barth and Newbigin in the form of two very profound concepts that I’ll entertain in the next post. For Barth, the Christian community is a parable of the Kingdom of God. For Newbigin, the Church is the hermeneutic of the gospel

Missional - Part I: The New Christian Buzzword

Missional - Part II: The very Nature of the Church

Monday, May 11, 2009

Missional - Part II: The very Nature of the Church

sorry for the 3 day hiatus - here's part 2 of what looks to be a 3-5 part series:

Probably what bothers me the most about the overuse of the word Missional right now in the Church, is that it seems to me that it is being used by some in much the same way the words "organic" and "green" have been (bandwagon book sales & marketing ploys) - words appended to other concepts in order to make it more palatable because it seems like people want that. Again, I'm not trying to tear down anyone who uses the word. I think it's valuable - and possibly the MOST valuable word that's come along in regard to the Church in a long time, but there are a few things I feel I need to point out.

First, the simple fact is that the concept of Missional should not be separated from the "Church" to which it was originally connected in the book Missional Church. Simply put, you can't be a missional person, at least not as I understand the concept, as put forth by Guder et al in that book. Missional and Church belong together.

Second, and maybe I'm stepping out of my depth on this one, but a Church itself is not Missional or Not - it's not like you can get a scorecard and determine whether you're following 6 things and grade yourself accordingly. It's not a question of whether a congregation does XY or Z and therefore is missional, while another congregation does not do XY or Z and therefore is not missional. It's not like that. THE Church, the church universal - that great body of believers, that bride, created by Jesus, even now, awaiting it's full redemption in the fullness of time, THAT Church is, by it's very nature, Missional. It is not about adding a program and then your church will be missional. It's not about adhering to certain principles which will make it missinoal. The church, and every gathered body of believers whether in a house or an auditorium seating 20,000 people - IS by it's very created existence - Missional.

Third, the word Missional itself, while it may be a creation in the English language, is much more than that - it recognizes the essence of the Church, derived from the very words of Jesus. Jesus commissioning of his disciples, particularly as recorded in John's Gospel. If the Church is the community, called by God, formed by Jesus words and empowered by the Holy Spirit - it is a community that in its first act as a community is on the move - it is about a purpose that exists beyond themselves. The Missional Church, is essentially saying nothing more than The Church. The Missional Church is like saying Jesus Christ. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we understand that Jesus is God. Jesus is the promised Messiah, Jesus is the promised Christ. So, while you can say Jesus without Christ or Christ without saying Jesus - you can't say the one, at least not in an orthodox Christian sense, without meaning the other as well. Jesus - fully human and fully God.

Fourth - and finally, this concept of the church - this understanding of it's inherent nature as a moving community as a Missional community - is not only derived from the commissioning of God in Jesus Christ, but it is founded in the very being of GOD. God, the Trinitarian God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit, chose to move toward humanity in the person of Jesus. Jesus was sent by God to re-engage with humanity and in the ultimate re-engagement, his death and resurrection, permanently bound God to humanity - and redeemed humanity. This act of movement, this re-engagement with humanity is out of which the Church gets its mandate to be engaged with humanity. The Church, following in the same movement of God toward humanity, in doing so is doing nothing more than what it has always done, what it has always done, and what it has always been created to do.

This then leads to the simple, profound, and very scary realization which would irk those who wrote and hold to the Second Helvetic confession's answer to What Is the Church? " assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world..." The Church, in not moving, in not engaging the world, in being holed up with eyes only for itself (and for God of course) the Church is actually not the Church...

Missional - Part I: The New Christian Buzzword

Friday, May 08, 2009

Missional - Part I: the New Christian Buzzword

It's funny how things get going, isn't it? Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, has been great and I could probably use it to tackle that question with regard to this, but that's not exactly where I'm going. Mainly because I'm not as interested in the use of the word, or better-yet in the co-opting of the word, but in the understanding of the word. That word being MISSIONAL.

Truthfully, I haven't written a book, taught a seminary class or been a keynote speaker at some event where I used the word Missional, but I do have some insight into the whole thing that comes, about as close to the source as you can get. I think, I think, I get Missional. What I'm concerned about, is that so many other people out there DON'T get it, and they simply connect it with other things or co-opt it into their own designs to either deride or use the word as they see fit. First, let me share the story of the word, as told to me, as best I remember.

