…And Dwelt Among Us

I hug or kiss my wife not just to show her that I love her, but to actually love her! The act is not a mere representation but a true expression. The Incarnation is not only a demonstration of God’s love for the world it is God’s means of actually and actively loving the world! Through the Incarnation we learn that love does not come in theory or prophecy or poetry, but it comes most powerfully embodied.

The anointed Christ comes in flesh. The angels announce Good News, “which shall be to all people…” The incarnate 2nd person of the Trinity declares the purpose of Incarnation. “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” God does this in person! God shows up in the flesh, in order to love us!

Incarnation remains as the authentic ‘gold standard’ of love. Incarnation remains the truest way to effectively proclaim the love of God to the world.

Several years ago, I had the joy of leading a college dedicated to the formation of evangelists. I believed then as I believe now that the Good News must be embodied in order to be well proclaimed. I purposed that we would ‘form’ our evangelist, amid, and in the company of the urban poor. By dwelling with the folks of the inner-city our evangelists learned compassion and the power of incarnation.

If the world could be won by information alone, we would surely drop leaflets from the sky. If people were saved by baptism, we would surely hire water bombers to deluge the masses. But the Good News comes to the world through incarnation and it is our task to inhabit and indwell this world so that God’s love is evidenced in this convincing fashion.

I am thrilled that Threshold Ministries has a new project, tentatively titled “Indwell”. This is an internship project allowing people to live with (dwell with) the urban poor and to engage in ministry alongside veteran missioners. This project takes seriously the message of Christmas as it seeks to equip and loose a new generation of evangelists. Please keep this project in your prayers.

As I write this, I will soon be off to ready things for our Christmas Dinner Party. We will be hosting folks from our wider community for a Turkey and all the trimmings dinner. A local youth basketball team, their coaches and parents will be preparing and serving the meal. The tables and atmosphere will be decorated for the occasion. We had so many volunteers that we decided to add a breakfast tomorrow morning put on by yet another team. It is our prayer that as we continue to dwell with the folks of our community that they will recognize and respond to the ‘Great Good News’ the good news of Love come down at Christmas.

Telling My Story

The title captured my attention “Evangelism in a Skeptical World” by Dr. Sam Chan. I quite liked it, mostly because it confirms much of what I feel about evangelism, and don’t we all like the voices from the echo chamber that tell us “we are right!”. I was interested though when Chan explained a new, or at least new to me, method of sharing my story. Rather than the “I was born into a Christian family …” or “My life as prodigal was ….”  versions which are limited in variety and relatability, Chan proposes a personalized and unique, to me, story. It need not be a conversion story but illustrates the reasons that I am glad to have Christ in my life. I can tell that part of my story which is most relatable to my friend.

He suggests we relate our ‘life mission’ apart from Christ what we were purposed to do and be and the results of living out that mission.

I was born as the middle child. I was determined not to be ruled by my older and stronger brothers. I became someone who schemed and scammed to get my way in life. I developed humour as weapon to wield against more powerful people. Cleverness and humour became my native language. As long as these worked for me, I felt secure, but these proved ineffective tools for many of the situations to confront me in life.

By themselves being clever or being funny are not bad at all. In fact, I think that native cleverness and humour are rich gifts from God, but they are poor substitutes for the security which I have discovered in my relationship with Jesus. Now that I have come to know acceptance in the family of God, I do not need to cleverly scheme, or use humour to deflect. I know who I am by virtue of my connection with the creator and now I can use my God given gifts creatively and for positive purposes.

These gifts which have derailed me, so often, in the past, now are great assets to me in my life of mission and evangelism. I have great fun coming up with clever ways to engage others whether it is in giving electric blankets, taking people on holidays or throwing a Fandango. Our Drop In is a place filled with laughter because of my gift of humour. People come in sad or angry and are lifted due to the positive fun we have.

I have often heard the phrase “God has a wonderful plan for your life”. I use it seldom thinking that it is truth better learned in hind-sight but it is a truth. God plans to take the broken me and restore me. I do not become less as he heals me, but I become more.

