Thursday, 6 December 2012

Glory in the Highest

Human words are sometimes so inadequate to describe reality.  How do your describe the smell of a flower?  How do you convey the spectacle of the Milky Way galaxy stretching across the heavens on a cold clear fall evening?  How do you communicate the feeling that you have when you hear the first cry come from your newborn?  The simple fact of the matter is that human words can only do so much.  It is up to God to convey the full magnitude of what these experiences mean to our soul.  This is especially true of Christmas.  I cannot imagine what the shepherds on that lonely hill in Judea must have experienced that first Christmas eve.  One minute they were going about their mundane chores in taking care of their sheep, the next the heavens opened up in all their glorious brilliance and the angelic host was revealed.

I have to say that the actual magnitude of what this was like was lost on me as a child.  The shepherds' response was one of sheer terror.  And I would have responded exactly the same.  In a moment, in a flash of light, REAL reality is revealed in all its overwhelming awesomeness.  Suddenly you see things as they really are--and you are stunned.  I find it so sad when people meet the Christmas season with a dull spirit.  What they are missing is the magnitude of the only thing that ultimately matters: that God revealed all of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ and that the Son of God would die in our place for the sins of the entire world.  This is as real as it gets.  Our world is clamoring for "reality" but never seem to be able to find it even though it is right in front of their noses.

What should our response be to the Christmas message?  The same as the shepherds.  They were moved to explore this revelation from God saying, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us," (Luke 2:15  NKJV)  What kind of attitude do you think existed in the group?  Mild interest?  Skepticism?  Apathy?  Was it, "Hey guys we probably should go and check this thing out eh?"  Or was it something entirely different?  The angelic host had just sung "Glory to God in the Highest!"  ALL of God was revealed and wrapped up in the form of a tiny baby, and creation sang with anticipation.  How could they be ambivalent about that?

The wonder of Christmas brings to face the reality that God in the Highest became the lowest--all because of love.  It gives us pause to reflect upon the love of God--that He is intimately interested in each and every person and wants to make His residence within your heart.  Do you get the absolute unfathomable magnitude of it?  The same God who made the universe by merely speaking it into existence has lowered Himself so that you and I might experience a rebirth of the spirit!  The peace and joy that comes from receiving Jesus cannot be described with mere words--you have to believe in order to "see".  Bowing your heart before the King of the universe brings with it a freedom of the soul where our hearts break the chains of sin. My prayer is that you will bow your heart before the King this Christmas and sing with the angels and shepherds, "Glory in the Highest!"

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The attraction of Jesus

I recently listened to a portion of a sermon by Andy Stanley.  In it he begins with this line, "People who were nothing like Jesus liked Him.  And Jesus liked people who were nothing like Him."  In it he refers to Matthew's first encounter with Jesus (Matthew 9:9) where Jesus simply comes up to him as he was busy collecting taxes and says, "follow Me".  This simple invitation is the same today as it was 2000 years ago on that dusty street in Judea--Jesus is still calling sinful men and women to come and "follow Me".

What is the attraction of the gospel?  It is the attraction of Jesus.  It is His interest in us that peaks our interest in Him.  It is His earnest concern for the lost, for the worst of sinners that shines in a bleak and worn spiritual landscape.  It is the attraction of Jesus--the fact that He loves the unlovable, the broken and worn that stands like a light on a hill in a dark world.  It is the fact that He would deign to love even a "tax collector" (the worst of all sinners in first century Jewish eyes) and command him to "follow Me" that gives hope to the most hopeless.

I know that many people who reject Christ do so solely because of a sinful heart.  But how many  reject Christ because they are influenced by a less than authentic witness of who Christ is?  How many reject Christ because they believe that Christians don't really "like" them all that much?  The church should be the most attractive institution in the world because it has the greatest "draw" of all--the heart of God.  Sadly, however, the focus of many Christian's hearts is not not centered upon the heart of God.  This is evidenced by the spirit in many churches and the attitudes of many Christians.  The sad truth is, we often don't even like one another, so how can we really love the world?  Expressing God's heart means following Jesus' example.  And that takes personal risk.  How did the religious people view His associations?  With spurious contempt.  How did His own disciples react to Jesus' openness to the lost?  With confusion and discomfort.  Don't think that it will be any different today.  If you want to express the heart of God, your actions will be misrepresented and your motives will be questioned.  But we have a higher calling: a call to obey God and to truly follow Jesus.  When we truly love God, His love for others flows out of us--not with words but in attitude and action.