It begins with a conversation, a conversation about the Gospel and Western Culture, particularly in the United States. This conversation, was born in part, but not entirely, out of a work by the late Bishop, Pastor, Missionary, Missiologist and Ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin, and partly due to his writing Foolishness to the Greeks, based on the Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary back in 1984 and further expanded into his famous work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. The conversation took root in what became the Gospel in our Culture Network, connecting professors, missiologists and pastors who were concerned that the death of Christendom hadn't been realized in North America and that the old ways of doing and being church were no longer effective in communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This network is also, I believe, the launching pad for Emergent, although I may be mistaken on that point.

Anyway, part of the Gospel in our Culture Network was writing - and a group of them, "headed" by Darrell Guder, Dean & professor at Princeton Seminary, but at the time of this, professor at Columbia Seminary (also formerly of Fuller) - wrote a book in 1998. As I the story was relayed to me by Dr. Guder, and as I recall it (recollection is always a funny thing), Dr. Guder got a call at one point, late in the process of writing. Most if not all of the different parts (written by different authors) were in and edited, but an overall title was still lacking. Again, as I recall, he got a phone call from George Hunsberger professor at Western Theological Seminary. He had a title he wanted to run by Dr. Guder... it was, Missional Church. The problem was of course, missional wasn't a word. They talked it out, vetted it and finally signed off. Missional Church would be the title of their book. They'd spend a ton of time defining what the term meant, but as it was more of a concept than anything else, it remained open to interpretation - and of course, mis-interpretation.

What I find funny now, is that missional like so many other buzzwords in the Christian community, has now taken on a life of its own. The cat's out of the bag. No longer do professors steeped in a concept of God's mission in the world, trinitarian theology and a robust understanding of the church have ownership of this word. The book was published, it met with resounding success and people everywhere started using the word.

Here's my big problem - I think a lot of the use of this word is misguided at best and down right disgusting at worst. The concept of missional and a Missional Church is a key recovery in the church which shouldn't be reduced to the next fad in Church Growth, which it has by some. Having graduated from Princeton (oh, how it pains me to play that card, I promise you), having studied under Dr. Guder, read deeply in Lesslie Newbigin, studied Karl Barth (where Guder gets his initial concepts of God's mission in the world interestingly enough) and done so in a group of peers who have challenged and tweaked my thinking - it so pains me to see people putting out crap - whether published or not, that attempts to subvert this concept. Finally, today, I've had enough. I'm going to start a series, I don't know how long, of posts all about Missional. Certainly, it will be at best a rehashing of published work, for which I'll give full credit, but in this age of the internet - my guess is that there'll be many that will not have come across this at all. My hope is that I can clarify and clean up some thinking - at least in a tiny corner of the inter-web...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What's YOUR Song?

Music is a powerful tool and it strips away so much and allows us to feel emotions that sometimes are so deep below the surface that we don't even realize we experience. But when you hear those notes, or when you hear that one line, your body tingles, your skin is set on fire and you KNOW that you're alive.

I blogged awhile back about the song that's probably MY song right now, Never Let Go. It's such an amazing reminder to me, of God's unending - unending love. And I'm really hoping to teach that to my boys. Every time we hear the song come through the CD player in our car, I reach back and grab Brennan's hand, because that's OUR song. I want him to know that even more than my love for him, God's love is greater - and HE never lets go.

That said, I was driving the other day and listening to Christian Radio - which meant Bridgette had been driving the car before me, 'cause I raerly turn on Christian Radio, simply because the play list is way too short and so much of it is 10 years old and a bit sappy. Anyway, I'm listening and this song comes on by Third Day, that I think I've heard a bunch before, but with the current series we're preaching through at Liberty "Hope for a Hurting World" - I heard it with new ears. Particularly, the second verse, which begins with this:

For the marriage that's struggling just to hang on
They lost all of their faith in love
They've done all they can to make it right again
Still it's not enough...

