Friday, December 29, 2017

The Devout Life: a Review

Our church recently completed a sermon series on the book of Ephesians, and one of the repeated bylines for this series was the phrase:
“Bringing our behavior in line with our beliefs”.
And in a nutshell, that is precisely what Roger Helland’s newest book, The Devout Life, is all about — the eager desire to have a rich, full-life engagement with our faith that informs, encourages, invigorates, and challenges us in every area.

The subtitle of the book, reflected in the cover artwork, is “Plunging the Depths of Spiritual Renewal”, which aptly describes the attitude that Helland wants his readers to cultivate as they dive deep into their faith. This is a not a treatise on apologetics (defending orthodoxy) — it is a rallying call to a living, vibrant orthodoxy. It is an invitation to “go deep”.

Today, as many Christians wrestle with whether to defend the term ‘evangelical’, or write ‘Ichabod’ (the glory has departed) over its doors and abandon it, A Devout Life calls us to recapture the spiritual vibrancy that was at the heart of early evangelicalism. To that end, Helland has done a great deal of research into the Pietist movements, to (re)discover the spiritual practices that shaped their devotion to follow Jesus whole-heartedly.

Chapter by chapter, Helland explores the spiritual practices/disciplines of the early Pietists — each reader will no doubt find their own favorite topic — and each chapter concludes with thought-provoking questions for either group study or personal “how how will I incorporate this into my life” application. Some of the topics include: Continuous Christian Conversion, Transformational Use of Scripture, and A Peaceful Spirit, among others.
(I can’t pick a favorite chapter, honestly. I found so much in this book to be exciting and challenging, and you can’t really rip one chapter out of context and say, “Here, just read this one”.)
If I were a church-planter, this is one of the books I would work through with my planting team — right at the beginning.

If I were leading a church that felt a need to (re)discover the life-giving practices that first caused them to fall in love with Jesus, I’d challenge the leaders to invest significant time in a careful, unhurried book study.

I’d do the same for a home group or a house/simple church.

And as an individual follower of Jesus, wanting to go deeper in my spiritual walk but recognizing that magic-wand, fast-food-drive-through, just-add-water approaches simply don’t work, I’d read The Devout Life.

More than once.
One of the best books I’ve read in quite a while. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Tale of Two Attitudes

Have you ever had the experience of reading a familiar passage of scripture, and suddenly noticing a nuance here, or a tidbit there, that you’d somehow missed before?

It’s almost Christmas, and so I’ve been re-reading the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke — a great idea that the pastor at our church suggested a few weeks back.

The other day, I got on a bit of a roll in Luke's gospel, and kept reading several chapters into Jesus’ early ministry, as well.

In chapter seven, there is a familiar story of a Roman centurion, whose faith impressed the Messiah:
At that time the highly valued slave of a Roman officer was sick and near death. When the officer heard about Jesus, he sent some respected Jewish elders to ask him to come and heal his slave. So they earnestly begged Jesus to help the man. “If anyone deserves your help, he does,” they said, “for he loves the Jewish people and even built a synagogue for us.” So Jesus went with them. (Luke 7:2-6)
Okay, let’s pause there for a second. This is where a nuance I hadn’t noticed before began to stand out:

First, the centurion was smart: he sent Jewish elders to appeal to the Jewish Messiah.

Second — and this is the part that stood out — was the rationale that they used to try to convince Jesus to come: “he deserves this”.
He’s entitled. He’s earned it. Quid pro quo.*
*something that is given or taken in return for something else. (Dictionary.com)
The good news is, of course, that Jesus willingly went. But then the story gets even more intriguing:
But just before they arrived at the house, the officer sent some friends to say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet you. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed…” (Luke 7:6-7)
Let’s pause again.

