The Blessing Of Bad Traffic

[I will probably regret writing this post the next time I am running late because of bad traffic.]

Traffic jams are a daily problem in Nassau. I assumed that all my years living in traffic heavy Toronto would prepare me for the traffic challenges of this 22 by 6 mile island. I was wrong.

My GPS tells me that the drive from my home to my church office should take me 7 minutes. Rarely, do I get there in less than 20. On occasion, this short drive has taken me more than 60 minutes.

At this moment, I’m sitting at my desk, at the church, in downtown Nassau. There is no use trying to go anywhere. I’m stuck here—and that’s the blessing. Terrible traffic is enabling me to do some extra things today–like write this blog post (I haven’t written a post in more than 5 weeks). I’ve had more time to read my Bible. I’ve had more time to pray. You might say that I’m experiencing a forced retreat, but I’d prefer to think that I am rolling with providence.

There is no use in me belly-aching about conditions beyond my control. I know the cliche is that “When life serves you lemons, make lemonade”, but the Christian recognizes that “life” doesn’t have the ability to serve you anything. We serve a God who is sovereign over all things. Nothing takes God by surprise. Jesus reminds us,

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)

There is so much in that little text. God is not too busy with “big” things that He cannot care for the little things. He cares about the smallest detail of your life. In short, you matter to God. On this basis, Jesus tells us to not be afraid and to not worry about trying or uncertain circumstances (Matthew 6:25-34).

I do realize that traffic congestion is a tiny issue in the greater scheme of things, but I rejoice that God’s purposes remain even in the tiny things.

I don’t always use my time wisely. And I don’t always have a positive view about the traffic here in Nassau. But today, I thank God for an opportunity to catch up on some things that matter immensely. I am grateful for the fact that, out of a negative thing (insane traffic), can come a positive thing (an opportunity for more intentional communion with God).

You might not live in a place with traffic problems, but perhaps you know what it is like to have your plans interrupted by adverse or unexpected circumstances. “Life” did not serve you “lemons”. God has entered in. How will you respond?

Jesus tells us not to be afraid and to not worry.

That’s a lot easier to do when we position ourselves in close proximity to Jesus Christ. But perhaps that is God’s intention with the adversity or interruption that you’ve encountered.

Eventually, the traffic will ease up and you’ll be on the move again. Until then, let me encourage you to use this time to draw close to God. That’s what He wants, and that’s what we need.

Good Religious Zeal

Many will read the title of this post and think that I’ve just stated an oxymoron.

“The word ‘good’ and the words ‘religious zeal’ do not belong together”, some will say.

This generation has certainly seen its share of religious zeal gone bad. History  also records a trail of religious movements that sought to forcefully impose their beliefs on others.

One of the unfortunate side effects of this is that today’s Christian church is feeling pressure to produce a brand of Christianity that is devoid of any zeal. There is a pressure to be moderate. There is an expectation for us to be entirely quiet and private about what we believe.

I want to suggest an alternative. The answer to “bad zeal” is not the absence of zeal. The answer to “bad zeal” is “good zeal”—what I would term “biblical zeal”. I say this because the Bible actually commands our zeal. The apostle Paul says to the Romans, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).

The Greek word, translated “keep“, literally means “to guard“. What is implied here is that every follower of Jesus begins with zeal—zeal for the Lord and all that He has done for us. We begin with zeal for the mission, and all that we are required to do. But it appears that there are things that threaten our zeal, and so we must “guard” it.

I appreciate Paul’s imperative while living in an age where there is pressure—sometimes even the expectation—that we will give up our zeal.

As I seek to guard my zeal from those who would have me give it up, I am challenged to examine the nature of my zeal. Because as I look at Paul’s command in context I see a particular kind of zeal being described.

The imperatives which surround the call to zeal are marked by selflessness. Paul begins with a challenge to love with sincerity (12:9). He goes on to encourage devotion to others, to the extent that we would honour the needs of others above our own (12:10). Paul exhorts Christians to be marked by joy and to be patient in affliction, while remaining faithful in prayer (12:12). Paul goes on to encourage generosity and hospitality (12:13).

Keep reading and you’ll find imperatives for humility, empathy, and harmony (12:14, 15). There is a call to integrity (12:17) and a call to peace (12:18-20), ending with the command: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).

As I consider the placement of the command for me to be zealous, I cannot help but connect that command with the traits which surround it.

The answer to “bad zeal” is not the absence of zeal. The answer to “bad zeal” is biblical zeal.

Biblical zeal loves sincerely.
Biblical zeal acts humbly.
Biblical zeal serves joyfully.
Biblical zeal endures patiently.
Biblical zeal prays faithfully.
Biblical zeal gives generously.
Biblical zeal pursues peace.

Our world bears the scars of misplaced zeal. Biblical zeal is different. Biblical zeal promotes healing and transformation.

Don’t be shy about pursuing biblical zeal!

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“Be Zealous”, based on Romans 12, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, September 11, 2011.

10 Books That Changed My Life

Christian Theology WorksDuring my years at Ridley College, and during my time at the University of Western Ontario (beginning as an English major), I had the opportunity to read a wide variety of excellent novels. Particularly memorable were Wuthering Heights, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Frankenstein (I had a Sci-Fi bent). As good as these books were, none of them changed me.

As I set out below the 10 Christian books which did have a profound affect upon me, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all “Christian” books transform and all “secular” books fail to transform. I don’t subscribe to that. I love how science fiction books stretch my imagination and challenge me to think outside of the box. I have read “secular” books that have elicited powerful emotions from me. I have also read Christian books that were a complete bore, and some which were utter nonsense. But, at the end of the day, as I consider the books (outside of the Bible) which had the biggest impact on me, it was this group of 10–all of which happened to be written for the benefit of followers of Jesus.

