Why We Bought a House in Bergen

That’s right. We bought a house. We are as surprised as you are, but only because it seemed so far from possible. In another sense, though, we are not surprised at all. It has been the desire of ours to own property wherever we are pastoring. It has been our prayer that God would provide us with a place to live that helps us participate in the community and help to cultivate and plant and encourage the growth of the spiritual life that has already existed in this place for several generations.

Bergen is now our home, officially. Owning property is a way to make a statement that we are making a home of this place. And it reminds me of a very important aspect of pastoral ministry, as articulated by Eugene Peterson:

I enjoy reading the poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He takes a small piece of land in Kentucky, respects it, cares for it, submits himself to it just as an artist submits himself to his materials. I read Berry, and every time he speaks of “farm” and “land,” I insert “parish.” As he talks about his farm, he talks about what I’ve tried to practice in my congregation, because one of the genius aspects of pastoral work is locality.

The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” My job is simply to be there, teaching, preaching Scripture as well as I can, and being honest with them, not doing anything to interfere with what the Spirit is shaping in them. Could God be doing something that I never even thought of? Am I willing to be quiet for a day, a week, a year? Like Wendell Berry, am I willing to spend fifty years reclaiming this land? With these people? (The Contemplative Pastor, 1989, p. 11).

We praise God for his provision. He is the one who has given us this opportunity to make Bergen our home. We will be honoured if God would use our home to bless many others as we seek to participate in how the Spirit is shaping our community.

Permission to Forget My Last Sermon

A question many pastors ponder is how to preach in a way that sticks in the minds of the hearers. Preachers have shortened their messages, made them more memorable through illustrations and multi-media, and increased interactivity through dialogue in an attempt to help hearers remember what was said Sunday morning.

Jonathan Edwards helps us gain some perspective:

The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.

This is relieving to me as I prepare to preach. The goal in preaching is not to deliver a memorable message, but one that will stir the hearts of the hearers in that precise moment of delivery.

I’ve heard preaching be compared to eating. Remembering what we ate this morning is not a requirement for being nourished by the food. Regardless of our memory, the food gave us sustenance. It gave us what our bodies needed to go on living.

Similarly, the edification of preaching is not dependant on memory. It acts as a sort of nourishment, providing sustenance for the life of the soul. It also offers gentle, or at times not so gentle, nudges that correct our bearing for the day or week. We listen to the Word of God proclaimed and it shifts our hearts so that every step we take from that moment forward moves us closer to holiness.

Christ the Bringer of God

“Christ is not the bringer of a new religion, but rather the one who brings God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity.

Where the church has gone wrong, I believe, is that we have seen Jesus as a way to get to God. But, he did not come to develop a new way for us to get to God, as though he was the architect of a new Tower of Babel.

No, he is the bringer of God to us. Jesus is the way God enters our lives, enters our souls, so that we can be transformed by his presence. The moment we begin to believe in Jesus as the bringer of God to us, we are one with him. There is no climbing the Tower, there is no escalation process. We are one with God and there is not a moment his presence leaves us.

The experience of the presence of God is not accomplished by adding religious practices. Religious practices are a response of gratitude and witness. We are thankful to God for his presence, so we worship. We want to bear witness to the presence of God, so we practice communion. And so on.

What then is the purpose of Christian religious practices? What we may call religion is the participation with God in his salvation plan of others. By learning how to obey Jesus we learn how to show others the gospel. 

Religion, which includes studying Scripture, participating in prayer and fellowship, and practicing Christian disciplines, are an extension of the presence of God, not a way to the presence of God. 

God is here. How we behave is a reflection of our enjoyment of, and dependence on the presence of God.

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Col. 3:17 (ESV)

Musings On Why Young People Leave the Church

I’m reading a book about why people leave the church after graduation. It’s called You Lost Me. There’s a statement in the beginning that caught my eye: “He and his bandmates were ‘all really embarrassed by and ashamed of a lot of the [Christian] subculture we came from, but not necessarily ashamed or embarrassed by the beliefs we had.'”

