Tagged: church

God’s not a Conservative

  • I have often heard Christians describe “conservatism” as though it’s a fruit of the Spirit.
  • I know of church leaders who when faced with a decision about a ministry or application of Scripture will seek to identify the conservative choice, because they’ve predetermined that it’s the correct one.
  • I’ve been part of a dying church with close to $200,000 in reserve simply to help it through some rainy day in the future.
  • I know Christian worried that today’s culture will corrupt our youth. These same people fail to see that culture has influenced their own perception of God.

Churches have a lot of unusual words as part of their normal conversation. One of those words is STEWARDSHIP. The churchy definition of this word is: there’s about to be a sermon on giving more money to the church.

In contrast, the Bible definition of stewardship goes more like this: Everything in Creation belongs to God, and He’s given humanity the responsibility of taking care of it as He would. According to Genesis 1:26 God created humanity in His own image so that we could rule over and care for creation.

Stewardship is a fundamental purpose of human life.

Christians should be people who take this responsibility seriously. We don’t just care for Creation on behalf of God, we carefully manage all the resources that he provides us.

However, many Christians face the temptation to base their role of God’s caretaker, or manager, upon the philosophy of conservatism. We adopt the mindset that our job is to manage God’s resources carefully, and we use words like “frugal, wisdom, and fiscally responsible” to justify our worldview.

Jesus told (at least) two parables that challenge this conservative perspective.

PARABLE 1: The Parable of the Bags of Gold (Matt. 25:14-30)

In this parable describing the kingdom of heaven, three servants were given bags of gold and told to care for it as their boss would. They knew that the boss wanted them to earn a return on the money, but the most conservative servant decided to bury his gold to ensure its safety. When the boss returns from his travels he is irate with the conservative servant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe lesson here is that God intends us to use the resources he provides to enhance the mission of the kingdom. This involves risk. Conservatism seeks to minimise risk, but in this parable the boss wants his manager to take some risks. The safest option is not the best option.

A key to this story is the statement in v24 “I knew you are a hard man….“. If we are to manage God’s resources the way He would, we need to ground our approach in the character of God. Many Christians have sadly lost sight that our God takes risks.

I’m not suggesting recklessness such as Jesus jumping off the temple roof because God had promised that he wouldn’t break any bones. I’m thinking more of the presence of two trees in the Garden of Eden. As any of us who’ve been through a romantic break-up know… The decision to love involves risk. God is love at his core, so the presence of two trees demonstrates his willingness to risk rejection for the sake of love. As does the third tree on Calvary.

Sometimes churches will be taken advantage of. Sometimes ministry ideas will fall flat. Sometimes we’ll use our gifts to preach or teach and we’ll say things that are wrong. Sometimes we’ll do things that in hindsight were just foolishness. And I’m confident that God says, “I’m so glad you didn’t bury those resources. Dust yourself off. Rub the sore spot. Let’s try again. The reward will be worth the risks.”

PARABLE 2: The Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16)

In this story about Gentiles entering the kingdom of God, the farmer recruits workers throughout the day. He promises all of them a day’s pay, regardless of when they start. Needless to say, at the end of the day those who’ve been working since sunrise aren’t thrilled to see those that arrived during afternoon tea receiving the same pay.

Parable of Vineyard Workers

By Jacob Willemsz de Wet, mid-17th century –  Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org.

While this parable isn’t specifically about stewardship, the dramatic hinge of the story depends upon the audience thinking God is a just God who gives everyone what they have earned. Instead, Jesus surprises everyone by describing God as generous, who’ll give what He wants to who He wants! “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v15)

Many Christians see stewardship in terms of a bank. God has given us resources. These resources might include the church building, the church treasury, personal wages, individual skills. And in our worldview, we’re the bank. God intends for us to protect his resources and use them very wisely.

This means we have rules about using the church building. This means we don’t give money to people who aren’t good managers of their personal finances. This means we provide for our family first before we give to the church. This means I have to use my skills to work hard to make sure my family is provided for.

But what if our generous God gave us these resources not to act as his stewards by preserving them, but for giving them away? What if he’s saying, “I trust you to distribute these funds as I would distribute them.” What if it’s okay that we have to spend God’s money to repair a hole in the wall of the church building because a group from the community was breaking rules and running and throwing balls when they used it last week?  What if generosity is more important that frugality?

God wants us to serve as managers of His resources, but the type of managers we’d expect. He wants us to be risky managers and he wants us to be generous managers.