Day to day I can still easily fall into the bad habits of scheming to get my way or using humour as weapon. I need God’s help every day and I need his forgiveness too! The good news is that God promises both. Isn’t that Good News!

 

Evangelism in Suburbia

I was asked by a friend who pastors a suburban church in a fairly affluent area, “How do you evangelize in my community?” Very few churches effectively evangelize in suburbia but my friend was asking the wrong question. Evangelism is evangelism! It is the same everywhere. The better question is “What are the obstacles to evangelism in suburbia?”

My belief is that the answer is ‘privacy’. People who live in these neighbourhoods share the same desire for privacy. Each family lives in a silo of its own design. All truly effective evangelism is relational and so these households are ‘immune’ to evangelism by virtue of their isolation from those who are ‘infected’ with the Gospel. The key is not a slicker presentation but a patient penetration of individual silos.

Patience is not a virtue practised in most Church outreach plans. Churches that seem successful in suburbia are more likely to be recipients of a ‘shuffle of the sheep’ , than of real evangelism. We should not entirely discount this, though, we ought to ask what makes this church’s outreach more attractive?

I advocate a steady patient penetration of these individual silos. In the inner-city it is easier to gather larger groups around obvious felt needs but it is less than easy to infiltrate each private household. Suburban evangelism then cannot be done by an individual or a small group of individuals because of the sheer enormity of the number of households. The answer lies in the mobilization of all the members of the church to build personal networks that breach the silo barriers of privacy. In effect we need to be invited into the closed circle of privacy. This is a prerequisite of any evangelism!

Once the privacy barrier has been breached through friendship and shared interests evangelism can begin to take place.

The problem is that most churches have not the patience or vision for this task. We want it easy and instant and nothing of any lasting value is ever easy or instant. The leadership of too many churches wastes too much time on programs of attraction and too little time on the hard work of coaching people in penetrating households, building wholesome loving relationships.

Inner-city evangelism is not without its challenges. There is no easy place to do the work of the evangelist! Patience and prayer remain paramount whether for you in your small corner or I in mine.

I had a really encouraging encounter with Adrian. He made his third visit to our Healing Clinic”. He suffers with tinnitus and issues of anxiety. He came this week very excited as he is noting progress and he has found some dental treatments that are very promising to help him. He is grateful for prayer and will be back in a few weeks to let me know how he is doing. He is paying much more attention to his spiritual life as a result of our lengthy conversations and prayer. Please keep Adrian in your prayers.

Parallel Parable

This week I have been reading a series of sermons by John Chrysostom (as you do) “On Wealth and Poverty”. One of the key biblical passages he addresses is the parable often titled “Divers & Lazarus” Luke 16:19 – 31. As I read I was struck with the amazing similarities between this parable of Jesus and our current time. Below is my humble attempt at a “Parallel Parable”

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There was a very rich man who owned plush resorts and lived in lavish luxury. At his border lay an hopelessly impoverished Honduran. This man was unable to help himself and was taken advantage of even by those who lived outside the border. He lay inert void of outward dignity unable to help himself. On the very doorstep of a nation of prosperity his life slipped away. This all happened in full view of the rich man who willfully ignored the cause of the poor Honduran while he continued to party with his friends, deliberately not sparing even a crumb for the poor man who dared lie dying on his ‘door step’.

The rich man too died, as do we all. He was buried with suitable pomp but while the poor man had been carried to the very presence of God, the rich man found himself separated from God and in a place devoid of all God’s blessings. He was in utter torment!  For the first time in his life he prayed. “God have pity on me. Send that poor Honduran to me, that he might bring a cup of cool water, for I am in agony here.”

God looked on him with a look of love and sadness, “Son, remember that during your life you gladly received good things, while this refugee received bad things, but now he is comforted and you are in agony. And besides in this afterlife there is a great gulf of separation between this man and I and you.” Scripture reminds us “It is appointed unto man, once to die and then the judgement.” The rich man during his life had chosen to live only for himself and his choice continued to be honoured in the hereafter.

The rich man continued, “Then I beg you, father, send this poor refugee to my father’s hose to warn my brothers, so they can avoid my terrible fate.”

