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.

In Jesus’ Name We Pray

Most of the prayers I’ve ever prayed end with the words: “In Jesus’ name. Amen.” I hear others ending their prayers in the same manner. Why do we do this?

We do this because Jesus has instructed His followers to pray in His name. For example, in John 14:13,14, Jesus says, “whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.

Here we have a compelling reason to pray in a particular manner. But surely Jesus intends for more than us tagging the end of our prayers with a catch phrase. What, precisely, does it mean to pray “in Jesus’ name”?

A look at the context of John 14 provides us with some clues. The context to praying in Jesus’ name is Jesus announcing His departure to His disciples. Jesus begins to speak of His departure in chapter 13, verse 33 by saying, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” He repeats this instruction three verses later, “Where I go, you cannot follow Me” (13:36). Jesus then goes on to say in verses 2 and 3 of chapter 14 that, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again“.

The context of Jesus’ promises to His disciples is His departure from them.

The disciples, we are not surprised to read, are unsettled by this news. Both Peter and Thomas ask Jesus, “Lord, where are You going?” (13:36; 14:5). The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. They were committed to following Him. They loved Him. But now, Jesus explains to them, He has to go away.

Aware of their anxiety, Jesus begins to give them reasons to be encouraged. The first thing Jesus does to comfort them is He reminds the disciples of who He is. Jesus reminds them, “I am in the Father, and the Father in Me” (14:11). Because Jesus and God the Father are One, the disciples must understand that the departure of Jesus will only be temporary–“I will come again” (14:3) is the promise of Jesus.

The second thing Jesus does to comfort the disciples is that He tells the disciples what they are capable of. “Truly, truly” Jesus says to them, “greater things than these shall (you) do; because I go to the Father” (14:12).

The disciples had witnessed the miracles of Jesus. They had, no doubt, witnessed the conversion of a great many people as a result of His teaching. And now Jesus was promising that His departure would enable the disciples to do “greater things” than Him. Not greater in kind, but greater in scope.

Jesus could only heal, visit, and preach to so many people. The geographic area in which Jesus ministered was relatively small. But with the departure of Jesus, the disciples would be commissioned, empowered, and expected to take the gospel to every nation in the world (Mt.28:19).

The third thing Jesus says to His disciples is that He promises them answered prayer–“whatever you ask in My name, that will I do“.

My only caution as we seek to understand these words is that we not isolate the words “whatever” and “anything” from the rest of the sentence. Jesus does not say, “Whatever you ask for, I will give you.” Nor does He say, “I will give you anything you ask for.” No—Jesus says He will give us “whatever we ask for in (His) name.

I fear that many Christians today misinterpret this instruction. Many Christians treat the phrase “in Jesus’ name” as if it were some magical incantation to get whatever we want in prayer. But can you imagine the implications if this were really the case? If praying in Jesus’ name was some magical incantation that forced God’s hand, can you imagine what would be going on in heaven when we prayed?

You would have someone praying, ‘God, I need you to do this thing for me…in Jesus’ name’, and then God would say, ‘Oh no! They said the magic phrase! This is going to mess up everything we are trying to do, and now we have to answer this prayer.’

Friends, prayer is not magic. And we do not get to assume the role of the Sovereign when we pray.

What then, does it mean to pray “in Jesus’ name”? The instruction to do something in someone’s name would have been readily understood by those Jesus was speaking to. In the 1st Century the people did not have telephones, email, or facebook. If you wanted to send a message to someone in a distant land you sent an ambassador—and the ambassador would go in your name. The ambassador, also known as a herald, would be charged with saying EXACTLY what you wanted said.

To pray in the name of Jesus then is to pray as Christ Himself would pray.

We see this principle also in John’s first epistle, chapter 5, verse 14: “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.

To pray in the name of Jesus means to pray for the things that Christ would pray for if He were among us in the flesh. This interpretation makes perfect sense in the context of Jesus’ earthly departure. Just as Jesus expects His disciples to carry on His works and mission in a manner consistent to His own, so does He expect His disciples to pray in a manner consistent to His own.

