List One of the themes that continues in my “church planting adventure” is the necessity of staying encouraged.  My mentor and coach says that in ministry, and especially in starting a new church, you’ll keep getting knocked down.  Whether you can stay encouraged will determine your quality of life and your ability to survive, because without encouragement you won’t want to get up.

One of the ideas I came up with a few weeks ago, was a reminder of the different reasons why I should be encouraged.

1.  Poking Holes: Robert Lewis Stevenson, best known for his adventure story Treasure Island, was in poor health during much of his childhood and youth. One night his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. “Child, come away from there. You’ll catch your death of cold,” she fussed.  But young Robert wouldn’t budge. He sat, mesmerized, as he watched an old lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each street lamp along his route.  I first heard this story from my coach, though I found the text here.   Jesus, says “I am the light of the world” and then tells his followers “you are the light of the world.”  So starting a church is this astounding work of poking a hole in the darkness.  I need to remind myself of the big picture in which I will look back from eternity and say, “wow, what a privilege to help poke a hole in the darkness.”

2.  Progress:  I was talking with a pastor in his sixties who has faithfully served God and is near the end of his time in vocational ministry.  He spoke of the life long challenge of feeling inadequate for the great task of serving God and his people, then mentioned 1 Timothy 4.  There Paul charges Timothy, to let his progress be seen.  There is not some magic destination at which you arrive and have it all figured out, but a life of demonstrating progress.  This pastor told me how helpful it is to have progress as the goal and I see that myself.  I feel like I’ve learned and grown in many ways over the past few years  and even though there is so much that I “don’t know” yet, but I am making progress.

3.  It is a privilege to serve as pastor, provide for my family, and do what I love.  Though at points I can be overwhelmed with the challenges of church planting, it is a great way to spend my life.  There are many guys who would love to be pastor and have it as their full time job.  I should not have a “woe is me” or “I have a hard job” attitude.

4.  When I live by faith, believing that God will build his church, touch people’s lives, and bless this city through our efforts, I am lifted up and energized.  As I talk with other church planters and pastors we all have our fears and “failure scenarios” in which if ______ happens (or doesn’t happen) it will all fall apart.  The solution is to look with faith (not naive blindness), but to see the indications that God is at work and continue trusting that he will build.

5.  One of the indications that a church is fulfilling its missions is whether it would be missed if it weren’t there.  Right now I can yes, our church would be missed, not only by people in the congregation but in the city.  In our short existence in Worcester God has provided inroads for ministry we’re excited to see how it will develop.

The list continues and one of the pieces not pictured above is a collection of names and stories.  These are people that God has touched through our ministry, some of whom are part of the church and others who are not.

Helping Us See

As part of a talk I gave on Arts and Faith last weekend I talked about how the arts help us to see and right on the wall was this amazing collection of onions.  When do you really stop and look at an onion, noticing how it contrasts with the background or how the green shoots jump off at different angels?  The individual paintings in different light create this stunning whole.  Or, in another painting as a woman puts on make up we look into her face, which is tinged with anticipation and fear.  We see the insecurity of uncertain beauty and the desire to be accepted.

As I was thinking about this theme of seeing a few examples of how the bible uses art to help us see, came to mind:
“God is my rock…” – in what sense?  We are meant to look at a rock and in light of what we know about God and about rocks to see them both in a new light.  A more extended example comes from Proverbs 7, which paints this incredible picture of attraction to the wrong kind of person then the devastating effects:

My son, keep my words
and treasure up my commandments with you;
keep my commandments and live;
keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend,
to keep you from the forbidden woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words.
For at the window of my house
I have looked out through my lattice,
and I have seen among the simple,
I have perceived among the youths,
a young man lacking sense,
passing along the street near her corner,
taking the road to her house
in the twilight, in the evening,
at the time of night and darkness.
And behold, the woman meets him,
dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart.
She is loud and wayward;
her feet do not stay at home;
now in the street, now in the market,
and at every corner she lies in wait.
She seizes him and kisses him,
and with bold face she says to him,
“I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
so now I have come out to meet you,
to seek you eagerly, and I have found you.
I have spread my couch with coverings,
colored linens from Egyptian linen;
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
aloes, and cinnamon.
Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey;
he took a bag of money with him;
at full moon he will come home.”
With much seductive speech she persuades him;
with her smooth talk she compels him.
All at once he follows her,
as an ox goes to the slaughter,
or as a stag is caught fast
till an arrow pierces its liver;
as a bird rushes into a snare;
he does not know that it will cost him his life.

