Work Together

Have you ever found yourself saying to a colleague, or partner, “Never mind, I will do it myself”?

Many of us have learned the hard way that delegation doesn’t always work. And working as a team isn’t always an easy alternative either. Many of us know, first hand, the “too many chefs in the kitchen” principle. Sometimes it’s just easier to “fly solo”.

I am well acquainted with the temptation to work alone (and often give into to it), but this temptation must be resisted. The kind of work that God has ordained for His people is designed to be completed by a group.

The apostle Paul declares that we “are the body of Christ, and each one of (us) is a part of it” (1Cor. 12:27). Some of us are the “eyes”, some the “ears”, some the “hands”, some the “feet” (1Cor. 12:14-26). Individually, none of us are the body. We are parts. Only together can we be “the body of Christ”.

I must resist every inclination to be “a lone ranger”. A do-it-yourself attitude may work with your home renovation, but it will not work with the church’s transformation of a community. Accordingly, we can do far more together than we can do on our own. God’s designed it this way.

Nearly, 2,500 years ago, Nehemiah came to a point where he had to enlist others in order to succeed with his vision to rebuild Jerusalem. He had done so much on his own. He prayed. He planned. He acquired all the necessary documents and permissions to travel and begin rebuilding. But, eventually, Nehemiah had to present his vision to others because what was required was beyond him.

In Nehemiah 2:17ff, we read about that presentation. The response of the people is so immediate and so positive that we risk missing the profundity of the response. It’s not as if Nehemiah was presenting to a bunch of people with nothing better to do. This was an agricultural society—if you weren’t working, you weren’t eating.

These folks were up to their eyeballs with things to do. Signing on to Nehemiah’s vision would require putting some very important things on hold. Furthermore, many of these people were no longer even living in Jerusalem. Signing on would mean significant time away from home.

In short, working together would require sacrifice. And yet, there is no sign of hesitation. The immediate response is “‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work” (Neh. 2:18).

There is a sense in which the things we are called to today are beyond us, just as rebuilding Jerusalem was beyond Nehemiah’s individual abilities. To maximize our growth in Christ-likeness, to most effectively spread the Gospel, to facilitate kingdom advancement and community transformation, we need one another.

We were never meant to do this Christianity thing on our own. The faith given to us it not reducible to a “Jesus and me” equation. We are called to be a part within a body. We are called to play a particular position on a team.

Nehemiah understood this and succeeded. Jerusalem was rebuilt on the back of a team whose members were committed to God and to one another.

My hope and prayer is that today’s Church will mirror that wisdom and resolve. Accordingly, I urge you: Go find your position. Do your part. Work together.

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“Implementing A Vision Together”, based on Nehemiah 2:11-20, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 9, 2011.

God’s Plan and Good Planning

Have you ever wished for the ability to change another person’s mind? Think of the implications if we possessed such a power. When applying for a new job, you could compel the employer to hire you on the spot. The mistreated child in the playground could tame the bully. The devoted baseball fan could force the manager to make a substitution for the struggling pitcher. The churchgoer could cause the the minister to select their favourite hymns to sing each Sunday.

Ah, but such a power will never rest with us.

And yet, the ability to compel behaviour is not beyond the God of this Universe. King Solomon writes in Proverbs 21, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).

The testimony of Scripture is that God possesses the ability to affect the way we think and act. Accordingly, we need to make some qualifications when we use the phrase “free will”.

There is no doubt that we possess a will. By our own volition we move about and do all sorts of things. We make real choices many times a day, every day of our lives. But to say that this will of ours is “free” of any overriding force does not line up with what the Bible says.

The Lord God of this Universe has the ability to trump our will and to even change our will. This is part of what it means for God to be all-powerful.

I’m not suggesting that we are robots operating according to a predefined program. Nor do I mean to suggest that we are like puppets who are being animated by a kind of cosmic puppet-master. I simply want us to be reminded that our will does not always carry the day (and this is a good thing!). We need to remember that “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.

In light of this, what do you do when trouble arises? What do you do when the land of your ancestors is in ruins? What do you do when the people you love are in great distress? What do you do when you are powerless to change your predicament?

You pray.

You petition the great Heart-Changer to take up your cause.

This is precisely what Nehemiah does when confronted by the devastation in Jerusalem. Nehemiah prays, “When I serve the king his wine today, make him pleased with me and have him do what I ask” (Neh. 1:11).

