Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Free to Sing: the parable of the violin string.

One day, long ago, a man walked into a violin craftsman's workshop, curious to find out how violins were made. The craftsman held up a single violin string, and waved it around in the air. It swung around in his hand, flipping and flopping this way and that. "Do you see how free this violin string is?" asked the craftsman. "It is free to turn and bend and flip and flop in so many different ways." "Yes," replied the observer, mystified by the point of the illustration. "The string is free, as you say."

"But it is not free to sing," continued the craftsman, now taking the string and threading it through a tuning peg at one end of the violin and fastening it into the bridge at the other. "It is only free to sing when it is fastened and tensioned by the violin," he said, tightening the string as he turned the tuning peg. Once the violin string had been fastened, tensioned and tuned, the craftsman then began to play a hauntingly beautiful melody with his fingers and bow on the string.
"The string is finally free to sing," he declared.

This counter-intuitive story serves as a parable of God's ways when it comes to true  freedom. We so often feel that any anchoring, fastening, tightening or tuning means the end of our freedom. Freedom, at least from a Western perspective, is usually defined as the casting off of our limits and the exploring of our options. But for God, this is not true freedom. For God, the freedom to discover who we really are, and what we were designed to do, involves the acceptance of some wise limits.

Think of the words of Jesus in John's Gospel. "If you obey my commands you will know the truth and the truth will set you free." How counter-intuitive is that? Obedience to Jesus's commands; to repent, to believe the Gospel, to love our neighbors and forgive our enemies, although difficult, brings us into freedom not bondage.

Many of us who have got married have experienced this counter-intuitive truth. Especially men. At my bachelor party, some of my single friends offered me condolences like my wedding was going to be my funeral. My wife was apparently going to be my ball and chain. What they didn't realize, was that while marriage brought more responsibility and some limits to my independence, it was the beginning of a whole new life and identity, not the end of it.

The metaphor extends to our relationship with the Church too. Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, described the relationship of Christians to the Church as follows. "You are no longer aliens, but fellow citizens and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, joined together as living stones."(Eph 2:19-21) These are solid words. Committed words. We are citizens. Members. Living Stones joined together. And it would be understandable for us to feel that if we took  Paul's description seriously, it would result in an impeding of our freedom and a limiting of our options. A cramping of our style. But Paul sees the result of this solid commitment as exactly the opposite.

"..and in Him the building grows together and becomes a temple in  whom God dwells by the Spirit."

In other words, Paul is saying that as we submit to being built up and joined together in committed community in a church, we experience the indwelling presence of God in a way that we could never experience if we remained in convenient isolation.

To return to the violin parable then, we  find that as we allow Jesus to anchor, tighten and tune us into the violin of the church, instead of losing our individuality, we discover who and what we were designed to be. And we find that under the Master Craftsman's skilful hands, like a violin string, we are finally free to sing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Building up the Body in Britain: A guest post by Brett McCracken

One of the tensions of any healthy church is the tension of gathering and scattering, of strong community and robust mission; or as we often talk about at Southlands, of winning “home and away games.” Managing this tension is not easy but it is biblical. Jesus set the model for it early with his disciples. Mark 3:14 says that Jesus called the twelve for the sake of interpersonal community (“so that they might be with him”) but also for mission (“and he might send them out to preach”). Discipleship is always about gathering and growing together but also scattering and sending out on mission.

That is why Southlands sent a team to the UK for 12 days earlier this month, ministering to churches far away from “home.” Even when things are busy on the homefront (in this case with the launch of the Whittier community!) it is important to keep a perspective on what “home” really means in the kingdom of God. One could argue that, as all believers’ true “home” is their heavenly inheritance, winning “home games” is actually any success we achieve in building up or expanding the family of God.

 As our team of 11 from Southlands worshipped alongside brothers and sisters in Christ in the UK, living in their homes and enjoying long meals with them, this sense of redefined “home” was felt strongly. We may not share national citizenship with them, but we share a heavenly citizenship and a sense of being pilgrims and aliens in this world, together. We are the same family, the same team. Our victories and losses are shared.

While in the country we spent concentrated time with two partner churches. The first was Cornerstone Church in Newcastle, a church that has been dear to Southlands for as long as it has existed (planted by Southlands members Drew and Tammy Davis). Pastored by South African expats Mike and Esole Duff, Cornerstone occupies a floor of an office building in the center of Newcastle upon Tyne, a large university town in Northeast England. The second was Jubilee Community Church in Maidenhead, just outside of London. Pastored by Stuart and Louise Otto, this church was originally planted by Charles Spurgeon in 1873.

Though both Cornerstone and Jubilee are small by American standards, they are large and lively by UK standards. We were heartened and impressed by these churches’ passion, efficiency and hospitality. Our Southlands team served in a variety of ways during the weekends we spent with each church. We led workshops on topics ranging from discipleship and evangelism to marriage and parenting. During Sunday services Alan preached and our team led worship, prayed and ministered to people in a variety of ways. At Cornerstone in Newcastle we helped put on a Friday night concert/outreach event in a pub in the center of the city. At Jubilee we were able to help serve and facilitate a conference of British church planters associated with the Advance network. The Holy Spirit moved strongly at both churches while we were there, both in individual lives and in catalyzing change for the churches as a whole.

The churches we spent time with proved to be counter-examples to the prevailing narrative of the UK being a “spiritually dead” nation where churches are all empty. Contrary to that often overstated diagnosis, the churches we visited were quite alive and bearing much fruit for the gospel. One church we visited briefly in London was Holy Trinity Brompton, a British megachurch and the birthplace of the Alpha  program. Pastored by Nicky Gumbel, HTB has a vibrant presence for Jesus in a very secular city. It was no coincidence that the first stranger we had a conversation with in a pub in London had not only heard of Alpha but had attended an Alpha group in London (twice). 1 in 3 Londoners knows what Alpha is. Amazing!

Though it was costly to send a team of 11 Southlands leaders (including two elders) to the UK on the same week that Southlands Whittier was launched, it was also a beautiful picture of the healthy functioning of the body of Christ. The UK trip was about one part of the body working to make another part of the body healthier. And the whole body (Southlands Brea/Fullerton/Whittier, Jubilee, Cornerstone, etc.) emerges stronger from it.

We see this model in the New Testament: Paul writing to churches and gospel partners in various parts of the world, encouraging them in faith and ministry, addressing areas of unhealthiness and laboring to strengthen the whole body of Christ. And that is what we sought to do on this trip.
One great thing about the trans-national, cross-cultural diversity of the body of Christ is that believers from different backgrounds and from across oceans help other believers see things they might not otherwise see. Travel in general is one of the best ways to gain perspective on one’s home context, and the same goes for ministry-centered travel. This was certainly true for us. From the UK church we come home inspired to be as “all in” as they are, efficient and lean in operation, persistent in service even when major “wins” are few and far between. And the UK church gained new perspectives and insights from us as well, with reports of gratitude coming back from various folks we encountered. 

“Home and away” ministry is never easy, but it’s always rewarding. Whether down the street or across the ocean, may we always see the benefit in building up the body of Christ.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ephesus: Sent with staying power.

After an amazing weekend with Cornerstone Church in Newcastle, Rynelle and I left the team in the very capable hands of Neil and Jaclyn Thomas and Brett and Kira McCracken, as they began 4 days of exploring Christian history around the UK. We joined PJ and Ashleigh Smyth and Donnie and Jill Griggs near Izmir, Turkey, for a gathering of 60 movement leaders who are connected to the broader New Frontiers family representing 1500 churches around the world.  I'm so thankful to God for Terry Virgo, who, instead of holding on to leadership or simply handing on to one man, gave away his sphere of leadership to many leaders for a multiplied future. It was magnificent to witness this first hand.

A very colorful and high capacity crew gathered just outside Ephesus. There were leaders from Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, UK, Ukraine, Russia, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Australia and the USA. Numerous movements are working to plant churches in Turkey, and being central and relatively inexpensive, this is where we gathered. In short, it's been hugely inspiring to hear and pray into what God is doing in the nations, and the equipping for mission has been absolutely world class. We're so excited to bring home some shared best practices to Southlands as we work together with Advance partner churches around the USA.