And this brings me to another piece of art :

My mamma done told me
When I was in pigtails
My mamma done told me
“Hon, a man is a two-face
He’ll give you the big eye
And when the sweet talking’s done
A man is a two-face
A worrisome thing who’ll leave you to sing
The blues in the night”

A Baptism Prayer

baptism bowlYesterday evening at our worship service I had the privilege of baptizing Isaac.  Below is the prayer I prepared for yesterday, though it didn’t all come out as I prayed with a wet and squirmy baby in my hands.  What a privilege to baptize my own children. 

Isaac Frederick Allebach, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. May all the blessings of God’s covenant of Grace rest upon you…

Living God, faithful through the generations, who is the same yesterday today and forever. You are the God who called Abraham our forefather in the faith. When he had no children and his wife was infertile you made a covenant, promising them descendants more numerous than the stars of the clear night sky. You said that in him all the nations would be blessed. And in old age, when hope seemed to fail you gave a son, a child of promise… Isaac. And the story goes on of Jacob, Isaac’s son, brought from a life of deception and ambition to the end of himself and dependence on you. Then Jacob’s children become the people of Israel who were enslaved in Egypt but you rescued them. By your strong arm you led them through the wilderness, brought them over the river Jordan into Canaan the Promised Land. You gave them leaders, prophets, kings and priests and in the fullness of time sent your son… Abraham’s heir and our great hope in answer to all your promises. O God who is faithful to all your promises we entrust Isaac to you. You knit him together in mother’s womb. You number every hair on his head. You see the beginning and end and from eternity you knew day he would be born and you know day he will close his eyes in death. We thank you for him, for the time in which he is entrusted to us his parents, your church, our family and our friends. We remember that children are a blessing from Lord, a sign of hope for this world. And I pray that through all his days Isaac will know you. I pray that by faith he would receive all that is promised in baptism: cleansing through Jesus, new life by Spirit, you as great influence in his life, and the church as his family his home. I pray that through his life he would be a man of faith who believes you for great things. Make a man of love with neither indifference nor meanness but genuine compassion and commitment that flows from you. Make a man of humility so that pride and self-congratulation would find no place in his life. Rather let him acknowledge you as the source of his gifts and graces, sharing and delighting theses. Make Isaac a man of courage who resists the pressure to blend in who lives for you and has a heart for the weak and needy. May he give his life to your Great cause and not insignificant things. Make Isaac holy. There are so many ways to go astray: money, sex, power. Set his heart on generosity, purity, and being a servant to others. If he is to marry give him a woman who loves you and with whom he can faithfully live through the years. I know you want to use us, his parents, his siblings, this church… do so! Work through us and despite us. Most of all may Isaac point beyond himself to your faithfulness. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Arts and Faith – Resembling God in Creativity and Development

In mid-march it looks like I’ll be giving a talk on faith and the arts and I’m teasing out some of the ideas in the next few posts.


When you look at the muddy side of a riverbank, do unformed vases and bowls call to your hands.  In a cherry tree I see pies and pastries and a desk that will last beyond my grandchildren.  In the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli there is pigment for blue skies and the Murex snail turns plain cloth into shades belonging to royalty.

In Genesis 1  God creates humanity

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

And two features that apply to the discussion of art and faith, are “development” and “creativity.”  In defining “subdue” let me quote from the ESV study bible,

The term “subdue” (Hb. kabash) elsewhere means to bring a people or a land into subjection so that it will yield service to the one subduing it (Num. 32:22, 29). Here the idea is that the man and woman are to make the earth’s resources beneficial for themselves, which implies that they would investigate and develop the earth’s resources to make them useful for human beings generally

chairTo “subdue” this beautiful and bountiful world in which God has placed humanity, does not suggest exploitation or misuse but points creative development for mutual betterment.  I try to imagine all the things which our first parents would need to develop and how this process may take shape.  Think even of a chair, no, a stool and all that is required to make one.  It is not only the raw materials of wood, but all the tools for cutting, shaping, smoothing, and joining the pieces together.  I imagine Adam thinking about something to sit on, other than the ground or a rock, and how the wheels began to turn.  At what point did chairs enter the imagination of mankind?  At what point were they made, not simply for utility but also carved and decorated?  When did the lines become graceful?  From the very origins of humanity, God commands creative development of the natural world and the arts is a natural extension of this command.  Moreover, it is in our role of imaging, reflecting and representing, God that we exercise creativity and develop this world.  God is the one who first creates, shapes, rules, and names and we follow after him.  Thus, there is great significance in the creative process, whether it is in a traditionally defined artistic field (sculpture or painting), or a different realm (coding for software, making omelets).   This also helps us consider the goal of “the arts” and simply based on Genesis 1, we would have to say that it is to reflect the creativity of God and to benefit people.  These are both generic but provide foundations for further thinking.  How does this challenge and affirm the phrase, “art for art’s sake”?  How about “art as self-expression”?  Does this concept of making and developing, broaden our understanding of art to include more people or diminish it so that “art” can be mean anything or nothing?

