Monthly Archives: November 2014

Gratitude – unseating cynicism

Earlier this year as I read A Praying Life, I was struck by the insightful treatment of cynicism, which the author argues is the “spirit of our age.”

Cynicism stands alongside a defeated weariness, involves a deadening of the spirit, the scar tissue of frustration, the expectation of disappointment, a certain disdain which sees the supposed dark side of everything, and a constraint by fear, so that the active goodness of God is questioned and increasingly doubted.

One of the “antidotes” for Cynicism that Paul Miller, the author, prescribes is the cultivation of gratitude.  Rather than doubting God’s presence and active concern for me, gratitude helps me to see my complete dependance on God.  I see that every good thing I enjoy comes from my heavenly father who does not change (James 1).  So, I include below is a short account from the pilgrim’s arrival to the new world.

I am struck by the realism and the hope held together in this piece.  As you read, will you cultivate a heart that sees God’s goodness then and now?

Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.

When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.

The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.

This is available various places online and the Wall Street Journal reprints it annually at Thanksgiving.

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The ministry of presence – privilege

Last week I started writing about the most basic ministry of a Christian, which happens simply by being present.  Wherever you go, whatever time of day or night it is, the king and savior Jesus Christ is with you by the power of the Holy Spirit.  So ministry does not happen in a designated spot (whether a church building or food pantry) or a special time (Sunday morning, Wednesday night, or on certain Christian days), rather it is all of life.  As I’ve continued to think about the ministry of presence I see what a privilege it is to simply live as a Christian wherever I go and “exude Christ-likeness,” as one man puts it.  Three categories come to mind as I think about the privilege of the ministry of presence: the privilege of being ambassadors, the privilege of loving what I do, and the privilege of suffering.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2Co 5:18-20 ESV)

1.  An ambassador represents her nation’s interests while on the soil of another.  She must know both the ways of her own country and be conversant with the country to whom she is sent.  In the above passage the apostle Paul describes himself, along with the other Christians among whom he serves, “as ambassadors for Christ.”   The Christian is among those who are distant from God living as an agent of reconciliation.  Simply by being reconciled to God every Christian first displays this incredible reality (v. 17 being a “new creation in Christ”).  Furthermore, the Christian actively represents God who wants people to be reconciled to him imploring people to become right with God.  You are not a bystander, a cog in a machine, or someone waiting in line, but an ambassador, everywhere you go.  Yes, there is a responsibility tied to this role, but first and foremost it is a position of privilege.  Wherever your day takes you, there you are representing the reconciling God.

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.  1 Thessalonians 2:8

2. As our Jesus lives in us by the Holy Spirt and we express his love for others we will find our own hearts warmed with affection and commitment towards those he has called us to serve.  We do not function only in an official capacity as ambassadors, but more often as friends, as those who deeply love, the ones we are called to minister to.  As we are with people we see them through God’s eyes, have God’s heart for them, and then find increasing joy in the role God has given.  This makes me think of someone who loves his job, and despite the difficulties that crop up day by day, is truly grateful for what he does with his life.  If our primary ministry is presence and this presence is one that depends in love it is an incredible privilege to live as a Christian.  While we may not feel the affection or the emotion moment by moment it is so good to be able to step back and say overall, “I love what I do.”

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Rom 8:16-18

3.  What did Jesus’ presence in our life cost him?  Everything.  If we, in some small way emulate his ministry of presence among sinners it will hurt.  It will hurt because we love people and it will hurt because people will mistreat us as they mistreated Jesus.  The Christian faith though, says that it is a privilege to suffer for Christ.  It is necessary to suffer with him and when we do so we realize how small those sufferings are in comparison to the greatness of our redemption.  When you love people, their pain becomes yours and you understand more deeply what God has done for you.  When you love people and they do not love you back, you understand more deeply what God has done for you.  A life that deliberately seeks to exemplify God’s presence in a world tainted by sin, will be a life of suffering, but this does not exclude it being a life of privilege.


Presence – the beginning

letter

A friend and mentor from my time in seminary would often say that the most basic Christian ministry is the ministry of presence.  In this statement he was beginning with God coming to earth in Jesus, then following the pattern in which Jesus calls his disciples to be with him, and finally, before leaving the earth, promises that he will be with them to the end of the age.

I continue to think about the ministry of presence as we develop our nascent church in Worcester.  Here are the starting points:

1.  Presence and salvation:  We assume that God is generally accessible.  If we want him, he’s there and we can find him.  I see this playing out when people with varying beliefs, or even uncertainty about God’s existence, talk about praying. The bible rather begins with God’s otherness and distance from us, so that the great promise of salvation – “Emmanuel,” which means God with us.  It is easy to get used to the idea of God’s nearness, but in fact this should fill us with wonder.  The fact that the bible describes paradise as the fullness of God’s presence, should alert us to the stunning reality of being near God.

2.  Presence and transformation:  What is the source of Christian growth?  How do we become more like the God who made us and has called us to himself?  By his presence.

 I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.  Ezekiel 36:26-27

The solution to our misplaced priorities and worship of things other than God (v.25 of Ezek 36) is the presence of the Spirit of God.   Theologians will talk about the “communicable attributes” of God, meaning those aspects of God’s being which we take on (i.e. his goodness, truthfulness, love).  These stand in contrast to his “incommunicable attributes” (i.e. transcendence, omniscience, omnipresence).  Like living with someone who has a cold, which we eventually catch, so we catch God’s goodness and love through the presence of the Spirit.  There is a sense in which transformation is inevitable.  A Christian has had God come into her life and there is no turning back.  Thus growing in godliness is not so much an avoidance of certain practices or thoughts but an increased nearness to God, who has the power to cast out sin.  James, the brother of Jesus, holds together these tensions when he says “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Then a life of virtue grows which is first rooted in the presence of God, rather than our own efforts, so that our transformation is not corrupted by pride.