Turkey has a population of 70 million people. There are little more than 7000 Christians there at present. You do the math. It's a minute fraction of the population.  However, there is hope. Donnie and Jill spent a few days with a church planter named Andy,  who moved  to Istanbul from the UK 6 years ago. He took 2 years to learn Turkish and then planted a church. He's baptized 40 new believers in the last 4 years of his church plant and has a plan to plant 4 churches over the next few years.. His second church will be planted in an area of the city that has 1.5 million people and no churches. Not yet, anyway. I love his courage, vision and perseverance.

A real highlight was getting to visit the city of Ephesus, just 10 miles from where we were staying. Standing in the Lecture Hall of Tyrannous, where the Apostle Paul preached, was quite surreal. He actually stood here. This really happened. Acts 19 tells us that Paul reasoned and persuaded the Gentiles about Christ for 2 years, after which the whole province was filled with God's Word. And of course, we visited the magnificent amphitheater which seats 25 000 people,  where the riot in Ephesus began because Christians were burning their idols of the goddess Artemis. Paul ended up in a prison not far from Ephesus for preaching the gospel and challenging the religious status quo. I was freshly reminded of his words to the Church in Corinth. "I wish to spend the winter with you but I must stay in Ephesus, because an effective door of ministry has opened to me and I have many adversaries." Paul's adversaries included Jewish legalists, sorcerers, and rioters. But he didn't run.  The resurrected Christ didn't only empower him to go. He empowered him to stay. He had such courageous perseverance and it meant that the Word of God spread and prevailed.

Paul, of course, was amazing. But he wasn't a super-hero. We have access to the same staying power that he found in Jesus. It is the same staying power which enables our friend planting churches in Istanbul to persevere. It is this same staying power that enables us at Southlands to work, worship and witness faithfully in Whittier, Fullerton and Brea. Of course the doors of opportunity and the adversaries are different here in SoCal, but the staying power is the same!  Paul and Andy provide a healthy perspective on the challenges we face, don't they?
If they can persevere, I can persevere, and you can too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Best of British.

Spending a night in Gatwick Airport is not what I'd call the Best of British, but there was simply no way around it. The one redeeming component is that Jamie Oliver's Cafe' is open all night, so Rynelle and I are sitting here sipping very slowly on his home-made lemon grass ginger-beer while trying to resist his amazing looking cakes. So far so good.

I'm also trying to gather my thoughts after a whirlwind week in England. It began in Kensington at Holy Trinity Brompton, the church that started the Alpha course. Alpha is essentially an 8 week invitation to explore the claims of Christianity over dinner with permission to question, disagree and doubt. It has enjoyed massive success over the years having been attended by over 27 million people in 129 countries. It has seen a huge amount of skeptics, agnostics and atheists come to faith in Christ. We've been doing Alpha for 4 years at Southlands, so Erik and I were invited to attend a conference for leaders of early-adopting Alpha church sin the USA and Canada. We were able to share best practices and learn from the church where it all started. Alpha is an evangelistic tool that has enjoyed huge success, but it has also had the surprising effect of being a bridge builder between traditionally divided churches. There were leaders from Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian,  Pentecostal and independent churches, all united for the common cause of the gospel. Alpha has also had the surprising effect of helping people to engage the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The highlight of my time at HTB was praying for a catholic priest called Father Simon, who was eager for the Holy Spirit to empower him to be a witness for Christ in his parish in Toronto.  I was so moved by his humility and love for Jesus. Both Erik and I left inspired by what God is doing through Alpha and motivated to see it grow in effectivenes at Southlands.

From HTB I left to meet the Southlands team flying into Heathrow. We traveled up to Cornerstone Church in Newcastle. This has been our fourth trip in four years to the church planted by Drew and Tammy Davis 13 years ago. We have walked with the church through transition, as Mike and Esole' Duff came to lead three years ago. The team of elders have done a remarkable job in transition, and it was a thrill to see how God has grown the church in so many ways. They've just moved to a new, larger venue across the street and are seeing some real traction in this influential city with its international feel.

Although the UK is a small island, with small cars, small roads and small houses, I always feel enlarged being here, because Christians get a lot done with a little. They just get on with the job, no frills and on fuss. There is a real lack of entitlement, and they seem generally undeterred by their limited resources. They talk quietly but sing loudly! They are marvelously understated, under-promising and over-delivering. The idea that the church here is dying is simply not true. It is true that Christians are in the vast minority but the  churches we've been with, are growing, seeing people saved and added and having to cram people into venues that are bursting at the seams. They generally have small margins in terms of leaders, money, time and space, but they steward what they have faithfully and courageously and God entrusts them with more.
This, my friends, is the Best of British.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Reasons to Fast Day 3: Revival

It's the last day of our fast. If you're starting to dream about how you're going to break it tonight, you're in good company, but let's be careful to make this last day count in prayer.
It was quite remarkable to see God breaking people free from chains of generational sin, and to commission our prison ministry team for the work God has for them. I believe God still has some great things to say to us  and do in us.

Today, I'd like to focus on revival as a third reason why God's people have fasted through history.

Jesus, when questioned why his disciples did not fast like the disciples of John the Baptist, he answered, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days"(Mark 2:18-20)

Essentially Jesus was saying that his disciples would fast after Jesus was taken away, because they longed for Him. They would fast because they missed His presence and power. Now we know that although Jesus has ascended to heaven, He has given us the gift of His Holy Spirit, who communicates Jesus' presence and power to us. And yet there also seems to be an ebb and a flow of the sense of Jesus with us; both in our own lives and in the history of the Church. Revival, at it's essence could be described as an undeniable sense of the presence and power  of Jesus with His people. This is why we fast. We long for more of Jesus.

Martin Lloyd Jones spoke of revival often during his ministry. "I am profoundly convinced that the greatest need in the world today is revival in the Church of God. Yet alas! the whole idea of revival seems to have become strange to so many good Christian people... [This] is due both to a serious misunderstanding of the scriptures, and to woeful ignorance of the history of the Church. My prayer is that as we read it and are reminded of our glorious God, and of His mighty deeds in times past among His people, a great sense of our own unworthiness and inadequacy, and a corresponding longing for the manifestation of his glory and His power will be created within us. His arm is not shortened."

J. I. Packer, writing in God in our Midst, suggests that, among the variety of God’s ways, five constants appear in biblical revivals:

1.  Awareness of God’s presence: “The first and fundamental feature in renewal is the sense that God has drawn awesomely near in his holiness, mercy and might.”

2.  Responsiveness to God’s Word: “The message of Scripture which previously was making only a superficial impact, if that, now searches its hearers and readers to the depth of their being.”

3.  Sensitiveness to sin: “Consciences become tender and a profound humbling takes place.”

4.  Liveliness in community: “Love and generosity, unity and joy, assurance and boldness, a spirit of praise and prayer, and a passion to reach out to win others, are recurring marks of renewed communities.”

5.  Fruitfulness in testimony: “Christians proclaim by word and deed the power of the new life, souls are won, and a community conscience informed by Christian values emerges.

Today, let's simply pray for these marks of revival to be increasingly evident in our church and in the Church in our nation. Let's pray that great revival prayer from the prophet Habakkuk:
"Lord we've known of your deeds, we've heard of your fame,
In the midst of the years revive them, renew them in our day,
In wrath remember mercy!"

See you tonight!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reasons to Fast Part 2: Mission

Worship during a fast is somehow different, isn't it? Although we may feel weak, tired and even a bit grumpy, there seems to be a kind of hunger for God in the room that's often missing when our stomachs are full. Last night, God's presence was palpable as we gathered to worship and pray. It's all about God's strength made perfect in our weakness.

We're looking each day at the reasons why God's people fasted in Scripture. One reason was for the sake of mission, and there is no better example of this than in the church at Antioch.

