Monday, December 30, 2013

Photographic Memory – It’s a Trap!

“But one thing I do: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us (Philippians 3:13–14).”

Memory can be a tricky thing. Case in point: a family reunion, when relatives reminisce about childhood memories.

It starts so innocently. A warm summer’s day in the backyard, a pleasant breeze, enticing aromas wafting from the BBQ, cold drinks in hand, and the familiar buzz of conversation and laughter. If you’re lucky, someone has managed to find a musical playlist that straddles generational tastes.

And then ... without warning or fanfare, it happens. A voice rises slightly above the happy din, waxing cheerful and nostalgic over a cherished story that the raconteur recalls “like it happened only yesterday.”

Conversation abruptly ceases. The breeze dies; a random cloud may obscure the sun. The BBQ flares; blue-tinged smoke and charred hamburger fumes settle like a clinging fog. A profound hush – fraught with apprehension – holds the gathering in breathless thrall.

The calm before the inevitable storm breaks.

Another relative raises a skeptical eyebrow and corrects the storytellers flawed recollection — based on their pristine memory of the tale. And, depending on how competitive your family is, a vigorous debate erupts over whose version is correct. Battle lines are drawn, allies are gathered, foes identified, and the backyard morphs into a jousting field.

Pretty much spoiling the nostalgic vibe. Whenever I see the tsunami approaching, Im reminded of Admiral Akbar in Star Wars IV: “Its a trap!”

Church memories are no different – memories of church-inflicted wounds, even more so. The further we get from “ground zero,” the less trustworthy our memories become. We dont need a skeptical uncle to challenge our recollection – revisiting a shifting memory is its own unique prison. A spiritual/emotional ball-and-chain.

That’s why re-hashing old church wounds is counter-productive, to put it mildly. Hence St. Paul’s admonition to the Philippians: Forget the past and press on.

In the original context, Paul’s talking about the good things in his spiritual pilgrimage. He’s neither lamenting his sinful past nor his current trials (he was in prison at the time). He focuses on “forgetting” his mountaintop experiences in order to reach for something better, something as yet unattained.

Something on the road ahead, not the road behind.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that if Paul was willing – eager, even – to “forget” the great things God had already done in exchange for something better, how much more appropriate would it be for Jesus-followers today to “forget” our negative church experiences?

Yes, I know; I’ve been there. We can’t just flip a switch in our heads and/or hearts. Our brains aren’t wired like computers: “reformat: synapses 141–184; [bad church memories] = <erase>.” Recovery takes time, nurture, and wise counsel. But as the years go by – remember the family BBQ – we should curate a healthy skepticism toward our memories of the Bad Church Experience (BCE).

That’s not the same as second-guessing yourself,  or wondering whether or not you’ve made a mountain out of a molehill. It’s just another way of saying we won’t find the path forward by obsessing over the rearview mirror.

In other words, stop re-hashing everything. That’s more or less like ripping the bandage off an open wound to check on its healing progress. It’s worse than unproductive — it’s a soul-sucking addiction that steals our joy and turns recovery into a long, slow slog (or derails it).

Admiral Akbar: Its a trap!

St. Paul: Don’t rest on your spiritual laurels. Press on.

Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews adds this helpful admonition: “Let us strip off every weight that slows us down ... and run with endurance the race God has set before us (Hebrews 12:1, NLT).”

What is yet ahead – the “undiscovered country” – will be more than worth it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Game-Changer: Context

Have you ever heard the saying, “A text without a context is only a pretext?” It’s a pithy reminder that taking Bible verses out of their context can (usually does) result in teaching that’s weak, unsupported, or downright false.

Context is crucial; the game-changer.

Which got me thinking about a certain Scripture passage  that causes blood pressure to spike whenever it’s mentioned. You know, that part in Ephesians where it talks about wives, husbands, and submission. (Did your muscles just clench slightly as you read that?)

There’s a soundtrack accompanying anyone who dares to unpack this passage: “The Sharpening of the Long Knives.” Tread carefully – there’s a minefield of sacred cow droppings to navigate. Everyone can barely wait to dive in with their opinions on what “submit” really means ... in the original Greek.

Let’s pause for a second. Context, remember?

Ephesians 5:22–6:9 shows up as part of Paul’s explanation of what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.” That’s the context, but wait … there’s more: it's also a bona fide thesis statement.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).”