There was a time where I have to admit that I wasn't that concerned about being known for exemplifying "the attraction of Jesus" to the world.  I was more concerned about finding a corner of truth and raising the flag high about how "discerning" I was.  As evidence of this I have to admit that there was a time that I wouldn't even entertain learning from someone like Andy Stanley [sorry Andy Stanley fans! ;)].  I would say that his theology is too "man centered" and avoids "repentance" (I would say that I know this because I heard other people say this about him and they must be right of course), so how could he have anything good to say--it must be tainted somehow.  But now I see things differently.  I don't defend Andy Stanley, and perhaps his ministry and theology aren't all up to snuff (I haven't read or listened to him enough to have an informed opinion), but I am discerning enough to recognize when God says something that touches my heart even if it is through an imperfect vessel.  I am discerning enough to recognize that it's not enough to be "right", I must be even more concerned to be "love".  Ephesians 4:15 has to be more than a cute platitude I learn--I want to truly speak the truth in love.  I want to be attractive for Jesus.  I want my church to be attractive for Jesus.  The world needs Him.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Be Strong and Courageous

I meet many people who seem overwhelmed by the circumstances of life.  Some slip into depression while others escape into entertainment or addiction.  Some simply shut down altogether or run from the problem as far and as fast as they can.  I am no stranger to these emotions and temptations.  Sometimes I am overwhelmed with the enormity of the task in front of me. I have the challenges of raising three children (one with special needs) and having a spouse working full time.

The foremost challenge in front of me today however, is leading a church through a period of transition.  This endeavor is not for the faint of heart.  I am not blind to the fact that the majority of church transitions fail.  But I honestly believe that when I took over as senior pastor of our church, "doing nothing" wasn't an option.  The Holy Spirit had clearly revealed to me the necessity of leading the church to make some significant changes if we were going to thrive (and perhaps even survive) in the years ahead.  Although things looked OK right now, the time had come for a new chapter to begin.  In the last few years the Lord had accomplished a lot of healing in the church, but now the Lord wanted us to take the next step.

The biggest surprise I experienced was the real presence of fear.  It's not something I'm used to.  I might look like I'm an indefatigable person and indeed, this is often how I viewed myself in the past.  But the truth is, I am susceptible to bouts of self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy for the task, and the constant reality that I'm a spiritual leader but still battling the sinful nature. I'm also not immune to the discouragement of receiving negative comments.  Each one of these is enough to sink me.  But that's exactly what the church doesn't need.  God has clearly told me that if I'm going to lead his church into a new day, I cannot shrink back--I have to be strong and courageous.  Not with a spirit of arrogance or insensitivity but with Spirit-led boldness.

Once the journey of moving with God has begun, we cannot look back.  To do so would invite disaster.  God doesn't approve of those who "look back".  Lot's wife was severely punished for looking back.  She was turned into a pillar of salt.  Jesus Himself said, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:62) 

I meet people who are all excited about change in the church.  What some of them aren't as concerned about however, is seeing any significant personal change in their own lives.  What they forget is that you cannot have one without the other.  Allowing God to humble us, change us, and shape our attitudes and actions towards others is essential to being used effectively by Him and in His church.  Denying the need for real personal change (growing in holiness in Christ) only proves that we are ultimately concerned about only having an "exciting" church, not a truly transformational church.  Too many churches have been built on this model, much to their spiritual detriment.  I have also met people who talk a good game about wanting change, but when the reality of that change starts to become real, some balk at it.  I hear comments like, "we need balance", or "we need to move slowly".  While there certainly is truth in these statements, I fear that they are often code for, "we don't want to change very much".   The proof is often found in the attitude (sometimes verbalized) that says, "I want our church to grow, but not that much (or at least slowly)".  What does this betray?  That we prefer our comfort over the heart of God, who wants all to become saved and that time is of the essence.

Going with God means uncomfortable change.  It means a sense of urgency in getting on with the mission of evangelism.  It means a sense of urgency in getting on with the mission of growing in holiness.  This willingness to change is rare however, and calling people to this kind of change is tough work.  Sadly many churches (and Christians) fail to allow this type of change to happen in their lives.  This is where fearless leadership is required.  If there is to be fresh outpouring of the Spirit in our life and in the life of the church it is absolutely necessary that we embrace BIG UNCOMFORTABLE CHANGE.  If you want real change like this, ask God to embolden you for the road ahead.  He will not fail you. 

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." (I Corinthians 15:57-58)

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Too busy?