Acts 13:1-3  Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Note that when these prophets and teachers first gathered to worship and fast it wasn't because they had a special mission trip. It's more likely that fasting was a regular means of grace for them. But  it was during a time of fasting and worship that the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Saul, directing the leaders of the church to commission them from the church. Barnabas and Saul got a new assignment during their fast. They walked into that prayer meeting as local church leaders and they walked out as men set apart for trans-local mission. You never know what new assignments God is going to hand out during a fast! Notice that after the Holy Spirit set them apart the church continued to fast and worship for a time before hands were actually laid on Paul and Barnabas and they were sent out. It appears that they decided to extend their a fast few days because of this moment! It's a great reminder to us  that the Spirit's commission needs the Spirit's power, which is given during times like this, of prayer and fasting.

As a church we are on the cusp of some specific sending for mission too. Southlands Whittier is just over a week away from launching, and we want to pray specifically for the team that is going today and tonight. Please pray for boldness for them, for unity, for favor with neighbors and co-workers, for God-appointments with people who need Jesus. Pray for the leadership team too, and pray for God's protection and provision on every family that is going.  We will also be praying for our brand new prison ministry team as they launch this week, as well as for the team that are preparing to go and plant in Thailand. All of these sending assignments need to be bathed in prayer. Apart from Christ we can do nothing!

In one sense, Paul and Barnabas's apostolic ministry was a specific and unique calling. They were going to be traveling to churches to strengthen and encourage them and set elders in place, as we see them doing in the next chapter. This is not an assignment that everyone gets. In another sense though, we have all been set apart by the Holy Spirit through Jesus' Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. When we fast we are all asking for fresh power, boldness, compassion and direction from the Holy Spirit before we are sent out again. Many of will not make a move geographically, but being set apart is a new reminder that we are not of the world but we are in the world, sent by Jesus as the Father sent Him. This is what God does for His people when they fast and pray. He fills us up and sends us out. Pray that the Holy Spirit would do this for all of us again today.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Reasons to Fast Part 1: Distress.

We begin our Fall fast today and I'm so encouraged by the enthusiasm expressed to seek God together. This is not just a hunger strike. We deny ourselves food in order to feast on Jesus. It's worthwhile to set aside some time each day privately to pray, so that we're not just wishing and waiting for a chance to eat again. God desires to meet us all with great love and power. Gathering each night to worship and pray together also helps give us a sense of journeying together, so I encourage you to be at those times.

Each day over the next three days, I'll send out a short blog to provide some thematic guidelines to help us as we journey together. I want to look at the reasons why God's people fasted in Scripture. Today I want to look at a very common reason. God's people fasted when they were in distress and God met with them powerfully in that distress.

When Nehemiah heard that the returning exiles to Jerusalem were in great trouble and disgrace, and that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and its gates burned with fire, he was greatly distressed.

"When I heard these things I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: 'O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and obey His commands, let your ears be attentive and your eyes be open to hear the prayers your servant is praying before you night and day for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you....O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant.... grant your servant success.' " Nehemiah 1: 2-10

Some helpful insights and questions to ask around this passage:

1. What do you see around you that is broken and burned, that causes you to be distressed? Nehemiah mourned and wept.  Let's take some time to think, mourn and weep about our nation, our county and our city. Ask God for a heart of distress, so that you can pray with compassion.  Pray into a particular area of brokenness in our culture. Is it fatherlessness, sex-trafficking, poverty, the porn industry, the high rate of divorce, racism, materialism, hardness of heart towards the Gospel, drug addiction, Christian hypocrisy, Christian persecution? Pray that God would restore it. In Acts 17 Paul saw that there were many idols in Athens and he was greatly distressed. What are the idols in our cities that distress us?

2. What is broken and burned in your own life, in your relationships, family or marriage? Notice how Nehemiah includes himself in the prayer of confession for Israel's sin. "I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed..." Allow the Holy Spirit to convict you and bring you to repentance instead of simply pointing out others' brokenness. Ask Him to point out if there is some brokenness passed on from your father's house that needs healing. Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us. What are the idols in our own lives that should distress us? Allow the Lord to expose them so that we can repent of them.

3.  What are some practical steps that God is calling you to take to bring restoration to distressing situations? Nehemiah's fasting and prayer was a precursor to empowered action. "Grant your servant success." Note that his prayer begins with distress but ends in a prayer for success, which God answered. This shows us the power of prayer and fasting.

May God break our hearts, lead us to repentance, and grant us success in our distress. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"Sports God Part 3: Thinking Biblically as parents, coaches, players and fans."

As I blog about the benefits and dangers of living in a sports-crazed culture, I'm watching the Sharks play the Pumas in South Africa's Currie Cup Rugby league.  The irony of this does not escape me. My wife says I have a remarkable ability to multi-task when it comes to watching sport. For this compliment I have no defense. One of my favorite things is to get up early on a Saturday here on the West Coast of the US,  and watch Rugby or Soccer that took place during the night from a prior time zone. It takes great discipline not to check the score!

Anyway,  I can't help notice that the tag line for the Currie Cup Competition is, "Glory is eternal!"
That's a pretty grand claim right there. From a Biblical point of view, as much as I enjoy the gutsy heroics of rugby, that tag line seems wholly inappropriate. Although glory is indeed eternal, the claim that 30 big slabs of humanity chasing an egg-shaped ball around a muddy field will somehow achieve eternal glory, may be the epitome of over-promising and under-delivering.

But this offer of glory underlines my final big idea in a three-part, three-idea blog. We've looked at the idea of sport as a gift, sport as a gamble, and finally we'll look at the idea of sport as an idol. It is this quasi-religious promise of glory that allures us and distracts us from the true glory of God. We feel that our team or our kids can achieve something that will go down in history, achieving for them some kind of significance, some unfading glory.  There are few things more glorious than the swelling of pride when your child does well on the sports field, or when your team wins a title. And yet we know from history that moments of glory are so quickly forgotten, records are broken, and statues of sporting heroes are perched on by pigeons. (and all that goes along with perching pigeons) All to often, when sporting glory fades it leaves fragile egos, squandered fortunes and broken families. Sporting glory is not eternal at all, is it.

Tim Keller describes an idol  as a good thing that has become an ultimate thing. So how do I know if the glory of sport has becoming something of an idol to me, whether I'm a parent, player,  coach or a fan? I think I know because the demands of sport on my schedule, money, family and fellowship will always take precedence. Sport will be ultimate. I will sacrifice anything for it. Everything else will be secondary or tertiary.

I recently read about a couple who were such University of Alabama Football fans that they sold their house, bought a $300,000 RV and basically spent all their time following the Crimson Tide wherever they played. When their daughter got married they could only go to the reception because the actual wedding ceremony interfered with an Alabama Football game. They saw this as quite reasonable. Alabama Football was their idol, and nothing else got in its way.

We would quickly label this couple as fanatics for whom sport had become ultimate. Being at the game is more important to them than their daughters own wedding! But even if we are not as fanatical as they are, I would simply ask that we would do an audit on the demands that sport makes on our schedule, our money, our family and our fellowship. As a family, we have had to ask God for wisdom about what we can and cannot afford to further our kids' sporting goals. I have had to ask serious questions about how much sport I watch as a fan. We have asked ourselves how we can maintain a cohesive sense of family in the midst of numerous sports practices and games. And we have had honest conversations with coaches about the priority of worshipping together as a family on a Sunday at church.  We have found coaches and other parents to be surprisingly understanding, and the conversations have been a bridge for the Gospel.

I am not telling you where you should  land. I am simply calling us as God's people to invite Jesus to be Lord of our sporting lives which means sport becomes a dialogue not just an automatic decision. This dialogue may be uncomfortable at first as He adjusts and challenges, but I believe it will ultimately free us to enjoy sport as His gift, handle it wisely as a gamble, and approach it ultimately for His glory.

Sports God Part 2: Thinking Biblically as parents, players, coaches and fans.