Read it again. Ponder for a moment. This pithy verse isn’t just a random placeholder between verses 20 and 22. Being “filled with the Spirit” includes mutual submission.

Ephesians 5:21 is the thesis statement for the rest of the passage.

Paul proceeds to illustrate mutual submission in the Ephesian church. “Okay, wives, this is what it looks like for you: show the guy a little respect. And husbands, you need to step it up until you love as intensely and sacrificially as Jesus.” It wasn’t about who gets the power in the relationship. Paul’s words to husbands and wives are subsets to his main thesis

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).”

Paul then turns his attention to the Ephesian Believers: TNG. “Okay, kids, listen to Uncle Paul … Here’s how you submit to your parents out of reverence for Christ.” Before the kids blow a gasket, Paul immediately turns to the fathers: “Okay, guys, here’s how not to do this." Again, Paul’s examples are given in support of the thesis statement. 

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).”

Paul concludes his practical extrapolation with timely advice for slaves (indentured servants) and masters. (The nearest modern equivalent could be employers and employees.) How does “out of reverence for Christ” play out in their working relationships? 

This entire passage is a single unit of thought. It’s a mistake to separate the verses about husbands/wives from the verses addressing fathers/children, or workers/employers. They’re all part of the same discussion, stemming from Paul's original thesis statement re: life “filled with the Spirit.”

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).”

Context. What a game-changer.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Stones of Remembrance: the Mentor

A powerful Stone of Remembrance is created when somebody truly believes in you. I was 20 years old when I first experienced this, when the manager of the grocery store where I worked recommended me to head office as management material. 
It was two years later, though, when I first met the man who would qualify as a true “mentor” in my life. George Mercado believed in me, encouraged me, trusted me, and was an incredible Godly example to me.

Six years of working with George as a volunteer were the just the beginning; he remained an influential voice in my life long afterward. Here are just a few snapshots of the memories and the mentorship:

“Join with others in following my example, and take note of those who live according to the pattern that we gave you (Philippians 3:17).” 

“Even though you have ten thousand guardians (instructors, KJV) in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:15).” 

Jorge Alberto “George” Mercado is an imposing American, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. He played professional baseball for the Dodgers and was drafted into the US Army during Viet Nam. He later came to faith in Jesus, changed his career plans, and went to seminary.

At age thirty-five, God called him to leave his lead pastor position in New York and become the first-ever youth pastor at my home church in Canada.

George began the Canadian chapter of his ministry during my second year of Bible college. When I returned home the following summer, I offered to volunteer with the youth group.

George, after crushing several of my ribs with a bear hug, knighted me as a youth leader. “I’ve been praying for workers in the harvest, and here you are! Hey, do you play guitar?”

“Um, yeah,” I replied, cautiously inhaling to test my ribcage’s structural integrity.

“I love it—you’re the worship leader!” George has never been described as a quiet, non-demonstrative type. When he gets excited, everyone within earshot knows about it.

“I don’t sing. I just play,” I said, panic-stricken, as my worst fear in the world—public singing—loomed large and menacing in my mind’s eye.

“You’re all I’ve got. No problem!”

And we were off. A few days later, met for burgers at the aptly-named “George’s Burgers” (true story). I watched with eager fascination as George outlined his philosophy of ministry on several napkins. His approach dove-tailed almost seamlessly with my desire to do something different in youth ministry.

I was hooked. And so began six years of mentoring.

Pull back to a wide-angle shot, and you’d see Georges
“a pile for everything, and everything in a pile” desk/office.

The journey probably resembled Jesus and His motley assortment of disciples: you served alongside your “rabbi” in a learn-by-doing school of ministry. The youth group grew from 12 to over 100 within the next three years. The youth leader team (all three of us) multiplied by a factor of five to keep pace.

George was legendary for his ability to take a potential “issue” and turn it into a growth opportunity. We younger leaders assumed the obvious answer was eye-for-an-eye justice; George modeled a different way. “Invitation, not confrontation” is the phrase I’ve used to describe it. Jesus said, “If they listen to you, you have won them over (Matthew 18:15).”

You can control external behavior through confrontation,  if controlling behavior is your goal. “Invitation” captures you at the heart level—it’s the Spirit’s work. 

Leadership meetings always followed the same format: half of our time was invested in praying for each other, and the rest for youth ministry business. It wasn’t uncommon for the entire evening to be spent in prayer, and “business” didn’t get done. The team seemed more effective for it.