Which means, God doesn’t want us to be conservative in representing Him while serving His world. Too often we have allowed cultural values of independence, self-determination, and wealth accumulation to influence our perception of God, that in turn influences the way we fulfill our function as God’s stewards.

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Church Inside Out

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I’ve come to love the story of Basil the Great. He was bishop of Caesarea in the late 4th century. Basil earned his fame as a staunch defender of the Nicene creed, what most of us know as the traditional teaching about the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He worked tirelessly to oppose the teachings of those who saw Jesus as a created being. One of these opponents was the Roman emperor Valens, who banished Basil from the Roman empire on several occasions (though Basil paid no mind to the decrees).

Important though such work was, Basil’s greatest legacy was the Basiliad, the huge hospital/orphanage/hospice/poor house thBasil the Greatat was built outside of Caesarea. When Emperor Valens came to Caesarea to confront Basil face to face, he was so impressed by Basil’s work that he donated imperial land for expansions to the Basiliad.

When Basil died, Gregory of Nazianzus declared, “His words were like thunder because his life was like lightning.”

I love that imagery. I’d love to have it said of me. I’d love to have it said of the church. Words like thunder backed by a life like lightning; that’s what the church needs.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14–16)

Far too often our churches are cloistered within four walls, living godly lives that are seen by no one. We become consumed by inward-focused ministries. With all of our energies directed at one another, cabin fever sets in, and the church fights and feuds over minor matters. As we distance ourselves from our communities, we come to fear and distrust the outside world. In the end, having no significant relationship with outsiders, we content ourselves with trying to convert our young people.

That’s not how we were called to live! Peter told his readers:

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)

Our lives are to be lived out in the open. Non-Christians should see our lives and respect them. This is true of us as individuals; it’s also true for the church as a whole.

We’ve got to be the church inside out… insiders going out in order to help outsiders come in.

Jesus has gifted his church with gifts and with leaders to equip her for works of service (Ephesians 4:7-13). One of the main tasks of Christian leaders is to help members find and use their gifts in service to others. Leaders should be aware of the needs of the community around as well as knowing how to help members discover their own giftedness. Elders and ministers need a mechanism for communicating those needs to the body, be it through social networks, phone trees, Bible classes, small groups, or announcements from the pulpit. They also need an awareness that no church can meet every need. It’s possible that some needs will only be prayed about for now, trusting that God will raise up people for those ministries at a future date.

Leaders should be open to proposals for new ways of serving, for new ministries that better fit the current membership and contemporary needs. In the same way, some ministries should be allowed to fall dormant or cease to exist; there is no shame in moving on from a ministry that is no longer bearing fruit.

Church members should be creatively looking for ways to use their gifts to serve the community around them. Where giftedness meets need, that is the Christian’s calling. Sometimes those gifts fit within existing structures in the church; sometimes new ministries will be developed to minister to the community in more appropriate ways.

It’s important that we encourage our members to experiment with new ministries. Leaders should be positive and affirming when faced with ministry proposals, especially “outside the walls” ministries. People need to know that they can try something, evaluate it honestly, and make necessary changes (including suspension of that ministry for a time). As churches step outside of themselves, they will find more unpredictability and a need for more flexibility.

But step out we must. The church needs to be seen by the community, seen as a force for good. We will never be able to speak like thunder, until our lives shine like lightning. Others will never praise God because of us until they see deeds that are truly praiseworthy. I’ll close with a quote from my book Church Inside Out:

As the old refrain says, they won’t care what we know until they know that we care. The world does not want to be preached at. Outsiders don’t want Christians standing inside church buildings pointing fingers out at the rest of the world. But when they see transformed lives reflected in a Christian body that serves its community, they’ll want to hear the message.

sound-waves 01a

02 Tim Archer - pic

Tim Archer has coordinated the Spanish-speaking Ministries for Hope For Life / Herald of Truth Ministries since 2006. He has spent three decades working in Spanish ministry, including 15 years in Argentina. Tim preaches for the bilingual ministry at the University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, where he attends with his wife Carolina, and their two children, Daniel and Andrea. Tim has authored and co-authored several books available HERE. He also writes regularly on his blog: The Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts.

Tim’s latest book, Church Inside Out, helps churches motivate their members to be actively ministering to the community around them. To promote the Summer Blog Tour, we’re giving away one set of Church Inside Out, both book and workbook. Just leave a comment below then enter over HERE

Deeper Than Skin, Barely

I consider myself blessed to work in a church fairly evenly distributed between white and black members. As an international preacher I feel at home in this small church with other members and students from Canada, Jamaica, Panama, China and India. The world seems a little smaller, and God’s kingdom seems considerably larger, when we sit in a room together.

