You Need To Be Perfect (Seriously)

Just before Christmas I had the opportunity to be a guest on “The Platform”, a Bahamian talk show. Given that I’ve only lived in The Bahamas for less than two years, the hosts recognized my limitations in answering questions related to Bahamian culture and politics. Accordingly, to my delight, they asked a series of questions aimed at uncovering my theological convictions.

Providentially, I had the opportunity to explain the gospel—that is, I got to reflect on what the Scriptures say about moral perfection and how it relates to getting into heaven. I think I surprised The Platform hosts when I pointed out that Jesus commands our perfection (Matthew 5:48; Leviticus 11:45). Maybe reading that surprises you as well. The good news is that getting into heaven doesn’t hinge on your efforts to “be a good person”.

As you can imagine, a talk show interview does not offer the opportunity to be as thorough with my answer as I would like to be. A more comprehensive explanation of the Christian gospel can be found in my sermon manuscript, “The Necessity of The Law That Cannot Save“, based on Romans 3.

And, perhaps one of the best gospel explanations within a hymn is in Augustus Toplady’s, “Rock of Ages”:

Not the labours of my hands can fulfill Thy laws demands,

Could my zeal no respite know; could my tears forever flow,

All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone.

A Big Mac For Thanksgiving

McDonald's Big MacMy Canadian friends celebrated Thanksgiving more than a month ago. My American friends celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday. In The Bahamas, Thanksgiving is not an official holiday, but many here recognized and celebrated the day.

I was among those who celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday, but I did not celebrate in the traditional manner.  I didn’t watch NFL football. I didn’t travel to visit family. I didn’t eat a big turkey dinner. I had a Big Mac for dinner.

I had a Big Mac for Thanksgiving dinner and it closed off one of the most special Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve ever been a part of.

The day began packing a massive amount of canned and boxed food items into 42 large bags.

The food was donated by members and adherents at St. Andrew’s Kirk as a part of an initiative to distribute groceries to the neediest of families who live in one of the more impoverished communities in Nassau, Bain & Grant’s Town.

Because of the strong partnership that the Kirk has with the Bain & Grant’s Town Urban Renewal Centre, myself, along with another Kirk member, were driven through the neighbourhood to homes that were selected by the URC staff as housing particularly vulnerable individuals. Most were senior citizens; many were disabled persons; all were appreciative recipients of our offering of groceries.

I don’t feel comfortable describing in print some of the conditions that we came across. But I can tell you that it is a heart-wrenching experience. And while it is a delight to us, and an encouragement to those we visited, to deliver some food items, I’m acutely aware of the fact that the ongoing need massively exceeds what a bag of groceries can supply.

Once the grocery delivery was done, I traveled back to the Kirk to prepare to receive 100 children from the Bain & Grant’s Town and Farm Road Urban Renewal Centres. We were hosting Thanksgiving Dinner—McDonald’s—thanks to a generous donor.

In a few short minutes our Kirk Hall filled with 100 excited children. A few minutes later, an additional bus load arrived. McDonald’s quickly adapted and ordered 50 more meals to be delivered to accommodate a crowd that was now close to 140. McDonald’s didn’t simply drop the food off—they sent along staff to serve each child their meal. McDonald’s even provided an entertainer—an energetic man, along with his sidekick, “Charlie”, and a few hundred pieces of candy to delight the hearts of these beautiful children.

There are few sights more precious than seeing 100+ smiling children. This was a dinner I won’t soon forget. And I suspect it will be for these children a Thanksgiving to be remembered.

As I reflected this morning on the day, a verse immediately came to mind: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

First, let me say that I don’t regard my “works” to have been all that special. I did not supply the dinner for the children. The groceries came from several dozen donors. My role was little more than delivery boy during the day and custodian during the evening.

The reason why I think this verse is relevant is because I’m not sure the command to “let your let shine” is aimed at individual behaviour. In this passage, Jesus is speaking amid a very large crowd. Matthew makes a point of telling us that Jesus spoke directly to His disciples…”Let your (plural) light shine…that they may see your (plural) good works and glorify your (plural) Father who is in heaven.

Yesterday, in a community just over the hill, beyond downtown Nassau, St. Andrew’s Kirk shone a light. The good works of a particular community of people who follow Jesus made an impact.

And do you know what was the most gratifying part for me? Not too many of the recipients said, “Thank you”. Instead, what we more commonly heard was “God is good” and “To God be the glory”.

I was reminded yesterday—by the Scriptures, and by the people of Bain & Grant’s Town—that we don’t serve others in order to be thanked. We do good deeds, we serve others, with the hope that those we serve might turn and glorify their Father who is in heaven.

I was privileged to witness that happen yesterday.

I had a Big Mac for Thanksgiving dinner and it closed off one of the most special Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve ever been a part of.

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.

My 1st Nassau-versary

Nassau AnniversaryMy wife and I have been feeling quite sentimental the last few days as we consider all that has transpired in the past year. You see, today is our 1st “Nassau-versary”—one year ago today we moved from Toronto, Canada to Nassau, Bahamas.

I shared many of the details related to this transition in a post written in March 2010. This current post is intended as a kind of “Year in Review” that affords me the opportunity to say “Thank you” to those who have helped us along the way.

I’m inclined to keep this post brief having read this morning my wife’s reflection on our transition and believing that she has conveyed better than I  how we currently feel.

One year later, we feel at home.

The transition shouldn’t have been so smooth. None of us had ever lived outside of Ontario. The differences between Nassau and Toronto are too numerous to list. We left behind family, friends, and familiar culture. I left behind, not only a congregation, but a denomination. My wife gave up her Marriage and Therapy practice and transitioned with no guarantee of being able to establish a similar practice here. My 8 year-old daughter left behind the only home she has ever known and all that was to connected to it.

Somehow, in spite of these drastic changes, one year later, we feel at home.

There are many who deserve credit for this. I immediately think of my new congregation, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk. The people have been exceedingly kind toward me and my family. I am acutely aware of my flaws and my shortcomings as a pastor, and yet these shortcomings have been continually met by grace.

As I consider all of the Sessions I have worked with as a Moderator and Interim Moderator, I can say that my experience has always been largely positive. It has only been a year, but I am proud to say that my interaction with the Kirk Session here has been entirely positive. At our last meeting I explained why I hadn’t suggested that we have a Session retreat this year. My feeling was that every meeting felt like a Session retreat. I am so grateful for that.

Many Kirk members have offered hospitality to our family–taking us out for lunch, or having us over for dinner. This may be something that can be anticipated in most congregations, but it is something that I refuse to take for granted. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

There is always a danger in naming individuals while attempting to say thank you to a group, but I must. Two individuals have gone above and beyond what you might expect from any church leader. Earla Bethel and Robin Brownrigg, by every appearance, have made it their mission to help the MacPhails adapt, settle, and thrive in this new environment. I will forever remember and give thanks for their kindness to my family.

Above all else, I thank the Lord for His sovereign mercy in my life. He has controlled and managed the things that I could not. He has kept congregational conflict at bay. He has shown Himself faithful in so many ways.

I suspect that many people read a passage like Jeremiah 29:11ff and think, “I hope that holds true for me.”  It delights me to say that I have experienced the fulfillment of this promise in my transition here:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Grateful seems like too small a word to convey how I feel today on my Nassau-versary. I say that I feel at home, but I am quite open to the possibility that this might just be home.

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.