Monthly Archives: September 2008

How to Stay One

In early September, I had the deep privilege of officiating at Scott’s and Katherine’s wedding. Scott’s my nephew. There was a bit of déjà vu in the experience for me as the very first wedding I officiated at was Scott’s dad’s and mom’s wedding.

Weddings are all about becoming one. Jesus said, "The man and the woman are no longer two, but one!" In the mysterious and wonderful way that God built into the DNA of marriage, that is just what happens. But Jesus also said, "What God has joined together, let man not separate." That phrase tells me that there’s effort required to stay one.

In a lot of ways, churches are like marriages. They’re made up of very different people united under Christ—different shapes and sizes, different personalities and dispositions, different gifts, and different hopes and dreams. But as in marriages, even the best of churches, while they have been made one by God in Christ, have to work at staying one. There are challenges to that oneness from within and from without. Against those pressures, over and over again, the Bible calls for the church—like it calls couples in marriages—to work at staying one.

One of Paul’s most beloved churches was in the town of Philippi. This church had come together in a place that was hostile to Christianity. In this climate of pressure and threat, this wonderful church had become severely distressed; its unity was beginning to unravel. So Paul gave them some great advice. That advice also works very well for marriages. Here is what he wrote:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look out not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

Paul indicated a number of essential principles for working at staying one.

1. Never forget who you really are!

Paul says, “Your core identity, is ‘follower of Jesus Christ;’ you are God’s person.” When a couple opens their hearts to Jesus and become His followers, God does some amazing things in them. He lavishes his riches on them just like he did on the Philippian church. They come to live in the comfort of Christ’s salvation; they are consoled by His love; they come into and presently experience unbroken fellowship with God through the powerful presence of God’s Holy Spirit; and they experience God’s amazing compassion and mercy. The long and short of it is that a couple already shares an incredible amount in common as they each share in salvation.

2. Pursue Harmony!

Paul next says, “Trusting in that greatest common denominator of a personal relationship with Jesus, pursue harmony! Being one is not without effort. And that effort begins with healthy communication that builds toward harmony. Paul says, “Be like-minded,” “have the same love,” give expression to that “oneness in spirit,” and he concludes “think the same thing.” It’s a lot like singing in a choir. Obviously there are a lot of different voices in a church choir. But when those very different voices are all on the same page musically and pursuing harmony, the result is both deeply gratifying and God-honoring. Its the same in marriage–two very different people building toward a deeply gratifying and God-honoring harmony.

3. Show Consideration!

Selfish ambition uses all its energy to roughly press ahead in personal advancement without thinking whether this helps or hurts others. Vain conceit is filled with an overblown sense of self-importance. It’s always saying, “Me first!” and “I count more than you!” These are both mortal enemies of staying one. That’s why Paul says, “do nothing” out of such unworthy motivations. Instead, he says, work at staying one by “in humility considering others better than yourselves.” There is no sense of inferiority, self-disparagement, or groveling in this. Paul says, show consideration—“look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.”

4. Imitate the Great Example!

The final piece of advice on staying one in a marriage so that it goes the distance is this: Imitate the Great Example. Paul’s final recommendation is to model your life in marriage after the selfless example of Jesus himself. He writes,

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. (Philippians 2:5-11, The Message)

Becoming one is great; working at staying one is even better!

Preaching to Remember Those We Never Knew

I came across the following passage, yesterday, as I was reading Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The novelist is describing a memorial service for her protagonist’s private school teacher and mentor.

“Johnson went on and on, giving an equal amount of eye contact to every third of the congregation with the mechanized surety of a sprinkler system, most likely having learned this from a course, How to Give a Mesmerizing Sermon, with its concepts of Bringing Everyone In and Evoking a Feeling of Togetherness and Universal Humanity. The speech wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t at all specific to Hannah. it was teeming with She Was a Lights and She Would have Wanteds, mentioning nothing of her real life, a life that Havermayer and the rest of the administration were now all deeply afraid of, as if they’d secretly discovered asbestos in Elton House or found out Christian Gordon, St. Gallway’s Head Chef, had Hepatitis A. I could almost see the paper on the lecturn filled with (Insert Deceased’s Name Here) (see, #8).”