Each year we celebrate our diversity with what we call HARMONY Sunday. I’ve previously described our weekend events HERE.

interracial love

 

Lawson Rd Church of Christ became racially integrated in the early 1990’s, long before I arrived here. This integration occurred when of a group of African-American members left another local Church of Christ and joined the predominantly white Lawson Rd Church of Christ.

As part of our weekend events our guest speaker facilitated a roundtable discussion on Saturday evening. A group of about 15 people from a variety of backgrounds met to share and discuss our life experiences.

The speaker’s theme for the weekend was “Church as Family”. His first question was simply, “How big was your childhood family, and would you describe it as closeknit?

Bear in mind that this church has been racially integrated for over 20 years. We’ve formally celebrated racial diversity five times over the last 8 years encouraging communication and bridging cultural divides. Yet as we took 30 minutes to go around the circle and answer this simple question it felt as though something sacred took place.

In this moment of disclosure no one confessed any sin. No one invoked the spirit of Dr King with emotional speeches. No one made any earth shattering revelations. But the simple question allowed us to deepen our relationships with each other. We gained a glimpse into the events and people that formed each of us into who we are today.

In some cases people who had worshiped together and attended Bible class together for a decade or more now know one another more deeply because we took the time to sit down together and talk.

If we’re to be God’s family together. If we’re to love one another. If we’re to demonstrate acceptance and grace to the world. We must first take the time and effort to know one another.

I find that in talking to friends and members of color, I often want to immediately address bigger issues of justice. Saturday night’s simple question reminded me that before addressing issues I need to simply know my brothers and sisters. I was reminded that before addressing my church on national issues I need to remind them to eat, play, and work with those whose story and culture differs from their own.

I needed to be reminded that even heart surgery begins with an incision that breaks the skin.

Sometimes I feel woefully unequipped to minister in a racially diverse congregation. There are so many issues for which I can’t provide any deep or radical solutions. I know we have an opportunity to make a difference but identifying the next step is difficult. So I often resort to the simple advice, “take time to talk to someone of a different race/culture than yours.” It’s not creative. It’s not profound. Saturday night reminded me that it’s still necessary.

Now, who can you share a coffee with as we break down dividing walls together?  Go ahead, make that call, send that text, now!

Preparing the Way

Isaiah 40 sits at an important junction in the book. From this point the prophet transitions from warning Judah of impending judgement and begins reassuring God’s people that He’ll deliver them from captivity. The very first words of the chapter change the tone as they declare, “Comfort, comfort for my people, says your God.

Then in verses 3-5 we find a passage better known for being applied years later to John the Baptiser. (Mt. 3:3, Mk. 1:3, Jn 1:23)

      A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

At first glance it appears that God commands His people to get busy building a road for Him to travel upon. The instruction actually serves as a figure of speech. At the heart of this passage God lets His people know that nothing can stand between Him and them. The highway figuratively illustrates that God will take a direct route to His people, wherever they are. That provides comfort for a suffering nation.

Hundreds of years later when people asked John the Baptiser, “Who are you?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way for the Lord.'” (John 1:22-23)

Consistent with the Jewish interpretative tradition of the day, John has searched the Scripture and found a text that describes his mission. John takes what was initially a figurative illustration and adopts it as a literal agenda for his life mission.

repent 01John conducted his ministry on the eastern bank of the Jordan River across from the town of Bethany. He lived in the wilderness outside any city or town. John prepares the way for Jesus by:

  • Demanding repentance and a new way of life
  • Urging justice for the poor, oppressed and suffering
  • Calling for baptism

In return:

  • He promises forgiveness of sins.
  • He anticipates the restoration of Israel.
  • He precedes the Messiah.

But John isn’t the end of the story. Jesus fulfills the remainder of Isaiah’s thought. If John prepared the way for Jesus, Jesus prepares the way for us.

Jesus goes before us. Jesus ultimately goes to the cross for us. He makes a way for us in the wilderness. A way through guilt to forgiveness. A way through condemnation to grace. A way through sin to holiness. A way through this world to eternity.

Jesus makes a way for us to God.

As you would expect with a prophet named “John the Baptiser”, his call to repentance included a call to baptism. Jesus didn’t need repentance, but he chose to be baptised by John. As we follow Jesus into the waters of baptism like him we also:

  • Jesus baptism 01mark a point of surrender to God. In baptism we also accept the mission God has for us.
  • encounter God the Father and received the Holy Spirit. We too are anointed. When we are baptized, God says over us, “This is my child whom I love. I am delighted with you!”
  • identify with sinners. Jesus chose to identify himself WITH sinners. He didn’t become human to stand on the banks of our fallenness and hurt. He jumped right in and lived with us. In our baptism we identify ourselves AS sinners in need of forgiveness. And so, John’s message of salvation and forgiveness is pertinent for us also. We accept God’s forgiveness while living sinful lives among other sinners.