George was the first person to pray with me over the phone. I’d called with a request on my behalf, and I assumed he’d hang up and pray later. To my surprise, he started praying right then and there.

I sat at my parents’ kitchen table, unsure of proper prayer etiquette on the phone. Bow my head and close my eyes? If I didn’t shut my eyes, where do I look? If my Mom walks in and overhears me saying “yes, Lord,” will she worry I’m under the delusion that the Almighty’s on the other end of the line?

(As retro-cool as Stranger Things made the 1980s look, I’m grateful 21st century phones are no longer tethered to the wall.)

Youth group prayer times: George would, more often than not, lie prostrate on the floor. “I’m not super-spiritual,” he’d say. “I’m proud and stiff-necked—I need to do this.”

A college friend from Winnipeg dropped by to visit the group one evening. George lit a candle in the center of the room and announced tonight would be a sharing/prayer time. The group formed a large (70+) circle around the candle.

My friend whispered, “What else are we going to do?”

“Wait and see,” I replied. 

Two hours later, as parents arrived to take their teenagers home, George closed the meeting. No games, no music, no pizza, no hype. Just two hours of God-stories and prayer.

Drop in at the church office and, many times, you’d open his door and think he wasn’t there. Then you’d spy his feet, sticking out from beneath the desk. Face down in prayer, again.

“You have to faceplant even when you’re alone?” I’d ask.

A self-deprecating shrug. “I’m still way too proud.”

Wendy en route to winning the “ew, gross” award for this skit.

George loved it when teenagers were honest about their struggles and faith doubts. He encouraged and, in some cases, provoked them to get past the Sunday School Answer Syndrome and deal with the real questions.

“Either we shake them up, or university will,” he’d say. “At least now, they have us as a resource.”

George was legendary for his words of encouragement. He had a way of gently prodding and encouraging us to discover and use our spiritual gifts. He was also very deliberate about outreach, but not in the way you’d expect.

“We don’t hold a single outreach event until they (the youth) have the vision for it. Otherwise, we’re doing it for them and they won’t develop a Great Commission mindset.”

After building a discipling foundation for over two years, we ventured to hold our first Friday outreach event. George led the whole youth group in a post-outreach evaluation the next Tuesday (our usual meeting time).

Everyone—teenagers and leaders alike—was bouncing off the walls over how well the outreach had gone.

George: “How did the events go? The band, the drama, the message?”

Us: “Awesome! It was totally awesome! Everything went great! The whole night was a total success!”

George: “Did anyone bring an unbelieving friend?”

Us: “Well, uh … no.”

George: “Then was it really an outreach?”

“Feed the lions” was George’s code for: Never confront
someone on an empty stomach—yours or theirs.

It must’ve been tempting to “accentuate the positives,” but George held our feet to the fire instead. As we continued hosting monthly outreaches—and teenagers brought their friends—George developed a maddening habit of giving short messages, but declining to share the Gospel directly. “If you want to know more about what I’m talking about,” he’d say, “ask the person you came with.”

It was brilliant. He refused to let us rely on “the speaker.” That had a profound impact on our outreaches, and set the stage for interactions with friends outside the church’s four walls. Sharing our faith in a relaxed, normal, conversational way became our default setting. 

My cabin group on a retreat (that's me on the right). George
always put the rowdies in my cabin. I have no idea why.

Youth retreats were the source of many fond memories. We typically held two per year, autumn and late spring. Worship was always intense (no matter how primitive the equipment), and retreats became “stones of remembrance” we’d later point to as spiritual markers in our lives.

One particular retreat endured a deluge of rain for the entire weekend (think: cabin fever). After lunch on a damp Saturday, George challenged all comers to a mud fight in a nearby field. He amassed an enthusiastic following. As the “mud” fight intensified, an unmistakable odor manifested—seems the empty field had doubled as a horse paddock the previous summer.

The “manure tour” of youth retreats; the stuff of legends.

There are a number of future pastors, church leaders,
& missionaries in this excrement-drenched photo.
The mixture of mud and horse manure didn’t deter the energetic scrum of teenagers, leaders, and George. Our cabins reeked in the aftermath, and we never held another retreat at that camp. I’m not sure who made the decision, us or them, but it was a memorable weekend (spiritually and malodorously).

To this day, a visit with former “Live Connection” members will almost inevitably include tales of retreats past. If old photos are available, we share a good laugh at how young and hopelessly 1980s we were. We also recall the times God moved, lives were changed, and how those crazy weekends continue to bear fruit, decades later.