In my first blog on this topic,  I wrote about sport as a gift that brings joy, teaches discipline, team work and perseverance, and unites people from diverse backgrounds. While Scripture teaches that physical training is of temporary value, the lessons we can learn from it are eternal, which is why the Bible employs sporting imagery on numerous occasions to describe life as a Christian.

But before we go too far in seeing sport as the source of all good,  Scripture also views sport as a gamble. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon is at his philosophical best when he describes sport's ability to break our hearts, lose us money,  jinx us and just generally confound us. "The race is not to the swift nor the fight to the strong...but time and chance happen to them all." (Ecc 9:11)

This verse describes the uncertainty of sport, and it's ability to destroy hopes, friendships, careers and fortunes when we place too much stock in it. Some have called it luck,  others juju. Solomon calls it 'time and chance,' and he insists that it happens to us all. He is telling us that sport is one big crap shoot, to use an AmericanismFrom a Biblical point of view,  we see that the strange bounce of the ball, a sudden gust of wind, the tearing of a normally healthy muscle, the popping of a usually strong knee, or the inexplicable loss of concentration of famously strong mind, can happen to the best in sport. This means that the fastest and strongest player or team on paper can curiously lose the game.

 It may be what confounds and infuriates us, but it's also what we love about sports, and what keeps the betting industry afloat.  The underdog can beat the champion with an against-all-odds-win.
If we were to name just a few of these famous wins in recent sporting history we might think of  the Red Socks beating the Yankees in the 2004 World Series breaking their losing curse. Or maybe Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson at 42/1 odds to take the world heavyweight title. What about Liverpool's recovery of a 3-goal deficit against AC Milan to take the Campions League Final  in 2005? And then there was that fateful day in Johannesburg that I mentioned in my previous blog, when the Springboks  beat the All Blacks in the final of the Rugby World Cup.  It was honestly a David against Goliath victory, and legend has it that the indomitable All-Blacks got food-poisoning from some suspect seafood  in their hotel the day before. There were cries of conspiracy and sabotage, but whatever the case, it affirmed Solomon's claim. Time and chance happen to us all. 

How does this inform our approach towards sport besides the excitement of underdog victories? It is simply this, that there is no such thing as a sure thing in sport. With this in mind we should treat all sport with a healthy measure of skepticism and a refusal to bank our futures or our souls on any sports result. When we understand sport's ability to thrill us one moment and devastate us the next, we will not entrust ourselves to it. It is a fickle lover.  I have experienced this first hand as a sports fan, spending countless viewing hours during a season in the hopes of victory, only to see those hopes dashed in a few minutes as my team snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. This leaves me with a hollow sense of wasted time. I have invested massive time and energy into something that is so fragile and unpredictable. How can my sense of well-being be tied so closely to a few burly men chasing an odd-shaped ball around a bumpy field?" And then a new season arrives and hope springs eternal. I am starting, biblically, to second guess my naive trust in sports. Nobody likes losing, but I am beginning to engage slightly more for the love of the game, than simply the sweet, but illusive taste of victory.

A little closer to home, I am second guessing the vain hope of spending thousands of dollars and countless hours on side-lines with the sole  aim of seeing children winning a college scholarship through sport. If it happens, I'll be delighted but I'm not holding my breath. While I know of athletes who have received scholarships, I also know that the odds are very slim, and that the pressure to excel in the hopes of a scholarship or a league promotion can crush ours and our childrens' enjoyment of sport. When time and chance happen to our children, all the investment and encouragement in the world cannot make them immune to injury, loss of form, or just loss of interest in the sport of our choice. Just because you work harder doesn't mean you win, because sport remains at best, a risky investment and at worst, a reckless gamble.

Of course, no fan, player, coach or parent wants to lose. I am competitive by nature and I love the competitive nature of sport. But understanding that sport is a gamble should mean that we should never teach our kids to co-opt little proof-text verses from the Bible like 'If God be for us who can be against us,' or 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.' These are not verses about sport. They are about suffering for the Gospel. We cannot co-opt God as our sports mascot. After all, especially in OC where seemingly everyone is Christian, how bizarre to think that both teams are praying to Jesus to give them a win?

Maybe winning really means that we have gambled less on our childrens' sporting future and  invested more in their spiritual future?

Sports God part 1: Thinking Biblically as fans, players, coaches and parents.

It's the Fall here in the USA, which means the kick off of a new academic year,  Friday Night Lights football and British Premiere League soccer. As a pastor, parent and fan, these are a few of my favorite things!

 I love the renewed sense of focus and vision in the church as people return from summer vacation, but I also feel the tension of people's jam-packed lives as they launch into new academic rhythms and a myriad of extra-curricular activities. None more so than sport.

This week I've had 5 separate conversations with parents who are overwhelmed with the allure and demand of club, school and professional sports. One parent laments that they never eat together as a family anymore. Another is wrestling with the fact that their club schedule takes them away from church. One man has decided not to play fantasy football because he realizes it means he's glued to his TV, laptop and phone from Thursday through to Monday. Another man berates me because I'm willing to miss a quarter of my son's football game due to a pre-scheduled meeting.  How do I respond to these conversations as a pastor, parent and sports fan, myself?

Before you write me off as a sporting kill-joy, I'm blogging in between my third and fourth soccer game. My daughter plays club and my son plays signature which makes for a busy weekend, but I'm a proud and passionate supporter. So passionate, in fact,  that I was once red carded by a ref and forced to do the walk of shame to the car park for protesting a bad refereeing call in my daughter's league final! (It was an awful call, believe me) Beyond soccer, my oldest son plays Varsity football and as I've mentioned,  Friday Night Lights is one of my favorite American past times. Besides being a passionate sports parent, I played sports at a fairly high level myself, and I'm a serious sports fan. (For Soccer it's Galaxy and Arsenal, Rugby the Springboks, Cricket the Proteas and Football it's USC)  My favorite Saturday morning past time is to get up early and watch soccer and rugby games that were recorded during the night. My boys and I have been known to play  FIFA15 marathons on our PS3. My favorite thing is to surf the almost perfect long board swell on my SUP at Doheny's. Whether it's sport for exercise, competition or pleasure, I think you get the picture. I'm not anti-sports. Far from it. I have an almost insatiable appetite for it.

Which hopefully gives me some credibility when I ask whether we have ever considered what God's opinion of sport might be?  Have we ever allowed the Scriptures to probe our sport-crazed culture? This is what I intend to do this week, in three brief blogs. I want to look at sport as a gift, sport as a gamble and sport as a god. 

Firstly, let's look at sport as a gift.
It's significant that while certain forms of sport were used to persecute Christians in the 1st century, the New Testament is full of sporting imagery.  The Roman Emperor Nero entertained thousands of citizens with his Gladiator competitions in the Colosseum in Rome around AD 60.  The highlight of the program was pitting Christians against lions as sport. If ever there were reason to denounce sport as anti-Christian, it was surely in the early church. And yet the writer to the Hebrews uses a sporting metaphor to describe the endurance needed in the Christian life, likening it to a marathon  runner. (Heb 12:1)  Paul too, uses a marathon metaphor to describe the focused endurance needed to follow Christ; "Run in such a way as to win a crown," as well as boxing metaphor to describe the discipline needed in a preacher; "I beat my body and make it my slave," (1 Cor 16)  His Olympic imagery not only redeems sport,  but points it out as a way of understanding the Christian life.

Besides the sheer enjoyment of sport, which is no small thing, my wife and I have often talked about the valuable life lessons that we and our kids have learned from being physically trained by sports coaches in a team environment. It's taught us discipline, how to work as a team, play hard but fair,  receive criticism,  persevere through pain and defeat, and win graciously. Although sports teams are not the only environment in which to learn these lessons,  I've found that people who never played sport often lack these qualities, and tend to be undisciplined, unable to work in team or unable to persevere through hardship. These qualities last long after fitness has been lost, or win-loss records have been forgotten. Sport is a common grace.