Through Jesus, God makes a way for us.

You and I are not the end of the story. God has a made a way for us to receive His salvation. Now He will use us to prepare the way for someone else. In this mission we can again learn from John the Baptiser. In Luke 7 John hasn’t seen the results of Jesus’ ministry that he expected, so, from jail, he sends his disciples to double check with Jesus that he really is the Messiah. As people preparing the way, we will often find ourselves second guessing our efforts. Where’s the fruit? Am I really being effective? Is God working through my efforts? Because our preferred timing is seldom the same as God’s timing.

Keep going. Don’t give up. Jesus told John, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Don’t become preoccupied with results, just fulfill the mission God gives you.

As Jesus prepares the way to the Father for you, you participate in His mission preparing the way for others.

**For the points on baptism I’m indebted to John Mark Hicks and his book Enter the Water, Come to the Table.

**BONUS: And because Isaiah brings to mind several songs… here are some videos I found:

The last few verses of the chapter contains the wonderful imagery of God giving strength to the weary so that they soar like eagles. This picture has inspired many songs.

Why You Might Be Worshiping God Too Much

stars aurora borealisShout praises to the Lord!
    Shout the Lord’s praises
    in the highest heavens.
All of you angels,
and all who serve him above,
    come and offer praise.

Sun and moon,
and all of you bright stars,
    come and offer praise.
Highest heavens,
and the water
above the highest heavens,
    come and offer praise.

In Psalm 148 Creation explodes with praise for God. In v13 we’re told, “The glory of God is greater than heaven and earth.” Creation cannot contain the praise due God and the psalmist calls upon the angelic hosts and the highest of heavens to join in the chorus of praise.

Yet it’s possible that you might be worshiping God too much.

(While I’ve previously written about expanding worship beyond the Sunday morning worship service, in this context I’m focusing upon the church’s corporate worship.)

As a minister in a Church of Christ, I’ve heard all the arguments about instrumental vs a capella singing in worship services. Many of the arguments are drawn from Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

Over the years I have noticed that so much time has been spent discussing the spaces between the words that we’ve forgotten what the words actually say!

Examine this phrase from Colossians 3:16, “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit“.

Here are some questions I wish we’d spend more time discussing about this verse,

  • “But I thought our worship was always directed to God?”
  • “How is singing teaching?”
  • “How is singing admonishing?”
  • “How can we make our singing more instructional?”
  • “What does it mean to have wisdom as we sing?”
  • “Can hymns not written by apostles be ‘from the Spirit’?” “Does this mean they’re inspired like the rest of the Bible?”

In my experience, churches have focused so much on singing toward God that we overlook the way the words and music impact the emotions and faith of those hearing the singing.  (Although, even as I write this I can think of many worship leaders who carefully consider how particular songs, lyrically and musically, fit specific places within the worship service.)

How can we better consider one another while singing?

When we direct our entire focus toward God during congregational worship, we fail to allow the songs to challenge the status quo in our lives. I believe this is one of the strong arguments supporting the inclusion of solos or other “performances” into our worship. Often people are quick to dismiss these as entertainment rather than worship, but I believe this step overlooks the need for us to listen, not only during prayer and preaching, but also to our singing.

The instruction to “speak to one another in song” requires that we also “listen to one another’s songs”. Sometimes this listening requires us to stop singing, to focus on the words and experience the music.

When we listen to our songs they often challenge the way we relate to those around us. A regular favorite at my church is the song “Love One Another”. Yet I wonder if singing that songs prompts us to look around the room and consider who needs to know they’re loved today. We sing songs of throwing out lifelines, but do we then make a point of talking to guests?

When we sing, “Bless the Lord O my soul… For all Your goodness I will keep on singing, ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.” and we know the man in front of us lost he wife last month and is struggling to think of one reason to keep on singing. Do we put a hand on his shoulder? Do we let him know afterwards that we know it must be tough for him to sit through that song?

What if we set a goal every Sunday of having each song prompt us to think of a specific person? Would our worship experience be different? Would the worship experience of others be different, richer?

I wonder if we don’t too often picture a profound experience of worship as eyes closed, hands raised, just me and God, feeling his love. No doubt there’s a place for that. But just as worship must encompass more than Sunday, Sunday worship must encompass more than “me and God”.

