A Sermon Through A Child’s Ears

hippoLast Sunday morning, our sermon at church focused on the story of Peter joining Jesus in walking on the water. In the midst of that section, I shared a passing story about my daughters and a cartoon hippopotamus. It turns out that these two portions were heard by my five-year-old nephew, who was uninterested in attending kids’ classes and was instead sitting in the back of the auditorium with an aunt.

After service, they recounted to me a conversation they had unfolded during my lesson:

Nephew: “I don’t think uncle Jason knows what he’s talking about.”

Auntie: “Well, I’m pretty sure he probably does.”

Nephew: “No, he definitely doesn’t.”

Brief Pause

Nephew: “Hippos do not walk on water.”

Is it fair to say that I’m hoping most in the room heard the message slightly differently than that?!

Word and Spirit

A pastor born in 1935, now with two doctoral degrees, views his life work in this way. You are in here somewhere.

Our premiss is this. It seems to us that there has been a ‘silent divorce’ in the church, speaking generally, between the Word and the Spirit. When there is a divorce, some children stay with the mother, some stay with the father.

In this divorce, there are those on the ‘word’ side and those on the ‘Spirit’ side. What is the difference?

Take those of us who represent the Word. Our message is this: we must earnestly contend for the faith ‘once delivered unto the saints’ (Jude 3), we need get back to expository preaching, sound doctrine such as justification by faith, the sovereignty of God and the internal testimony of the Spirit as taught by men like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. What is wrong with this emphasis? Nothing. It is exactly right.

Take those whose emphasis has been on the Holy Spirit. What is the message? We need to rediscover the power that was manifested in the Book of Acts, there needs to be a demonstration of signs, wonders and miracles; we need to see the gifts of the Spirit operating in the church – that the world will once again take notice of the church so that people are left without excuse. What is wrong with this emphasis? Nothing. It is exactly right.

We believe that the need of the hour is not one or the other – but both! It is our view that this simultaneous combination will result in spontaneous combustion! And then, but almost certainly only then, will the world be shaken once again by the message of the church.

This was the message I have preached over the years at Westminster Chapel in London. This is what we are endeavoring to preach in America and around the world. This is not all we preach but it is certainly one of the main things we preach alongside the need for total forgiveness and learning to be sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

YOUR TURN: Where does your spiritual journey fit into this descriptions? What seems accurate about this assessment of Christianity and its message? What seems in accurate?

Leave a reply–your input betters this post!

Arrow Leadership

I have made mention in the past two years of this program, which I just completed.  During our final residential, a videographer was assigned to interview our class and create a promotional piece from the footage.

Here is what he gathered on a program that I cannot recommend strongly enough.

A Week on a Tiny Island

arrow logoOver the past two years, I have been part of the Arrow Leadership program. Briefly put, the program has involved a class of 23 people, under the age of 41, who are employed in non-profit organizations. I have nothing but the highest praise for the program–first-rate in all its work.  If you are the least bit intrigued, contact me; I would happily share more!

Barnabas-from-Above-288x288I type this post from my local airport, awaiting my flight toward Vancouver. Every six months back to September 2011, our class has gathered at the Vancouver airport, where we have been bussed and boated to beautiful Barnabas on Keats Island.  The location and hospitality leave nothing to be desired, and a powerful sense of community has been created over three separate weeks spent there together. Today marks the start of our forth and final residential.

So for good reason, I will break briefly from regular blogging. A week from now, the Canadian prairies will welcome me home, and at that point, I will meet you right back here for further Wandering & Wondering.

For today, may this Irish blessing be indicative of what God is doing in your life on this fine day:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

A Year in the Scriptures

A year ago, I got myself organized by formatting our church’s Scripture reading schedule to fit neatly in my Bible cover. Below are three photos chronicling my success (and other things) in this venture:
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2012 Reading Schedule - Pic 22012 Reading Schedule - Pic 3A few observations may resonate with anyone who has ever tried to firmly establish a good habit:

1) Starting strong is admirable, but the real learning will take place miles from the gate you so eagerly burst forth from.