The centurion’s friends were using a “he deserves this” kind of entitlement approach. But the centurion, speaking for himself, says, “No, actually, I don’t deserve it… But I believe. Just say the word.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” And when the officer’s friends returned to his house, they found the slave completely healed. (Luke 7:9-10)
No quid pro quo. No entitlement. No merit-based appeal.

Just faith in Jesus’ character, and faith that He had the authority to heal.

And the centurion was right, on both counts.

Monday, December 18, 2017

No Cheese, Please, It's Christmas

Sometimes, writing a blog post near Christmas can be a tough gig.

As a song-writing friend remarked recently, there are two traps to avoid: sappy sentimentalism or excessive cheesy-ness.

(Or a noxious combination of both, perhaps?)

We are a society obsessed with “Christmas cheer”, and yet some aspects of the Christmas story contain a strange combination of joyful celebration, and dark foreshadowing.

The shepherds were blown away, and multitudes of angels rejoiced (Luke 2:8-20), and yet when the Magi showed up a couple of years later, an evil king slaughtered babies in an attempt to murder the Messiah (Matthew 2:16-18).
In other words, heaven and earth rejoiced, and evil began sharpening its long knives.
Even when wise old Simeon, waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the Messiah, finally held the baby Jesus in his arms, he was overcome with joyful celebration, and yet prophesied to His mother that “a sword will pierce your soul” (Luke 2:25-35).

And as the story of Jesus unfolds — both in the Gospels and later in the book of Acts, as the apostles spread the joyful news around the known world — there is the same recurring theme of joyful celebration and evil reaction. In those who saw their need for a Savior, there was rejoicing and a desire to spread the news; in those who thought they were fine just the way they were, there was outrage and a desire to shut Jesus up.
Jesus came to offer forgiveness of sins, and that is a serious spiritual business to be in.
No wonder Satan pulled out all the stops to derail Jesus’ mission: from Herod’s slaughter of children, to the direct temptation of Jesus, the violent reaction in His own hometown, the seduction of Judas the traitor, and culminating in the blind & murderous rage of the religious leaders conspiring with a pagan government to crucify their own Messiah.
God had the last laugh, of course, when He raised Jesus from the dead three days later. There was rejoicing again, in heaven and earth (even if the disciples were in hiding when the good news came).
And from the book of Acts onward, there has been this same strange combination of joyful celebration and evil reaction. Nobody likes to be told they are a sinner in need of a Savior, even if it’s the truth (nothing new there).

In the 21st century, we are (still) a society that — like the Pharisees of old — thinks we’re fine just the way we are, and the message that we need our sins forgiven seems, well… somehow lacking in Christmas cheer.

Yet in those who have received God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, there is definitely a sense of joyful celebration. Lest we forget, on the night of Jesus’ birth, the message of the angel was: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
And for those who willingly admit their need for a Savior, there’s nothing cheesy about it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

the Color of Gossip

You’ve probably heard that certain emotions have been assigned their very own signature color:

“Green with envy.”

“Red-faced [embarrassment].”

“Black-hearted [cruel].”

“Yellow-bellied [cowardly].”

Can anyone tell me: Which color is best for gossip?

I’m leaning toward a darker, murkier shade of yellow. The base color being yellow makes sense, because gossip is a cowardly attack — a verbal form of stabbing someone in the back.

But it should be darker than normal, methinks, perhaps a pool of vomitous sludge. Something that, if you saw a puddle of it on your kitchen counter, you would immediately put on a hazmat suit to avoid any direct contact while disinfecting your entire house. After all, it’s pure poison — toxic enough to destroy friendships and community.
“A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).
The trouble is, while nobody wants the reputation of being the ‘town gossip’, too many of us are still interested in hearing what they have to say. Let’s get real about this: if we listen to gossip, we’re participating in it.
“Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down” (Prov. 26:20).
Gossip is known by its fruit. It comes in bundles, like software, usually packaged with its closest relatives:
“I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder” (2 Cor. 12:20).
So, if you value an authentic community of faith, the next time you hear gossip bubbling nearby — or notice a Gossip Addict on a self-righteous high oozing around the church lobby — treat it like a leaky bucket full of radioactive mucus.