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
Love for the broken heart
There is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing
He'll meet you wherever you are
Cry out to Jesus, Cry out to Jesus

Just to be sure, my marriage isn't in trouble. But growing up in a broken home, one redeemed by God, I must say, and in a culture where divorce seems almost the norm instead of the exception (and I know way too many people who are or have struggled through a disintegrating marriage) - my heart just broke hearing that.

But of course, God's hope is in no way restricted to marriages, which is what this song talks about - hope for the lonely, hope for the tired, hope for those in pain and burdened with addictions - hope for everybody. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond God's redeeming, which means that in everything, we need to cry out to Jesus.

If you're reading this, maybe this song was for you. If it wasn't I'd love to know what your song is right now. What song are you singing, or is singing you, and why? There are so many songs that God has placed in our hearts...

Monday, May 04, 2009


I've updated some of my reading list and within the next few weeks I should be able to make some reviews of the books. Finding time to put in this necessary reading is a key component to growing in this "line of work" - unfortunately, that's easier said than done. My bookshelf is littered with books I purchased thinking "ooh, I really should/want to read that book" - but haven't found/made the time to actually read them.

Well, things at the church of course begins to "slow" down during late Spring & the Summer - unless you're an Associate Pastor. Because I'm preaching 6 of the next 16 Sundays and I'll be in Honduras for a week in there as well (which means I'll probably "preach" 1-2 more times there too).

I'm curious - if there's anyone out there listening, how/where do you fit in time to read? Drop a line...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Working with People

One of my favourite things about being a pastor is that I get to work with people. You might not always get that when you walk by my office (I keep my door closed most of the time) but that’s a function of the fact that I’m so easily distracted by people that I need to set boundaries or I’ll never get any work done. The truth is, a good week for me, heck, a good day for me includes meeting with people, sharing ideas, getting a chance to bounce things off people, get their input, etc. I get energy from being with people. It’s taken me awhile to confirm that in myself. But I know now it’s a fact.

The problem is, of course, that working with people is not always easy. I’m pretty opinionated. I have a sense for things, and I tend to believe I’m right. Sometimes it’s hard to take someone else’s opinion (when it differs from mine) and see the validity of it, see things from their perspective. On top of that, there are those people who don’t always “fit” – they have unique qualities that make them, well different. If you deal with data or information, and not people all day, you don’t necessarily have to deal with those things. But when you deal with people, and when you deal with people in the church those things pop up all the time.

I realized that just today, as I talked with someone that I do feel comfortable with. They shared that they’re fine with being straightforward with people. I am too – and then I realized – there are some people that I’m not exactly straightforward with. There are some people that I take great care to be tactful with. Sometimes it’s because I don’t think they “get it,” sometimes it’s because I’m afraid that they will “get it,” and sometimes, as sad as it is to say this, sometimes it’s because I simply don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

I think tact is important. I’m not always tactful. When I am, when I’m deliberate about what I say, the words I use, my inflection, timing & affect – my communication usually goes over much smoother. And yet, there comes a point when tact turns into dishonesty. That’s not helpful – strike that – that’s NEVER helpful.

I love working with people. God willing, I’ll always have the chance to work with people. And as long as that’s the case, I’ll have to take the good with the bad. I’m hoping that I can learn to be honest with the bad that comes with working with people – because only when that happens can the work be truly “good” and not simply contrived & unhealthy…

(the above picture courtesy of Liberty Presbyterian Church – our staff serving together in January – great fun!)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Getting Back on the Horse

Every passing day makes doing this harder & harder - why? Not sure. Maybe it's because it feels like I need to put something awfully profound up here to be worthy of waiting over a month! But that's simply not true.

My reasons for such a prolonged absence are mostly due to my personal absence - I was away for 1 week in Honduras on a Medical Mission Trip, 1 week of Study Leave in North Carolina, then a big event at our Church which I helped organize - building the walls in 1 day & giving them to Habitat for Humanity for a local home, then Easter. By the time I lifted up my head, weeks had gone by & I hadn't posted, let alone looked at my blog. Ouch.

So, I'm getting back on the horse. There's tons of things that have been floating around in my brain lately - many of which have to do with faithfulness, fruitfulness & the ability to be present where we are, despite the challenges of an "always on" world - and especially how that happens in the context of Ministry. So, if you're looking for a substantial update, it will come soon. As for now, I'm just getting comfortably reacquainted with my saddle...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I'm in Honduras right now with our church's Medical Mission Team. I'll be returning March 22 and will provide some updates on our work there. In the meantime, please pray for our team of 15, providing care to many Hondurans. My time in Honduras will look a lot more like the second photo than the first...