Photo Credit: AnnaMaja42 via Compfight cc   Photo Credit: jen_kels via Compfight cc

The Arts and Faith – Beauty and the Presence of God


In mid-march it looks like I’ll be giving a talk on faith and the arts and today I started talking through the content with a friend.  I’m going to tease out some of the ideas from this conversation in the next few posts.

It wasn’t until I went to seminary that I knew much about how the Bible ends.  In Revelation 21 and 22 (the last chapters of the last book of the bible), heaven comes to earth.  God is present and from his throne makes all things new.  The scene shifts to the new Jerusalem – a city where God and a restored humanity will live in joy, worship, and peace forever. The city is described as

having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal….     The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

There is a lot happening here, but what we see about the heavenly city is that it is a place of beauty and wealth.  If you look back to the worship of the old testament with the tabernacle and then temple (along with all the furnishings and garments) you see incredible attention to aesthetics, the use of precious materials, and the operation of human skill and creativity in construction.  If God’s presence in this world and the next is tied, not only to goodness or to truth, but also to beauty it must be significant.

I think about this wall, which in an ancient city would have denoted protection and security.  It likely has such a symbolic meaning here, but if it is only about safety, why is it decorated in such a fashion?  In a similar vein, many of the decorations of the tabernacle (moveable Israelite sanctuary) and the Israelite temple, have no function or utility.

I also think of a section from 1 Chronicles 16 (not at the top of most reading lists), when the temple is dedicated and David says, “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness…”

One of the starting points for talking about art and faith, is the existence and significance of beauty.

Christmas Times Two

A 321555760_1f1aa8dedaguest post from Chris who is part of Grace and helps out in all sorts of ways.

I have been thinking about the so-called “war on Christmas”. Many well intentioned Christians get up in arms about stores that sell “holiday trees” and they call on the culture to “keep Christ in Christmas”. But is Christ in Christmas in the first place? I believe that depends. It seems to me that there are two different Christmases: A sacred one in which Christians celebrate the Incarnation (along with all that entails, not just a sweet, baby Jesus in a manger) and a secular one that is about Santa Claus and sleigh bells and perhaps a sweet, baby Jesus in a manger( as long as He doesn’t go beyond that).

The secular Christmas is what our culture at large celebrates. I know of many Jews, Hindus, Atheists, not to mention nominal Christians, who celebrate Christmas. As far as I know, they don’t call their trees “holiday trees”. They celebrate the secular Christmas because it is part of our culture and history to do so. And because it is fun. I believe that if the “war on Christmas” is a war to change Christmas, as it is celebrated in our society, from a sacred holiday to a secular one, than that battle has already been decided.

And so what? Should we as Christians be concerned by this. Can we not celebrate the Incarnation on December 25 (and every day for that matter) and still join with others who celebrate the secular Christmas? For that matter, if it bothers us so much that Christmas is a secular holiday, then why do we get so offended when people don’t want to call it Christmas. A friend of mine made a good point. He said that if we are so concerned with the true meaning of Christmas, then why do we get so bothered if a chain store, who could care less about the true meaning of Christmas, is referring to it as a generic holiday instead? I find it odd that we would expect an unbelieving, fallen world, to celebrate the very thing they reject. After all, John tells us that Jesus ” came into the world and the world knew him not”. Perhaps those few who actually do get offended by the word “Christmas” are the ones who are keeping Christ in Christmas.

Photo Credit: Patrick_63 via Compfight cc

Entering Advent

Adven Bookmark

Some Christians will focus much more on the season of advent and the celebration of Christmas, while others intentionally keep it in the background.  I’ve jumped into the dialogue already, and simply want to pass along a few resources which I’ve found helpful.  One of which is to the left.  I put this together a few years ago from some different resources.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus by Nancy Guthrie is a selection of teachings on the birth of Christ from Christians both contemporary and ancient.

Good News of Great Joy by John Piper is a free e-book with meditations on various scriptures which unpack the birth of Christ.

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.

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


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

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