If we track with Nehemiah we see that he is convinced of God’s power to change King Artaxerxes’ heart, but Nehemiah also understands the need to participate in the plan of God.

In other words, God’s plan does not preclude good planning.

Many Christians make the mistake of emphasizing one of these aspects over the other. Some Christians are so convinced of God’s sovereignty over all things, that they mistakenly retreat to a position of total inactivity. By contrast, there are others who immerse themselves in planning and strategizing without giving much thought to how God might enter into the equation.

Nehemiah avoids both of these extremes. He understands that God has a plan, and that prayer helps us to get in step with that plan. Nehemiah also understands the value of good planning. Nehemiah waits 4 months before approaching the king and asking for a leave of absence and a series of letters to facilitate his travel and acquisition of resources.

We read on and see that the king gave Nehemiah more than what he asked for. Nehemiah got the leave of absence. He got the letters for safe travel. He got requisitions for lumber, and he also got a small army given to him!

Why was the king so gracious? Why did the king change his policy and help Nehemiah to such a degree?

Yes, indeed, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.

Nehemiah recognized this and so he writes for our edification, “God was good to me, and the king did everything I asked” (Neh. 2:8).

I don’t know your particular predicament, but God does. You may feel that you are powerless to change your predicament, but you belong to a God who is all-powerful.

Pray to the great Heart-Changer and seek to connect to His plan. And as you wait for His answer, I encourage you to engage in good planning.

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“God’s Plan and Good Planning”, based on Nehemiah 2:1-10, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 2, 2011.

My Job Has Changed

Urban Renewal CentreMy focus in ministry has changed over the past year. I didn’t mean for it to. I’m not even sure how to explain it. My theology is pretty much the same, so why is the application of my theology changing so dramatically?

For the first 13 years of ordained ministry, I was consumed with the work that took place within the walls of the local church I was called to. I was like a manager seeking to maintain peace and order within the institution. Today, I find myself consumed by the work which lies outside the walls of the local church I am called to. I feel like a hybrid between a local church pastor and a missionary.

Some of my colleagues would say that I’ve moved from an “attractional” ministry model to a “missional” one. That might be the best explanation. For the sake of those who do not recognize those terms, an “attractional” ministry sets itself up in such a way as to become attractive to those who might be looking for a church home. In the attractional model, ministry is largely fixed in a particular location while hoping to draw others in. The “missional” model, by contrast, is marked by sending (see John 20:21). Members of the local church are encouraged to go (see Matthew 28:19) and be difference makers in their respective communities.

I don’t know that there was a defining moment that pushed me into the missional mindset. Nor can I point to a meeting or a decision that rendered St. Andrew’s Kirk a missional church. But as I write this, it has become obvious that the shift has already happened. We’re meaningfully involved as a primary partner for the Bain & Grant’s Town Urban Renewal Centre. We have a regular presence at the Ranfurly Homes for Children. We’re in discussion with a nearby high school about how we can help mentor teens who are struggling. Every Sunday we pay for a bus to go through the neighbourhood to pick up children who have no other way to get to church.

The number of Kirk members who are involved in these efforts is growing at a rapid pace. The resources being expended beyond our walls is increasing. I discern our ministry posture becoming joyfully missional.

One of the other really neat things I have discerned in this ministry shift is that the ministry within our walls is being enhanced.

I know—it sounds counter-intuitive to say that focussing ministry outside the walls of the church is the key to improving ministry within the walls of the church, but that’s exactly what I perceive to be happening.

This approach may be counter-intuitive, but it’s biblical. Jesus told us to “Go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:19) and explained that we are to be His “witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

I’m grateful to be able to say that I think we might be tasting some of the blessing described in Isaiah 58, where the Lord says,

“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isa. 58:10, 11).

I’m a bit embarrassed by how long it took for me to embrace this ministry emphasis. And I get the sense that we’ve only just begun. Being missional can’t be reduced to a few strategic initiatives. Being missional, I suspect, is something we become and will grow in as we give ourselves to Jesus and His priorities. It’s entirely possible then, that my job will continue to change.

What Kind Of Person Talks To Others About Jesus?

Sharing Your Faith In JesusThe apostle Paul asks the question, “How can they hear (the Gospel) without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14).

I get that.

I believe that.