The interesting thing about this statement, and others I have heard similar to this, is that young people do not usually reject Jesus. They reject the expression of the Christian faith in their local Church. This tells me that there is something wrong with how we are expressing our worship of Jesus and our witness of the power of Jesus on earth. I am slow to throw everything we call “religious” out with the bathwater, but I have some thoughts on this issue.

I think young people in general are interested in a more genuine expression of faith in Jesus. They are tired of hypocritical people telling them to straighten out their lives. Of course there are exceptions, but I have found that as young people start to discover that they can think and make decisions for themselves, they begin to reject the way their parents and grandparents express their faith. They somehow see through the façade of religiosity, and become uninterested in what the church has to offer. They label the previous generations’ faith as “lame” or boring. 

When young people take the time to read the Gospels and discover for themselves what Jesus called his followers to, they see a disconnect between the Scriptural commands and the reality of the local church. Jesus called his followers to give up their lives, to be completely devoted to following Jesus. Yet, when they look around, they see church people chasing lusts for money, sex, and power. They are confused by the stark contrast between the people who are supposed to be following Jesus and what Jesus actually called his followers to. Thus, they reject the church out of frustration. 

I have some thoughts about how to bring forward a solution. I am interested in this being an ongoing conversation, so forgive me if these thoughts need some fine-tuning.

The first thing I need to do as a youth/family pastor, is to invite young people, parents, children, to a genuine expression of faith in Jesus. I need to model it for them and choose to reject false religious practice. I cannot put forward a solution without having it consume my life first.

Second, I have been feeling this pressure to move the “youth group” into an experience that more accurately reflects what Jesus invited his followers to. This seems like an obvious step, but for some reason I don’t see it modelled very often in youth groups I have witnessed. I want to experience with the youth and families a real relationship with Jesus, and express our experience with Jesus in a way that reflects what Scripture says.
So, just what should the “youth group” truly be doing if we are to obey Jesus? This is the question I want to shape the future of the youth group with. It needs to be answered in a way that move us toward being a witness to the power of Jesus, rather than just being part of a “Christian” club. 

The main problem with youth group as I have seen it, is that it tries to compete directly with secular clubs and activities. I am not interested in doing that. It creates a problem in the minds of youth. It tells them that there are things in life that are sacred and things that are secular. 

In other words, they are told to behave like Christians at church activities, but it inadvertently gives them permission to ignore their Christian convictions at non-church activities. They truly do not see a problem with this because it is the behaviour modelled for them everywhere they look. However, I am interested in shaping all our experiences, whether “sacred” or “secular”, by the power of Jesus. Regardless of what we are doing, we should be witnesses of God’s presence and power in the way we engage with our activities. 
This will help to solve two problems. 

First, it will show the youth that their involvement in extra-curricular activities is an opportunity to express their faith (and not just by trying to convert their soccer coach or teammates!). It will show them how to engage with those activities in a healthy way; how to be a witness to the power of Jesus everywhere they go. 

Second, it will prepare them for entering into the secular world with a strong and healthy sense of identity as a Jesus-follower, and to not be embarrassed by it. Their behaviour will begin to reflect their faith regardless of the activity they are engaged in. 

I am excited about the future because I am confident that God is interested in expressing his power and witness in the world, and not just on Sunday morning or during youth group activities.

When Madonna and the Church have the Same Message

1035x1035-rebelheartDo Madonna and the church offer the same message of hope?