Paul also encouraged physical exercise in his first letter to Timothy. "Physical training is of some value but godliness is of value in all things, both in this life and the life to come."(1 Tim. 4:8) He was debunking a gnostic view of life here, which viewed the spirit world as good and the material world as evil. He affirmed the gift and stewardship of the human body as valuable, even if it was of temporary value.  He may have been talking more of health than competitive sport, but in Paul's day, exercise was generally communal and therefore had a degree of competition, not unlike the boxing gyms or cross fit boxes of today.

 Beyond the clear Biblical references, sport is a gift because it's a great uniting force for people of diverse backgrounds. We witnessed the uniting power of sport first-hand in 1995 when South Africa, a country previously torn apart by racism, was united as it hosted and won the Rugby World Cup. Nelson Mandela, the president of the nation at that time, intentionally used the South African team as a metaphor for unity, calling the fractured nation to rally around their team on the day of the final. When we won, the nation was transformed. It was such a catalytic moment that Clint Eastwood made the movie Invictus to herald the uniting power of sport. We see this uniting force both in sports teams and among fans, who are able to set aside racial, economic, language and political differences for the common cause of winning.

Sport is a gift indeed.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Trump and our Evangelical strangeness: an opinion piece.

A recent poll in Reuters  showed that Evangelicals who go to church don't like TrumpThis statement seems strange to me for two reasons.  It seems strange that any Evangelicals support the billionaire turned presidential candidate hopeful, although it's somewhat of a relief that Evangelicals who actually go to church do not generally like him. While his conviction and clarity may seem Messianic, his power-hungry, playground-bully tactics and blustering ego are more more akin to Herod than Jesus. As Christians, we cannot look to any political leader as our Messiah, but if we are going to vote for someone, surely they should possess something of the essence of our Messiah?

Anyway, what's even more strange to me than Evangelicals supporting Trump is that Reuters actually have a category for Evangelicals who go to church. 

As if there were any other category of Evangelical?

But of course, we know there must be another category and it would be  made up of those who identify as Evangelicals who do not go to church. This is indeed strange, but we know it to be true.
We know that there are many Evangelicals who do not go to church. I'm not talking about nominal or sporadic church going. I'm not even talking about less formal expressions of church.  I'm talking about a convicted refusal to gather with the people of God to worship Jesus, hear the preaching of the Scriptures, pray and celebrate the sacraments in any organized way, shape or form. Being Evangelical and refusing to go to church is more strange to me than being Evangelical and liking Trump.

An Evangelical, at its most basic, is a Christian who views the Bible as God's final of authority for all life and doctrine. Just flip through the pages of the New Testament and you will see that a Christ follower who doesn't go to church is simply not a thing. To deny the authority of the Bible on the subject of the Church generally, one must cut out half of the New Testament which was written to and about the church. Perhaps at this stage, with bible-snipping scissors in hand, one should also snip off one's Evangelical label?

I grew up in a moralistic Christian culture. People thought that if they did the right things like going to church then they were Christians. They would check the boxes. "Helped a poor person. check. Read my bible. check. Said my prayers. check.  Went to church. check.  I'm a Christian." To counter this moralism we would say, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than living in a garage makes you a car." We were trying to help people see that we are saved by God's  grace not by our religious activity. Today we no longer live in a moralistic Christian culture. It's individualistic. The car/garage  metaphor has been turned on its head. It's like people are saying, "Just because I'm a car doesn't mean I have to park it in a garage." Evangelicals  may view going to church today as optional, but not vital. It's no longer simply what we are designed to do. It's now a matter of preference.  To continue the car/garage metaphor I'd respond, "Of course you could be a car and not park in a garage. But then don't be surprised if you find your car getting dirty, faded or even stolen."

Don't be surprised if you find yourself voting for Herod instead of Jesus.

One of the arguments against going to church is, "We don't go to church. We are the Church."
This is quite true. Since the day that we were adopted as sons and daughters into God's worldwide family,  we were made members of that family and remain members every moment of our days.
 But if I was a member of a family who refused to gather regularly with that family you would say that I was a very unhealthy family member. Of course, there is plenty of dysfunction in God's family. It's far from perfect. But it's the Father's profound gift to us as His children and as we engage with a healthy church family we discover new depths of the Father's love that were simply unfathomable when we lived in splendid isolation.

No doubt, we don't just go to church. We are the Church. 
But if we are the Church, we also go to church. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Numbers Conundrum

God is in the details.
My first boss would drum this saying into me regularly. I was the kind of salesman who would spend days landing a big deal and then fill out the wrong product code. I would tend to be about the big picture and forget to do my due diligence in the little things much to his frustration.

God is in the details.
I'm so grateful for a leadership team that has a culture of thinking big but acting faithfully in the details.  We've recently been looking at the details of our church's attendance, income, members, life groups, baptisms and leadership development track. This has been with our eye on the big picture of sending out a fresh crop of members and leaders to our next community in Whittier. We're also scouting out Myanmar and Thailand for a church plant in the near future.

While it may be simplistic to say that a church is only heathy if the numbers are growing, they're helpful indicators of the vital signs of health and its ability to reproduce itself. Almost all of our vital signs are growing which is encouraging. Some are growing more like a glacier than an avalanche, while others are growing more rapidly.  But still, being able to track these things is helpful and illuminating.

The Bible is a book full of numbers. There’s even a book in the Bible called Numbers!
 I'm intrigued at how much Jesus spoke about numbers in his parables. In his ‘Lost' series of parables, the good shepherd counted his 100 sheep and found 99, and so went looking after the 1. The woman counted and realized there was a lost coin so she cleaned out the whole house searching for it. In the parable of the talents, the good master counted to see how much return his servants had given him on what he had invested in them. In his feeding of the 5000, (they must have counted to know it was  5000, and they counted the 5 loaves and 2 fish) Jesus divided the people in to groups of 50 and 100 in order to feed them. These examples show us that counting is good leadership practice for keeping track of people, of progress, and keeping track of appropriate administration.
God is in the details. 

The early church was aware of numbers too. 3000 people were saved and added in one day after Pentecost, and the church followed Jesus model by meeting together in the temple courts, but then breaking up into smaller groups house to house for food and fellowship. A few chapters later, Peter confronts Ananias and Sapphira because they had given less than they said they’d sold their house for. The result was death. God is in the details.

Numbering is necessary for good stewardship. It's just honest. Counting values people more than undervalues them, because it assumes that we will give an account to God for them.  It tracks fruitfulness and informs our multiplication. It also shows us areas of stagnation that need fresh focus.

But numbers can be dangerous. Details can be deadly of they puff us up when they're up or beat us down when they're down.

I recently stumbled over the passage in 1 Chronicles 21 where Satan incites David to take a census of his army, and Joab, his commander in chief,  is loathe to take it. He resists David's idea, replying, "May the Lord add to his people a hundred times many as they are. Are they not all servants of my lord, the king? Why then should my lord require it?" Nevertheless, the kings command prevails. He counts a million and a half soldiers and it is a grievious sin to God. God kills 70 000 people because of it!

What is going on here? What is the difference between good and bad numbering?

I think the message here is that God had given David against all odds victories by faith  in the past and now David was starting to put confidence in his human and natural resources instead of his heavenly resources. God was greatly displeased by this.The difference between numbering as stewardship and numbering as sin is in what, or in Whom  we place our confidence.

I suppose if we are going to number, we should keep Abraham and Sarah in mind. There were just two of them and a barren womb and God says, ‘Look at the stars in the sky and the sand in the sea shore – this is how numerous I will make your descendants. ' We need to look up at the heavens and out at the ocean in their vastness. This means that if we are lacking in numbers, we can still think big. God is an against-all-odds God! Ultimately, if we are counting we're counting on  the God of heaven, with His inexhaustible  resources. We are counting on the God who makes barren wombs fruitful, and fells mighty giants like great redwoods with one smooth stone.

Let's be in the details, by all means. But if we're counting, let's be counting on the Lord.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Constantine, Calvin and a night in Airport Exile.