  • For another resource on “Why we sing in church”, check out a book review by my friend Frank Bellizzi HERE.
  • Coincidentally, another friend, Jonathan Storment wrote a blog this week titled “3 Big Reasons to Sing In Church” that you can read HERE.

Leadership Is A Real Thing

Are leaders made or born?

If you want to start a spirited conversation around a dinner table, just pose this question.

Clearly thousands (millions?) of people believe leaders can be trained and developed, rather than requiring an intrinsic trait bestowed at birth. I know this because if I Google “honesty” I get 83.4 million results. If I Google “wealth” I get 271 million results. A Google search for “Jesus” gets 681 million results. And a search for “leader” garners a whopping 886 million search results.

Then you can go to Amazon and find a gazillion or so books with the word “leadership” in their title. If you follow the trail of crumbs down the self-help rabbit hole you’ll find personalities such as Tony Robbins, John C. Maxwell, Dani Johnson, or Michael Hyatt. Each of these leaders, and many others like them, will offer innumerable conferences, workshops, webinars or courses to help you develop your leadership potential and create wealth. I don’t know the percentages, but while in some instances they deliver on their promises not everyone experiences the same success.

There’s also no shortage of Christian organizations focused on leadership development. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago hosts one of the largest leadership events among evangelical christendom, The Global Leadership Summit. They’re hardly alone. For instance, one of the widely circulated magazines in Christianity Today’s stable has the specific title “Leadership Journal“.

Leaders: Everyone wants a good one. And many people want to be one.

While some churches stress leadership and leader development, I’ve also observed the opposite extreme. I’ve seen churches that choose to give all their men, or all their members an equal voice in decision making through regular Men’s Meetings or Congregational Meetings, or both. I’ve seen churches limit the influence of the minister and largely restrict him to preaching and teaching classes. I’ve seen churches second-guess the decisions of their elders and thus cripple the congregational leadership structure.

These churches seem to intentionally, or unconsciously, operate under the assumption that “The only leadership we need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Jesus is our True Shepherd”.  This is despite the fact that Ephesians 5:11-12 appears to clearly teach that churches should emphasise the recognition of leadership abilities within the church, rather than fear the presence of leaders.  “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

I give all these examples because on Sunday I preached on Jeroboam and Rehoboam whose story can be found in 1 Kings 11 & 12.

Rehoboam was King Solomon’s heir to the throne of Israel. Immediately, he faced a leadership crisis. Would he meet the demands of his citizens or would he seek to impose his will upon the nation?

He took three days to think it over. During that time he first consulted with Solomon’s advisers and then with advisers he grown up with and chosen himself. He chose to follow the counsel of his younger advisers and as a result ten northern tribes rejected him as their king and anointed Jeroboam.

Jeroboam quickly encountered a leadership crisis of his own. Realising that his people would still pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh he was concerned that they would come to see the king in Jerusalem as the rightful king of all twelve tribes and revolt against his leadership. 1 Kings 12:11 tells us that “After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves.” These calves were to serve as the new nation’s god and eliminate the need for people to travel to Jerusalem.

What caught my attention was that both of these leaders sought advice. Yet, both of these kings made terrible decisions. Conspicuously absent in these stories is any indication that either king sought God’s guidance in the face of these leadership crises. The impact of these poor leadership decisions was felt for years by the people of both nations. 1 Kings 14:30 observes, “There was continual warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam.

Mothers lost their sons. Wives lost their husbands. Children lost their fathers in the perpetual skirmishes between these two armies.

God’s glory was splintered as his covenant people fought amongst themselves and rejected his leadership.

So here are some leadership observations that I discern from this story:

  1. Both of these kings have advisers. That’s a good thing.
  2. Advisers should represent a variety of backgrounds, not just be “the guys you grew up with”.
  3. Deciding which advice to follow and which to ignore requires wisdom.
  4. Effective leaders will listen to advice (rather than rely on their own instincts) but will learn to discern between wisdom and foolishness.
  5. Great leaders will always seek God’s counsel before seeking the advice of His people.

Leadership is a real thing. It makes a difference in the rule of a nation. It makes a difference in the health of a church. Because it makes a difference, congregations should intentionally invest in the training and growth of their leaders. This might mean bringing in consultants or sending leaders to workshops, but gathering advice improves leadership. Churches that resent outside perspectives will seldom flourish, being wise in their own eyes.

