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Truth and tolerance … or not, part 1

All one need do to ferret out the myth of ‘tolerance’ is to disagree with a proponent of ‘tolerance’ in our world today. If and when one does dare to disagree – honestly, seriously, vulnerably, publicly; one gets a very quick and revealing and valuable lesson. ‘Tolerance’ isn’t, so much …

Just dare to say that God is holy and that there are implications of God’s holiness for all people, each of whom is created in the very image of this holy God, and we find out in fairly short-order that ‘tolerance’ is not so highly valued among the ‘tolerance’ crowd – at least, not as highly valued for all people and all viewpoints as they would want us to think.

Just dare to say that God’s Word is eternally true – as embodied perfectly in the Person of Jesus Christ, as further revealed by the Holy Spirit and written down by persons so moved by Him in the Bible, and as the Holy Spirit continues to give us understanding today; and we find out in fairly short-order that ‘tolerance’ is not so highly prized among the ‘tolerance’ crowd – at least, not as highly prized for all people and all viewpoints as they would have us to believe.

Just dare to say that God’s Love does not require a violation of God’s Truth but an exposition and proclamation of it – in our preaching, in our teaching, in our ministry practice, and in our living; and we find out in fairly short-order that ‘tolerance’ is not so consistently practiced by the ‘tolerance’ crowd – at least, not as consistently practiced as they would convince their falsely righteous selves.

A fascist-like orthodoxy is developing and has developed around this ‘tolerance’ myth. Priests and purveyers in the temple of ‘tolerance’ now seek to impose upon our people and inculcate in our culture a new kind of state religion that is dangerous. And those who will not submit to their tenets of ‘tolerance’ are met, immediately, with a remarkably vehement form of religious intolerance.

All too often and all too quickly, the ‘tolerance’ crowd points out the many alleged hypocrisies of Biblical-Christians, even while they are quite intolerantly railing against Biblical-Christians for honest and transparent attempts – in word and in deed – to live our lives in a way that is consistent with the plain standard of the Bible and for encouraging others to do the same.

Let’s be brutally honest at this point: We Christians have given them, and we continue to give them, plenty of fodder for such charges! We also have many false ‘Christian’ people and false ‘Christian’ churches to contend with and in whose lot we are readily cast. In any case, pointing out our inconsistencies is fairly easy for anyone to do. But it isn’t so easy because we’re Christians.

It’s easy for anyone to do because we’re human, and we’re not yet perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. I would further suggest that living inconsistently is not so much hypocrisy; it is merely human – in our fallen state – to live inconsistently. That’s an observation not an excuse.

Hypocrisy, however, is a technical term that comes from the world of drama, of acting, and it literally means ‘two-faced’ or ‘masked,’ describing one who hides his or her true identity behind a mask or a facade of some sort.

Hypocrites, literally, are those who live one way but seek to present a wholly other impression. For example, a hypocrite might be one who trumpets the cause of ‘tolerance,’ while doing his or her best to shout down and slander and silence anyone who dares to disagree with them ….

This is not to say tolerating others is not a good, necesary, even Biblical thing to do; it is all three of those things and more – that is, if what we mean by ‘tolerating others’ is to treat those who differ from us with respect, with kindness, with honesty, and with compassion.

I find it both interesting and revealing that neither the word ‘tolerance’ nor the concept show up in the Bible. Hmmm …. But if by ‘tolerance’ we mean respect for others, kindness toward others, dealing with others in honesty and integrity, and treating all with compassion, then this is a Biblical mandate for living the Biblical-Christian life.

But in our world and in our day, this is not at all what the priests and purveyors in the temple of ‘tolerance’ mean – at least, not most of them. And this is not at all what most members of the ‘tolerance’ crowd practice, when it comes to those who disagree with them.

In spreading this myth of ‘tolerance,’ the ‘tolerance’ crowd most often seems to be attempting to canonize their desire and demand for approval from their neighbors and consequent legal protections from the state to do whatever they please – wherever, whenever, however, and with whomever they please.

We in North America hail such a state of affairs as ‘freedom!,’ but the Bible calls it bondage – to sin, to self, to the world, even to the devil himself – in whatever forms it takes. I often hear well-meaning but naive folks say, “Well, we can’t legislate morality!

But answer me this: Can you think of one law that does not have clear moral implications? All laws legislate someone’s version of morality ….

If you read my last post, or read the Winnipeg Free Press, you will know by now that I wrote a letter to the editor last week concerning Free Press coverage of the local “Pride parade” of the previous weekend. I wrote about the coverage of the “Pride parade” not the “Pride parade” itself.

I did so, because the ‘coverage’ was blatant advocacy of a ‘news’ event. At least one glaringly obvious example was a total misrepresentation of what went on at the event, though I wasn’t there.

A heavily edited version of my letter was published in the Winnipeg Free Press yesterday, Monday, June 13th, as “The Letter of the Day” and under the title, “Advocacy over accuracy.”

(Please see http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editor/advocacy-over-accuracy-123797999.html.)

Sadly, the editor chose to edit, substantially, my letter in such a way as to alter its content and its tone. (See my last post “Homosexuality, pluralism, and living the Biblical-Christian life” for the full text of the actual letter that I submitted.)

This is the risk one takes, I suppose, when attempting to engage in the marketplace of ideas, on a sensitive topic, and without the privilege of controlling the way one’s own words are framed, added to or deleted, then published.

Indeed, it might tempt one to give-up such attempts as futile and even harmful. Who needs the trouble, right? But I don’t think living the authentic, Biblical-Christian life allows us the luxury of going (or remaining) silent on matters that matter to us and our families and that the Scriptures speak to clearly and univocally – homosexuality, for one example, or even the coverage of an event that affirms homosexuality, for another example.

There is a compelling argument that can be made that the increasing silence of Biblical-Christians over the last few decades on such matters has contributed to the increasingly secularized culture around us and that is increasingly hostile and disimissive to those who would live the Biblical-Christian life and conduct an honest, Biblical-Christian ministry.

OUR INCREASING SILENCE HAS CONTRIBUTED TO AN INCREASING HOSTILITY TO THE CHRISTIAN GOSPEL AND CHRISTIAN LIFE. What an irony!

I’ll write more in part 2 soon ….

 

God’s peace and love to you and yours from me and mine!

 

Pastor Mark

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I don’t know if it was true the world over, or in North America, or even here in Canada, and you may or may not be glad to know that I’m not really tapped-into this world, but last Sunday was the day of the “Pride parade” in Winnipeg.

[For those who may not know what that phrase -- "Pride parade" -- refers to ... it's an annual event in which members of the "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, two-spirited, queer, and questioning" crowd display, in full-colour, who they think and believe they are, and who they want others to think and believe they are. For any more information than that, ask your pastor -- unless I happen to be your pastor, in which case, ask your doctor!]

