From Paradise To Cleveland

Parkside Church Conference
Earlier this week, I traded one kind of paradise for another. I left the comfortable confines of Nassau, Bahamas, and flew North to Cleveland, Ohio, in order to attend Alistair Begg’s 2011 Basics Conference. This is a journey I have done 9 out of the last 10 years, but it is the first time I’ve attended this conference since becoming the pastor of St. Andrew’s Kirk in Nassau.

Now, with all due respect to Cleveland, the notion that I visited another kind of paradise had nothing to do with the actual city of Cleveland. No, I found a slice of paradise in the suburbs, Chagrin Falls, within a church community called Parkside.

What do we do at this conference? In a word, we worship. We go back to the basics of the Christian faith. We sing together, we pray together, we give attention to the Scriptures together, and we eat and fellowship together. Pretty ordinary stuff on the one hand, and yet I found our experience of these basic things to be nothing short of extraordinary. This year was no different than previous years–amid our time of singing, I marveled at how compelling the environment was. I imagined our gathering as a microcosm of what heaven will be like–vibrant worship marked by profound joy, genuine humility, and unity.

The speakers, Alistair Begg, John Dickson, and Rico Tice, were as insightful as they were inspirational. On the theme of “Doing The Work Of An Evangelist”, Rico Tice challenged us to “help create disciple-making disciples of Christ”, reminding us that we are not to be a “reservoir”, but a “river”.

All of the speakers sounded a similar note regarding the manner in which we convey the Gospel. The Gospel itself should set the tone for our delivery–we concern ourselves, not with status, but with service. We give up security in favour of suffering. Our obsession should not be with obtaining a crown, but with shouldering a cross.

John Dickson wondered whether some of the difficulties that congregations experience has to do with the posture of that local congregation. Dickson suggested that some congregations have taken such a pronounced posture of admonition that they have ceased to have a posture of mission. As a result, we have antagonized in places where we should have been engaged in a loving rescue.

Admonition, of course, has its place–but only after mission has done its work. To put it another way, obliging others to obey a list of commands is not our prerequisite work. Our primary work is to magnify the majesty of Jesus. And this work is advanced by a humble proclamation, and a lifestyle that is marked by self-less, loving, service.

Depending on how it is described–spending all day, for 3 days, in a church building listening to sermons and singing alongside 800+ pastors may not seem like the most exciting way to spend half of a week. What I hope I’ve conveyed, however, is that aspiring to make Jesus Christ the main thing, along with 800+ other people, gives a sweet foretaste of heaven’s paradise.

In one sense, Nassau, Bahamas, is already a paradise. But I want to be a part of that which makes Nassau, Bahamas, like paradise in the biblical sense.

Friend, whatever your context, help transform where you are into what will feel for others as a preview of heavenly paradise.

Your Online Persona

Persona. The role that one assumes or displays in public or society; one’s public image or personality, as distinguished from the inner self.

To varying degrees, every person I have ever met conveys a persona. Social networks serve to magnify this reality. We present ourselves to others, not falsely, but selectively. Our persona is not usually marked by adding things which aren’t there, but by omitting things which are there.

Example: My wife snaps a bunch of photos during our family outing and is about to post them on facebook. I notice a pic of me with my mouth full of food–I look awful, and so I plead with my wife to leave the picture out. Perhaps there is another pic where I look a bit grumpy; I ask her to leave that one out too. Why? Because I don’t want to present myself to others as a grumpy guy who eats too much–that’s not the persona I want to convey.

The same goes for our Twitter/Facebook status.  I could write: “Today was miserable. Conflict at work. Confusion at home.” But I don’t. I’m not comfortable conveying a negative persona. Instead I write something much more benign like, “Don’t rub your eyes after eating hot chicken wings. Looking forward to hockey playoffs.