“They have the scriptures.” “They have the witness of the Risen Christ” “They have the witness of the Church and its martyrs. If they do not pay attention to these, they will not listen to a poor refugee even if he returns to life.”

Poor folk continue to lie on the doorstep. The rich men continue to ignore or exploit them. Indignantly you point an accusing finger at that Rich man but three fingers aim back at you. Who is the “Rich man”? Could it be you?

 

We hear or may sing, “Good King Wenceslas” at this time of year and I am reminded of the last lines. “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, Wealth and rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, Shall yourselves find blessing.”

Street Hope Saint John has two seasonal outreach projects: December 21st we will be hosting a “Christmas Dinner Party” for folks in our community and on the 22nd we are putting on a lavish “Bleak Mid-Winter Brrreakfast.” If you’d like to help bless the poor this season we would be grateful for your support.

Proclaim & Demonstrate, Repeat!

The meal at Out Flow was over and the Wednesday Night Bible Study was about to begin. The room seemed in full flight! We are witnesses of endemic lack of interest in spiritual things among the folks I spend so much time with. I know that each has heard of the Saviour’s love because I have told most of them, at one time or another. They see, day after day, that love demonstrated by God’s agents, as they cook and serve and house folks.

A few of us remain to worship through song and hear Phil open God’s word to us. Each Friday there is a mini exodus as I introduce our “Word from Our Sponsor”, though on that occasion most like our meditation. People will remind me when we are coming to ‘half-time’.

As an evangelist, one of the greatest temptations is to become discouraged at the crowds who show no interest, and sometimes even contempt for, the Good News. It is at precisely this point that we need to reflect on the practise of our Saviour. He came with the clear message “Repent and believe! The Kingdom of God has come!” He shared this message with Peter and James and John as the most inner of the circle of disciples. He shared it with the twelve as a whole. He shared it with Judas, even when he knew that Judas resisted and betrayed that love! Right to the last he continued to share and demonstrate the love of God to Judas. The proclamation and demonstration was not about Judas lack of saving faith but rather about Jesus unending faithfulness in his love for Judas, and the world.

Jesus proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom to the crowds. He demonstrated the love of God to the 5000. He taught the multitudes. He watched as they like the crowd at Out Flow departed rather than consider the idea of changing (repenting). The multitudes seemed to flock for food and entertaining miracles but stopped short of any consideration of costly change. Still Jesus continued to love and teach and illustrate the Kingdom undeterred.

He sadly watched the Rich Young Ruler walk away. He saw Nicodemus slip back into the darkness after their first encounter, but we know that the word took root that night and we suspect it did so with the Rich Young Ruler. Not everyone came back but some did! The exponential growth of the early Church following Pentecost must surely have been spurred by the faithful proclamation and demonstration of Jesus during his walk.

As the Pharisee’s hostility grew he continued to proclaim unwaveringly the Good News to them. Most mocked him and even plotted against him but Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus ‘heard’ him. Saul the Pharisee’s Pharisee becomes the great missionary.

There is no room for discouragement. The folks who do not ‘hear’ today’ may ‘hear’ tomorrow or soon or, alas, never, but how can they hear if we do not proclaim and demonstrate? If there is any failure let it be our friends ‘refusal to hear rather than our failure to proclaim and demonstrate the Good News. The example of our Saviour spurs us on to continue and not be disheartened.

Knowing Stillness

be still

I had one of those times, I call “a frog in the kettle moments.” Imperceptible change has happened and then a singular incident brings to your attention that transformation has seeped in and taken root. I was having a conversation with a younger and obviously harried Christian leader. He asked me a question that is typical when those of us in ‘ministry’ get together, “Been busy?” I paused for a beat or two and replied “No, not really.’ This seemed to take him aback. It is not the usual response in these settings. We are all aware of the unspoken rule that, one of the key markers of successful ministry is busyness. My near exhausted friend was startled (and I too was surprised because this is not something one admits) and then he seemed struck with envy. “Can we trade? I’m going flat out and not making headway.”