For reasons of frugality – both in expense of time and money, we stopped subscribing to the seven-day-delivery of the local newspaper the Winnipeg Free Press. It’s been nearly a year now, and I still miss my morning paper with my first cup of coffee. (I still savor my first cup of coffee, though; I’m not THAT frugal! I also still get “The Weekender.”)

But for whatever reason, on my day off this past Monday, I bought a paper, brought it home, had another cup of coffee, and began to read. On page A1 was the ‘teaser’ for the coverage of the local “Pride parade,” referring the reader to page B1, where there was nearly a full-page of text and pictures concerning the event, which had been held on the just previous [Sun]day.

(See http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/showing-their-true-colours.html?viewAllComments=y.)

My initial reaction to coverage of the event was, impulsively, to fire off a letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.  Let’s just say this may not have been the first time that I’d had such a reaction. Truth be told, from time-to-time, my wife Shelly has had fitting occasion to say something to me like, “Settle down, Yosemite Sam!” (You know, the Looney Tunes “rootin’est tootin’est cowboy in these here parts!” with spurs, ten-gallon hat, and six-shooters ablazing.)

But painful and recurrent experience has taught me, finally, that my first impulse may not actually be the best, most godly, or most helpful response – especially now that I’m a pastor for these nearly twenty years.

So, in my wiser, more mature, more spiritually exemplary condition – thanks to the Lord Jesus’ work in me and my wife’s work on me, I didn’t fire off a letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press on Monday. I sent it today …

“To the Editor:

(Re: ‘Showing their true colours,’ Carol Sanders, Winnipeg Free Press, Monday, June 6, 2011)

Jesus answered, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, except through Me” (John 14:6). We Biblical Christians are challenged and responsible to speak the Truth, as best we can understand Him, and to do so with both love for others and fidelity to Jesus.

Speaking the Truth in love and fidelity is not easy, nor should it be; and most reject Him.

My brothers and sisters in Christ frequently espouse the formulaic “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” But it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that, usually, we tend to hate the sinners, too, whichever sins and sinners we happen to focus on at that moment or season in time.

Homosexuals tend to be one of those groups that receive a good bit of our ‘loving’ ire, and I have been challenged at this point, myself. I had to overcome a visceral revulsion when it comes to relating on any substantial level with homosexuals, and especially male homosexuals.

This became particularly challenging, and urgent, when one of my brothers-in-law ‘came out’ in early 1995. So I write as one who knows and feels, personally, the challenge and discomfort of doing my best to live an authentic, Biblical, Christian life in such a way that can be described as ‘exemplary,’ among others who have significantly divergent views, and who are making choices that take them into territory that I cannot go and will not take my children.

From the start, ‘Showing their true colours’ seemed more of a promotional-piece than coverage of a ‘news’ event – namely, the annual “Pride parade” that occurred last Sunday.

Never mind my dissatisfaction with the event’s occurrence on the Christian day of worship. My strongest objection is to the patently promotional and demonstrably false statement that was the final paragraph: “The family-friendly event welcomed kids in strollers and little dogs on leashes. With the temperature hovering in the low teens, there were no scantily-clad drag queens and just one young woman wearing a bikini and rainbow body paint.”

On the same page, just to the right of this final paragraph, was a full-colour picture of a pair of drag queens, one of whom turned to the camera in an intentional display of as much skin and body hair as possible, given his pose and bikini-outfit, inside an open-front dress.

Whether other parents consider such an event to be appropriate for their children is not my business, necessarily. I would simply ask that the Winnipeg Free Press provide more factual and accurate reporting and less advocacy for this or any other ‘news’ event.  – Rev. Mark L. Wilcoxson, Senior Pastor, Bethesda Church, Winnipeg”

I want to be the type of Biblical Christian who makes a difference in the world around me, and who is part of – leading, even – a group of Biblical Christians who are making a difference in the world.

But in order to do this difference-making, we must be engaged in the world. Letters to the editor is just one way, among many, that we can be both engaging and engaged in our world.

[As I was typing my conclusory greeting (below), the editor's representative from the Winnipeg Free Press called to let me know that my letter is going into the paper "either tomorrow or Saturday." Pray for me ...!]

 

God’s grace and peace to you and yours from me and mine!

 

Pastor Mark

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        “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.– The Lord Jesus Christ (From His ”Sermon on the Mount” in The Gospel of Matthew 5:38-42)

        “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.– The Lord Jesus Christ (Also, from His ”Sermon on the Mount” in The Gospel of Matthew 5:43-48)

One of the most troubling aspects from the catastrophic events of September 11th, 2001 and the ongoing aftermath is that very few public Muslims came out – publicly and clearly – to condemn those horrific attacks and (or) to disavow the perpetrators of those unparallelled-in-history, altering-life-as-we-knew-it acts as the criminal, mass-murdering, false zealotry of a false fundamentalism of a global religion that they plainly were.

Even then, the words of the comparatively few, truly public Muslims who did come out against “them” – terrorists and their terrorism; jihadists and their jihad; or those specific nineteen, their support personnel, their acts and associates, and their stated intentions – were couched and crafted in such a way as to leave the discerning listener, or the astute reader, unclear as to just who was being condemned and who was being memorialized.

        (For one example, go to http://www.americanrhetoric.com/rhetoricofterrorism.htm and listen (very carefully) to the actual words of the prayer offered by Imam Muzammil H. Siddiqui at the National Day of Prayer and Rembrance on September 14th, 2001 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C. Who, exactly, was he praying for? Can you tell? I couldn’t. Or, who or what represented ”the good” or “the evil,“ which he declared as “not equal“? I remember, as I watched this event live, that I hoped for a brave Muslim cleric, who would make clear that those nineteen were deluded, deceived, and false Muslims. It never happened, or anything close to it ….)

Intelligence personnel know all too well that a number of governments, groups, and individuals who expressed their ‘official’ condolences for the events of 9/11/2001 also celebrated these attacks upon the United States, and actively support global terrorism – both then and now.

I don’t mean to lump all Muslims together; that’s not at all my point. The vast majority of Muslims were (and are) appalled at those and other events perpetrated in “the name of Allah.”

My point is that some public Muslims and leaders of Muslim groups and governments said some things in public to create a certain false impression, while their private (read: secret) behavior stands in diametric opposition to their words and undermines any credibility on the world’s stage that they may arrogate to themselves.

Most – whether for fear or fealty – said nothing at all. But Islam is not the only world religion that has its false prophets, false would-be ‘spokesmen,’ false zealots, and silent co-conspirators.