Living for Love

These are the opening lyrics and the chorus for a song by Madonna titled “Living for Love” that hit #1 on music charts in 41 countries this week:

First you love me and I let you in
Made me feel like I was born again
You empowered me, you made me strong
Built me up and I can do no wrong
I let down my guard, I fell into your arms
Forgot who I was, I didn’t hear the alarms
Now I’m down on my knees, alone in the dark
I was blind to your game
You fired a shot in my heart

Took me to heaven and let me fall down
Now that it’s over
I’m gonna carry on
Lifted me up, and watched me stumble
After the heartache, I’m gonna carry on
Living for love
Living for love
I’m not giving up
I’m gonna carry on
Living for love
I’m Living for love
Not gonna stop
Love’s gonna lift me up

Here is what Madonna said about this song:

The way we’re going to change the world, or the way we’re going to ultimately feel joy, is through unity. I’m certainly not encouraging religious behavior; when I say people are thinking in a religious way, I think they’re thinking about rules and dogma and laws that separate. When I say spirituality, I mean a consciousness that has an understanding that we are all in this together, that we are all one. We have to find a way to feel joy and to bring joy to the world together.1

Jesus Hates Religion

Now, here is a quote from a well-known pastor, Alex Himaya, about his book “Jesus Hates Religion”:

I think we as Christians have a reputation as conversation stoppers. When we engage people on the other side of an issue, most of the time, the conversation doesn’t end the way we want it to. It gets stopped short or our side of the issue ends up being misrepresented. And that’s largely our fault. We prefer to be heard, as opposed to actually listening. We want the benefit of the doubt, but we’re reluctant to give it. Instead, we lead with our idea of what’s right and wrong – our belief – instead of leading with love.

The best way to stop a conversation short is by being judgmental and “religious.” By that, I mean we come off as confrontational and condemning, rather than relational and loving. Religion, for me, is a man-made path to God.2

Jesus’ Message: Salvation

The reason I was drawn to this issue this week is because I am preaching this Sunday on John 6: Jesus feeding the five thousand. Jesus was a really popular guy at the beginning of John 6. Thousands of people were following him. He was doing everything right: healing, loving, caring, bringing a message of hope and love to all of Israel. And then these words: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you… do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (John 6:53; 61-62)

Why would Jesus says these things? These words caused all but twelve people to stop following him. They were very unpopular words. Telling Jews to eat the flesh and drink the blood of himself is not the way to win over followers. Performing miracles, however, did wonderfully well. Yet, he didn’t give them another miracle. He gave them a message that offended them and scared them off.

The reason Jesus did not give the people more bread and more miracles is because he wasn’t out to satisfy the appetites of the human nature. He was out to change the appetites of the human nature. The people wanted bread, but Jesus offers salvation. We want miracles, healing, provision. But Jesus offers something better: a new nature.

I compared the two examples above not to show that Dr. Himaya is wrong. His message is quite accurate. Jesus hates when we try to get to God on our own. However, as a pastor, I am cautious about implying that the Christian message can be a popular one in our world. Our message tells people that they are sinners, that they need to repent and believe in Jesus. This is, unapologetically, a religious thing in the eyes of the world. The world sees the gospel message as religion, and we should not be sorry for that. 

Madonna is close to understanding the gospel. We will change the world through unity. However, I pray she will see that the only thing that truly unites us is fellowship with our Creator. And the only one who offers that is Jesus, through a religious act: repentance and belief.

  1. from: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/rebel-heart-madonna-reveals-the-story-behind-six-surprise-songs-20141221?page=2 []
  2. http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/06/15/jesus-hates-religion-really-does []

Generous Sacrifices: Hebrews 13:12-16 – Sermon from March 23, 2014

Note in this passage that those who identify themselves with Christ are not at home in the world, and so we should live in a way that is generous to God and generous to others. If what we have and where we live are not permanent, then we have no need to hold on to them tightly. Listen for that theme in this passage.

10 We have an altar from which the priests in the Tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 Under the old system, the high priest brought the blood of animals into the Holy Place as a sacrifice for sin, and the bodies of the animals were burned outside the camp. 12 So also Jesus suffered and died outside the city gates to make his people holy by means of his own blood. 13 So let us go out to him, outside the camp, and bear the disgrace he bore. 14 For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come. 15 Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. 16 And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. (Hebrews 13:10-16, NLT)

There are two sacrifices we are reminded to offer in response to our identification with Christ: proclamation sacrifice and sharing sacrifice.