In his first epistle John addresses 3 groups of readers: children, fathers, and young people (1John 2:12,13 NRSV) and I am beginning to think I have morphed into the second category. The “young people” that John addresses are the busy ones with ministries marked by activity. The fathers are marked , John says, in verse 13 for knowing him who is from the beginning. Knowing uses much different faculties than activity. There is a stillness required for knowing “Be still and know….” The frenetic activity that I used to pride myself on has quietly been replaced with a reflective stillness. In the work-a-day world we might refer to “Work smarter not harder.”

A few years ago I had some fun with this idea of ‘stillness’ as a virtue. I printed up certificates lauding recipients as winners of “Saint John Idle”. I took the certificates and handed them to folks who were enjoying the sun in King’s Square. The certificate praised them for taking the opportunity to be still and reflect on creation. I did not include any overt reference to God in the certificate but the conversations inevitably flowed there.

Today the idea of a “holy idleness” is out of favour, as never before. Rather than chance stillness slipping into boredom we reach for our phones. We scroll and by our scrolling we miss an opportunity. While I check how many ‘likes’ my latest post has received I miss the chance to hear, I miss the chance to know him who is from the beginning.

Idleness is not esteemed in our culture but all the saints we look to as examples of holiness practised the stillness that chances boredom! The Great Commandment is to love God and the old pop song “To know,know, know him, is to love, love love, love, him” rings true! To truly love God I must know him more and more. To know him more requires that I am still. This is a counter cultural thought!

I am not advocating that we do not work. Kingdom activity is important. I am saying, though, that times of stillness are vital. We are so afraid of being bored that we miss the opportunity to know God more deeply. Let us keep in mind as we attempt stillness that “perfect love, casts out fear.”

Perseverance and Perversity

Preface

Recently I was struggling with ‘writer’s block” and I was encouraged to think autobiographically in order to ‘prime the pump’. This was evidenced last week and continues today as I recall lessons of perversity and perseverance.

 

Home life wasn’t a lot of fun for me. I had an older brother, who I have sometimes thought a socio-path, who delighted in making my life miserable. I returned the favour using the only weapon in my arsenal, humour. I wielded scathing humour as a cutlass. It only made him madder but that was the best outcome I could achieve.

School became a welcome break. It offered an oasis of peace and a new audience! My first years of school went swimmingly and then came grade 4 and Mrs. L. (the poor guy that married her!). No teacher ever fully embraced my ‘class clownishness’ but Mrs. L. hated it and I believe hated me!  In her desk drawer she kept “the strap”. The strap was a six inch strop meant for sharpening razors. If she had used it for that she might have taken care of her moustache and those chin whiskers. (Are you getting why she might not have liked me?) But she had other more diabolic uses for it!

There was seldom a day that went by that this strap did not find its way into her hand and across mine. Perversely the more she struck out at me the more I struck back, mocking and catching her in the slightest of mistakes. I was already pretty well read and was an early enrollee in the ‘grammar police’. Being so corrected by a ten year old drove her to a frenzy. Both the class in general and I were delighted with the froth and frenzy but I alone bore the brunt of it.

These days such action by an educator would lead to a quick dismissal but the 60’s were a different time. The rule was “If you get into trouble at school, you will get it at home as well.” The rod was not to be spared no matter how bruised the child.

It seemed I had no choice I could only persevere. On rare occasion I would restrain myself only to be goaded by Mrs. L. “Don’t you have something smart to say?” and of course I did! We were trapped in a vicious cycle. It especially drove Mrs. L. nuts that besides being a constant thorn in her side I was also a quite good student. I think she would have loved to fail me but could not.

At the same time that I was earning her ire I was accruing a perverse kind of admiration from my class. I have often thought that the plot for “cool Hand Luke” was stolen from my grade 4 year. While my hands stung throughout the year, I developed a certain cache with my peers. None dared openly to befriend me, but there were secret offers of admiration and consolation.

The year finally came to an end and it was then that I became convinced that difficulties were something that could be got through. I had successfully graduated into grade 5! I had got an early degree cum laude in Perseverance. This would be a valuable degree in years ahead had I not also reached high honours in Perversity. This harden attitude toward authority plus a heedless use of cutting barbs became the bane of my existence. It was the fruit of the poisoned grade 4 tree that became a perennial in my garden for years to come.