Pastors all know the challenge of speaking uniquely into the lives of people at such services. This is particularly true when the deceased is not well known to us. We do a little sleuthing so as to uncover one or two anecdotes that can personalize the sermon, but if we are honest, most of us take a template approach to our sermons in such cases.

The saliency of this issue struck me with some force given that shortly before reading the afore-quoted passage, I received the real life news that my wife’s much-loved grandmother had died and that I am being asked to perform the memorial service later this week. The family wants me to perform the service because they know me, because they know I cared about my wife’s grandma, and because they know they can trust me to speak authentically about that love. I expect that it will be a meaningful service for those reasons.

All of this lead me to think about some of the many other funeral sermons I have preached for those I never knew. I did my best to tell the stories, and to personalize the event, but it always felt a little artificial. I was telling someone else’s stories and those who attended well knew that I didn’t truly know what I was talking about. They appreciated the effort I made to reflect their loved one, but given that I didn’t know the deceased, it didn’t always have the needed spark.

I’m wondering what we might be able to do about that. I do think we should still work to personalize things, as much as possible. But I also think that we should not try to speak as if we know the person we have never met. There are other ways, I think, to spark the needed authenticity. We can speak with passion, for instance, about the sense of mortality that we all feel whenever someone dies. It’s like the quote from John Donne, “don’t ask for whom the (funeral) bell tolls. It tolls for you.” I don’t need to have had a close personal relationship with someone to have an authentic response around their death.

People want to hear us talk about things that are real within us. We need to get close enough to the situation to be able to reflect an honest and helpful response. We need to let the death effect us, whether we knew the person or whether we did not. When people die, they leave a hole. As Donne said, “we are not islands unto ourselves.” The death of one diminishes the experience of us all. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves get close enough to be touched a little by that truth. Those who listen to our sermons will sense it if we do. It will help them and they will appreciate it.

Honoring Muslims

The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, coincides with September this year [See 30-Days prayer focus for daily online prayer items or a downloadable calendar].  Historically, much Muslim – Christian interaction has been negative and detrimental, with the Crusades being the most glaring example that impacts relationships to this day. 

However, there are those who are building bridges of honor, respect and love with Muslims. Mazhar Mallouhi’s life and teaching provide us with a powerful example of how Christians can effectively relate to Muslims in a way that reveals the love of the Savior.  Mazhar is a follower of Christ from a Muslim background whose appreciation of and love for Muslims has communicated the gospel with obvious impact.  Paul-Gordon Chandler provides the English speaking world with an introduction to the life and teaching of this Arab author through his book, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road [Chandler, Paul Gordon. Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: exploring a new path between two faiths. Plymouth: Cowley Pub. 2007].  In the book, Chandler explores some of the ways Mallouhi has broken down barriers between Christians and Muslims through showing honor.

breaking down barriers … by showing honor

During the time Karen and I were living in Pakistan many people would come to talk about spiritual things.  However, few religious leaders ever stopped by and I generally did not seek them out. Mazhar Mallouhi, on the other hand, has been known to seek out respected Muslim spiritual leaders in order to ask them to become his spiritual mentor! He explains to them that the Bible is his guidebook to live according to God’s will, and he then asks, "Can you please read these Scriptures in order to help me live up to them? In other words, I would like you to observe me as I live in your country and am accountable to you" (Chandler: 80). This vulnerability in asking to be watched and corrected based on interaction with the Scriptures demands humility and openness.  It also has great potential toward the development of significant relationships and spiritual conversations.

One of first people to come to Christ during our ministry in Pakistan was a young Muslim man studying at the local university.  After his baptism he went back to his home only to return and announce that his father, the spiritual leader of his village, had thrown him out.  Because I had never met his father, I was not in a position to develop a relationship with him at that stage and ease the situation.  It took two years before I finally met the man so that his concerns were eased and his stance towards his son was softened.