I write this from a transit room in Frankfurt airport. To call it a lounge would be too kind. Levi is sleeping next to me on a hard bench. The others have gone in search of something with more padding. Our flight was delayed until tomorrow due to technical problems. People with an EU visa were shuttled to a hotel, given restaurant vouchers and told they'd be picked up the next day. The rest of us were handed a pillow,  a blanket and a voucher to a convenience store, and told to find a place to sleep on the airport floor. If I sound a bit annoyed, I suppose I am - firstly at the frustration of being delayed and exiled in an airport, but also at the seeming injustice of it all. Apparently, Lufthansa has breached its own code of conduct.

My kids say that it's a chance to do some family bonding and I suppose they're right, but while they sleep, it's got me thinking about history. Church history. Although I'm no expert, I love Church history. It's an extraordinary gift.It can save us from over-stating the importance of our own moment, keeping us humble. It can rescue us from making the same mistake twice, making us wise. It can prevent us from being pre-occupied with the next new thing, keeping us sober. Most of all, it can yank us out of the sea of despair when a fierce squall buffets us, keeping us hopeful. Church history is a lesson in Providence, which does its brightest work on the darkest days.

Friday 26th June was a dark day for the Church in the USA. It was the day on which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of a re-definition of marriage, legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states. For me, the day was further darkened by the very mixed response from within the Church itself, from euphoria to vitriole. Of course, we know the diverse theological fabric of the Church in the USA, but on this day, diversity seemed to be more like a gaping chasm at a time when solidarity was most needed.

There's been a massive amount already written in response to the ruling. Some have said that the day will go down historically as the "Roe vs. Wade of marriage." One of the more helpful articles I've found on the topic was by Dr. Russell Moore in the Washington Post on why-the-church-should-neither-cave-nor-panic-about-the-decision-on-gay-marriage/? Neither cave nor panic. Good advice, but how, when it seems that Christians are on the wrong side of history? How can Church history help us to respond well to this breach of a law that, until recently seemed self-evident?

Firstly, we can learn from the 1st Century, that socio-political favor did not benefit the Church in the long run. While the church was buffeted by persecution under Emperor Damacletian around 300AD, it produced a robust and cohesive company of  saints. Socio-political pressure, instead of extinguishing the Church, actually served to distinguish it. The family indeed bonded!
In 330AD,  when Emperor Constantine authorized Christianity as Rome's official religion with his resounding In Hoc Signo Vinces battle cry,  what seemed like great favor actually resulted in the beginning of a spiritual slumber for the Church as Christendom was born. It's fair to say that Constantine may have killed the Church with kindness. Christendom, while providing protection and  privilege for Christians, was never a good mother of radical Christ followers. That tended to happen in places with less Christian freedom.

Fast forward to the 16th Century and John Calvin, in favor with Geneva's Protestant government because of the ejection of the Catholic clergy, was trying to implement Biblical church discipline in the Reformed Church. The Geneva magistrates and the Libertines were having none of it. The Libertines were a political group who held positions of influence in Geneva, and they resisted Calvin's attempts to govern the church with autonomy according to Biblical principles. Calvin very quickly lost favor with those in power and influence and had to flee Geneva to take exile in Strasbourg. During his exile Calvin met Martin Bucer, the Strasbourg Reformer. Bucer's strong views on church government galvanized those of Luther's, and when he returned to Geneva 3 years later, he was all the more determined to maintain separation between state and church and to govern the church according to Biblical principles. Calvin's exile, instead of extinguishing the church, served to distinguish it from the State and from Libertine culture.

So fast forward again, to 2015. While it may be true that Friday the 26th June sounded Christendom's death knell in the USA, that may not be altogether a bad thing. I don't want to sound cavalier here. It's no fun feeling like the tide has turned against you. It's no fun being on the wrong side of history. But let's acknowledge that on the wrong side of history is where the Church began, and on the wrong side of history is where it has tended thrive.

Nobody enjoys a sense of being in exile, just like nobody enjoys sleeping the night on an airport floor.  But if we are to learn from church history at all, we should learn that Jesus does do serious family bonding in His Church during seasons of exile. Let's rest assured that on our darkest days, Providence does it's brightest work. Now if only I could get some sleep.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Winsome: Doing the work of an Evangelist when you're not one.

Over the last decade much has been written about the need for the Church to recover it's missional identity. It's been a long overdue correction to the way we see ourselves as Christians. Christ followers are not just becoming more like Christ in character. They are also becoming more like Christ in mission. Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Biblically, the call to be  a missionary is not merely for those who pack their Gospel bags for  distant shores, although those people are to be applauded. It's more than bringing people to hear the Gospel preached at some sort of crusade, although that can be helpful too.We're all missionaries, all of the time, in every place we find ourselves, in joyful obedience to the Great Commission. Most of us will spend most of our days being missionaries in our own zip code, loving and serving our neighbors towards faith in Christ. This is some of what it means to be missional.

Perhaps one of the words that's been lost in the missional conversation though, is the word evangelist. It's a Bible word, and it means someone who is a herald of the the Good News of Jesus. The problem is that for some of us the word evangelist conjures up images of a man in a white suit taking up an offering for his new private jet, and because we don't want anything to do with that kind of Christianity, we are now more user-friendly-seeker-sensitive-chatting-non-threateningly-over-fair-trade-coffee-missional! My  concern with this is that as we build bridges of love and service with those who don't yet know Christ, we may have lost the boldness to call people to walk across them. We may have lost the ability to winsomely call people to repent and put their faith in Christ. This is what an evangelist does. They take the gap and call people to cross the bridge.

There seem to be so few real evangelists in our midst today. And so it may be most appropriate for us to take heed of Paul's words to his young protege' Timothy. "Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry."(2 Tim 4:5) Do the work of an evangelist. This implies that Timothy was not one. Certainly not by temperament. He was timid.  Nor by gifting. He seemed more pastoral and a bit apostolic. But Paul didn't let him off the hook because of his temperament or gifting. He was called to win some people to Christ. And so are we.

So how are we to do the work of an evangelist when we are not one? This has been my story, and I feel like I've learned some helpful  things that have seen some people come to faith over time.

1. Look for a person of peace
When Jesus sent out the 72 he told them to look for a man of peace went they went to a new town and stay with him the whole time. (Luke 10:5) For me, a man of peace is someone whose heart is already warming to the Gospel. They are asking questions, but not as excuses not to believe. They are looking for reasons to believe. Examples of this are Zaccheus, Nicodemus and the women at the well in the Gospels. Also Lydia, Cornelius and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts. We are to love and serve everyone, but keep our eyes open to these people of peace, and concentrate our efforts on them.
2. Look for a Gospel Gap. 
I always tell the Story of God in the Bible to seekers as soon as I get a chance. It's like a 4 act drama: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. One of the things I love to speak of is the impact of the Fall in Genesis 3. Then I will say, "This is how Adam's sin has caused me to be broken. How has Adam's sin impacted you?"Authenticity is a bridge for people to hear the Gospel. Normally, if a person will admit that they struggle with some kind of brokenness, they are on track to recognizing their need for a Redeemer. It's what I call looking for the Gospel gap.
3. Look for an opportunity to pray for people.
By this I don't mean, "Hey man, I'll keep you in prayer." I mean, actually asking if there is anything that I can pray for them about, right then and there. Very few people resist prayer. I even ask of I can place my hand on their shoulder, and I will ask God to show Himself to them. Often, before people cross the line of faith, they sense the presence of God in prayer. Prayer is like the dinner bell to the table of grace. It causes people to hunger for God.
4. Have a reasonable grasp of why you believe what you believe.
Any person dialogue about Christianity will come around to some  hot button topics. An ability to give a reason for you faith is helpful. You don't need to be an academic to have a simple, but informed opinion about Creation, the basic differences between Christianity and other religions, the Old Testament prophecies that were accurately fulfilled in the gospels, and Biblical ethics on sexuality. (homosexuality will always come up.)
5. Be ready to explain the difference between Moralism and the Gospel.
There is a great harvest of God-fearers in Southern California; people who think they are Christians but are really just moralist therapeutic deists. In other words, they have been preached a message that  God wants to help you to live better and be happier. The Gospel is not good advice to be taken. It is Good News to be believed! So share the Good News and then be ready to take the gap.