2) Life’s circumstances must be factored in. The birth of our third child, on May 28, and the rhythmic irregularities of summertime both had an obvious impact on my devotional habits.  “Creatures of habit” is sometimes tossed around as a derogatory term, but I view it as fact to be utilized wisely.  Craft the rhythms on which to build the habits, and you shape the creature you become. Do this wisely, but allow enough grace that you don’t despair when life’s special circumstances “interrupt”.

3) Reassessment and readjustment are key to ongoing success. Mid-November marked a conversation with my wife, in which we collectively planned how we desired to improve the scheduling patterns of our family life. The impact of those adjustments is obvious over the last six weeks of the calendar.

For any Christian – regardless of gender, age, or experience –  some form of Scripture diet is essential. I have never yet heard of a substantial spiritual life being cultivated apart from a love of Scripture.

A recent article by the Gospel Coalition offers five highly focused and practical tips toward developing one’s devotional habits.  If you have yet to settle upon a reading plan, do yourself a huge favour and choose one.  Numerous options can be found HERE or HERE.As well, you can view the Three Year Bible Reading Plan that our church uses. (We are just now entering year two of the cycle.)

If this habit is already well-established in your life, then you need little convincing to continue. If this habit is not yet established in your life, then today, this year, our gifts to you as entry points to the deeper realms of life available to all who seek God with all their hearts.

YOUR TURN: What have you discovered in your efforts to create Scripture and prayer rhythms in your life?  Any tips on what to do OR what not to do? Your input makes this post better!

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Leading toward a Difference

Some new household rhythms have recently created a podcast-listening habit for this fellow.  One of my early finds has been the Andy Stanley Leadership podcast.  After two episodes (about 20 minutes each), I can only say, “Wow! Thank you, Andy.”

Concise, intelligent, well-balanced, insightful, and more.

I confess to possessing a measured cynicism toward anyone claiming to be an expert on leadership. That may be a result of having witnessed leadership styles that I have no desire to imitate; it may be a result of having witnessed leadership styles that I have no hope of imitating.  Whether excess of caution or shortage of confidence, it is never the wise move to shut one’s ears or close one’s mind.  Two brief podcasts have re-ignited my fire of desire to learn and grow.

Am I the leader I wish I was? Not today.

Have I maxed out my potential? Not a chance.

Will I take a step today to move from here toward there? I had better.

What might that step be? For this moment, keeping Andy’s podcast on my regular rotation is one easy move to make.

Here are some of the take-home chunks from a recent listen, entitled, “Making a Difference”  It began with talk of American politics and the polarizing force they often seem to exert among Christians in that country. I wondered if this podcast would be largely irrelevant to this Canadian.

And then the gems on leadership started flowing:

“It is more important to make a difference than to make a point.”

There is a weak form of leadership that is easily entered; it revolves around making a point rather than making a difference.  It is rooted in the desire to be right, and it typically revolves around words rather than actions.  To be sure, there are times when a point must be made.  But toward what end?  That answer better be “toward making a difference”, or we’re just playing games in our God-given roles.

“A leader should never risk his/her ability to make a difference by making an unnecessary point.”

Influence is too slowly gained and too quickly lost to make every issue a “go to the wall” item.  Some things matter greatly; others matter hardly at all.  The unwise leader can be sucked into making a statement about a second-rate issue (often at the prodding of critics OR those hoping a leader will agree with THEM) that goes on to undercut his/her from the big-ticket items he/she dreamed of impacting in the first place.

The churches in which I’ve grown up have often spoken of “majoring in the majors and minoring in the minors”.  This language displayed our awareness of this dynamic, but much of our history has betrayed our unawareness of just how much influence can be lost when we fail to live out this advice.

Organizationally or individually, influence is maximized (and guarded) when we release the desire to pound on unnecessary points.

“Don’t fear guilt by association.”