3.  Presence and ministry: It is easy to think that serving God is a gigantic list of things to do when in fact, our service to others reflects God’s service to us.  Presence is the beginning from which everything else flows.  Love, the greatest command is never distant or abstract, but close and personal.  One pastor has people scroll through the contact list of their cell phones as a quick way to consider the various people in our lives with whom we have some degree of connection and opportunities to be the presence of God as God is with us.  A great way to think about growing in service to others is asking God to see those with whom God has brought into your life. How can my presence in their lives reflect God’s presence in mine?  How can the things I catch from God be somehow conveyed to them?

4.  Even as I reflect on the various letters making up the New Testament, I see these as an extension of the ministry of presence.  The knowledge of the distinct situations, the personal greetings that either open or close the letters, and the affection that runs through these point to an incredible connection and love.   The letters themselves are a way in which someone who is far away can be present to encourage, warn, and teach.

Photo Credit: SophieG* via Compfight cc


Giving Our Money – Promises and Problems

Giving Our Money – Promises and Problems

5338013478_90877c1abdWe’re on the home stretch in our series on giving, having looked at the Practice, the Perspective, and the Big picture.

We’ll wrap it up by looking at some of the promises that God makes in regards to giving and then consider some problems that come up when we talk about giving.

Promises:

As the bible makes clear and as Christians throughout the ages have known, God blesses our obedience.  Sometimes it is in direct correlation and other times the relationship between cause and effect is hidden.  Sometimes the blessing of obeying God in your finances is not reflected in your finances just as obeying God in your job is not always reflected in career progress.  When it comes to giving money (or really anything), the adage “you cannot out give God” points us to his incredible generosity and his desire to encourage us in obedience.  There is all sorts of teaching out there that distorts this basic principle of God blessing our obedience, but misuse does not negate the truth.  In the following passage I see such a balanced picture of God blessing our obedience without promising ease or exact returns.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Mark 10:29-31

The great and final goal of eternal life, found in God himself, is weighed against our own preoccupation with somehow coming out on top.  Even when God says he is going to bless our efforts in obeying him, he knows how quickly we can distort it helps us maintain a right perspective.

Another passage that comes to mind is from 2 Cor 9, which I often cite when I write thank you notes to those who have supported our ministry financially.  Reflecting on this passage leads me to pray that those who give will be supplied with even more resources to wisely use and that ultimately God will receive all the credit.  Below is this amazing section where the promise of God’s blessing on generosity fit right alongside a heartfelt and purposeful commitment to giving.

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.  As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”  He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 2 Corinthians 9:6-12.

It is possible to go on and on, looking both in the bible and through the history of the church to see how God rewards us as we follow his ways.  Again, it is not simply for the reward that we obey, but I know that I can use every encouragement that God gives as I strive to love him.

Problems: (These are twenty reasons people do not give.  I came across this list in some materials from MNA, our denominational office that oversees church planting and similar works in North America.)

1. They do not grasp the vision.
2. They don’t know what is going on with the leadership.
3. They don’t understand the connection between money and faith.
4. They see other needs that are more compelling.
5. No one asks them.
6. No one says “Thank You” when they do.
7. No one explains what happened to the money they gave before.
8. No one asks their opinion about how their money should be used.
9. They aren’t sure the church is “worthy”.
10. They have too much debt.
11. They don’t understand the tax implications.
12. They don’t know who to call for advice.
13. Too many requests are made for specific projects.
14. Too many appeals come in the mail.
15. They only give when they attend.
16. They pay all their bills online.
17. They lack the spiritual commitment.
18. They don’t believe their gift will make a difference.
19. They don’t hear stories from others who have given.
20. The pastor didn’t ask.

I think this is a great list and covers so much.  As I look at these different reasons why people don’t give three are some things which I cannot change (i.e. how many appeals come in the mail) but for most of these three central solutions come to mind.

1.  Communication:
It is the responsibility of leaders ask people to give, to tell people where they are headed, specific and general plans, the difference that contributions make, and describe in some ways the effectiveness of the ministry that is being supported.  On the other hand, people who are reluctant to give because of unanswered questions should ask.
Money is an excellent motivator to do the things we should already be doing.  Leaders should lead regardless of the financial consequences.  People should ask questions about direction and use of resources because they want to see God’s kingdom come.  If someone is concerned about the church’s use of resources they should not “vote with their pocketbook” or “vote with their feet” but see themselves as part of God’s solution to the problem.  Again, the more exacerbated a problem becomes the more significant the response is required, but these are the minority of the cases.

2.  Teaching:
So many of the above problems can be addressed by straightforward teaching on money in general and giving in particular.  This is different than the ongoing communication of vision or maybe a semi-annual review of how money is being spent and how this fulfills the church’s mission.  In my mind at least numbers #3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 15, 17 will be significantly helped by straightforward teaching from the bible on giving.

3.  Time and Maturity
Some of the issues listed above will only change in the course of months, years, or even decades.  Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile and necessary process.  Christian leaders and individuals must do all that they can to move towards honoring God in every area of life.  This means repeated communication, repeated teaching, and the patience to wait on God for the maturation of others and to seek God for our own growth and renewal.

Photo Credit: becca.peterson26 via Compfight cc


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