Run.

You don’t want to get any on you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#metoo — WWJD?

Imagine the original audience for the Sermon on the Mount. Now, picture a furrow-browed, intense young man (sorta like the rich young ruler) debating with Jesus...

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
~ Jesus of Nazareth (Matt. 5:27-29)

Gouging out an eye? To avoid lusting? Dang, Jesus, isn’t that just a little — you know — extreme?

And Jesus, I’m not trying to tell You how to do Your job — I mean, You being God ’n’ all — but couldn’t You throw in something a little more reasonable?

I have a few suggestions:
  1. How about blame the woman for how she’s dressed?
  2. Or maybe throw in a few words to the effect of: ‘Boys will be boys’.
  3. Just say something — anything, really — that deflects the responsibility from us guys and put the blame ’n’ shame on someone else.
What’s that, Jesus? Yeah, I remember the story of Job — he’s one of our heroes in the Old Testament! What’s Job got to do with anything?

“I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman.”
~ Job (Job 31:1)

Is that all Job said, Jesus? Really? Nothing about how women are dressed, or…

Look, Jesus, I really don’t think You understand… yeah, You bet I’m getting angry! What else do You expect, when You keep throwing all the responsibility back on us guys?

Who? The ‘apostle Paul’? Never heard of him — wait, what do You mean by ‘spoiler alert’? What’s this Paul guy going to say?
“When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures...
“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control...
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.”

~ Paul the Apostle, on behalf of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:19-25)
Okay, Jesus, I’ve tried to be patient, but You clearly have an anti-male bias. I’d prefer to get a second opinion, if You don’t mind...

Ask Lucifer? Great idea — where can I find him?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Deeper Than Skin

“Beauty is only skin-deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
~ Dorothy Parker

We’ve all heard variations on this theme — juxtaposed with the hand-wringing earnestness of advertisers bent on squeezing more profit from our insecurities — that who we are matters more than our surface appearance.

We want to be (and be around) people who have character, substance, a spark of life, that goes beyond the surface.

Including in our spiritual lives.

We’ve all met people who look like they've got it all together, but upon closer examination (which, being translated, means, “getting to know them”), have turned out to be ‘surface-only’ Christians. They’ve got their public persona finely-crafted, but have paid scant attention to their spiritual depth.

Our first thought is usually along the lines of: “Wow, that’s disappointing.”
Our second — and immediate — thought should be: “Lord, am I any different?”
How do we get “deeper than skin” in our spiritual journey?

In the book of Ephesians, we find the apostle Paul really excited about what he’s heard about the Christ-followers in Ephesus:
“Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, I have not stopped thanking God for you.” (Eph. 1:15-16)
Paul had experienced no shortage of hardships in his ministry (cf. his resumé of pain in 2 Cor. 11:24-27), yet here we find him raving about how thankful he is about their “strong faith” as well as their “love for God’s people”. These were not ‘surface’ followers of Jesus — the Ephesians were the real deal.
And what Christ-follower wouldn’t want to have a reputation for a strong faith in Jesus, as well as a sincere love for others?
But wait…

Paul is thrilled about their faith and love, and yet he immediately goes on to say that he’s “constantly” praying for them to go deeper still.

Paul’s epistles to various groups often make mention that he is praying for them. But this is one of those unique moments where Paul tells them (and us) the specific details of his prayer.

And I lean in a little closer — what, exactly, does ‘going deeper’ than a strong faith and a sincere love look like?