My livelihood as a pastor is based in part on this principle—that people are supposed to talk to other people about Jesus.

What I’m sometimes uncomfortable with is the how, and the by whom, part. While I concede that every follower of Jesus ought to be ready to share the reason for their faith in Jesus (1Pet. 3:15), I suspect that there are some who are not the least bit ready but are sharing anyways.

I liken sharing the Gospel to preparing a meal on a stove–with some experience in the kitchen, some basic instruction on food preparation, and with careful attention, we gain the capacity to deliver an outstanding meal for others to enjoy. Without these things, we run the risk of ruining the food—or worse, possibly setting the kitchen on fire in the process. This is why I don’t allow my 9-year-old daughter to cook dinner without close supervision.

I don’t mean to sound unkind or harsh, but I worry that some well-meaning Christians have done injury to the Gospel by the manner in which they conveyed Jesus to others. I suspect this, in part, because I have observed this. But I also say this reflecting back a number of years and remembering my own manner as I attempted to share the reason for my own faith. Yes, I do realize that “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2Cor. 4:7), but I worry that we often lack the humility that should accompany our position as “clay jars”.

As I recently closed out a short message series, entitled, “Spread The News”, my concern focused on the qualities of the person who is sharing their faith in Jesus. My text was 1Peter 3:8-17 and my conclusion was that two particular marks are necessary for the evangelist:

1) Mindful of the needs of others

2) Intently focused on the Lord Jesus Christ

The danger is to overexpose on one of these marks while neglecting the other. We need to be marked by both.

Before Peter urges us to prepare our defense of the Gospel, he first exhorts us to “live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble” (1Pet. 3:8). It’s as if Peter is telling us that our success in promoting the Gospel is linked to our capacity for relational health.

Theologian, Edmund Clowney, argues that the Greek translated “be sympathetic” means to “enter into the other’s needs and concerns”. The call to “be compassionate” is along those exact lines. You could say that compassion is sympathy in action. Sympathy feels for others. Conmpassion acts for others.

So, how are we going to get there? Because my default, as much as I’d like it to be, is not the well-being of others. What’s going to help me to be more sympathetic and compassionate?

Peter’s answer: Humility.

This makes perfect sense. In order to live in harmony with others, I not only need to increase my concern for the needs of others, but I also need to decrease the attention I give to my own needs.

In addition to being mindful of the needs of others, we also need to have an intent focus on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter exhorts us accordingly in 3:15, “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” I think Peter realizes that we don’t always assign Jesus to an appropriate place and priority in our life.

I often hear people say, “You’re in my heart”, or “She is close to my heart”. That is saying something significant. Peter wants Jesus to be assigned to our heart—but not simply as someone we love deeply, not simply in a place with dear friends and family—Peter says “in your hearts set apart Christ as LORD.

Jesus is not simply to be “close” to my heart—He is to be the Master of my heart.

As I try and connect what is going on in my heart with what I am required to say, I am reminded of what Jesus has said: “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Could it be, that as I think about talking to others about Jesus, my biggest burden is not to get my speech right, but to get my heart right?

What kind of person talks to others about Jesus?

We need to set Christ apart in our heart as Lord, and we need to care more for the needs of others than we do for our own.

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“The Labourers Of Mission”, based on 1Peter 3:8-17, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, August 14, 2011.

Preferring Church Over Jesus

The letter to the Church in Ephesus, recorded in Revelation 2:1-7, captures my attention in that it describes a gathering of people who appear to care more about their church activities than they do about their relationship with Jesus.

The letter begins well. We are pleased to read that the Lord Jesus Christ perceives that many good things are happening at the Church in Ephesus. The commendation given to them by Christ is quite an impressive one.

I know your deeds”, Jesus tells them (Rev. 2:2).

This appears to be a busy congregation. This is not a congregation that merely gathers for an hour on Sunday morning and then scatters—the Ephesian Christians are accomplishing things. They are like a congregation in our day that has a vibrant Sunday School and a variety a mid-week programs. I suspect that the Ephesians are attentive to the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Jesus goes on to commend them, “I know . . . your toil”.

That is to say, ‘I recognize the effort required in your deeds.’ The Greek word for toil implies a loss of strength; or a weariness that results from the work. Apparently, the kind of deeds being carried out in the Church at Ephesus required significant energy. The work being done was not a nominal work. These were the kind of people who could be counted on to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Jesus commends them further, “I know . . . your perseverance”, He tells them.