 Of course, all this needs to happen in the context of patient, loving service. But let's not forget to carry a sickle with us as we go. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Why my Wife is Teaching tomorrow.

Thursday was Rynelle's birthday. She's very easy to celebrate, and between our family and our friends, we did a pretty good job of doing that I think. In between the birthday celebrations  though, we spent a few hours discussing the theme of Redemption in the Book of Ruth. That is because she's teaching this Sunday. In fact, Jac Nethers, another of our elder's wives, is teaching too. I can't wait to hear what God says through them.

Now you may have a question about my timing. Imagine asking your wife to preach the week of her birthday?  To be honest, it's a very valid question to which I have no reasonable answer! But what if you had a bigger question about whether women should preach at all on a Sunday? Or conversely, perhaps you're asking why they don't preach more often? I want to try and thread the needle here and offer two reasons why we believe that women can teach on a Sunday, but are not the primary teachers at Southlands. One is technical and the other quite practical.

Firstly, I believe women can teach because we see more than one kind of teaching in the Bible. Teaching the Word of God to the people of God is a weighty matter no matter what the format, and Scripture clearly warns us that it's not for everyone. "Not many of you should be teachers, because those of us who teach will be more strictly judged." (Js 3:1) Moreover, Scripture also tells us that the job of teaching is primarily the realm of the elders, and not necessarily all of the elders."The elder who rules well is worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching."(1 Tim 5:14) So who teaches is not firstly an issue of men versus women, but of elder versus non-elder. The word teach here is Gk: didaskalia, which refers to the authoritative declaration of doctrine, direction or discipline, to stick with the D's!

However, this is not the only kind of teaching described in Scripture. For instance, Paul encourages the Colossian church in this way. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom."(Col 3:16) He uses the variant Gkdidaskontes here which refers more broadly to instruction and practical knowledge, and this function is not limited to elders but addressed to the whole church. Many men use the difficult verse, "I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man,"(1 Tim 2:12) as a reason for women not to teach in the pulpit, but again this refers to the first kind of authoritative teaching, not the second more broad sense.

When Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos into their home and taught him, Paul seemed to have no problem with a woman teaching a man, most likely because it was more instructional than correctional. "They explained to him the way of God more adequately." (Acts 18:24)  but we would do well to distinguish between governmental teaching by an elder, and instructional teaching by a gifted man or woman under the authority of the elders. More on this by Andrew Wilson here.

Secondly and more practically, I believe women should teach because the Church is the family of God, and a healthy family needs the voices of both fathers and mothers.

To be clear, as a church we are Complementarian in our understanding of the roles of men and women. Basically, Complementarians view men and women as equal in value but not interchangeable. See a more comprehensive unpacking of what this means by Gavin Ortlund here.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible shows that men and women have differing and complementary roles in both the nuclear and spiritual family, for the glory of God and the good of the family. A woman and a man reflect the image of God in different ways and these differences are essential and beautiful rather than oppressive and awful. In the nuclear family, a mother expresses an aspect of God's character in a way that a father doesn't. My children would have a lopsided view of God if I were their only teacher and Rynelle were not allowed to bring her wise and patient teaching to them.

It is the same within the family of God. All too often, churches give a Complementarian view as the reason why women should not teach in church. But I would argue the exact opposite. Being Complementarian is the very reason why women should teach at times, because they have something to express to us about God that men struggle to express, especially when it comes to His attributes of compassion, kindness, patience and humility. Now I know that there are those who would respond by saying that women can do this without teaching per se.  It is true that women  empowered to lead in worship, prophecy, prayer and exhortation can help to create a more holistic sense of family in the church, but where a passage or book of the Bible lends itself to a women's voice, we should be open to that in order to avoid a male-dominated view of God and His family.

We are poorer as a family if our mothers are seen and not heard. So I appeal to you to open your ears and your hearts to hear the word of God through two great mothers in our church family tomorrow.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Tenth Avenue : Why I still believe the Tithe is the Best Road to Generosity.

I grew up stingy. I still recall my teenage friends teasing me because I took change from the offering plate at my church. After all, money was scarce at home and my teenage desires were numerous. I would, as they say, nickel and dime God.

Thirty years on, and many miles traveled, I've grown in the grace of giving. I've not arrived by any means, but giving is a journey I take with cheerfulness and expectancy, because it's been marked by many milestones of God's faithfulness.

I'm not a prosperity preacher. Jesus didn't die to make me rich and God's blessing on my life does't hinge on me giving Him money. It hinges on Jesus. And yet, Jesus Himself was uncompromising in His claims on my money. "You cannot love both God and money." In the words of John Mayer, giving has become for me an act of heartbreak warfare Every time I give to God it is in act of  breaking up with an illicit lover called money. It's a gesture of fierce loyalty to a faithful Lover.
Show me your credit card statement and I'll tell you whom your heart adores.

So what has been the key to keeping a platonic relationship with money, you ask? I know you're asking the question. Ready for it?
There. I said it.  I'm aware that the tithe has become a dirty word for many, but talking of 10, would you give me 10 minutes of your precious time to try and redeem it? I want to tell you my philosophy, theology and testimony of the tithe.

 A Philosophy
Many people argue with the percentage of the tithe, but before we get to that, I want to say that tithe is not just about percentage.  It's about priority. And priority giving is a big idea in Scripture. I'm all too well aware of my slack, selfish nature, and I've found that planned priority giving ensures that my needs and wants - which are always there - don't mess with my generosity. Giving is like exercise; so easy to let it slip, but when you do it, you wander how you ever lived without it. I never forget to spend but I easily forget to give.  Priority giving is God's means of grace to us to keep our hearts loving God and free from the love of money. Priority giving goes beyond tithing. 

God's first command  about the planned priority of generosity was to do with the poor.  When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the fatherless, the widow and the alien. I am the LORD your God. Lev 23:22 God told His people to sow in squares and reap in circles for the sake of the fatherless, the widow, and the foreigner.  In this case, farmers were to be willing to make less profit for the sake of poor. Paul echoes this idea in 2 Corinthians 9 when he calls the church in Corinth to set aside money as first fruits for the poor every week.

And then there was a command for planned priority for the sake of the Levites, who didn't have land, because they were serving in the temple full-time. This was called the tithe.  Some scholars say that under the law it became as much as 23%, but when Abraham first implemented it, it was 10%.  "Okay, I hear you say. I get priority. But 10%? Isn’t that Old Testament?"Isn’t it the law?
Didn't Jesus and Paul abolish it? Isn't that too much? "

Let's look at these objections briefly in a theology of tithing, beginning with Jesus, looking backwards to Abraham and forwards to Paul.

A Theology

 Jesus taught it. 
We need to start with Jesus. Jesus is not only the Supreme Theme of the Bible, He is it’s Supreme Interpreter. This is why God said at the Transfiguration, “This is my Son, whom I love, listen to Him.” Jesus not only fulfilled the law and the Prophets, He had authority to revise them.
 He did this in 3 ways. He removed some parts. ‘You have heard it say, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say ‘if your neighbor strikes you turn the other cheek.' He raised some parts. “You have heard it said, ‘do not commit adultery, but I say ‘if you so much as look at a woman lustfully you have committed adultery with her.”He balanced some parts. “"Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” Matt 23:23
Jesus could have removed the tithe or raised it, but he balanced it. In other words, "Do it, but don’t neglect justice and the love of God. Be sure your tithing is not from dishonest gain and make sure it is done out of worship to God." This is vital. Jesus taught the tithe. 