Paul enumerates several things:
  1. spiritual wisdom insight, in order to know God better (Eph. 1:16-17)
    • (There’s more to know about God? Even if you’ve already got a ‘strong faith’? Apparently, yes.)
  2. that their hearts would be better able to understand the confident hope that God gives (Eph. 1:18)
    • (Do you have any friends who, despite their faith, walk around feeling condemned? Pray like Paul did: that they become able to live in confident hope.)
  3. to know God’s power at work in us (Eph. 1:19-21)
    • (The Holy Spirit is not some sort of Divine Administrator, just logging and tallying the number of people who become Christ-followers. Paul reminds us that the same power God used in raising Christ from the dead is available to us.)
Paul returns to his prayer emphasis a few chapters later, as well (Ephesians 3:14-21), once again letting us in on the specifics of his prayer. Keep in mind, Paul is speaking to a group of people who have already been identified as having a strong faith in Jesus and a sincere love for others.

Paul prays for them (and us):
  1. to be ‘empowered’ with strength from the Holy Spirit (Eph. 3:16)
  2. that Christ will live in us by faith (Eph. 3:17)
  3. and now that we have been ‘rooted’ in love:
    • have power to know the depth, the height, the width and the length of God’s love
    • to experience Christ’s love even though it’s too immense to fully understand
    • so that we are full of God. (Eph. 3:17-21)
Incredible: Paul’s prayer on behalf of people who already know God’s love... is that they would know — an experiential ‘knowing’ — His love even more. And that we are not ‘full’ (complete) in spiritual growth until we grasp the greatness of His love.

Hello, life-long pursuit.

A pursuit that will result, I suspect, in us becoming ‘deeper than skin’.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Troll Bridge

“Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord.

“Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God.

“Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.” (Hebrews 12:14-15)

Bitterness is a nasty disease.

Some might compare it to cancer, because it has a tendency to eat away at your innards — it’s common knowledge that stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, and various digestive ailments can be exacerbated by chronic bitterness and its corrosive derivative: anger.
Bitterness is far worse than cancer, in my opinion. Cancer merely eats away at our bodies before claiming our lives. Bitterness eats away our souls long before any physical symptoms take their toll. And as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, it also poisons everyone around us. If ‘misery loves company’ sounds like a good way to do community, then bitterness is your ticket.
And make no mistake: bitterness is a community disease. The writer of Hebrews says it ‘corrupts’ others; another translation renders the same word as ‘defiles’. Both words are evocative depictions of the toxicity of bitterness — an individual who withdraws into their own bitterness withers on their own, but in a community, the rot spreads and takes root.

Sometimes, in my imaginative little mind, I picture bitterness as a troll hiding under a bridge in our faith journey. Salivating with malicious anticipation, the Troll of Bitterness latches on to our souls like a bear trap. And once its got a good grip on our hearts, minds and emotions, it’s murder to get rid of.

“Wow, I bet God never thought of that.”
Said no-one ever.
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)
Bitterness is tough to beat, if you just focus on “I’m trying my Olympic best to stop being bitter.” Trying to negate a negative usually just ends up giving you a double negative — now you’re bitter and also frustrated by your inability to get a handle on the bitterness.

Choosing kindness, and softening your heart towards others is an effective antidote. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to bless those who curse us, to love our enemies, and to pray for people who treat us like garbage (Luke 6:27-28). Couple that with forgiving as Christ has forgiven us, and the previously iron-clad grip the Troll of Bitterness held begins to turn to jelly.

And instead of corrupting and defiling the community of faith, we begin to look (and act) more like the Body of Christ.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sowing & Reaping & Karma

photo credit: Wikicommons
“What goes around, comes around.”

“You get what you deserve.”

“Karma’s going to catch up to you.”