When we pray in a way that is congruent with how Jesus prayed, we can be confident about receiving a positive answer.

But let’s also be honest about the fact that we are well-acquainted with unanswered prayer. Not all of our prayers receive the immediate, affirmative, response that we are hoping for. Unanswered prayer sometimes baffles us. We often can’t comprehend why the Lord wouldn’t want to give us what we are asking for.

The Scripture does have some things to say about unanswered prayer. While some unanswered prayer may baffle our understanding, other occasions for unanswered prayer are readily explainable.

One reason for unanswered prayer that we frequently see in the Scriptures is the hypocrisy (or sin) of the one praying (see Isaiah 58, James 4:3 , 1Peter 3:7 for examples).

A second reason why our prayers might not be answered is because they are not in our best interests or in the best interests of others. As finite human beings with limited perspective we sometimes ask for things that would actually be detrimental to us in the long run. In such cases, God in His grace does not answer our prayers. C.S. Lewis went as far as to thank God for all of the unanswered prayers in his life. Lewis writes, “If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where would I be now?”(Lewis, Letters To Malcolm, 28).

A third possibility for thinking that our prayers are unanswered is that we sometimes lack the ability to see answered prayer. When God answers prayer, He often does so in a manner we wouldn’t expect and with timing we wouldn’t choose.

God does indeed answer prayer. Not always in a manner we would expect, and not always as quickly as we would hope for, but He does answer prayer. And the key for us to experience answered prayer is to pray as Jesus Himself would pray.

Thankfully, God has revealed much of His will and so we can pray for these things with confidence. We know for certain that God wants to be glorified in every situation. We know for sure that God desires for the Gospel to spread. We know that God desires His Spirit to transform individuals, congregations, and communities into the likeness of Jesus. We know that God desires to manifest His strength in our times of weakness.

Pray for these things with great confidence. Pray for these things absolutely knowing that God wants these things also. Our God is good. He is generous. And He is eager to answer our prayers when we ask in Jesus’ name.

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In Jesus’ Name We Pray, based on John 14:13,14, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Tuesday, April 5, 2011.

The Refiner’s Fire

Today I had a profound encounter with the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Last July I wrote a post referencing a man who regularly slept on the front porch of our church. I hadn’t seen my friend in many months until today when he visited my office with a heavily bandaged face and right hand.

My friend had been living and working on another island in The Bahamas when he had an accident. When lighting a fire to cook dinner, he inadvertently caused an explosion that launched him off the ground and temporarily took away his eyesight. As he recounted the story to me, the extensive burn marks on his face verified what he was saying.

At first, you could only feel sorry for the man because of what he had endured. But soon it became apparent that this fire had, in a manner, saved my friend’s life.

“I was blind, but now I see!”, he declared when entering my office. At first, I thought he was talking about his physical eyesight, but upon further reflection I think he was talking about his spiritual eyesight.

My friend was overwhelmed with emotion as he described his new perspective to me:

“I’ve been given a second chance!”

“I’m Jonah–I was swallowed, but I’ve been spit back up!”

“I’m Job–‘Though He slay me, I will hope in Him'” (Job 13:15).

My friend shared how he was now reading his Bible every day and as I read some passages to encourage him, he insisted that I write down the references for him to look up later. He also thanked me for all that I had done for him, stood up and, with tears streaming down his face, gave me a hug.

I don’t know that I did all that much for him—some meals, some clean clothes, some encouragement, but sometimes we would go for weeks without any meaningful exchange.

At the end of the day, nothing I did brought about the transformation that I was witnessing. God did this.

One of the metaphors for salvation used in the Bible is that of the refiner’s fire. Many congregations even sing a hymn by that title. Amazingly, in this instance, the Lord chose literal fire to transform and refine a man that He refused to let go.

I am overjoyed that the word of the Lord, spoken through Zechariah, now applies to a man who once slept on our porch.

I will put them into the fire;
I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’”

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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