I think we all get that the persona we present to the world online is a bit sanitized. It’s the unwritten rule of tweeting, facebooking, and blogging to leave some of the ugly stuff out. If we’re experiencing a personal meltdown, that’s not something we’re going to share with our online community. As a result, what we’re left presenting is our online persona.

For those of us who are pastors, we tend to create a similar persona for the congregations we serve. We don’t tweet about the blow up at the annual general meeting. Nor do we post about record lows in Sunday attendance. We’re not going to blog about the conflict within the Board of Managers. Why? Because we’re dishonest? No. Because we have a certain persona we want to convey. We have an image in mind of what we want our congregation to look like, and we want to keep that in tact.

What got me thinking about this was a post from a well respected pastor, Perry Noble. Perry, like many of us, utilizes Twitter to keep people informed about what is going on in his congregation. Perry strikes me as a very upbeat, energetic, and positive guy–things I aspire to! But I gather that some of his 33,000+ Twitter followers were growing weary of hearing about all of the “epic” things going on where Perry pastors. In reply, Perry posted on his blog today, “I’m Sorry Your Church Is So Normal” (I’ll let you read it for yourself).

It’s possible that some of these critical Twitter followers are simply colleagues who are jealous of the amazing growth and progress that Perry is experiencing within his congregation. But it’s also possible, that some of the criticism of Perry is a genuine appeal for a less sanitized persona. Perhaps, the criticism comes from individuals who feel that they are only receiving half of the story.

I am taking the possibility of the latter to heart. I’m not sure that any of us are capable of altogether dropping our online persona, but I do think we might be able to offer a more balanced one.

I do experience personal and professional challenges. And while it is not always appropriate or helpful to share those challenges online, I am mindful that only reporting the “wins” isn’t appropriate either.

The question isn’t then, whether or not we have an online persona. The question is “How close is the persona to the real thing?” How authentic is our online persona?

I have some work to do on this. I want to close the gap.

I went wading through Proverbs today looking for some help and inspiration. You won’t find the word “authentic” in the Book of Proverbs, but honesty is a steady theme there. My favourite find? Proverbs 24:26: “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.”

Consider yourself kissed.

Partying With Jesus

Below is the sermon audio & the sermon notes of Bryn MacPhail. “Inviting Jesus To The Party”, based on John 2:1-11, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on January 23, 2011.

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There are so many good reasons to attend a Sunday service; there are so many noble reasons for joining a local congregation, and yet I fear that it is possible to miss, or to neglect, our main reason for coming: Jesus Christ.

I don’t think it is enough to say that our gathering is occasioned by Christ, He must be the substance of our gathering—He must be the centerpiece of everything that takes place within these walls.

The truth is, we can find other venues to make friends. We can find other venues to express our ethical values. And we can find other venues to enrich our children’s lives.

We don’t even need church in order to observe a lovely ceremony or to enjoy beautiful music. But we do need the church if we are to engage Jesus Christ according to God’s design.

What is unique about our gathering is the emphasis we place on Jesus.

And, I reckon that, where such an emphasis is lacking, we would quickly descend into being less than what God has called the church to be.

If I were to ask you this morning, ‘Do you desire St. Andrew’s Kirk to be blessed by God?’, I’d like to think that all of you would answer in the affirmative.

This should lead us to some follow-up questions: How do we access God’s blessing? Are there some things we need to do, are there some things we need to avoid, in order to experience God’s ongoing favour?

I submit to you that the answers to these questions are found in this morning’s text.

The setting is a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and Jesus was also invited, and His disciples, to the wedding (2:2).

We note, first of all that Jesus was invited to a wedding—not as the local cleric, not in any official capacity, but Jesus is invited as a guest.

The role of Jesus changes, however, when one of the worst things imaginable happens at the reception: they run out of wine!

The mother of Jesus, presumably familiar with the special abilities of her child, commissions her son to remedy the problem.

It appears in our English translation that Jesus is responding harshly to His mother, but His words are not harsh sounding in the original Greek.