In contrast to this error on my part, Mazhar’s cultural sensitivity causes him to honor Muslims by first approaching the father to ask permission if someone has requested an opportunity to study the Gospels. Mazhar’s experience is that the father, and others in the family, may also want to be involved when approached in this way. Because of expressed concern for the honor of the family, the seeker is not alienated from their family, and the whole family can be introduced to the person of Christ (Chandler: 81). Muslims live in many of our Canadian communities.  An attitude of respect and honor towards the leaders may run counter to our easy going egalitarian culture, but it will serve to break down barriers and can create lasting and significant relationships.

Tighten Up On Loose Change

I’m not sure exactly why, but it seems that there has been one word repeated incessantly over the last few week: Change. Maybe it’s due to the political season. Possibly it’s due to the initiation of Fall programs. Whatever it is, and wherever it’s used, it seems to carry a sense of urgency. As the comedian, Professor Irwin Corey used to scream, “if we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re headed. It’s with that in mind that I was intrigued by an article that I read this morning by Mark Sanborn entitled Why Organizational Change Fails []

The article served as a caution: There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things … Sanborn quotes Jean-Jaques Rousseau. I would tend to agree. I’ve discovered the truth of an axiom penned by Havelock Ellis: What we call “progress” is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance. Change is not a guarantee of success. Unless it’s done with care, it can result in disaster.

Sanborn’s article provided a good checklist of common faults, or reasons, how failure can occur. Ten reasons in all: 1. Missarts, 2. Making change an option, 3. A focus only on progress, 4. A focus only on results, 5. Not involving those expected to implement change, 6. Delegating change to outsiders, 7. No change in the reward system, 8. Leadership that doesn’t “walk the talk”, 9. Wrong size, 10. No follow-through. It’s an article worth of review. In fact, it might make a good checklist for anyone who is about to launch into a new project.

Endorsing Candidates from the Pulpit

With election fever across North America, it might be helpful for us to consider how we guide our listeners from the pulpit. Traditionally, preachers have understood that while we should feel free to speak broadly about issues that are relevant from the perspective of the Scriptures, we should draw the line at telling our listeners precisely who to vote for. Statements that are of a partisan nature have been viewed to be off limits. Not least among the reasons for this approach is the risk that overt partisanship from the pulpit poses to the tax-free status enjoyed by churches. Preachers are loathe to say anything that would put that status in jeopardy.

This may, however, be changing. According to an article in the Washington Post, the Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors in the U.S. to deliberately challenge the Internal Revenue Service by making endorsements from the pulpit. The article, Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted by Peter Slevin, suggests that the ADF is moving proactively with it’s "Pulpit Initiative" to take the matter to the IRS before the IRS takes it to the churches. According to the ADF, the prohibition stifles freedom of religious expression and inhibits a preacher’s constitutional right to speak freely from the pulpit.

So far, three dozen church leaders from more than 20 states have agreed to deliver a political sermon, naming political names. According to ADF attorney, Erik Stanley, these sermons "will be an evaluation of conditions for office in light of scripture and doctrine. They will make a specific recommendation from the pulpit about how the congregation would vote," he said. "They could oppose a candidate. They could oppose both candidates. They could endorse a candidate. They could focus on a federal, state or local election."

These folks have a point. Preachers should not feel cowed by the government as to what they say or do not say from the pulpit. Of course, that argument cuts both ways. Freedom comes with its attendant responsibilities. If we say what we want from the pulpit, we ought to be prepared to pay the consequences, which may include the need to pay taxes. We remember that Jesus said that we should render unto Ceasar what is rightfully his. Whether the IRS has a right to a piece of the action when the offering plate is passed is a matter for which I have little expertise. What I am more interested in, however, is whether partisan comments from the pulpit are a good idea regardless of the legal or financial implications.