Busy, busy, busy.  Busy as a bee.  This definitely seems to describe my life right now.  In fact, I've been so busy that anytime I'm not doing something on my "to do list" I feel guilty.  (Like right now typing up this blog :D)  Summer wasn't supposed to be like this, but you know the way it is, things get pushed off until later and "later" eventually comes.  Or unexpected things get added to an already full plate.  Not only is my plate full, but my wife Suzanne is going through some crazy busyness at her work too.  With three children at home for the summer and all that we have before us, life can seem like it's on the fast spin cycle for sure.

And this busyness takes a toll if we're not careful.  There are many responsibilities that we have in life.  From commitment to our jobs, to caring for our spouse & children (if we have them), to other duties that can get added in, it can seem impossible to manage all of these things effectively.

So what's the solution?  For the Christian, the answer is clear: focus even more on spending time with God.  Now at first that might sound like a crazy thing to say.  After all, aren't there only 168 hours in a week?  If we spend 40-50 of them at work, and the rest eating sleeping and caring for our other needs, where does "more" come from?

I Thessalonians 5:17 says, "pray always".  What does that mean and how does it help?  Spending time in prayer is something that should come naturally, like breathing.  Talking to God and hearing from God can take place anywhere anytime.  Like when I'm typing this blog for example.  And thinking about God and His Word also helps me to focus upon Him no matter where I am.  Psalm 1 says that the blessed man (or woman) "who meditates upon God's Word day and night".  In other words, we think about God and centre ourselves on God day and night.  When we do so, we experience some very real practical blessings.  Foremost is the fact that God gives us peace in the midst of any circumstance.  "You [God] will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You." (Isaiah 26:3)

I know that you might not be able to go through your whole prayer list every day or read 4 chapters from the Bible.  And I know that when you are at work or with your family (or other duties that you have to be engaged in) you have to have your mind focused upon what you're doing, not "spaced out" in some spiritual la-la land.  But keeping God's presence in your conscious mind is something that we both can and should do.  His presence will help us to overcome even the most difficult day.  He will also help us to simplify our lives and put things in the proper order.  This is the wisdom that is promised in James 1 -- wisdom I know that I desperately need. 

There are many days where I feel "stressed out" and the temptation is to view myself as an abject failure because I've blown it.  But that's not a helpful place to be, nor is it where God wants His children to dwell.  Practicing the presence of God in the midst of great busyness can free us from falling into sinful temptations or making wrong decisions.  It will keep us close to His character where there is forgiveness and patience beyond measure.  His Spirit will also surely empower us to accomplish anything that He has set before us.  And we can rest secure in the knowledge that God unconditionally loves His children and will never leave us nor forsake us. (Hebrews 13:5)  If you are His child, rest on His promises and keep Him in your thoughts and affections.  Let Him take your burden of busyness and He will ease your load.  If you are not His child, submit your heart to Him and ask His Spirit to come and live in your heart.  You will then know the peace of God, even in the middle of a crazy world.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Dying to live

Some years ago, I read a book called Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby.  In it, he speaks about how many saints of the Bible had to face a "crisis of belief" at some point in their life.  He posits that this same principle is true for each and every child of God: that God leads us to the point in our lives where we face an intense trial or a monumentally difficult choice.  At that moment this "crisis of belief" reveals our true character.  It exposes our heart for God.

I have to agree with Blackaby's observation.  Over and over again in my life I have been faced with a "crisis of belief".  Will I trust in the Lord and allow Him to lead, or will I trust in my own wisdom and strength?  As I have matured in Christ, I have found the "crises" to become more intense; more difficult.  Paradoxically, however, I have found my decision increasingly easy to make.  Not that I don't struggle in my spirit at all or that I never trip and fall, but in general I have found it easier to make the faith decision for the Lord rather than choose my own way.

As a pastor, I am faced with these crises of belief all the time.  It is difficult to relate to someone who isn't in the role of pastor what kind of spiritual weight accompanies this calling.  It isn't to say that I am above anyone else by any means, but it does mean that I am exposed to some things that the average church goer might not think about.  The spiritual warfare is intense.  Satan comes at me because of the role that I have in the Lord's work.  I am on the "front lines" so-to-speak.  And in the midst of these attacks I have a choice to make: am I willing to trust in the Lord, or do I fight in my own strength (or run and hide)?  The prospect of failure is very real.  More churches are on the downward slope than on the upward rise.  Challenging a church to change in a fundamental way is daunting.  I have no guarantee that the church I lead will be willing to see transition through.