This would explain why Jesus ultimately complied. Jesus was reluctant, to be sure, but He nonetheless proceeds to turn water into wine.

From this account we are able to glean three principles for our edification.

1) Invite Jesus to the party.
2) Secondly, whatever Jesus says to do, do it.
3) And thirdly, expect great blessing when the instructions of Jesus are followed.

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Getting The Message Out

Below is the sermon audio & the sermon notes of Bryn MacPhail. “Look, The Lamb Of God”, based on John 1:19-34, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on January 16, 2011.

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In ancient days, before there was facebook, email, or text messaging, there were heralds.

Traveling dignitaries sent heralds ahead of them to announce their coming and to prepare the way for their visit.

John the Baptist was such a person—appointed by God to prepare the way for the King of Israel.

My understanding is that a herald typically traveled with such an impressive caravan, and was adorned in such extravagant apparel, that when they descended upon a town they were often mistakenly thought to be the king.

John the Baptist found himself in a similar situation in that the religious leaders of the day wondered whether he might be the Messiah foretold long ago by the prophets.

It is curious that such an inquiry would be made given that there was nothing outwardly attractive about John the Baptist.

John did not dress in robes of silk, but rather, Mark’s Gospel tells us that he “was clothed with camel’s hair” (Mk. 1:6). John the Baptist, who was crudely dressed, also had an unusual diet, consisting of “locusts and wild honey” (Mk. 1:7).

What was it then? What prompted the religious leaders to seek John out and to ask him if he was ‘the Christ’? Was it John’s ability to endear himself to people?

Certainly not! Do you remember John’s sermon introduction, recorded by Luke? John the Baptist begins his sermon with the words, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Lk. 3:7).

John’s clothing was crude, his diet was strange, and his message was harsh . . . and yet, there was something about this man that caused others to wonder if he might be the promised king of the Jews.

Responding to the inquiry, John the Baptist demonstrates for our edification a number of things.

1) First, in John the Baptist, we see the marks of a faithful messenger of God.
2) Secondly, we hear from John the marks of the central message from God.
3) And thirdly, as we survey John the Baptist’s ministry approach elsewhere, we note the urgency of making the central message known.

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Live Accordingly

Below is the sermon audio & the sermon notes of Bryn MacPhail. “Live Accordingly”, based on John 1:1-14, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on January 9, 2011.

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I wouldn’t want anyone to think that your busyness in Christian things will automatically translate into spiritual growth.

In order for us to experience spiritual transformation, we need something bigger than duty to motivate us. What we need is for our service to be motivated by a sincere love and affection for God.

This is at the heart of what Christianity is all about. Christianity is not a religious ladder that we climb, but rather it is a relationship that we engage in.

And what we observe throughout the Scriptures is that our relationship with God is supposed to be the grand priority of our life.

I don’t have to examine my own life for very long to see that I have much work to be done in this area. It may seem strange for you to hear that from someone who makes his living by delivering God’s Word. But this is precisely how I know that a person can be extremely busy doing things for Christ’s church and yet experience little spiritual growth. I’ve been there!

Busyness, motivated by duty, is not the answer. It is the orientation of our heart that sets the trajectory of our spiritual progress.

Do you remember Jesus’ answer to the question of which was the most important commandment?

Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk. 12:30).

Elsewhere, Jesus instructs us, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt. 6:33).

It is a common thing to read in the Scriptures about the supreme priority of God and His kingdom.

But my reality, and perhaps your reality, is this ongoing struggle to prioritize God above all else. Our tendency, I’m afraid, is to take our relationship with God for granted.

My aim this morning is not to make you feel badly. My aim is to help us reshape our priorities.

To this end, there are 3 considerations I would like us to train our mind with:

1) Consider the nature of Jesus and His status
2) Consider our status once we’ve received Jesus
3) Consider the benefits of making our relationship with Jesus our supreme priority

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