Enter Terry Jones and Fred Phelps, two birds of an equally false feather.

Unless you recently returned from a decade-long vacation to Neptune, you must have heard something about Terry Jones and Fred Phelps ….

Jones is the rather recently infamous leader of the White Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida – as diminuitive in its size as is conversely proportional to its pomposity (“World”? Outreach Center). Phelps is the more veteranly and marginally more infamous leader of the equally diminutive Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.

        (Reportedly, and ironically, they each have something close to 50 or so followers associated with their ministries – not 500 or 5000 … 50each! These two literally are the molehills made into mountains. Only, they’re more mirages than mountains ….)

You’ll surely know of the Phelpsian-Westboro folks. They are infamous for staging “rallies” and protesting military funerals, where all three-to-thirteen of them hold up signs and scream such spiritually uplifting messages as ”God hates fags!” (If they are speaking of homosexuals, He doesn’t. If they are speaking of cigarettes, then maybe He does.) and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers!” (Only, He didn’t do it – either in judgment or otherwise, contrary to their shrill claims.)

For their part in this very bad, farsical-if-it-weren’t-true play-noir, Terry and his tribe are the folks who threatened to burn a stack of Qur’ans back on September 11th, 2010 in commemoration of the 9/11/2001 terror attacks – fully two years after Fred first threatened to burn his own Qur’an(s).

But tribal leader Terry backed off of his threats, when a supposed deal was struck between him, according to him, and a well-known, well-respected Muslim leader in New York City. They agreed – again, says only Terry – to discuss the location of a still-only-proposed mosque and Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero.

Until two weeks ago, when Terry and his little tribe renewed their zeal to burn the holy book of OVER A BILLION PEOPLE in their fittingly diminuitive shack of a facility, everyone had [almost] forgotten that Terry Jones and his little White Dove “World” Outreach Center existed. But alas ….

The good news is several. Terry and his tribe only burned one Qur’an, rather than the originally planned “stack of Qur’ans” (200 or so) – fully six months after Fred actually did it, but he and his folks threw in the burning of an American flag for good measure, I suppose.

        (Fred’s folks actually whined that their event received comparatively little attention. Perhaps they’d both prefer to combine forces, move their little tribes to the mountains of Pakistan, and take up residence with their spiritual inlaws – you know, Uncle Osama and the Taliban.)

Apparently attempting to give the impression of objectivity and legal due process, Terry and his tribe staged a mock-trial for the defendant-of-a-holy-book – complete with defense attorney (supposedly a Muslim cleric, who they scrounged from Texas), supposed Muslim-turned-Christian of a prosecutor, and twelve-member jury, reportedly made up of members and attendees of the White Dove “World” Outreach Center.

The Qur’an wasn’t actually burned by Terry Jones himself – looking more than a little like Uncle Osama, who also has others to do his dirty work – but by another false pastor, ironically and fittingly named … Wayne Sapp.

Here’s the thing (and the point of my post): Both Fred and Terry claim to be ’Christians,’ preachers of the ‘Christian’ gospel, and leaders of ’Christian’ people, assembled in ’churches,’ so-called.

They aren’t … any of those things. Their actions – contemptible and condemning, hateful and hatemongering, fearful and fearmongering – expose the lie of their shared, false confessions, which falsity is obvious to all … but themselves and their two trifling tribes.

To be clear: Neither Terry Jones nor Fred Phelps is a true Christian, a true pastor, or a true preacher of the Biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ; and their ‘churches’ are false.

To be equally clear: This judgment isn’t mine, according to me and my subjective judgment. (Who cares what I think? My church is only about three times as large as Jones’s and Phelps’s!)

No, this is Jesus’s own personal judgment and His warning to all who have ears to hear:

        “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will reognize them by their fruits. – The Lord Jesus Christ (Again, from His “Sermon on the Mount” in The Gospel of Matthew 7:15-20)

Similarly, Luke recorded Jesus’s words on this topic, too, but notice that the source of the fruit – whether good or evil – is the heart, the truest reflection of a person’s identity and character:

        “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. Why do you call Me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ but you do not do what I tell you? – The Lord Jesus Christ (Luke’s Gospel account of His “Sermon on the Mount” in Luke 6:43-46)

Calculating generously, I’d be quite surprised if more than three people ever read this blog. Nevertheless, I thought someone should say – publicly and clearly – that Jones and Phelps, along with others of their ilk, whose words claim to honor God and exalt Jesus Christ, but their actions demonstrate that their hearts are far from Him, do not represent or reflect true, Biblical, Christ-initiated, Spirit-born Christianity. And their churches are false.

And yet, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is extended also to them: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel! – The Lord Jesus Christ (The Gospel of Mark 1:15)

I hope that they do, and pass it on to those they have deceived ….

May God’s grace, peace, mercy, and love accrue to us all, including my enemies and yours!

Pastor Mark

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FOR THE FIRST TIME since I started preaching, I didn’t … for three consecutive Sundays.

Since April 1997, the longest I had gone without preaching was two consecutive Sundays. Even then, the two-Sunday-hiatus has only happened a handful of times.

During a stretch of several years, I preached fifty Sundays per year, and the two Sundays “off” were not consecutive. This was partly because I was a “single-staff” guy, and partly because I believed that the pulpit was where I was meant to be and preaching was what I was meant to do.

So not preaching for three Sundays in a row was, for me, unprecedented. And quite honestly, these three weeks and Sundays have been awkward and freeing, disorienting and wonderful, and strange and refreshing.

And I’ll do it again, gladly.

Several months ago, our Church Council Chairman, Dr. Neil Craton, shared with me that he was sensing the Spirit ”nudging” him to preach a series of messages on Jesus’s teaching from John 15 that we can do “nothing apart from [Him],” apart from our “abiding in the Vine,” and apart from His “abiding” presence in us.

The impetus for Neil was reading Bruce Wilkinson’s excellent little book Secrets of the Vine: Breaking through to Abundance. (If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Vine-Breaking-Through-Abundance/dp/1576739759.)

Wilkinson’s little book had a profound impact on Neil and others in his weekly accountability group, and he believed that the Lord Jesus would have him share some of what he was learning with our congregation here at Bethesda.

According to Bruce, there are three ”secrets” (or “lessons,” as Neil put it) from Jesus’s teaching about the Vine. Three secrets … three lessons … three messages … three weeks off for me!

Only, not really …

Importantly, shortly after I arrived at Bethesda in August 2007, we elders began talking about our need to create some space and find some time for me to do two vital things for our future:

     1- Do some forward-looking, vision-casting work that a weekly preaching/teaching schedule and administrative duties make difficult, or even impossible; AND

     2- Visit other churches from time-to-time to see what they are doing in our specific context here in Winnipeg.