Long before it became popular to joke about ‘karma’, the apostle Paul introduced us to the idea of “reaping what we sow”.
“Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9 NLT)
It’s worth pointing out, right from the outset, that there is a subtle but very important difference between ‘karma’ and ‘reaping what you sow’. In popular usage (versus how studied Buddhists would understand it), ‘karma’ comes across as if it’s an outside force operating to balance a scale of justice somewhere. For example, some people will shake their heads and mutter something to the effect of: “karma will get you”, as if karma was a vengeful entity looking to slap people down if they don’t play nice. But it’s okay if they get slapped down, because they ‘deserved it’.
(Ironically, those who mutter ‘karma’ would take gleeful delight in seeing others get slapped down, which is troubling, to say the least.)
‘Reaping what you sow’ is not the same thing. God (as opposed to karma) isn’t a vengeful entity looking for reasons to slap people down and say, “See? You deserved that.” (And if any Christians gloated about them ‘getting what they deserved’, that should be troubling, too.)

What makes “reaping what you sow” more sobering than karma, is that the ‘sin nature’ that people are sowing to is their own. It’s not an outside force, exerting its nefarious will on the unsuspecting. Read the verse again — “those who sow to please their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature”. It’s not retributive justice from outside or above — it’s more akin to the law of cause-and-effect.

For example, if you are consistently dishonest in your dealings with others, don’t be shocked when nobody trusts you anymore. If you treat people like garbage, don’t be surprised to wake up one day and find that you have no friends.

The other option is noticeably different — if we ‘sow to the Spirit [of God]’, we reap a harvest of good from the Spirit. In other words, contrary to the negative example of sowing to our own sin nature, we can choose instead to ‘sow’ — or ‘live to please the Spirit’ — and reap a harvest of life from the Spirit.

The profound difference between the two is simply this:
  1. Live to please yourself, and you will reap decay and death (because our sin nature corrupts everything).
  2. Live to please the Holy Spirit, and you will reap life (because God is holy and incorruptible).
Therefore (Paul concludes), don’t get tired of doing the right thing (living to please the Spirit). There will be a harvest of everlasting life if we don’t give up (and retreat to the old ways of pleasing ourselves).

Dipping back into the previous chapter, we find this gem of wisdom in regard to ‘sowing and reaping’:
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” (Galatians 5:24-25 NLT)

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Stage Is Set... and...


photo source: Wikicommons
A few years ago, around the turn of the century, sociologists began to speak of the ‘four ages of life’. Before that, the popular understanding had traditionally held to only three ages, but that view began to change with the recognition that in the early 21st century, people are living 20-30 years longer than the average person did a century ago.

The old model needed retooling, and the concept of a ‘third age’ was coined and began to gain traction.

Sociologist William Sadler, in his book The Third Age, argued for a radical shift in society’s perception of aging: “The new opportunity facing adults today is a fulfilling third age… adults should create a fresh map of life in which self-actualization after fifty becomes a new norm.”

Groups as divergent as business entity Encore, and faith-based organizations like Encore Generation have begun to explore and strategize how to respond to the unique opportunities presented by the newly-recognized ‘Third Age’.

In church circles, there was a brief flurry of interest regarding Baby Boomer ministry between 2007-2010. Almost every resource makes reference to Amy Hanson’s Baby Boomers and Beyond. The good news is that her book is well-written and insightful, and the ‘other’ news is that everyone refers to it because there’s not much else out there. It appears that with the exception of the United Methodists in the USA, few churches or denominations have given it much thought or attention since then.

There are a range of opinions on when, exactly, this Third Age begins. For example, some suggest that the term refers to retired people over sixty-five who are still active and healthy. They would reserve the term ‘old’ for those who are over eighty and restricted by encroaching infirmity; ‘old-old’ occurs when/if you live into your nineties. On the other end of the spectrum, a much smaller number (including, oddly, Dr. Sadler) suggested that mid-to-late forties demarcates the beginning of the Third Age.

Generation Jones makes use of the phrase ‘third age’, but their focus is on what they believe to be the ‘lost generation’ sandwiched between the youngest Baby Boomers and the eldest part of Generation X. It’s an entertaining website (I’m a Joneser, according to their math and agenda), but their narrow definition of Third Age is less helpful.