The pastor has to be willing to lead by example.  And I take this maxim very seriously.  I am FAR from perfect and I make mistakes all the time, but I strongly believe that despite my shortcomings, that the Lord is leading me to lead our church to a crisis of belief.  What is it?  Precisely this: are you willing to die in order to live?

In John 12:24 Jesus said, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain."  He said this alluding to His crucifixion, for without His death, none of His disciples would ever experience the life that He  promised.  The same holds true for us today: unless we are willing to die, we can never truly live.  This is true of our salvation, but it is also true of our sanctification.  Too many Christians are willing to go right up to the point of a major faith decision, but when the call is "die" we run away from this crisis of belief.  As a husband and father I can give into the insecurities that come with the fear of failure.  But such thinking is not godly.  The only question I need to concern myself is: "What does God want me to do?"  And if I have that straight in my mind and heart, everything else will fall into place.  I have no guarantees of things "working out" as I plan in ministry, but I do have the guarantee that God will take care of my family and I.

And as seek to I lead by example in this regard, I pray that others will take the same challenge to heart.  Are you willing to "die in order to live"?  Sometimes we get into a spiritual "rut" where we fail to follow God in the hard things.  We come up to a "crisis of belief" and say "Whoa!"  "No way Jose!"  We talk a good game about trusting God, but when the decision is before us, we run away.  And then we wonder why God's presence is so far from us.  The same holds true for churches as well.  There comes a point in the life of every church where God moves us to a major faith decision.  I believe that EKBC is at such a point.  The time for mere talk about being a church that is more open to others and is on mission is past.  The time for deciding to fundamentally change--to be broken--is now.  Do we want to hold on to our notion of life, or do we want to follow Christ's path to Calvary?  Are we willing to give up our comfort and preferences, our sense of ownership, our pride in past or present service?  Are we willing to die?  Unless we are willing to give up everything, we cannot have the renewed sense of the manifest presence of God in our midst.  We will be relegated to a church that does a few good things but never experiences the abundant life that God intends for us.

Are you willing to die in order to live?  Don't answer this question rashly, because saying "yes" will likely mean great pain and suffering in the immediate.  Don't say "yes" without counting the cost, for it would be better off if you had never said "yes" than to say "yes" and change your mind halfway through (Luke 14:25-33).  But don't expect that you can be an effective disciple of Jesus Christ if you aren't willing to die either, for Jesus said "you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own." (Luke 14:33)  Words to consider for our lives and for His church.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Love never fails

God has been teaching me so much lately, but one lesson has stood above all others: He demands that His children demonstrate true love. In this regard I have found myself sorely lacking, yet paradoxically, I have grown more in this area of my life than perhaps any other over the past few years. The kind of love God commands His children to demonstrate is found in many biblical passages, but perhaps none so pointed as I Corinthians 13. This famous passage on love end with this phrase at the beginning of verse 8, "Love never fails." For those who know me, you hear over and over again about my oldest son Joshua. He has been my greatest tutor in this regard. Another challenging chapter took place this week,where his caregivers at school (whom we appreciate very much) are being faced with some serious difficulties. And the question for Suzanne and I comes up again, "Will they persevere with him?" Their level of dedication needs to be very high, and there are days that he gives them more than they can handle. What they need is godly love: love that can only come from God--love that never fails. Of course as his father, my level of commitment to my oldest son is higher than anyone else, except for my wife of course. But this love isn't that remarkable in my opinion. I am his father after all--he is my son. Most parents would do the same. What is remarkable--indeed what is uniquely from God is demonstrating this same unfailing love for those who are not close to us, to those who might even be strangers. I find unfailing love increasingly difficult to find these days. Our world seems to have taken self indulgence and put it on steroids. People glory in their mean spiritedness toward others. From sports to politics, to American Idol judges (one in particular), self centeredness seems to be on the rise. But this should never be the case in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. What kind of faith does God find well pleasing? Faith that goes the distance. Commitment that perseveres. Love that never fails. God has used Josh to teach me this, and I see others differently as a result. So much change has happened that those who knew me when I was younger have a hard time recognizing who I am. Not that I've arrived by any means, but I am changing. And so I thank my Lord for the tough lessons. That I might persevere with others in love. If anything is the badge of faithful Christian witness it should be this: love that never fails. Words to meditate on to be sure.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The most unexpected thing happened

With the big trip to Chicago behind me and the group from our church, I am so full of thanks to God for making Himself new to me in a most powerful and surprising way.  When I first suggested to our board that a group from our church go to Harvest University, it was not without some significant amount of trepidation.  After all, our church is not a part of this group of churches; indeed, it is practically unknown to most of the members of our body.  And although I was excited about what I saw God doing in and through this fellowship of churches, I didn't know if that would translate beyond myself.