So, over the last three weeks, I focused my “office” time, energy, and attention on new statements of vision, mission, and Biblical core values – along with Biblical and theological explanations for each – and visited other churches on Sundays.

I also fit in a three-day trip to Minneapolis for the Desiring God Conference for Pastors (www.desiringgod.org).

On the first of these Sundays (Jan. 30), Neil shared the first of his three messages, while I stayed on at Bethesda to shepherd the service, as well as to make the transition into Neil’s series and my next couple of Sundays away.

Then over the last two Sundays (Feb. 6 and 13), I visited four different churches – two per Sunday – in our beautiful city for one of their weekly, Sunday morning worship services.

Here at Bethesda, we have a mixture of older and/or more “traditional” folks (about a third) and younger and/or more “contemporary” folks (about a third).

Those two demographics and characteristics – older and “more traditional,” younger and “more contemporary” – often correlate. They also often reflect competing, perhaps mutually exclusive values among our people.

Our churches, it would seem, have difficulty seeing or admitting the correlation between various demographics and “styles” of preference, unfortunately, and making necessary adjustments.

But Bethesda also has a middle group (oddly, also about a third) that is open to, values, even embraces a variety of approaches to worship – traditional, contemporary, contemplative, and other “styles” of personal and congregational preference.

Accordingly, for my two Sundays “off,” I selected two more ”traditional” and two more “contemporary” style services in churches known to be doing those things well – at least, in the sense that they have significant constituencies for each.

Finally, the two churches whose “traditional” services I visited also have more ”contemporary” alternatives at other times, and the two churches whose “contemporary” services I attended have an identical service at another time.

So, what did I learn (an interim report)?

1- God is (clearly) not dead, Jesus is still Lord, the Holy Spirit is still working, and the Church is still alive in Winnipeg! Perhaps I’m stating the obvious. But in the media, in some of our local churches, and among some of our congregants, one might get the opposite impression ….

     Some churches are closing their doors. Importantly, most of them are older, most of them are more “traditional” in approach, and the times are – quite literally – passing them by.

     Some congregants are losing their hope – personally and congregationally. I believe this to be the case, because at some point along the way, they tied their hope to their way of doing things.

     For sure, this will be the most controversial thing that I say in this post, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t say it: In the more “traditional” services that I attended, there seemed to be less hope for today and more of a sense of holding on to the end.

     Now, even a cursory reading of both Scripture and history reveals that this has always been true, throughout the history of divine-human relations. God’s people have always tended, at some point, to stop reaching hopefully and joyfully forward into the unknown and unseen work of God and turned our gaze backward to the familiar ways of old.

So this is not a new phenomenon, but it’s also not the whole story – in Scripture, in history, in Winnipeg. Not even close …

     (There was an excellent opinion article that appeared recently in The Winnipeg Free Press, “Shrinking churches preach incomplete message,” and that spoke into this reality. Check it out at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/fyi/shrinking-churches-preach-incomplete-message-113752224.html.)

2- Worship “styles” are largely cultural and seasonal, which is to say that they are not intrinsically (or even particularly) Biblical or spiritual.

     That’s not to say anything goes, when it comes to what constitutes “worship.” It’s just not as easy as we might think or assume to separate our methodology from our message.

     Indeed, much of what is called “worship” today is man-centered rather than God-centered. This means that much of what passes for “worship” comes closer to idolatry – even false worship of the self – than the authentic worship of the One True and Living God.

     And neither pole of the worship-style-continuum has more of a tendency toward such idolatry than the other ….

     Not too long ago, at a gathering of local ministry leaders, a prominent local pastor and his worship leader publicly reminisced about their “epic Rock’n'Roll Sunday,” when their “worship music” was drawn from Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and other “classic rock” bands.

     Now, I’m a “classic rock” kind-of-a-guy – coming of age, as I did, in the 1970s. But I see no correlation between these groups, their music – both their style and their lyrics, and worship of the One True and Living God!

     In fact, precisely because I am a “classic rock” kind-of-a-guy, and know the content and context of that genre, my first (and persisting) thought was, “WHAT COULD YOU GUYS POSSIBLY BE THINKING?!?!”

     But anyone who reads the Old Testament – particularly, the Prophets – knows that the “contemporary worship” folks aren’t the only ones with an idolatrous tendency toward self-worship or worship according to “our” style.

     Rarely do most consumers of “worship” pause to ask, “What does God want in our worship of Him?” Some seem even to equate mere personal preference with what God prefers and what constitutes true worship.

     I’m not the first to observe that there are no orders of worship, or any sort of style indicated anywhere in the Bible. This makes it very difficult to frame arguments for, or against, any particular worship style from the Scriptures.

3- There is a place – a niche, if you will – for any local church with a clear identity, deeply held values, and a distinctive style – of worship, of preaching, of fellowship, and of ministry.

     My most exciting discovery, as I visited these four other churches in our city, was this: None of these churches are alike … at all!

     One was Pentecostal, and one was Baptist; one was charismatic, and one was Mennonite Brethren. And if I had the time, I would have visited other churches of other traditions and denominational affiliations.

     Yet, each manifested a vibrancy in their ministries – not necessarily reflected solely in their “worship service,” I must note – and there was clearly no formula for their success. Any vibrancy went beyond any one worship service or style, of course.

     And none of them were any more like Bethesda Church than they were to each other, which was not at all! To me, this indicates that the Lord Jesus [still] has a place for us, but only so long as we are willing to be who and what He continues to create us to be.

     So long as we remain open to His Spirit’s calling upon us and His work in us, among us, and through us; we have a bright future and a sure hope, indeed!

     But if at any point we choose to close ourselves off from His renewed activity, becoming settled in “the way we do things around here” – either personally or congregationally, then our flame will surely and sadly and slowly and painfully diminish.

And Jesus will just as surely remove our lampstand from His power and His presence.

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t need to happen; we have a choice in the matter ….

God’s grace and peace from me and mine to you and yours!

Pastor Mark

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The dysfunction of atheism — overt and otherwise

SOME YEARS AGO, I had occasion to speak at length with an atheist.

He was also the attending psychiatrist for one of my family members in the hospital.

It was one of those bizzaro-world-where-am-I-and-how-did-I-get-here-anyway conversations.

Maybe you’ve had one of these experiences, or something like it.

It’s one of those conversations, when we think we’re speaking the same language; we might even be using some of the same words. But at some point, we realize that we’re talking past each other, through each other, and over each other.

Despite our many words, the one thing we are not doing is communicating.

After about twenty minutes in this non-communication-repeating-loop, it became clear to me why:

     Doctor-I-know-everything-and-you-know-nothing-worth-knowing thought that I was as delusional as the family member I was trying to help … maybe even more so.