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My good friend, Brian K. Smith, introduced me to this book, and John MacArthur, in 1991 when I was a freshman in University. Having become a Christian as a teenager, I struggled to live that out consistently. This book challenged me by sensibly laying out what Jesus requires from His followers. Having understood that Jesus was my Saviour from sin, this book cemented in my mind the necessity of Jesus also being my Lord and Master. My Christian walk has never been the same after reading this compelling book.

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Before I even knew what an Arminian was, I was one. I imagined that I was the master of my own destiny. I reckoned that the faith I had in Jesus originated with me. It was again during my University (undergrad) years when a friend’s father encouraged me to read this book. I might say that Pink’s book was the sandpaper that prepared the surface of my heart so that the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereignty (as revealed in the Scriptures) might stick. Pink boldly lays before the reader two alternatives: “God must either rule, or be ruled; sway, or be swayed; accomplish His will, or be thwarted by His creatures.”

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I am certain that during my undergrad years of University I read more Christian theology / lifestyle books than I did University textbooks. Jerry Bridges’ book was one that I read a couple of times during those years. I had been lukewarm in my faith for too long. The gap between what I believed and how I behaved was too big. Bridge’s book set me on the path to pursuing holiness. To keep this from becoming a legalistic pursuit, I strongly recommend following this work with Bridge’s Transforming Grace, which I read in 1993.

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If there was ever a book that I wished I had read before graduating from seminary, it is this one. It wasn’t until I was in my second charge as a Presbyterian Pastor that I was introduced to this excellent work. Recommended to me at a conference at Alistair Begg’s church, Lectures To My Students helped me to recalibrate my personal walk with Christ in a way that it overflows into the ministry entrusted to me. Before reading this work, I fear that I had compartmentalized my private faith from my public faith. A must read for every pastor and soon-to-be pastor.

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This is another work that I picked up at the recommendation of Alistair Begg. In my mind, this is the best book ever written on preaching. Why do I include it in a list of the books that helped “change my life”? Because one of the strengths of this work is Lloyd-Jones’ understanding that preaching and the preacher can’t be separated. The one inevitably affects the other. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The preacher’s first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon.”

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I think it was 1999 when I first heard John Piper preach at Moody Pastors Conference. I’ll never forget the main point of his message: “Stop serving Jesus…as if He needed you!” Piper was addressing then, and does so thoroughly in this book, our tendency to want to “pay God back” for the grace we receive in Jesus. Piper makes the compelling argument that we cannot live the Christian life today fuelled by yesterday’s grace. We need grace today! Furthermore, we need grace in the future in order to do that which we are called to do.

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Having come to accept the doctrines of grace, as revealed in the Scriptures and explained by the Reformers, what remained for me was to understand how God’s sovereignty affects every aspect of our everyday life in a most positive way. Hearing R.C. Sproul speak on this over a weekend of lectures at a Ligonier Conference in Toronto, and reading this work, hugely advanced my understanding of God’s sovereignty and what it means for Him to work “all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28). One of my favourite quotes from the book: ”The Providence of God is our fortress, our shield, and our very great reward. It is what provides courage and perseverance for His saints.”

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The turning point within my first pastoral charge (1998-2002) was hearing Piper preach at Moody, and reading this book. I feel like there is a huge difference between the Bryn MacPhail who pastored and preached before reading this book, and the Bryn MacPhail who has laboured since, guided by the compelling principle that “God is most glorified in me, when I am most satisfied in Him.” Members of my congregation at the time even noted the change in my preaching, which had shifted to a new focus: magnifying the supremacy of Jesus in all things. The other distinguishing mark was learning to labour as a delight rather than as a duty. I imagine that this book makes a lot of Christians’ Top 10 lists.

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I read Crazy Love in 2009, in the final year of my pastoral charge in Toronto. This book challenged and changed me on so many levels I don’t even know where to start. Using this space for any kind of review won’t do this book justice. You’ll have to read it for yourself. Disclaimer: This book will make you squirm. I highly recommend the accompanying video curriculum (which I have done with 4 groups in the last 2 years). Chan has a endearing, sensible, manner to him which helps immensely as he lays out some intense biblical principles for us to apply. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

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I was 19 years old when I first read the Institutes. If that sounds young, remember that Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes in his mid 20s! I confess to first reading Calvin in order to understand this mysterious doctrine of election. It’s as if I went mining for one gem, but found a myriad of gems. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once described preaching as “logic on fire”–that is exactly how I would describe Calvin’s work in the Institutes. To reduce the Institutes to a treatise on election is to entirely miss the boat. Nowhere else have I found such a rich Christology, such a profound description of the majesty of God, and such a compelling description of how the church should conduct itself. For a book loaded with complex theological statements, one of my favourite quotes from the Institutes is beautifully simple: ”Whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God.”


 

Examine The Scriptures Daily

Below is the sermon audio & the sermon notes of Bryn MacPhail. “Examine The Scriptures Daily”, based on Acts 17:10-15, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on October 10, 2010.

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We are influenced by information on a daily basis.

From the internet, from the television, from the radio, from listening to the opinions of friends and family at the lunch table—we receive and process countless messages each day from a wide variety of sources.

Needless to say, the reliability of the information we receive varies.

As we allow our minds to filter this information, by taking in what we want and dismissing what we don’t want, what we are doing is establishing our worldview—also known as our belief system.

Every person has a worldview (although admittedly some are more conscious of it than others). Every person I’ve ever met holds to a set of beliefs that governs their behaviour. And, certainly, we are entitled to believe whatever we choose.

What concerns me, however, is the origin of some of our beliefs. Since we are free to believe whatever we like, I fear that we sometimes neglect to do the hard work of determining whether the thing we are subscribing to is sensible and accurate.

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