The Seeds We Sow

A couple of weeks ago I told a story during my sermon that a friend shared with me as he explained why he entered ministry. This friend was raised in a small church and wen through all the normal career phases that boys go through: Policeman, Fireman, Soldier, Professional Athlete…. But he ended up going to college and studying Bible.

Everyone I know in ministry has a different story of their calling. God has a large bag of tricks when it comes to getting our attention.

As he told his story, my friend described how frequently the “little old ladies” at his church would tell him that one day he would be a great preacher. “God’s really blessed you with the gift of speaking up the front.” “I can see you really love God and love encouraging others. Keep it up.” These godly women saw and affirmed this teenager’s abilities and planted seeds of calling in his heart and mind. I

have no idea if those ladies ever knew the role they played in this young man’s life, but God used them to bless many through the life and ministry of that boy they encouraged each Sunday.

IMG_0095This weekend I was blessed to visit a little country church on the banks of the Ohio River. About 50 people worshiped together, which seemed the usual number. The building must have been half-full. This church will never have 2,000 members, the community simply isn’t large enough. But I was reminded that God loves each of these people meeting faithfully in this quaint little building every Sunday.

I found myself there yesterday because almost 10 years ago I studied the Bible with Justin. I was a campus minister in Louisiana and Justin’s wife had just started a master’s program at the university. Justin wasn’t a student. I didn’t even know if I was supposed to study with him or refer him to the “grown-up” preacher. But we studied the Bible together regularly for a year or two. To this point in his life Justin had bounced around different churches, but had grown serious about his faith and studying the Bible in his last year of college. So we talked.

After eighteen months or so, Justin moved to the next town down the highway. I studied the Bible with other students. Then I moved to upstate New York. Eventually, Justin moved back to his home in the hills of Ohio. Before long, this church approached Justin and asked him to preach for them!

That was about 5 years ago.

For a while, Justin and I would Skype each week talking about ministry and preaching. Gradually the calls became less frequent. Then they stopped altogether. It’s been several years since Justin and I last talked.

Yesterday I just happened to be in the neighbourhood. So we worshiped, and Justin preached. It was a wonderful experience.

I’m certainly not taking credit for Justin’s preaching or love of God. But I am glad to have been one voice of encouragement along his journey to this place. I never would have predicted that Justin would be full-time preaching for a church. But God didn’t ask me.

This experience reminds me that we never know how God will use the lives of people around us. Sometimes we act as though it’s our job to dispense career advice, or life coaching. Some of us may possess a gift of wisdom to speak guidance into the lives of others. However, most of us have the simple task of pointing others to Christ and letting Him guide their lives.

Are there people around you that make a point of encouraging in their walk with God? You never know what God will do with those seeds.

When Ruth Comes to Church

Ruth 01The book of Ruth features three main characters: Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.

In many ways the book could be called the Book of Naomi, as the story opens and closes with Naomi and she guides Ruth’s actions throughout the story.

Many Christian commentators seize on Boaz’s role in the story as “kinsman-redeemer“. Since Jesus is our redeemer Boaz becomes a type, or shadow, of what Jesus will be.

Then we come to Ruth.

She’s an outcast. Perhaps we often regard her as a romantic figure. She represents us: A recipient of grace.

As I read through this book last week I noticed some comparisons between her movement from Moabite to member of Jesus’ family, and the outsiders who visit our churches today.

1. Ruth was an outsider. Ruth was a Moabite. An Israelite enemy. She worshiped idols. She couldn’t be trusted. She spoke differently. Maybe she dressed differently. The local boys had been warned about women “like her”. She was destitute.

2015 Ruth is also an outsider. As the US immigrant population increases there’s a good chance that she’s a foreigner. Maybe an illegal immigrant. As such, some may regard her as the enemy. She probably doesn’t come from a Christian family. She has other interests, passions, or idols. Not being raised in the church, she speaks differently. She thinks differently. And she probably dresses differently. She may be destitute.

2. Naomi went into Ruth’s world. I wish I could describe Naomi as a missionary. In fact, it seems that Naomi’s family moved to Moab out of desperation, and perhaps a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide for them. Nonetheless, she entered Ruth’s world and made such an impact that Ruth followed her out.

2015 Ruth needs someone to enter her world. She needs someone to accept and love her so strongly that she doesn’t notice the differences. She needs someone to walk alongside her through times of grief and struggle. When she experiences this loving relationship, 2015 Ruth wants to learn more about the God of her 2015 Naomi.