Literally. He literally thought that I needed help, and here’s why: I’m a person of faith in God.

The decisive moment came, when the good doctor asked me if I thought my family member should be in the hospital and, if so, why.

I shared my own observations, including that my family member had manifested ‘religious ideations’ – that is, attaching spiritual meaning to everything and using heavily religious language, inappropriate to the situation.

     “You mean like you?” said Doctor-I-know-everything-and-you-know-nothing-worth-knowing.

What are you talking about?” said I, in utterly sincere shock ….

     “Well, aren’t you a priest?” said the expert.

Almost breathless in unbelief of another kind, I responded, ”No, I’m not a priest. I am a pastor.

     “Same thing,” said the knower of all knowledge worth knowing – except, of course, that priests and pastors are not the same. He continued, stunningly, “Religious belief is a delusion; people who believe are delusional. The only difference is one of degrees.

I’m sure he thought he was being helpful – being the doctor, but I was about to come unglued.

I simply could not believe that this person was a medical doctor, and especially that this “doctor” was “caring” for my family member. How could this be?

But I said as calmly as I could, “Doctor-such-and-such, doesn’t the standard of care require that healthcare professionals work with loved ones for the benefit and well-being of their patients?

     “Yes, it does,” he responded – resisting, I’m quite sure, the urge to lecture me (again) on my use of the technical terminology ‘standard of care,’ because I couldn’t know what I’m talking about, because … I’m not a psychiatrist.

Could you tell me how lecturing me about my lack of knowledge of my own family member’s situation – apparently, on the single basis that I am not you – and calling me delusional, for no other reason than that I’m a person of faith, achieve the standard of care in this case?

     ”You’re right; I apologize.” A glimmer of humility and compassion! Oddly and unexpectedly, we were able to have a productive conversation after that. (I promise; I am not making this up!)

This remarkably memorable event was brought right back to mind this afternoon, when I read an outstanding article by Jim Spiegel in the latest e-edition of Christianity Today (CTDirect).

His article, ”Unreasonable Doubt,” draws from his recent book The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (Moody, 2010), which surely will make it to my bookshelf soon.

The basic premise of Spiegel’s article – supported by surprisingly strong evidence – is this:

     Moral and psychological factors may contribute as decisively in the faithlessness of atheists as their acceptance of rational argument and “proofs” – maybe even more so.

Here’s how he gets to the point, early, in his second paragraph (with my emphasis added):

     “Most atheists would have us think they arrived at their view through cool, rational inquiry. But are other factors involved? Consider the candid remarks of contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel: ‘I want atheism to be true …. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I’m right about my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.‘ Could Nagel’s attitude—albeit in a more subtle form—actually be common among atheists?

After that, Spiegel’s article only gets better, more challenging, more helpful, and more hopeful – hopeful in the God who Is and His gospel and helpful insight into the forensics of unbelief.

Here’s another gem (my emphasis added):

     “The 20th-century ethics philosopher Mortimer Adler (who was baptized quietly at age 81) confessed to rejecting religious commitment for most of his life because it ‘would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of my day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for …. The simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person.‘”

The Bible is consistent in its insistence that God exists; that there is One and only One True and Living God; that He created and sustains all that there is by the power of His Word; and that He is a good, gracious, and loving God – despite our unbelief.

The Bible is also clear about another thing:

     “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ – Psalm 14:1

But let’s not get carried away with the foolish faithlessness of atheism and atheists. I have seen and practiced something possibly more foolish, and if I might say, more delusional even than the subborn and relentless refusal to believe in or admit or acknowledge the God Who Is:

     A functional or practical atheism.

How many ‘Christians’ or ‘churches’ say that we believe in the God Who Is and have doctrinal statements loaded with Bible verses to support our contention that we believe in the God Who Is. But practically speaking, we live and think and speak and behave … as if we are on our own?

     Mannnny of us and mannnny of our churches, I would venture to say, including me and my own church from time-to-time.

Our Elder Brother James, the half-brother of our Lord Jesus, got right to this point, and he was speaking to ‘Christians’ when he wrote: You believe that God is One; you do well! The demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?“ – James 2:19-20

Do yourself a favor and read Spiegel’s article. You may even consider getting his book. As for the article, you can find it at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/january/35.48.html.

God’s grace and peace to you and yours from me and mine!

Pastor Mark

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ABOUT TWO YEARS AGO, a small group of men graciously invited me to join them, as they had been meeting weekly for a number of years, to process life and faith together.

Since then, I have met with these five other men — and they with me – nearly every Tuesday morning at 7:30am at one office or other of our group members.

I am grateful for these men, for their welcome, and for the contributions each has made to my life in the relatively short period of our time with each other.

Sometimes I call our group “my accountability group,” and we do some of that – especially when I arrive late to our meetings, which is, well … often.

But primarily, we meet for the simple purpose of walking together, as we negotiate the waters of this life and these times in the Christian context.

You should probably know at this point that I am the only pastor/preacher/minister-guy in the group, which is both a potential benefit and a potential liability.

Being a preacher is a potential benefit, of course, when some practical application of Scripture or theology will help us to see our way through some issue – you know, from God’s perspective.

On the other hand, preachers can be … preachy. That’s altogether a liability in virtually every context! So, I have need to moderate in my tendency toward super-spiritualizing preachyness ….

We also have two engineers (one retired), one sales-and-marketing guy, an IT-management guy, and a business-executive consultant. (It’s that last guy who gives me the most consistent grief when I’m late.)

But I digress …

Today, we picked up on an important and potentially transformative conversation that we had begun several weeks ago.

The topic of our conversation was the new and diverse pathways of “doing business,” brought about, largely, by the many changes in how people communicate, relate, make decisions, and buy stuff these days – especially our younger people, say, 40 years old or younger.

Of course, we talked about the Brave New World of Twittter, Facebook, Linked In, instant messaging, hand-held devices, and other “social networking” forums and tools.

For many of us 40+ guys (and some of us +er than others!), this is literally another universe! We acknowledged, however, that we either get linked-in (so to speak), or we get left behind.

And it makes no difference whatsoever that this is not the world in which we grew up, or the plan we signed on to, or the paradigms we learned as we came up through the ranks!

So, the question is NOT whether we can be or will be, more or less effective, as we do what we do into the foreseeable future – as businessmen (and women), leaders, consumers, and churchmen (and women).

     The questions are more like: Will we even be relevant? When we talk, will there be anybody listening at the other end? Will we be able to relate (to anyone) in a meaningful way?

During this discussion, our sales-and-marketing guru showed us an incredible video, entitled “Social Media ROI: SOCIALNOMICS” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypmfs3z8esI).