Proclamation Sacrifice

One of the most profound revelations I encountered in studying this passage is that Jesus Christ is the worship leader in the church. This may not be new to you, but maybe this is a new way of thinking about it. Verse 15 says that through Jesus we offer a sacrifice of praise to God.

What does Hebrews 7:25 say about what Jesus does forever on our behalf?

…he [Jesus] is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.

Look also at Hebrews 2:11-12:

So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters. For he said to God, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people.”

The only way we get to God is through Jesus, and Jesus is always interceding for us. Jesus is singing along with us! Not only that, Jesus is providing a way for us to praise God. Why is this such a big deal? Let’s look at the content of our proclamation…

What does it say in Hebrews 13:15? It says that we are to give thanks, or acknowledge or profess the name of God. What is really being said here is that our praise flows out of knowing God. When Scripture refers to someone’s name, it is usually encompassing all that makes up a person.

When we offer praise to God, we do it out of our knowledge of who He is. Implied here is a call to know God and out of that knowledge, through Jesus Christ, we praise Him. Proclamation sacrifice is not just the act of singing praise to God, but it also includes knowing God. This is not just knowing about God, it’s really knowing him.

Here’s an example. I love pie. The other day I was sitting in Country Cappuccino, and I overheard someone say that they really enjoyed the lemon meringue pie they just ate. In that moment, I knew that the pie was good. Why? Because someone said so. But, it’s not good enough to just hear that the pie is good. I want to experience the goodness of the pie. So, I did. I went and bought a piece of pie. I ate it. It was good. In fact, it was better than I expected. But, I unless I ate the pie, I would have never known just how good it was. And now that I have had a piece, I am overflowing with praise about how good that pie was.

You see? We can’t just know about God’s goodness. We need to taste it. Our praise of God will overflow out of the experience of God’s goodness, not just knowledge about God’s goodness, and not just out of our own experiences, but also the experiences of others. Let’s face it, if we base our praise of God only on our own experiences, we will fail to praise God continually, because our experiences are not continually good.

But if our praise is based on the goodness of God that we have tasted and seen within the community of his people, it will be continuous because God is always doing things in the community of his people that we can give him praise for, even if it is the hard things.

Let’s look at the second sacrifice mentioned in this passage…

Sharing Sacrifice

Imagine you are getting things packed up for a family vacation to Paris. Among the clothes, snacks and toiletries you pack, there is one thing you will not want to forget: your camera. Why is it that we feel the need to take pictures of our vacations? Think about it… if you want pictures of Paris, you can just go online and find millions of pictures, and the pictures you’ll find online will probably be much better quality than yours.

Most people would say that we take pictures because we want to remember our experiences. That’s true. But there is deeper reason, and this reason has become particularly evident in the last several years with the development and growth of online photo sharing networks. Prior to the development of digital cameras in the 90’s, approximately 2,500 photos were taken around the world per second. It is estimated that in 2011, we were taking about 11 thousand photos per second. By the fall of 2013, Facebook users had uploaded more than 250 billion photos to the site, and averaged about 350 million uploads per day, which is about 4000 photos each second. That is staggering!

Back to Paris. Why do we want to take pictures of Paris, when we can find millions of better pictures online? Here’s why: we love to share our experiences. God has created us to be sharing people. In fact, I’ve heard it said that no experience in life is complete until it has been shared with someone else. Of course, there are exceptions. But, it’s amazing how true it is! Think about the last time you saw a beautiful sunset. It is wonderful to just sit and watch the sun go down, but the experience is so much better when I can share it with someone else.