It has only been as I have since planted my roots on the soil of God’s love that I have been able to see the difference between dogged perseverance and the gift of patience and to learn that perversity is a noxious weed to be ruthlessly rooted out of my garden. We all, to varying degrees become weed infested both by nature and by nurture. The Good News is that my Father is the Gardener. He uproots the bad and perverse and he prunes the good.

I have had a lot of conversations with the Father about those days. In my mind’s eye I see him unashamedly holding that sharp tongued little guy and his tears pouring as balm over those stinging digits. That lad should never have been treated like that and yet there are wonderful and foundational lessons that were learned. Perseverance produces character after all and with my Father the gardener the crop can be a bountiful and eternal one.

Terrible Pessimist!

bike

I’m a terrible pessimist! By this I mean that as a pessimist I am an utter failure. I try but I just can’t pull this pessimism thing off. Long ago I heard the quote “Pessimists are never disappointed, but often pleasantly surprised.” And I found the prospect of pessimism quite alluring. I have given pessimism an honest effort. When people would ask “How are you?” I would reply “Good, so far but it’s early yet!” I really have tried but it seems it is not really in me.

Like most of us, I have had lots of opportunity to cultivate the gift of pessimism. I have had my share, and perhaps more, of disappointment. I think though that the course toward optimism was set early in life.

I recall so vividly getting my first bike. A bike symbolized the freedom I had long yearned for. I had been trying to escape our backyard all of my childhood. I had scrambled over, under or through any barriers my harried mother put between me and the world on the outside of our backyard. Finally she tethered me to the clothesline that ran diagonally across the yard. This enabled her to tend my younger siblings, and do all the household chores, without constantly searching the neighbourhood for me.

We were a relatively poor family and there was no hope of a new bike but I was thrilled when my dad brought home a little bike, just my size, which he had found. He fixed it up and I was soon practising riding my bike in the backyard. When I say “riding” I was really mostly falling but I looked with optimism toward riding. Finally I had mastered this little fourteen inch tired bike. I was planning to show off for Dad when he got home from one of his three jobs. Just as he arrived my younger sister, and first real friend, picked up the bike and without a single practice rode across the yard! Dad was mightily impressed at my precocious sister’s mastery of the bike that he turned to me and said “I guess we’ll have to find another bike for you, Jack.”

The disappointment was devastating but later that week he brought home a 28 inch bike just for me! My feet barely reached the pedals and my feet did not come anywhere near the ground. I had to stand on a step to get on it and I dared not stop anywhere with it unless there was a step or a rock to stand on. Finally though I learned that if I ran with the bike and leaped on I could start off on level ground. That bike was twice as big and it could travel further and faster than the ‘kid’s’ bike of my sister. As the wind blew in my face as I pedalled I finally had the freedom I had longed for.

Temporary disappointment had given way to new opportunity. New opportunity required creativity and perseverance but ultimately led forward.

This formative experience has set my course. I have learned to fall forward! Lurking behind every disappointment and failure is an opportunity. Pessimism says things will get worse but life has taught me that though things may go badly, the opportunity to fall or fail forward is omnipresent!

This optimism is a part of my makeup but it has certainly been reinforced by my experience with God. Unforeseen and difficult things will happen but God is faithful. God has the best in mind for us and though “We see as through a glass darkly.” We can trust in that!

Though this weekend time “falls back” I chose to fall forward, trusting that “underneath are the everlasting arms”.

 

A Beautiful Life

Peterson

Eugene Peterson’s “Long Obedience in One Direction” came to an end this week. His life has touched many and his life’s work will continue to influence for years to come. He was a pastor’s pastor. He taught by word and example how a true shepherd cares for his “sheep”.

I was most influenced by his “Message” which was a poetic paraphrase of the Bible. Many folks I came across had suffered a kind of spiritual abuse at the hands of Bible quoting authoritarians, who wielded scripture like a weapon. “Spare the rod …” “Thou shalt not…!” etc. So familiar were these rebukes that people had a built up resentment to scriptures and so could not “hear” the Good News they contain. When I discovered the Message I heard a fresh voice, free of the undeserved baggage that other versions carried. The Message became a valued tool in my evangelistic tool kit. It is extremely raw in places and ever so tender in others. It evokes a response. It is startling because it does not suffer with the contempt that comes with familiarity. I am keenly aware that it is not a text for biblical scholars. It is not a literal translation, but it is wonderfully and powerfully literate. I continue to use it personally and with my friends.