I was thrilled that 9 people from our church made the commitment to come down to Harvest University.  But I still didn't know what to expect.  I knew that we would likely get great preaching and that our corporate worship would be uplifting, but I didn't know how it would affect either me or the group.  All I knew what that God would meet with us, probably in a most unexpected way.  And that's exactly what happened.

During the second main session, a video came up highlighting the story of a pastor within that fellowship whose daughter had suffered a series of seizures and was left with irreversible brain damage.  While that story was compelling, it was what came next that cut me to the core.  This group of Harvest churches rallied around that church in Calgary and raised funds to pay for a part time pastor to care for that flock while the senior pastor and his wife focused their attention where it needed to be.  Other churches flew out their pastors to minister to the Peacock family and also helped in the preaching ministry of this young church plant.  Thousands prayed.  In short, they surrounded this family and their young church with agape love.

I sat through the whole thing with a hurting heart.  You see, six years prior, I was in a similar situation.  I was dealing with the horrible diagnosis of severe autism for my oldest child.  I had just left the ministry in order to get him the help he needed.  I was lost, alone, hurting, and afraid.  I had Jesus, thanks be to Him, but outside of the encouragement of a few friends and family, no one helped me.  Unlike this fellowship of churches, my fellowship of churches didn't reach out to me.  No one so much as gave me a call.  I was persona non grata--out of the ministry as sure as if I had committed a moral failure.  I was even told by one search committee member of a church I had interviewed at (as I attempted to find a church here in Manitoba) that I was not to "use my autistic child as an excuse not to do my job".  It hurt--indeed, it still does.

But in the midst of all this the most unexpected thing happened: I got loved.  I got loved by my group.  I, who had brought this group down to Chicago to expose them to a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit, I who was the lead minister, who was supposed to minister to them, got ministered to by them.  I got held and hugged and encouraged.  And I got healed. 

I never expected to come to Chicago to get ministered to by my own group.  But that's exactly what I needed.  I needed to know that I am loved, not because of my position, but because I am precious in God's sight as a fellow child of God.  I needed to know that the Holy Spirit is moving in others--that His love is manifest in them too.

Thank you Bruce for being there for me.  Thank you others who prayed for me.  If nothing else comes from this week than this, I've already been greatly blessed.  But I know that God has more.  This love, this community, this fellowship in Christ is just the tip of the iceberg.  And I'm ready for more.  May this be my legacy and our legacy as a church: the love of Jesus Christ made real in our lives and to those around us.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Leadership training: the first step

Right now our church is embarking upon a giant undertaking: vision casting.  For those who don't know what that is, it is simply this: prayerfully determining where God wants our church to go in the next few years.  This conversation actually began during the discussions surrounding me becoming the senior pastor.  Many people asked me, "where is your heart for the church"? and, "what is your vision"?  I couldn't (and won't) answer that question in an exhaustive manner for two reasons: 1) I don't know the full scope of what the church should look like, since I am only one man, 2) It isn't healthy to have vision decided upon by just one individual--we need to recognize that we "have the mind of Christ" as a body of believers (I Cor 2:16).  But I do have a trajectory in mind: I want to see a church that is passionate about Jesus.  Biblically based, rooted in prayer, relevant to our community, and pursuing the fulfillment of the Great Commission.  That's what I long for.  I long for that for the members of my church, for my own family, and for the people God would have us reach for Jesus in the years ahead.

But how do we get there?  One thing I do know: we need the leadership of our church to be pulling in the same direction--pulling to where God wants us to go.  And so I have decided that the first step should be leadership development where we explore together what God has in store for us.  In recent years, I have found myself increasingly attracted to a group of churches where I see these thing happening, where passion for God is evident in a new and powerful way.  I am excited about the things I see and hear God doing in these churches, and I want our church to explore what it's all about.  This is a part of my "vision" for our church.  That is why I have booked a sizable group from my church to go to Chicago on April 22-25 for a Leadership Training Conference hosted by Harvest Bible Fellowship.  Although our church is not affiliated with this group of churches, I believe that we can take some great principles from these churches about how to be a faithful effective church for Christ.  And I hope that we can build some connections as well--connections that I have found personally to be spiritually uplifting.

So please pray for our group as we go.  Pray for spiritual renewal in all of our hearts.  And pray that EKBC will be a passionate, effective church for Jesus in the years ahead.

Below is a link to a video that explains what Harvest Bible Fellowship is all about.