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Judgent & Grace part 3: The Problem is Me

I'm writing here, a brief follow-up to the Judgment & Grace mini-series I began writing this week. It also falls under a "Saturday Song"

One of the biggest problems that I think we've yet to quite figure out, is the whole idea that judgment, at the end, really isn't about us. CS Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, has this great exchange between a couple "people." The one, simply can't understand how someone else could "get in" to heaven, after all the wrong that they'd done. The other, tries to explain that it's ok, all will be understood in time. But this woman, this shadow, is still so judgmental that she makes the choice not to continue on the path to heaven, because SHE is unwilling to forgive someone else for a wrong done to another person. It's crazy.

David Crowder, in his new CD has a great song that I think sums it up. It wrestles with the type of love and grace and forgiveness that God offers and asks the question whether that's possible for us. It ends hopeful, with the line "surely we can change" reverberating...

Surely We Can Change
And the problem is this, we were bought with a kiss
but the cheek still turns, even when it wasn't hit

and I don't know
what to do with a love like that
and I don't know
how to be a love like that

And all the love in the world is right here
Among us hatred too
So we must choose, what our hands will do

Where there is pain, let there be grace
Where there is suffering, bring serenity
For those afraid, help them be brave
Where there is misery, bring expectancy

And surely we can change
surely we can change... something

And our problem it seems, is with you and me
Not the love who came, to repair everything

and I don't know
what to do with a love like that
and I don't know
how to be a love like that

And all the love in the world is right here
Among us hatred too
So we must choose, what our hands will do

Where there is pain, let us bring grace
Where there is suffering, bring serenity
For those afraid, let us be brave
Where there is misery, let us bring them relief

And surely we can change
surely we can change... something

The whole world's about to change...

Judgment & Grace part 2: Relationship Required

Have you ever read something or heard something from someone that you thought was absolute junk? I happen to have a fairly critical nature about me and there are tons of times that people say or do something and my first reaction tends to be something like "that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard (or seen)!" There was a time that I was spending more time on the blogosphere than I do now, reading blogs, reading blogs of people who made comments on blogs and keeping up ongoing "conversations" which sounded a bit more like arguments to most other people. I don't spend quite as much time doing that anymore, but unfortunately, it's not because my critical nature has somehow soften. I'm still critical.

One instance was in regard to something that happened awhile ago. I read some work by an author that I was going to be working with. Granted, I didn't read everything, and I didn't even read the entire book that I started, but I somehow gained a certain critical vibe. I felt myself continually wanting to say "yeah, but" to many of the arguments presented. I had a certain idea of what this author was like, the agenda that they had, a general conception... which became a mis-conception when I finally met this person.

That's when it dawned on me. How could I possibly judge someone's work when I've never met them? How could I possibly understand what someone is saying, what someone is truly meaning without some kind of relationship? Now, before you have a heart attack, I'm not suggesting that you need to meet Hitler to know the Holocaust was wrong, or Stalin to know that the Goulag was wrong. But, there is something to be said for the fact that we don't sentence anyone for a crime without having a jury present at the trial. We don't try people in absentia and we invite an accused to speak to the jury.

But honestly, criminal behaviour is not where I was going - simple criticism and JUDGMENT is where I was headed. Because, I can feel free to disagree with someone, with anyone I choose, but is there a need for me to stand up and publicly criticize them? Is there a need for me to pass my judgment on their thoughts, ideas & on them as a person? No, I don't think so.

In our society, we can communicate without ever meeting someone. That's cool. I've made friends with people in the virtual world (if that even is a reality - in my opinion, there is only 1 world...), and that's lead to meeting them in person. That's neat. But that same communication also leads to the ability to criticize and judge without meeting someone, without being in relationship. I don't think that's a positive development.

When you get right down to it, if God is willing to go to great lengths to save a relationship with us, if God is willing to offer grace instead of judgment, shouldn't we, even with our lightning speed communication and technology, hold off on our judgment and hold out for relationship? I think so...