I STRONGLY recommend watching it! But it was something he said, which was likely obvious to him in his universe, but to me it was one of those rare revelatory moments. He said:

     “Nobody likes to be sold, but everybody wants to buy.”

Nobody likes to be sold, but everybody wants to buy“! In my mind, I went straight to the gospel, and how we go about proclaiming and witnessing and leading people to the God of the gospel.

Could it be that some of us – myself included – have missed the gospel-boat on both ends of the gospel-message versus means-of-delivery, Christianity versus churchianity, sound-doctrine versus good-works spectrum?

On the one end, could it be that some of us have so valued the message of the gospel as we received it that we have a misplaced value in our methodology and our traditions and our preferences, because we believe our methodology is intrinsic to, embedded in the gospel itself? So, in our effort to conserve the past, could we have turned the gospel into a self-serving extension of ourselves and our own staid preferences?

Consequently, we may tend to resist or reject necessary and needed changes in our means that seem to be implied by these words from Paul:

     For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews, I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the Law, I became as one under the Law (though not being myself under the Law), that I might win those under the Law. To those outside the Law, I became as one outside the Law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ), that I might win those outside the Law. To the weak, I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

On the other end, could it be some others have altered, even corrupted the message – almost always out of a deep concern for those outside the family of faith, for sure – by adopting means that oppose it’s true message, as well as the One who gives it? By giving in to “the spirit of [this] age,” by becoming virtually indistinguishable from the world around us, could it be that we have made “the gospel” into something else? Could we be making it about someone other than the God who raises the dead and His once crucified and now risen and exalted Son?

These are words of Paul that I first thought of, when I heard my friend’s sales proverb:

      “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God, we speak in Christ! – 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

So I see here a dual need, a dual obligation: We must employ contemporary means to get a hearing from a contemporary audience, but we must never become “peddlers of God’s word.”

God does not want or call us to sell the gospel. Rather, He calls us to proclaim the gospel:

     I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’“ – Romans 1:16-17

     “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God!“ – 1 Corinthians 1:18

God’s grace and peace to you and yours from me and mine!

Pastor Mark

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Providence and our cluelessness

[As I mentioned, I was out of city and country earlier this week, as I attended the Desiring God Conference for Pastors for the third year. I had hoped to blog from Minneapolis. However, in the fullness of my heart and mind, the discovery of new relationships, and the going-from-dawn-to-dust, it just didn't happen. But I didn't want to lose momentum, as I did last year. so, this is my first posting, since I returned to Winnipeg. As always, let me know what you think ....] 

DID YOU EVER wonder how many times the One True and Living God has acted on our behalf –directly, personally, providentially; but we didn’t have a clue that He was aware, interested, or even around?

If we think about it for a second, would we even know the Invisible God has acted for our tangible benefit? I seriously doubt it – except, perhaps, in the most sensational and obvious examples.

And there are clear and compelling examples. Check out these representative Biblical passages on God’s historical intervention into human affairs:

     The LORD said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey … Behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.‘” – Exodus 3:7-10

     “He ordered some mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and cast them into the burning fiery furnace. These men were bound in their cloaks, tunics, hats, and other garments, and thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed the men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Then these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. But King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste, and declared to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men, bound, into the fire?‘ They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ He answered and said, ‘But I see four men, unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt. And the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!’“ – Daniel 3:20-25

     Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.“ – Matthew 1:18-21

     “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!‘ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.‘” – Luke 1:26-33

     “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.‘ So we can confidently say: ‘The Lord is my Helper. I will not fear; what can man do to me?‘ Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever! – Hebrews 13:1-8

Okay, so earlier this week – Thursday to be exact, I had an appointment with Dr. August ‘Gus’ Konkel, president of Providence College and Seminary for breakfast at 8:30am. (Providence College and Seminary is in rural Otterburne, Manitoba, about an hour and ten minutes (or so) away from my house in Charleswood, a burrough in Winnipeg.)

Gus and I were meeting to discuss how a once strong and substantial relationship between Bethesda Church and Providence might be renewed.

We also talked about my own desire and long-sensed calling to teach in a more formal educational setting at some point, investing in the next generation of Jesus-disciples and leaders in the church.

I normally have trouble getting out of the house in the morning. Admittedly, part of it is my own fault: Simply put, I’m just not a morning person.

But when I have an early morning departure, my daughters are usually just getting up and about, and it’s very difficult for me to pull away without first connecting with them, before we go our separate ways.

So, I was leaving for my appointment a full ten minutes after I had planned. TEN MINUTES LATE.

I must have still been half asleep, when I took a longer, slower route to get out of town. FIVE MORE MINUTES LATE.

Now I’m on my way and heading south on Highway 59 toward Otterburne. But the farther I went, the more I became convinced that I must have passed the Otterburne intersection.

I pulled over to the side of the road, and turned around – only to realize that I hadn’t gone far enough. (In actuality, I probably could have seen my intersection from where I turned around, if my vision was good enough!)

Anyway, I turned around, and just a couple of minutes later, I was turning onto Otterburne Road. FIVE MORE MINUTES LATE.

I’m guessing that the distance between the Highway 59/Otterburne Road intersection and Providence College and Seminary is just over a mile, straightaway.

About halfway there, I came up on people in the road and something going on at the side of the road. As I got closer, I realized that an accident had just happened, only a few minutes before.

A red car was smashed up pretty bad, but upright. A white car seemed not as severely smashed up, but upside down. Four people stood shivering on the side of the road — no doubt, shivering from both cold and fright.

As I stopped to find out if anyone was hurt and/or needed assistance, an ambulance – which I had seen and heard approaching in the distance as I turned off of Highway 59 – pulled right up behind me. I got out of the way by continuing on up the road to Providence.

But ten minutes here; five minutes there; and five more minutes when I was just on the cusp of my destination, and who knows: Though no one seemed seriously injured in the crash, what would a third car in the mix have done?

Was I just half asleep, as I went east across South Winnipeg? Was I simply confused, as I approached my turn off to Providence? Was I merely late, again, as I left the house, giving my kids an extra hug and our usual daddy-daughter-banter? 

     If God exists, if He is all-knowing, if He is Almighty, if He is everywhere-present-eternally, AND if He is infinitely good, infinitely loving, and infinitely merciful – all of which the whole of Scripture, from Genesis to maps, makes abundantly clear; why then should we think it strange, or unusual, or improbable that the One True, Living, and Invisible God should act from time-to-time in tangible, historical ways on behalf of His children?

That God doesn’t always act – as we would like, when we would like – is no argument against God’s sovereign and merciful action in history, according to His own timing, wisdom, word, and will. The God of the Bible is the God who intervenes into human history by His sovereign action.