I came across a brilliant Peterson quote just the other day. “Our senses have been dulled by sin. The world, for all its vaunted celebration of sensuality, is relentlessly anaesthetic” We have so much stimulation that we are numb. We are stupefied by stimulation. We like the fashionable zombies of the screen are in a kind of slumber. We have succumbed and are in Peterson’s words “relentlessly anaesthetic”. The opposite of anaesthetic is aesthetic. Could the cure for our stupor, our numbness, be as simple as ‘beauty’?

I think it is as we pause with all our devices shut off and as we as the old chorus says “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” as we gaze at the beauty of the great Good News, as we are still and know that He is God, that we come to life. It is all too easy to become overwhelmed. It is all too easy to become so stimulated with information and opinion. The antidote isn’t more stimulation, or different stimulation, or faster stimulation. The answer isn’t some Luddite repudiation of technology. The antidote is to find beauty. Paul writes “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” (Philippians 4:8 “The Message”)

Full Circle

Healing

Things are beginning to come ‘full circle’.

When I first started ministry in inner-city Saint John we began with a “Healing Clinic”. The idea was that we would simply ‘hang out our shingle’ and offer prayer to folks in the neighbourhood. We did this as an attempt to meet our neighbours in a way that would provide us the best opportunity to really listen to their concerns.  I have often told the story of meeting Ron at these early meetings. We prayed for him and then didn’t see him for months. He had been so gravely in need of a new kidney that I thought he had probably died, but then he showed up again! When I asked where he had been, he looked at me like I was stunned. “You prayed I’d get a new kidney and I’ve been in Halifax where I got the surgery giving me one! What did you expect?”

Susan used to come to these clinics, as well. She wasn’t looking for any real healing but she was lonely and wanted someone to listen to her. She lived in a care home where she was seldom ‘listened to’. To be honest she had very limited things to say and our times were full of repetitive stories. While they seemed fresh to Susan I often felt like I was caught in a time loop. But these were meaningful encounters for her.

Out of the core of people we met through our Healing Clinic we formed Up Town Church. We defined ourselves as “an honest accepting community of broken people, together finding wholeness through Christ and sharing the love of God through acts of kindness by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Through Up Town we continued to pray for people. I remember Janet who came one Sunday Evening. Her neck was in a brace and she asked if we had any high backed chairs. We borrowed a chair from the church sanctuary that night but soon found a suitable one at a local thrift store. We were ready for Janet’s next visit! When she arrived I rushed to the spot where we had stored the chair only to learn that she no longer needed it. Like Ron, she was surprised by my lack of faith! We had prayed for her the previous week and she no longer required that kind of support.

We have had other wonderful examples of God’s healing work over the years and we have lots of examples of smaller ‘miracles’ and plenty of times we have not seen the same kind of encouraging results. As I look back on these particular encounters, though, I realize that God’s activity does not depend on my faith. I am the butt of God’s healing jokes. I had no expectation for Ron or Janet. I had little patience for Susan. My short comings did not seem to hinder the flow of God’s grace.

Recently I found myself free on Monday mornings. Out Flow, where I do my studies has a wonderful play program with children in that time slot. Over the last month or so I have just ‘sat with that’ not wanting to jump into anything but instead to be led to the right thing. I believe the right thing is to open (or re-open) a Healing Clinic. So Monday mornings I will return to Stone Church and will figuratively hang out my shingle (I will literally put out our Street Hope sidewalk sign) and be available to listen to and pray for our neighbours. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t know how long it will take to become useful. I do believe that it is an opportunity to go deeper with people. I am becoming less and less interested in a broad ministry with bigger numbers and keener and keener for in depth conversations, which may lead to healing and deliverance.

I invite you to pray for this new (old) venture as things come full circle in the Uptown, for us.