Six years after our “George’s Burgers” meeting, I became the first of several leaders to move on to my own pastorate. George reminded us, at our tearful last gathering, how my departure meshed with Live Connection’s vision: “the gospel of Jesus Christ to Burlington, Hamilton, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, North America, the World . . .”

Two years after I moved to the West Coast, George flew out to be the guest speaker for our senior high retreat. I’d told our youth group many stories about him, and they were thrilled to meet him in person. It was a memorable weekend.

For Wendy and I, as my first pastorate crumbled around my ears, George’s visit was doubly encouraging. His insightful questions and honest feedback helped us sort through a difficult season. And, as always, we prayed together.

Mmm ... coffee! My favorite George-ism on evangelism:
“You gotta earn the right to be heard.”

George moved back to the United States a year later, but we kept in contact. Wendy and I have often remarked that there are few sounds as uplifting as George’s voice over the phone.

In 1999, George and his wife Jerri shared their vision of planting an alternative church community in their city. Wendy and I were thrilled to hear the anticipation and excitement in their voices. We hoped to visit the proposed church plant in a year or two.

One week before launching the church plant, George suffered a massive stroke.

Three years later, Wendy and I had a chance to visit the Mercados. Our first time together since our West Coast youth retreat over a decade earlier. And, more significantly, after George’s stroke.

We’d kept in contact with Jerri via phone calls and email, and George would sometimes join the conversation. He could say only two words: “yes” and “wow,” but you couldn’t miss his excitement when he recognized our voices. Wendy and I were eager to see him in person again, but also a bit apprehensive.

Typical retreat worship time. Yes, the seat of my pants is wet.
Pre-worship pranks were fair game.
As we pulled into the driveway, George’s booming laugh welcomed us from the open garage. The one-armed bear hug he gave me—while not as crushing as the summer of ’84—was strong and heartfelt. Over the next day and a half, we even made some progress with the gestures he uses to communicate.
“Fight of the Century” weapons: canned whipped cream. Wendy (left)
has just received a right hook to the jaw with one of said cans.
On our return trip to Canada, I was bothered by two things. The first, obviously, was why George hasn’t been healed despite a deluge of prayers. Second, his voice has been lost. George practically oozed wisdom and encouragement; the Body of Christ is poorer for his silence.

I don’t toss “mentor” around lightly, but no word better describes George Mercado’s role in my life.

George, if you ever read this, know that the respect, admiration, and gratitude Wendy and I feel for you knows no bounds. And let me say, as you’ve said to me many times (just imagine a New York accent): “Hey, I love you, man.”

Friday, May 31, 2013

Walkin’ the Holy Tightrope

“For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Hebrews 10:14).”

I've always loved how much truth is crammed into a single, short phrase like Hebrews 10:14. It's by far my favorite “summary” verse when talking to people about sanctification (i.e., “growing up spiritually”).

Holiness is a done deal – Jesus has already made us “perfect forever.” It doesnt depend on us and our performance. It’s also an ongoing, lifelong process – we cooperate with the Holy Spirit as we are “being made holy.”

To be fair, it’s something of a balancing act. I can see and appreciate how easy it would be to err on one side or the other (license versus legalism).

For example, if we were to only emphasize the first half of Hebrews 10:14 – that in God’s eyes, we’re already “perfected” – we run the risk of:

  1. Complacency and/or laziness, (as if personal holiness is optional),
  2. Developing a “party hearty” lifestyle that downplays sin and its effects (see #1 above), and/or
  3. Disinterest in any kind of mutual accountability (“Dude, isnt that just, like … judging?).

On the other hand, if we only emphasize the second half of the verse – that we’re still a work-in-progress when it comes to personal holiness – we run a different gauntlet of spiritual potholes:

  1. An anxiety-driven (and at times, neurotic) obsession with “following all the rules,”
  2. Wallowing in defeat/unable to enjoy God as Father, and/or
  3. Overzealous and unnecessarily punitive attempts at accountability (legalistic nit-picking of self and others).

When it comes to personal and community holiness, all of us tend to lean too far in one direction or another. Maintaining that all-important balance – having complete confidence in Christs finished work while humbly allowing the Spirit to refine our character -- isn’t automatic by any means.