Our citizenship is in heaven and that is where we place our primary interest as Christians and as preachers. However our challenge is to live out the interests of heaven in the context of this earth. We are literally to work out the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Among the implications of this principle is the sense that Christians ought to vote and that they ought to vote for candidates and parties that best represent the value of God’s Kingdom. At the same time, we understand that while our concern is for the Kingdom, our tools are primarily of a spiritual nature and not political. We bring the Kingdom by prayer, by preaching, and by the practice of our faith, not by use of power politics.

In general, I would support the traditional view, that preachers should be careful about naming names and picking parties from the pulpit. Pulpit partisanship risks the integrity of our preaching. I suppose there may be extreme cases, where a party or a politician embodies a perspective so abhorrent to the principles of God’s Word that a direct approach could be warranted. Such situations, however, are probably rare in this part of the world. Most candidates we have to consider offer a mixed bag of perspectives, some of which we support and some of which we would not. In the more extreme cases, the truth will be obvious to everyone without our having to put a point to it from the pulpit.

The wise approach is to tackle the issues of the day from the perspective of the Scriptures. Let the Bible speak about the matters that are before us. If we can hear the voice of God through his Word and by his Spirit we will have a clearer sense of how to vote and how to live. We may even encourage a few politicians to a greater degree of biblical faithfulness in their work.

Generating Hope In God

As I sit in my office, the returning and new students create a real buzz of excitement and energy around the Seminary – at least I think it’s the students and not the coffee! Seriously, new semesters always generate significant vitality – new relationships, new encounters with God, new ideas, new ministry opportunities, new hope. A new semester breathes hope that God’s Kingdom work is alive and progressing.

I think Northwest’s essential business is generating hope in God. We accomplish this by equipping kingdom leaders who possess this hope in Jesus personally and know how to share it with others to build communities of hope. So many things that destroy hope happen in our world– war, famine, evil leadership, criminal activity, deceitful relationships, and disease. The Gospel of Jesus Christ brings peace, restores goodness, destroys evil, empowers healthy relationships and eventually promises us a new, resurrected body! So I look forward to Northwest’s sixty-eighth year of hope-generating ministry.

One of the challenges I have as President is to keep Northwest, entering its sixty-eighth year of ministry, fresh and relevant. It is easy to keep doing the same things and using the same methods to equip leaders, but new times require new approaches. This new academic year we are focusing our energies:

  1. to offer more of our leadership development courses on line. This will increase accessibility, dissolving the geographical barriers that prevent many from benefiting;
  2. to revise our primary pastoral training degree so that key pastors can be involved more significantly with us to equip emerging leaders. The co-op model of education is being considered;
  3. to provide more initial ministry leadership development training in the churches.

A new initiative I personally am developing is the workshop entitled “Doing God’s Business: A Theology of Work.” This is offered Friday and Saturday, November 7-8, 2008 at the Fosmark Centre (TWU Campus). You can register for this on our website (right hand column, click on the date November 7-8).

Another significant initiative is being led by Dr. Lyle Schrag, the director of our Fellowship Leadership Centre. He will be working with our students to help them discern more clearly their calling in ministry and helping them to assess their progress towards achieving the goal. You might describe it as a ministry coaching process.

And then, related more to biblical research, we are hosting a major international conference on the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), September 18-20, 2008. A public session (Thursday evening, September 18) will be held in the Northwest Auditorium (TWU Campus), beginning at 7:30pm. There will be good music, along with several presentations related to the Septuagint Institute and its significance, as well as presentations by the general editors of the New English Translation of the Septuagint, published by Oxford University Press. I personally contributed the translation of Exodus in this volume.

I would encourage you take a look at our website and make use of the resources that are there. Dr. Schrag’s notes on church leadership, Mark Naylor’s contributions about cross-cultural ministry challenges, the frequent blogs about many aspects of Christian life, and the biblical and preaching resources are helpful.

As the summer gently shifts into the autumn season, I trust that you will be energized in your relationship with Jesus. Perhaps now is the time to take action and refresh your walk with God. Courses or workshops can be a stimulating way to engage this.