The majority of those who use Third Age terminology today tend to place the entry point at fifty, with an elastic end point of roughly seventy, depending on the health, vitality, and personality of the individual. They would define the Third Age more by its unique characteristics than a rigid “when’s your birthday” rule. (cf. Jane Fonda’s TedTalk: Life’s Third Act)

The Four Ages in a Nutshell
First Age
  • childhood into early adulthood (individuation from parents) – birth to early 20’s
Second Age
  • building careers and raising families – mid-20’s to 50(-ish)
Third Age
  • still-employed or recently retired empty-nesters – 50 to 70(-ish)
  • more discretionary time; energy + experience
  • life focus shifts to make an impact/difference; leaving a legacy
Fourth Age
  • seniors – 70+


Describing the dynamics of the Third Age, Midlife Unlimited’s Melita Debellis writes:
“This is a time when, from the vantage point of long and varied experience, we can take particular note of what is really important to us and how we want to ‘spend’ the time remaining to us. During this period, we can revisit/reclaim some of what we neglected along the way, clear out unwanted baggage, heal old wounds and see where we want to grow to become more balanced and whole.”
In other words – from a Christian worldview – the Third Age is a time of reflection, introspection, and strategic (re)thinking. In Bob Buford’s terminology, it is Half Time, an opportunity for “revitalization and catching a new vision”. From this perspective, the Third Age should be fraught with exciting potential. Unfortunately, the more traditional views of aging have inadvertently produced some negative expectations of anyone over fifty. There has been (and will continue to be) a fairly strong reaction and push-back to these stereotypes. John Schachinger – tongue firmly in cheek – summarizes the traditional view:
“We then enter retirement and aging, and largely devote ourselves to recreation, leisure, and obsolescence. By now our major decisions and life course have been determined. We’ve progressed as far as we can, and it’s time to move to the sidelines.” (Here Come the Baby Boomers – Again!)
As Schachinger notes elsewhere in his article:
“From the cradle to young adulthood, entire industries have sprung up or been revolutionized to feed, clothe, entertain, and educate [baby boomers]. We revolutionized and transformed youth and young adulthood, and we’ll also revolutionize retirement. Although we haven’t put it together yet, boomer aging will bear little resemblance to the senior centers and retirement communities today.
“Boomers will not age quietly (they’ve never done anything quietly!).”
It’s puzzling to note that a number of evangelical resources have a tendency to lump anyone over the age of fifty together with ministry to seniors. This represents a significant blind spot. Amy Hanson, in her landmark Baby Boomers and Beyond, commented on this mentality:
“I recall an older man who once said, ‘I can’t wait until these younger folks get old so we can start singing the hymns again’. Ministry with [the Boomers] will look different now and in the future. It will never resemble the senior adult ministry of the past because this new generation of older adults is completely different from previous generations.” (emphasis in original)
Canadian blogger and pastor Carey Nieuwhof (who turned 50 himself just a year ago) typifies the ‘new’ attitude of Third Agers in the church:
“The default in many churches is simple: provide programming for over-50 adults that caters to their needs: potluck lunches, Bible studies and social gatherings for their demographic, and, of course, bus trips.
“Really? As in really—this is as good as it gets for people moving into their prime and then into their senior years? If I have to spend the next thirty years taking bus trips, I want the first bus trip to be straight to heaven.” (Shut Down the Bus Tours)
Effective ministry with those in the Third Age (predominantly but not exclusively Baby Boomers) will by necessity be markedly different than what the previous generation considers normal. As Gary McIntosh wrote in the Christian Education Journal, Fall 2008 (notice again the flurry of interest a decade ago):
“Boomers… like to be characterized by the following words: active, alert, contributor, experienced, healthy, independent, and worker. Most Boomers think of themselves as 10–15 years younger than they actually are. In short, expect Boomers to be turned off by any ministry that portrays them as frail, aged, or sedentary… They are attracted to ministries that help them look back with pride to their youth, while helping them launch the next chapter in their lives.” (emphasis added)
It is this sense of “launch[ing] the next chapter” that needs to be emphasized in ministry among the over-fifty segment of any church. The Third Age is an opportunity to make a difference for the sake of the Kingdom.