The desire to share, however, is different when we believe that sharing means losing. When we think that sharing something means giving it up, we tend to hold back. Although we are created as sharing people, our desire to share vanishes upon the realization that sharing may mean losing what we love.

Every parent here knows that when you buy a child a toy, that toy is usually only enjoyed for a short time… That is, until another child is found to be enjoying it. Isn’t it true? Why do you think that is? A toy can quickly become boring, but as soon as another child finds it to be fun and interesting, it suddenly becomes fun and interesting to every other child in the room. This is a natural inclination we all have toward wanting what other people are enjoying. The sin known in the Ten Commandments as covetousness is a distorted version of a God-given human characteristic we all have.

There is something to be had in the act of sharing that is far more valuable to the well-being of our souls than keeping a prized possession to ourselves. Think again about our children with the toys. When a child wants a toy that another child is enjoying, what he is really desiring is not the toy, but the joy that the other child has. This is why TV commercials rarely tell you about the products they are selling. Rather, they show you how much another person is enjoying their product. They sell you on the positive experience of using the product, not the actual product itself.

Back to Paris one more time. You are not taking pictures to show people where you’ve been. Everyone has seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower. You are taking pictures because you want to share the experience of being there.  When we are sharing our pictures, we are not doing it with hopes that others will see what we have seen, but to enjoy what we have enjoyed. The God-given desire we all have that has been distorted by sin is the desire to share what our hearts find most fulfilling. And, the desire to have what gives others deep fulfillment.

Let’s take a moment and reflect back to the first part of the message. I said that praising God flows up out of our tasting the goodness of God. Bring that idea into this current idea. Remember how our experience of God is finally fulfilled… By sharing our joy with God himself in the act of praise. It is also experienced by sharing our joy with others.

But, without Christ, we can’t do either. So, see how significant our identity with Christ is?

Verse 15 says that it is through Christ that we can praise God. It is only through Christ that we can experience the full joy of the goodness of God. Amazing! And it is through Christ’s Spirit that we can praise God together, not only through singing, but through sharing in the blessings he has given us.

This brings me to the main point of verse 16. Let’s look at it again:

…don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God.

Every one of us has something to offer other people, even if it is something seemingly insignificant.  This passage is telling us to not forget to share what we have with others. This is good not only because it will benefit others, but because in our act of sharing, we find a greater fulfilment than if we keep things to ourselves. God made us to be sharing people.

There is also a hard part to this command. We are not only meant to share the positive experiences and gifts in life, but we are also meant to share in the difficult times and the burdens of life. Look at verse 13: “let us go out to him, outside the camp, and bear the disgrace he bore.”

Because we are identified with Christ as his followers, we must share in the shame that Christ experienced in his crucifixion. I’ve heard this same principle explained this way: when we have someone to share life with, our joys are increased and our burdens are decreased. This is usually stated in the context of a wedding, but I think it applies to the entire community of God’s people. We are meant to share our joys and burdens with one another, not in order to become more holy, but in order to have a deeper, more satisfying experience.

This message is kind of funny in a way. We all know that we are supposed to share; we learn this lesson as children. However, sometimes we need to hear a simple message, in a new way, so that this simple truth will grow deeper roots and bear more fruit in our lives together. I hope that is the case with this message.

I want to close by explaining how it’s possible to practice these acts of sacrifice. Because we all know that sacrifice is easier said than done.

The entire way of life for Christians is based on the fact that we are not permanent residents of earth. We have something better coming. Based on that, we really have nothing to lose on this planet. Verse 14 says that on earth we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

Everything we are searching for on earth is ultimately found in heaven. We can have the strength to share in our joy and our pain, our celebrations and our burdens. We can empty ourselves of everything we have because we have something far better on the way.

While we are here, we share with one another our joy and our difficulties. We share our gifts, our abundance, and even what little we have. Not because we expect more in return here on earth, but because we have more than we can imagine coming our way when this life passes on and we make our move to our true home.