3. Ruth moved to Bethlehem. At this point in her journey Naomi’s role wasn’t to motivate her, but to guide her. She needed to guide Ruth through the new Israelite customs. (I’m pretty sure the Moabites didn’t have the same gleaning laws the Israelites did, and certainly not a kinsman-redeemer.) Naomi needed to guide Ruth through the web of pre-existing relationships. Naomi knew who Boaz was and his eligibility to be their kinsman-redeemer. Ruth would have been lost without Naomi.

2015 Ruth needs someone to guide her into the strange world that is church. It’s not enough to expect 2015 Ruth to stay, just because she walked through the doors of a church. Who will explain what an elder and a deacon are? And who they are? Who will convince her that small groups may be uncomfortable at first but beneficial in the long run? Who will help her children find the right Bible classes or guide her through the sign-in process? 2015 Ruth needs compassionate guides every bit as much as Biblical Ruth did.

4. Ruth was courageous. When Ruth lay herself at Boaz’ feet, I wonder the thoughts that raced through her mind. This was a risk. Would he be angry? Would he treat her as an outcast? Would he refuse her? Would he mock her vulnerability or her lack of decorum? This was the moment when she lived up to her earlier pledge that Naomi’s land, people and God would become hers. There was no turning back if Boaz accepted her.

2015 Ruth requires courage. Although she has come to trust some of God’s people, she knows the people better than she knows God. God is a new entity to her. She likes what she’s seen so far. She longs for what’s promised. So she joins herself to God in baptism. But God and his church often has a bad reputation out there in the world. Christians often fail to acknowledge that the commitment that comes so naturally for those raised in a church requires great courage for 2015 Ruth her friends.

5. God validates Ruth. The book of Ruth closes with Naomi holding Ruth’s son in her arms. Then it details how the future king, David, is a descendant or Ruth. She becomes an integral part of God’s family.

2015 Ruth also needs validation. She needs a church to point out her gifts. She needs people to involve her in the life and ministry of the God. She needs a purpose. As she is integrated into the body of Christ one day she’ll look back and realise… “I’m no longer an outsider. I am loved.”

If Boaz represents Jesus, then our churches need to identify Naomis willing to seek and invest in Ruths. That’s how we’ll establish a lineage of faith.

What We Celebrate Matters

This blog post was previously published here.

Lawson Rd Flags

Jesus knew the truth that what we celebrate matters. Shortly before his death Jesus instructed his disciples to remember his death through a simple meal. (Luke 22:14-20) I imagine that without this instruction the disciple may have decided to celebrate other aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Earlier the apostle Peter had wanted to construct shelters to memorialise the spectacular event of Moses and Elijah appearing and talking with Jesus. Other disciples could easily have chosen to celebrate Jesus healing ministry or concern for the poor.

How would the history of Christianity differ today if the first followers of Jesus decided to politicise His criticism of the religious establishment? Would they have sought revenge against the pagan Romans? Would they have sought to initiate an uprising and seize control of the temple, freeing it from apostate religious leaders?

Instead, Jesus preempts these possibilities by establishing a celebration of his death and his resurrection. This move required the first Christians to pursue understanding of his death. Why did it happen? Do you remember what he said? Do the Hebrew Scriptures speak of a resurrected Messiah? How does this impact us? Does this change our relationship with God?

The simple meal. The memory. The celebration. The understanding. Jesus directed the focus of future generations for thousands of years to the thoughts that are most important.

Our churches still face the same opportunities. In addition to the Lord’s Supper, we get to decide what and who to celebrate.

I once visited a church and watched an elder call every one 18 and under who had a birthday that month to the front of the room. As they stood on the stage with him he prayed over those children. What an affirmation that these children matter to God and to the church!

I know of a church that hosts a VBS each year for special needs children. This event shines the spotlight of love and grace upon these children and their families, letting them know that they’re valued and important.

Last October, the church a friend of mine attends encouraged everyone to wear purple one particular Sunday in support of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This topic seldom receives attention from churches and this congregation sought to publicly stand with victims of abuse.

I recently saw a church workshop advertised with the theme, “Reprove, Rebuke, & Exhort”. This celebration clearly communicates what matters to them: Reproving and Rebuking. Getting things right. Doing things right.

I’m aware of many churches that have special “Mission Sundays” or “Ministry Fairs” as they highlight the need to send and support missionaries around the world, or the importance for members to involve themselves in church ministries.

Each of these churches chose to express issues, topics, causes, and people that they view as important through celebration.

It would be overly simplistic to infer that the reverse is true. Just because a church does not celebrate a particular cause or person does not mean that they don’t care. No one church can emphasise every issue. If they try to acknowledge everyone, eventually no person or cause is particularly special because everyone’s treated the same.