Abraham practiced it.
Tithing started before the Law and extended beyond the Law. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that tithing started before the law, carried on through the Law, and continues after the Law.
Hebrews 6:20 -7:4 Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. …and see how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take the tithes from the people, that is from their brothers, though these  also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises.

So the writer to the Hebrews is arguing that the tithe was Abrahamic before it became Mosaic, that it started before the law, and because Jesus is a high priest forever in the order of this mysterious priestly king Melchizedek, it continues after the law. We still break bread and drink wine with Jesus, and we still tithe to Jesus, and there is still great blessing, in different ways,  from both.
The blessing is one of provision, but also one of possession. It is a reminder to us every month that God is the possessor of heaven and earth. God is the Landlord and I am the renter.
So the tithe is like dynamite, blasting us free from being possessed by our possessions.

Paul affirmed it
1 Cor 9:8 For it is written in the law of Moses, ”You shall not muzzle the ox when he treads out grain…13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the Gospel should get their living from the Gospel.
This is Paul, who spoke often and powerfully about how the Gospel sets us free from a righteousness that is from the Law! However, in this case, Paul affirms a helpful principle from the Law with the words, "in the same way." Like Jesus, Paul does not remove it, applying it as a principle in the New Testament to make sure that those who preach the Gospel have a right to get their living from it just like the Levites under the Law. (Although Paul himself didn't exercise that right!)

So, priority and percentage are God’s way of making sure the mission goes on.  It is God's way of providing regularly for people who preach the Gospel full-time. Research show us that Christians who do not tithe because they are under grace not under law generally give less than 3% to their church.  I would say to this, that being under grace should empower us to more not less giving.

A Testimony

Finally, it's important to have a philosophy and theology of tithing, but you're probably asking, "How does that work for you?" For a start, I don't have a mansion or a bunch of money stashed away.  But as I've said, tithing has kept my wife and I loving God more than money, which is treasure indeed. Beyond that, it's the one thing we do every month that would make no sense unless Jesus was alive and looking out for us. It keeps us in a place of radical faith. It's not the only giving we practice, but it is the most sizable regular giving we practice, and it has enabled us to sow thousands of dollars into the local church over decades, which has enabled thousands of people to find and follow Jesus. This too, is treasure indeed.

And then there is a testimony of God's financial provision, so detailed, that I would need another blog to share it all with you. Suffice to say that stretches of lack have been punctuated with such colossal milestones of blessing that we have been left breathless at God's attentive faithfulness to us.

We serve and lead a very generous church. But if you haven't begun a journey in the grace of giving I invite you to take a walk with me down Tenth Avenue and see what God will do. Go on. I dare you.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Fire fighters and Fire lighters.

On Saturday there was a dangerous bush fire in our suburb that burned to within a mile of our house. It took a few firetrucks and two helicopters to extinguish it. I am so thankful for firefighters. They are absolute heroes.

Seeing the out of control blaze moving towards our house was a harsh reminder of the destructive power of a fire when it is in an unhealthy context. And yet fire, when it's in a healthy context is one of the most vital, beautiful and helpful gifts known to man.

Rynelle and I have been leaders in 4 different churches over the last 20 years. Although each church has had notable strengths,  I would venture to say that the overriding leadership call for us has been to help lead those churches towards health. Using the fire metaphor, this means that you are often fighting unhealthy fires more than you are lighting healthy fires. There are any number of unhealthy fires that a leader has to fight in an unhealthy church; fires of  gossip, slander, accusation, division, favoritism, mistrust, debt, lawsuits, legalism, immorality, and heresy are just a few. The beauty is that Jesus can quench those fires over time and bring a church through a season like this into a new season of unity, faith, and vision. We have seen Jesus do that so faithfully.

The problem is though,  that often as leaders we struggle to change the way we lead after those unhealthy fires have died down. We struggle to take our firefighter gear off. In fact we can become consumed with running around putting out fires that we never get round to building anything constructive in our churches.  Of course, there will always be some fires to fight, even in healthy churches, but to lead a church from health to strength, requires an intentional change of gear.
It requires that we take our firefighter gear off(we may still need to carry a fire extinguisher with us) and put our Blacksmith apron on, as it were. We are called to light fires more than we fight them

In Paul's second letter to Timothy, he encourages the young leader to guard the good deposit of faith handed down to Him from his grandmother, Lois, but then reminds him to, "Fan into flame the gift of God in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-control." By encouraging this Timothy to fan into flame his gift, Paul is lighting fires of leadership, mission and devotion.  This has become my primary metaphor as a leader. I want to be a fire lighter, as God brings the church we lead from health to strength.

How are you doing with that as a leader, parent or friend? Are you fighting fires more than you are lighting them?

Talking of lighting healthy fires, we recently announced the next step in Southlands' One Church, Multiple Communities journey. We sense that God is leading us to light a fire of mission and community in the city of Whittier in 2016. We are so excited about what God is doing in that city,
and have already begun meeting with pastors in the city to foster honoring relationships with other churches there. We will begin meeting in May to pray and train towards the planting of this community. Please contact me or kevin@southlands.net for more details if you feel led to be a part of it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Beauty of Baptism

We've baptized 22 people over the last two weeks at Southlands. Of course, Easter Sunday is a classic Baptism moment, but the curious thing is that it spilled over (pun intended) into the next weekend, when we baptized another 5 people. There is something contagious about the power of a bold, decisive, declaration of faith.

Firstly, a brief theology of Baptism.  I explained it to my youngest son, Levi, who was baptized at Easter, like this. In the Book of Exodus, God saved His people in two ways. Firstly, he saved them from the angel of death by the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. This foreshadows the Cross, where the blood of Jesus saves us from the penalty of our sin, which is death. Secondly, He saved them from slavery to Egypt by opening up the Red Sea, and drowning the Egyptian army while Israel escaped on dry land. This mirrors the Resurrection of Christ, which defeats our enemies, sin, satan and death. Ultimately, the Cross deals with the penalty of sin, while the Resurrection deals with the power of sin.

Jesus gave His Church two primary Sacraments to celebrate: Communion, which remembers the Cross, and Baptism by full immersion in water,  which remembers the Resurrection. Practicing these Sacraments is what makes a Church a Church. While Jesus instructed his disciples to celebrate Communion as often as you gather, Baptism was to be a decisive, definitive, one-off death to sin, in order to rise again in the newness of Christ's resurrection life. It also signifies inclusion in Christ's Body the Church, but that's for another blog. Jesus commanded us to make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to obey Him. Baptism doesn't save us, but it empowers us to turn our back on sin and follow Jesus. It's why we call our baptismal font the coffin. I heard someone say, "I felt like I was dying as I went under the water, but I felt brand new as I came up."That's pretty much it.

We baptized a lady from Iran who has been studying here the last few months. She grew up Moslem, but on her arrival in the US, a lady in our church befriended her, began to speak to her about Jesus, and brought her to church. After a few weeks she put her faith in Jesus, and on Sunday she made a bold, public proclamation of that faith, that will no doubt come at great personal cost.  But she is unashamed of her Savior, and even insisted that we give her a certificate to prove that she is now a Christian.

We also baptized 3 people who have come through our Alpha course,  an introduction to the Christian faith. One man had never set foot in an actual church before Easter Sunday, besides a few funerals. But he became convinced of the Gospel during Alpha, and decided to make a public declaration of faith in Jesus on the spur of the moment on Sunday.Others have been more deliberate in their decisions. One lady crossed the line of faith a year ago in our church, but wanted to be sure she was counting the cost of a no turning back decision. Another man has walked with Christ for more than 10 years! Some children got baptized too, and each parent spent time making sure that they understood the Gospel, had repented and trusted Jesus for salvation, and were willing to follow Him the rest of their days. This is no less powerful!

The recent spate of Baptism show no signs of abating either. Just this week I have had conversations with people who have asked to be baptized. We will do this on the 3rd May.  I believe there are others whom God is stirring to be decisive and make a public declaration of faith in Jesus.  If that is you please reach out to me or kirk@southlands.net. Salvation belongs to the Lord.