We cannot influence people that we refuse to associate with.  Whatever issue or movement I desire to move forward will be minimized if my ultimate objective is to guard my reputation.  Sprite may have overstated it in their “Image is Nothing” campaign some years back; however, the wise leader must be driven by forces far greater than image.  The difference he/she desires to make will determine the bridges that need building and the relationships that require cultivating, and within our fragmented world, bridge-building is a messy work, demanding feet to be planted in unfamiliar, sometimes downright uncomfortable, settings.

Jesus knew this, and his critics served him regular helpings of guilt by association.  Yet Jesus remained aware and convicted of the need for fences to come down and lines to be crossed, and leaders will be the first doers of such tasks.  But not leaders who are afraid of guilt by association.

“Influence is a stewardship.”

The responsible leader asks, “Why have I been given influence?” Surely, it isn’t to protect my number of church members or constituents.  At some point, the leader is required to risk his/her credibility for a purpose greater than maintaining that credibility.  Every competent leader will move from a state of less (say, influence, power) toward a state of more (say, influence, power).  It is sign of fear when the “days of more” are lived out in a protective manner, where that role of say, influence, and power is guarded rather than leveraged.

It may take wisdom and discernment to identify the cause or issue upon which one will stake everything.  Or it may be quite clear, as the reason one entered leadership in the first place.  Regardless, every leader needs to be governed by an awareness that we do not gather influence and build trust for our own sakes or satisfaction.  How does God expect you to steward it?  That’s a money question there.

“Don’t attempt to police the behaviour of people who don’t believe what you believe, to begin with.”

While this point may tie most fully into a discussion of how Christians should or shouldn’t attempt to wield political power in the shaping of their nations, it quickly transfers to discussions of how churches (even those with no deep political desires) carry and execute their desires to shape society as well.

Attempting to guilt people into behaviours based upon assumptions that are ours but not theirs–how do you see that working out? Yet Christian history is filled with examples of God’s people compromising their influence in this fashion.  If we’re feeling fired up about morality and purity, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:12 would guide us well:

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

How many sermons have you heard on that passage?  For some reason, those within religious circles feel a strong temptation to take their evaluative skills outside the loop.  Paul’s advice?  Stay at home.  If people of faith took the policing of their own lives and their own communities as first priorities, we might be surprised to realize the weight of influence that could be had in our larger contexts as well.

And all that came from a twenty-minute podcast.  Again, I say, “Well done, Andy.  Thanks for sharing.”

YOUR TURN: Which point particularly resonates with your leadership journey?  Which idea do you “amen” or wish you’d discovered earlier?

Comment below, and become part of the conversation.

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A Pastor’s Private Thoughts

I enjoy my church.

I also enjoy vacations.

I especially enjoy going to church while on vacation. For this pastor, there is a particular pleasure to attending a service as a guest. Trading my pastor’s hat for my participant’s hat often serves up fresh experiences within a worship assembly.

There is a shallower level of experience too. It is the comparing and contrasting of how “church is done” in this new setting versus my home congregation.  This includes styles, logistics, tradition, and such.  A recent such experience was unusually impacting, moving dramatically beyond such mental note-taking of operational details from an unfamiliar venue. Such casual observation is typically comfortable and harmless.  But God was waiting for me on this particular day at this particular church, and neither comfort nor harmlessness was on the menu.

Imagine my shock when the path to God led through Satan’s playground.

All was normal for an abnormal Sunday.  My children were settled in alongside unfamiliar tots in a children’s service, my sermon was not waiting to be preached, and I was seated beside my wife with no duties to fulfill up front. We sang, we read, we prayed, we listened.

And one of us got to wondering.

This particular church was booming.

The website had described a few years of existence with rapid growth from tiny church plant to multiple building projects, one of which we had witnessed in the parking lot. A sense of optimism was evident. Life appeared to be flowing here. A casual observer like myself picked up an obvious focus and excellence within the structures and ministries supporting the congregation.

The truly marvelous thing about thought is its speed, isn’t it?  Nearly instantly, a process of private assessment regarding this church was unleashed, involving hundreds of thoughts within a second. “Speed kills” is nowhere more true than in my own head. It was the speed of the thoughts and the unforeseen, though quickly approaching, corner that blew my wheels off.