Which brings us back to where I began: What we celebrate matters!

With this in mind, I’m thrilled that my church celebrated our racial diversity last Sunday through a special day that we call Harmony Sunday. I’ve been part of multi-ethnic churches in the past who preferred not to acknowledge their diversity. Taking one day to celebrate the reality we see each Sunday communicates to the church and the community that each person matters. It reinforces God’s vision for his kingdom as a house for all nations. And most of all, it communicates that this topic is important, not an accident.

I am convinced that events like Harmony Sunday are vital for the good health of multi-ethnic congregations and those seeking to broaden their membership. Among many other benefits, this type of celebration gives permission for conversations about race to take place. It communicates a desire for the church to provide a safe place for dialogue.

I Have a Complaint… Or Four.

Have you ever shared a weakness, mistake, or vulnerability with someone only to find yourself on the receiving end of criticism?  It that doesn’t hurt enough, how much worse might it be if you know the other person shares the same struggles?

  • Have you ever been mad at Adam and Eve wishing they’d resisted the temptation of the tree and the serpent?
  • Have you ever shaken your head at the Israelites refusal to enter the Promised Land?
  • Have you ever critiqued David’s behaviour in the chain of events leading up to his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite?
  • Have you ever marveled that so many people could harbour enough anger towards Jesus that they demanded his crucifixion?

As I grew up in a Christian family I had all these thoughts.Today, I find myself living out each of these circumstance more than I’d care to admit. I cave to temptation just as Adam, Eve and David did. I find my self paralyzed by fear at times I shouldn’t. I have no confidence that I would have stood up for Jesus in the face of the Jewish leaders teaching. To be honest, I find my story told much more often in the failures of Scripture than the heroes.

One of the traits I admire about Biblical history is it’s willingness to admit failures. That’s not to say that some accounts aren’t biased in favour of God’s people, but the Bible also shares tales of significant failure.

This brings us to my sermon text for this week: The Wilderness Wanderings of Israel.

How could the Israelites complain so continuously during their time in the wilderness? How could people who had walked through the watery walls of the Red Sea despair that God would provide food and water for them? How could the nation that so enthusiastically submitted to covenant with Yahweh prefer to return to Egypt rather than enter the Promised Land? How could people who saw God’s presence regularly meet with Moses at the ‘tent of meeting’ so often rebel against his leadership?

Where does this negativity come from?

All my life I’ve been trained to read these stories and criticise the complaining Hebrews.

complaints 01But then I jump on Facebook or surf various Christian blogs, and I’m overwhelmed by wave after wave of complaining about the Lord’s church.

  • I see complaints about nominal Christians.
  • I see complaints about the way some churches address the LGBT community.
  • I see complaints that worship services are too entertainment based.
  • I see complaints that worship services need more pizazz to reach millennials.
  • I see complaints because churches invest too much money in buildings.
  • I see complaints that churches aren’t evangelistic enough.
  • I see complaints that church don’t concentrate enough on discipleship.
  • I see complaint, after complaint, after complaint…

It’s not as though God’s people stopped complaining when Israel entered the Promised Land.

And just like that, I’m complaining about complaining!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got my list of things I’d like to see churches do better. I’m sure if you searched my blog you’d find plenty of instances where I’ve complained.  It comes so easily.

As I spent time over the last couple of weeks reading in Exodus and Numbers I noticed the importance of Yahweh’s reputation to the surrounding nations. Here are some passages,

God says, “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.” (Ex. 14:18)

In Moses’ song:In your strength you will guide them
    to your holy dwelling.
14 The nations will hear and tremble;
    anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
    the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
16     terror and dread will fall on them.
” (Ex. 15:13-16)

Moses pleaded to God,Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.” (Ex. 32:12)

Moses again pleads,If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, 16 ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ 17 “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared.” (Num. 14:15-17)

It mattered to Moses what others thought about God.

Shouldn’t it matter to God’s people today how surrounding peoples think about God? Shouldn’t we consider how our words and actions will reflect upon God and His kingdom? Shouldn’t we care whether or not we present God and His church as attractive to those needing Him?

I fear that sometimes as Christians seek to “purify” the church we accomplish little more than smearing the name of Christ. Maybe we win a battle of a particular interpretation or custom, but in the way we conduct ourselves we lose the war.

A Closing Prayer

May we, as Children of God, present our Father to the world in way that honors and glorifies Him. May we dwell upon the riches of His grace. And may we live as people for whom this prayer from Colossians 1:9-14 is a reality.

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.