The work of the church in Ephesus was not a short-term venture. This congregation is seeing their work through to conclusion. There don’t appear to be any ‘quitters’ in the Church at Ephesus. Evidently, the people who had signed up to do particular tasks were staying with their tasks.

If the commendation of the Church at Ephesus stopped here I would be sufficiently impressed, and yet, Jesus goes on: “I know . . . that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2).

That the congregation in Ephesus is unwilling to “endure evil men” points to their integrity. This is a morally upright group of people. We also learn that they are a discerning group of people. The Church at Ephesus had the ability to identify imposters—people who presented themselves as apostles, but were not.

And then, after all of that—after saying all of those positive things about the Christians in Ephesus, we read what no church ever wants to hear from our Lord:

BUT

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4).

The Lord Jesus Christ perceives many good things about the Church at Ephesus, but He also perceives that there is something fundamentally lacking with them—the people have forgotten that which is most vital: a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

We can be sure that this is no little shortcoming based on the language employed by Christ. The element of loving Christ is so critical that the diminished expression of this love causes Christ to say that He has something “against” the congregation at Ephesus.

This is severe. If someone approaches you and says, ‘I have something against you’—that’s serious. So when Christ tells the congregation in Ephesus that He has something “against” them, my attention is sufficiently arrested. My attention is arrested, in part, because of the severity of the statement, but it is also arrested because I suspect these words apply to more congregations than we could probably number.

And, I suspect there are at least occasions when these words of our Lord apply to you and to me . . . “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

The notion that you have diminished your love for Christ need not cause you to altogether despair. It brings me great relief to see that Jesus follows His severe words with an obtainable prescription. Though Christ be against us when our love departs, He prescribes for us a course that will return us to a right relationship with Him.

Christ prescribes for the people of Ephesus, and He prescribes for all who have wandered from the love of Christ, “Remember” . . . “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (2:5).

What is implied in this prescription is the notion that our love had a distinct character when we began with Christ. I know mine did. I remember how I felt when I first comprehended that Christ died for me on the cross and that, in Him, I had found forgiveness for all my sins. I remember how inflamed my love for Christ was at the thought that He had become my Saviour, my Lord, and my friend.

Now, remember that each for yourselves. Did you have such a day? Was there a time when your love for Christ was such that you longed to pray to Him; a time when the prospect of gathering with His people on Sunday morning excited your very soul?

If there was such a time, remember it. Bring to mind those thoughts that overflowed into loving devotion.

If there was such a time when loving Christ was your first priority, if there was a time when Christ was the most important thing about you, it will also be helpful to ask yourself: “What has happened? Why is Christ less than that now?”

I agree with Charles Spurgeon, who asserts that our love grows cold when we neglect communion with Christ (not talking about the Lord’s Supper). Spurgeon is referring specifically to our dealings with Christ in prayer and our dealings with Christ as we read the Scriptures. Spurgeon goes on to say, ‘We shall never love Christ much (unless) we live near Him.’

Jesus’ call to “repent” (a word which means “to turn around”) then, is a call to us who are far off, to come near again. It is a call to us who have grown cold in our prayers, to return to fervent prayer. The call to repent is to us who have regarded the words of Scripture as bitter, to once again reckon them to be “sweeter than honey” (Ps. 119:103).

This is the prescription of Jesus Christ to all those who have left their first love.

And lest anyone think that a return to Christ is unnecessary, He finishes His message to the Ephesians with strong words of persuasion, “I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent . . . (but) to him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (2:5, 7).

In other words, this is a matter of life and death. The punishment threatened here is corporate—the removal of the “lampstand” signifies the removal of light and life from the local congregation.

What is your local congregation like? Does your congregation run excellent programs? Does it serve the poor? Do your people exert themselves for the Gospel? Is your congregation marked by moral integrity? But, of course, the Church in Ephesus was marked by such things.

It appears that we are not going to be judged according to how busy we are. It appears that we are not going to be evaluated according to whether we accomplish the items listed in our mission statement.

The most critical point is whether or not Jesus Christ is our first love.

Jesus doesn’t simply want us to love Him a lot. He wants us to love Him first.

I’m challenged by that. But I want that—for myself, for my family, for my congregation, and for you.

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“Recovering First Love”, based on Revelation 2:1-7, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 26, 2011.