One more thing. On Thursday, I arrived at my destination – Providence College and Seminary … 15 minutes early! And no, the math just doesn’t add up ….

God’s grace and blessings to you and yours from me and mine!

Pastor Mark

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DESIRING GOD

IS GOD – knowing God, walking with God, hearing from God, obeying God, worshipping the One True and Living God, enjoying God, DESIRING GOD – the singular pursuit of your life? Of your family? Of your church?

Just so you know – with George Washington, in my role as a pastor, and all that apocryphal ”I cannot tell a lie” jazz – as for me and my house and my church, I’d have to say, “It depends.”

     Which is to say, in the interests of honesty, transparency, and integrity, sometimes God is my/our singular pursuit.

It depends on the day, the week, the season. It depends on the mood we are in (I am in) at any particular moment. It depends on if we are being spiritual or natural – you know, regular people.

And, it depends upon what you (I) mean by: “Is God the singular pursuit of your/my/our life?

I was reminded of this last night, after supper, by my lovely and adorable daughters.

Now, you need to know – if you couldn’t tell, already – that I absolutely adore my daughters.

I’m not exactly sure what the Old English phrase ”the apple of my eye” means, or where it comes from, but I have two apples – one for each of my eyes, and their names are Abby and Ashleigh.

(I should note, and quickly, that I dearly love my 26-year-old son Christopher and my wife Shelly. But on this particular occasion, it was my daughters. And there is the daddy-daughter-thing ….)

To think that God loves me – me! – and them infinitely more profoundly and fondly than I love my own children is, well, impossible to comprehend. And it makes me smile.

But there we were, last night, at the dinner table. In our dinner table discussion, Abby (13) and Ashleigh (10) both mentioned this “funny guy” that one of them had found on, of all places, youtube, and that I “just had to hear him, because he’s so funny!”

At some point, after supper, as I dutifully took out the trash, which for me in my trash-eradicating-obsessive-mode means going all over the house trying to find every bit of trash before it makes its way into the trashcan I just emptied(!), I realized that my dear sweet daughters were waiting patiently for me, so they could introduce me to this aforementioned “funny guy.”

Honestly, I’m not sure that I knew I could laugh so much, and so hard … in three minutes’ time.

I asked Abby to send me the link, which was waiting for me, when my Blackberry and I awoke this morning. The most enjoyable part of this 3-minute snippet of a longer comedy routine was that the “funny guy” touched upon one of my pet topics: the use of language … sort of.

When I found the link on my Blackberry this morning, I couldn’t resist listening to it again. (Also, there are graphics to go with it – not video, exactly – that enhance the laughing experience.)

I thought I might be laughing so hard (again) as to awaken the whole family.

My laughing experience last night and this morning prompted me to wonder:

     Why does our pursuit of God so frequently look lilke and feel like and constitute something other than an en-JOY-able pursuit?

Oh, I know that life and relationships and work and ministry are hard. That’s a given in the fallen world in which we live, and any version of ‘Christianity’ that white-washes this self-evident truth with spiritualized  magic thinking should be avoided – fled from, even.

Indeed, it’s not one of the promises of Scripture that we would want to claim, but to every person who aligns himself or herself with Jesus Christ and commits to living out His gospel, the Bible promises that we will have trouble in this world (John 16), that we will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12), and that we might even despair of life (2 Corinthians 1).

Yet, we should be heartened to hear that, in the midst of our circumstances – whatever they may be, we can have … JOY. This, too, is a promise from God’s Word – written in Holy Scripture, lived out and made possible by the Word-made-flesh, and granted to each of us by the Holy Spirit.

I was reminded of this last night and this morning, as I literally laughed-out-LOUD, and the Lord reminded me of His promise of joy to those whom He loves and who love Him …

     “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” — Jesus (John 16:24b)

     “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life–the Life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the Eternal Life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. — 1 John 1:1-4

     “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come to you and talk face-to-face, so that our joy may be complete.– 2 John 2:12

Oh yes, and here’s the link to “the funny guy” but with a disclaimer: He uses one quasi-swear word (‘hell‘) in a quasi-swearing sort of a way (as in ‘What in the hell are you talking about, Brian?‘) But if you can get beyond that, you’ll laugh-out-LOUD, too. I PROMISE!

     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1cYS6aGstU

Grace, peace, and MUCH JOY from me and mine to you and yours!

Pastor Mark

P. S.

The first part of this week (Mon., Jan. 31st–Wed., Feb. 2nd), I’ll be attending the Desiring God Conference for Pastors (www.desiringgod.org) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the third year running.

This year’s theme is “The Power of a Praying Pastor.” I’m very much looking forward to it, and for the first time, attending with friends and colleagues from Winnipeg.

Pastor Jeremy Kim of the Korean Church of Winnipeg (www.winnipegchurch.org) and with whom we share our facilities here at Bethesda is joining me.

Also, our brothers at Grant Memorial Baptist Church (www.grantmemorial.ca) are gracing us with their fellowship and a ride down and (hopefully!) back in their church van.

     Please pray for me, especially. First, I need the refreshing that this conference and its theme offers. Also, this is the exact point at which my first attempt at a blog died. I just never got back to it, after the break in momentum brought on by last year’s conference. I’d appreciate it, very much!

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Navigating hazardous roads

TODAY AS I TYPE, we’re having our second quasi-snow storm of the season here in Winnipeg – my apologies to the U.S. northeast and midwest and Canadian southeast that are digging out of something  like their fifteenth REAL snow storm … of the month!

We’ve gotten a bunch of snow prior to this, for sure – considerably more, in fact, than is normal. But to this point, our snow has come in drib-and-drab-5cm-chunks at a time, rather than the frozen deluges that have befallen our North American compatriots to the east and south.

     (The folks up here [officially] measure snowfall in centimeters and rain in milimeters, rather than in inches, feet, and fractions of inches and feet.)

This means, of course, that I generally have no idea how much of what we are getting.

Occasionally, if compelled to do so, I force myself to do a mental metric-to-English conversion when weather happens, or I see a speed limit sign, or I see “Kenora, 124 kms” on Highway One.

The funny thing is that most people over the age of 40 still speak in inches, feet, fractions of inches and feet, and miles – or some confusing combination of metric-English-double-speak!

But I digress, again …

Before and as I drove to the office this morning, the snow was falling at a rate of about 15cm an hour (about 6 inches an hour for the metrically impaired), and visibility was about half a kilometer (about a third of a mile). During my drive, which I enjoyed immensely, I thought of something that I heard over the radio during our first winter here in Winnipeg back in 2007-2008, which was this:

     “You can drive fast on roads and streets covered in ice and snow. You can turn on ice and snow. You can apply the brakes on ice and snow. And you might – might! – even get away with doing two of the three on ice and snow, provided there are no other vehicles on the road and no obstacles – such as lightposts – alongside. But what you may not do, under any circumstance, is simultaneously drive fast, AND turn, and AND stop on roads covered by ice and snow! And we seem to need relearning of this basic lesson every winter.