But its worth pursuing. In fact, Id go so far as to suggest that a working definition of “spiritual maturity” should include our ability to humbly + confidently walk the Hebrews 10:14 tightrope, without apology, without striving, and without a net.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Stones of Remembrance: In the Beginning

Stones of Remembrance play a significant role in the history and story-telling of God’s people. An example: 

The Israelites finally entered the promised land after 40 years in the wilderness, crossing the Jordan River in much the same manner as when Moses had parted the Red Sea. Once again on dry land, Moses successor, Joshua, instructed them to set up stones of remembrance as a memorial (Joshua 4:4–7). 

The recurring theme: “when your children ask what do these stones mean,” they’d have an opportunity to re-tell a part of their story as Gods people. 

In the early 21st century, it’s equally important that we pause and remind ourselves of our own stones of remembrance. 

I’ve often heard it said that what we experience during our first five years will shape who we are for life. I’ve pondered, from time to time, if that might also be true for our spiritual lives. If that’s the case, then my first year as a Christian (age 16) yields the following Stones of Remembrance:

  1. Jesus is actually real.

    I was raised in a Christian family, went to church every Sunday, but the night of my surrender to Jesus came as a shock and surprise. Mainly because I didn’t go to the evangelistic meeting with an open mind; I only went to placate my earnest Christian friends. God had other things in mind, despite my contempt for the band and ignoring the spoken message. “Surrender” is perhaps the best only word that adequately describes my response to God’s wake-up call.

  2. The Holy Spirit is alive. And well. And is known to show up in decidedly unexpected ways.

    I was on staff at our denominational camp that summer. During a prayer time my teenaged cabin mates, the Holy Spirit “showed up” in an experience of God’s love that left everyone blown away. Doubly miraculous was that our camp/denomination was legendary for its rabid ANTI-charismatic bent.

    (2b. God has a sense of humor about camps like that.)

  3. Satan is not just a marketing tool for 1980s hair metal bands. But Jesus is more powerful.

    An unexpected spiritual attack – completely with visions of satanic imagery – came out of nowhere late one night, and scared the liver out of me. But, turns out that its true what they say: in the name of Jesus, we have authority over evil spirits. Good news for those of us under attack.

  4. Controlling, manipulative, and abusive leaders are a royal pain in the patookus.

    I learned this the hard way at the same camp; while not without my own issues, the harsh words of constant judgement and condemnation were total overkill. Fundamentalism on steroids. Almost cult-like, you might say. On the plus side, this was the first of many times when I learned to sift through religious crap trappings to find the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45–46).

*   *   *
And as I look back over the years, I find (perhaps not surprisingly) that all of the above are as true today as they were then. If anything, I’m more aware of the reality – and implications – of each of these early Stones.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Apples ≠ Oranges

Yknow ... there are times when those of us who self-identify as “Christian” have been known to say some pretty ... well, dumb things.

For the most part, it’s unintentional, not based in a deliberate effort to spread disinformation. It’s usually a simple mistake, like comparing oranges to apples and later discovering (gasp) they’re not the same. And then blaming the apple for not being an orange, as if the apple’s failed its only task or – worse – deliberately deceived us.

I’ve lost track of how many books, blogs, pastors and/or teachers say something to the effect of: “God’s been showing me a lot recently about [insert topic here], and let me tell you, they didnt teach me that in seminary.”

The audience nods and chuckles; after all, can anything spiritually worthwhile come from seminary?

Im surprised that they’re surprised.

Weren’t they paying attention in class? Did they somehow get confused about the difference between seminary and the Holy Spirit?

Bible colleges and seminaries are designed to provide theological training, teach skills in biblical interpretation and application, and be a time of preparation and honing for students already following the Spirits leading – thats why theyre at Bible college/seminary in the first place.

The Holy Spirit’s job description is uniquely tailored to individual believers. He alone is our source of spiritual vitality and vision. The Holy Spirit uses Bible colleges and seminaries to hone and sharpen us, yes, but they were never meant to replace Him.

Insider Tip: Bible colleges and seminaries always challenge students to know the difference between head knowledge and heart transformation. To borrow a commonly known proverb, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Training facilities like Bible colleges and seminaries can only lead horses you so far – you have to encounter the Spirit on your own. Nobody can “make” you.

So, please, I’m beggin’ ya – for the love of all that’s good and right and holy in the universe – stop belittling seminaries because they arent the Holy Spirit.

Its like blaming an apple for not being an orange.