Don’t misunderstand: There is something quite natural about a pastor gauging a given church environment. We swim in such details everyday. We are always hunting for ideas, critiquing our status quo, aspiring toward better. Much of this is normal, like a mechanic intrigued by cars or a retail manager wanting to peek in shops’ back rooms.

But normal can mutate.

It does everyday. And when it does, it brings dysfunction and death.

Listening to Scripture proclaimed in a sermon can quickly become a thumbs-fest with Roger Ebert. Mark it down: Many pastors have a horrible time listening (I mean, genuinely listening) to preaching. Their time spent “behind the curtain” often robs them of the simple pleasure and power that can arrive with the Word of God falling like rain.

An entire worship service can become a wrestling match. Despite efforts to stifle this critic’s posture, judgments are snapped, assessments are made, variations are noted, and the one fatal worship-hijacking act is committed.

Comparisons are drawn.

Reasons to avoid this deadly movement are plentiful. You know them. I know them.

But still my mind embarked on the journey, innocently at first:

This is a sweet little church.

I could imagine attending a place like this if I lived here.

What is behind that positive feeling I have toward a place that I hardly know?

I wonder what tone people perceive when they visit my church.  What feeling do we give off?

That building project is impressive. People are obviously invested to make that happen.

They sure are dreaming of how they can impact their community.

Some of the staff sure strike me as impressive.

I wonder where they trained. How did they become “who they are”?

What would it feel like to work on a large staff?

I wonder if I could even qualify to work in such a setting.

It sure is great to see a church that is growing.

I wonder how they’re doing it.

I hope they’re not watering anything down.

My church hasn’t grown in years.

In fact, it’s shrunk during my time there.

I wonder how we are doing it.

I wonder how I am doing it.

That was where the pit really began to develop.  It’s slopes were subtle but steep.

Our family vacation was filled with fun. The pace was relaxed, the weather was pleasant. We walked and shopped. We played and ate. We lingered and toured. It was a perfect holiday for two parents and two small ones.

And I was present for most of it.

There was just a sliver of me that lived in that hole by himself.

He couldn’t get free of Sunday’s stream:

Why is my church shrinking?

Why do we seem stuck?

What is different about our church “culture” from those that appear to be thriving?

Can a church’s culture be changed?

Am I a part of the problem?

What if I am holding the church back?

Do we even want to grow?

Do I?

What our church really needs may be several things that I am not. 

What do I do with that?

How am I such a poor leader?

You’re making this too much about yourself.  It is God who brings the growth.

That is true, but what is keeping Him from bringing it our way?

Are we destined for nothing nobler than a slow decline?

Surely we are.

How do we get there?

Do I even know?

Sigh.

Comparison is a killer. I knew that, but I confess that I could not free myself from those jaws.   Eventually, the grip released, and I pulled myself home to lick my wounds.

And now six months later, I’m still licking.  The place of grace?

God found me on that tangent of a trail.  Satan may have queued the confusion and envy, but the inner turmoil led me a God who had a number more questions for me:

Do you think this is about you?

You think real fruit can be grown by your groans?

What is the place of your best-but-insufficient efforts in the building of my Kingdom?

Do you believe that I can make you into exactly what you need to be: You as a pastor, and your congregation as a church?

As has become my nearly standard experience of God, the message was astoundingly accurate in its tone: It was completely convicting and entirely encouraging (well, almost entirely).

When God met Jacob unexpectedly one night (see Genesis 32), Jacob departed the next morning with a lasting limp.

Over the past two years, I have felt a number of moves from God’s grappling arsenal.  He is amply able to get a hold on me, to confront with perfectly balanced fierceness and affection.

Along the way, a limp has certainly developed.  But I have a growing awareness that walking strong and straight was never all it was cracked up to be.  Divine strength flexes most mightily in human weakness.  Resurrection power only flows through the collapsed vessels of corpses.