I knew this already, having grown up in north-central Indiana, where we regularly received the “lake-effects snow” from Lake Michigan. I began learning to drive in my dad’s Ford pick-up truck, just as soon as I could manage to reach the pedals with my tippy-toes and achieve the requisite coordination of clutch and 3-speed-on-the-column manual transmission, while peering with glee over the dashboard and steering what seemed to me at the time a HUGE steering-wheel.

There were few things I enjoyed more during our many snowy Indiana winters than careening down our 200-yard-long drive in my dad’s pick-up (and later in my 1966 red Chevy Impala), plowing through feet of snow, literally, and learning to keep the vehicle going forward and relatively straight, while it was being buffeted and bounced from (and through) snow drift to snow drift, until I reached, in a glorious cloud of snow and steam, the gravel road on which we lived.

If the the road had been plowed, then I would normally stop to enjoy the thrill of yet another victory of man-boy over nature. But if not, I would make the right turn out of our lane on the fly, onto the road (westward), and continue my frenetic flight to town, or wherever I was going.

That is, unless I got stuck, which meant that I would have to make the laborious walk, trudging back through the same feet of snow to the barn, to fire up the Massey-Ferguson tractor to pull myself out of the snowbank.

But that’s another story entirely, and honestly, didn’t happen all that often ….

Because my brain is – you know – abnormal, I took a quantum jump, as I was driving my drive and thinking my thoughts this morning, from the materially hazardous driving that I was doing on the streets of Winnipeg (and enjoy just a bit too much, I admit) to the metaphorically hazardous driving that I do in ministry leadership (and enjoy just a bit too little, I confess).

To paraphrase the sage advice about the kind of driving one does on roads and streets covered in ice and snow, I have discovered the following about the life-cycle, and mood, of a local church:

     We can move boldly forward into the future with Jesus. We can make lesser but more palatable (less threatening) adjustments along our journey of faith. We can remain where we have beeen, preferring some by-gone day, hoping to recreate it. And we might – might! – even get away with doing two of the three, assuming that Jesus give us the grace to navigate such a hazardous path. But what we may not do, under any circumstance, is simultaneously move boldly forward with Jesus, AND make lesser adjustments, AND remain where we have been, preferring a by-gone day. It’s simply NOT POSSIBLE to do all three.

We need to choose – at every single point along our faith journey, which sort of followers of Jesus we will be, and what sort of churches of the Lord Jesus Christ we will be.

In the ninth chapter of his gospel, Doctor Luke records for us some eerily appropriate words of Jesus. And though His words seem to be applied specifically to individuals, I am becoming more and more convinced that they apply – equally clearly and equally compellingly – to whole churches as well. Here is Luke’s narrative and Jesus’s words, according to Luke 9:57-62:

     “As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ To another He said, ‘Follow Me!’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, you go and proclaim the kingdom of God!’ Yet another said, ‘I will follow You, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God!‘”

God’s grace and peace from me and mine to you and yours,

Pastor Mark

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“Love the one you’re with!”

IN THE EARLY 1970s, some of you may remember that Steven Stills released his first solo album and a song entitled “Love the one you’re with.” This single-record became a huge hit, was “covered” by many other groups in the years following – including his own Crosby, STILLS, Nash, and Young – and still plays on the radio today from time-to-time.

As it turns out, Stills was inspired by another popular and gifted musician of that day, Billy ”… nothin’ from nothin’ means nothin’ …” Preston, who used to say in conversations, “Well, if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with!” Steven Stills grabbed hold of the line, and PRESTO!, a hit was born.

Quite obviously, an Evangelical Christian pastor, committed to fidelity in all of my relationships – first with God, second with my wife, and the Biblical imperative for all born-again believers to do the same, can’t endorse the clear hedonistic message of the song.

Except … for the Christian hedonism endorsed by Pastor John Piper in his book Desiring God and his Desiring God Ministries (www.desiringgod.org).

Piper culls from Scripture, the writings of Jonathan Edwards, the Westminster Confession (“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever“), and other sources the idea of Christian hedonism, which is stated succinctly and boldly in the declaration:

     “God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him.

I was reminded of two aspects of this truth, shortly after I arrived at the offfice this AM. And it is good, Biblical, theological truth: God IS most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him!

My wife Shelly and I were lamenting with one of our bright young leaders, Paul Eikelboom, about our impending loss of him and his wife Alexandria from our staff and congregation this summer.

I had the honor and delight of performing Paul and Lexi’s wedding back in August 2010. But more to my point, Lexi has served on our staff as our ministry coordinator since October 2009 and her new-ish husband Paul since January 2010.

Lexi completes her undergraduate studies in April, anticipating graduate studies in theology elsewhere. They just don’t yet know where “elsewhere” will be, or when exactly they will leave.

But because none of the four universities to which Lexi has applied are even in Canada, and only two in North America, we will have to say our sad “so longs” to Paul and Lexi at some point in our not-too-distant future.

     [Pause to recover, as first Lexi and later Paul have been much more like my beloved, adopted kids than my colleagues, and even less my subordinates.]

In this conversation/lament, I commented to Paul and my wife Shelly that I am preparing myself already for their departure, and I have to remind myself that most of our relationships in life are seasonal, especially those associated with ministry.

Very few of our relationships turn out to be deep and lifelong. We celebrate those rarities when they occur, for sure. But most relationships in life and ministry are, in fact, seasonal.

At this point in our conversation, though, Shelly exclaimed, “Then, love the one you’re with!”

     YES! That’s exactly right! Steven Stills’s original meaning aside, good Biblical practice and theology requires just that: We have an obligation to “love the one(s) we’re with!

In addition to the Biblical promise and spiritual reality that God is always with us, and we are to love Him above all others, during the season that we have together – however long or short, according to God’s good and sovereign will, we are to love each other with a good and godly love!

     Jesus had something profound to say on this topic, though it’s not explicit, perhaps: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. – John 3:7-8

I guess that maybe I shouldn’t lament – at least, not so, so much – the seasonal aspect of most relationships in life and ministry. Perhaps Jesus is just saying that even this is part and parcel to the way God works – keeping us on the move, perhaps, so we are less likely to forget that this life is not all there is, and this world is not our home.

What do you think? (I’m still going to cry when Paul and Lexi leave us. I’m just saying ….)

God’s blessing and peace, from me and mine to you and yours!

Pastor Mark

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