It is a season of dreams and mobilization. A kairos moment that dares to inquire: “What’s next, Lord?”

And then acts on it.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Wrong End of the Telescope

“This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life.”


As human beings, we have a remarkable tendency to make things all about us.

No, I’m not thinking of the “name it and claim it” crew — not this time. It doesn’t really matter what denominational background people come from; we all seem to have a built-in default setting that says, in effect:
”I gave my life to Jesus. Now, in return, He owes me a pretty decent life, unencumbered by pain, difficulty, or trial.”
It's like looking through the wrong end of the periscope; we miss the big picture and becoming fixated on the small.

And I can’t help but notice that many of those who have decided they no longer believe in God (the ones I know personally) often point to a crisis event where injustice, pain, or death (of someone close) invaded their lives.

As they ponder the hardship, their line of thinking goes something like this: Jesus (a) didn’t prevent it or (b) overturn it, so (c) why bother believing in Him, let alone following Him?

I understand the need to find someone to blame when things go sideways. When there seems to be no human culprit (and sometimes even when there is), Jesus can easily become the ultimate locus point of our anger.

And I get it. I really do.
On Vancouver Island, there is a cemetery where you can find a small gravestone that simply reads: “D.J. McAlpine 1991”. That year, Wendy & I buried our second child — Dallas Jorge McAlpine — due to an undiagnosed heart defect that snuffed out his life just before childbirth.
It was pouring rain on the day of the funeral. Wendy & I stood under an umbrella, watching with hollow hearts as the caretaker arrived for the burial. He hopped out of the hearse, reached back inside, and tucked a tiny little coffin under his arm as he cautiously navigated the rain-slick, uneven ground next to the open grave.
The previous few days had already been a numbing vortex of emotions, but somehow, the sight of the caretaker casually tucking the body of my son under his arm — like an item of little consequence — hit me like a ton of bricks. I was gutted, standing there in the rain beside my crying wife.
So, please understand — I’m not unaware of the depth of pain that causes some to question their faith in God.

Nor am I suggesting that I was a pillar of spiritual strength for surviving that experience with my faith intact. At times, it felt like my faith was a mere thread that I was clinging to against all odds.

But at the end of the day, I knew that if I had to choose between:
  • Job’s attitude of trusting God even if he didn’t understand — “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:20-22)
  • or his wife’s attitude — “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9)
It was a no-brainer.
Today, however, I fear that many people are forgetting one of the basic tenets of our faith: that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Or at best, we have been Christians for so long that we have begun to take our salvation for granted.

Salvation, as the apostle Paul points out to his protege Timothy, is God’s mercy towards a bunch of people (us) who frankly didn’t deserve it. And yet many of us are prone to forget that we were once dead in our sins, and had no hope aside from the merciful intervention of God (Eph. 2:1-10).

I could point out that the earliest followers of Jesus — the disciples — didn’t have easy lives as a result of following Jesus. Eleven out of twelve died early, often violent deaths because of their faith, and the twelfth (John) wrote his epistles while in exile. The same has often been true for followers of Jesus throughout the centuries, until this present day (see The Voice of the Martyrs, for example).

But I think the greater concern is this:
When did salvation begin to mean so little? How did we lose our sense of awe and wonder that Jesus loved us, gave Himself for us, and saved us from our sins and their [eternal] consequences?
If anyone is “owed” something, isn’t it Jesus?

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Calling, Talents, and Macedonia

Finding your purpose in life — or your ‘life calling’ — has at times had the unfortunate side-effect of twisting many sincere Jesus-followers into pretzel-like contortions that would make a Cirque de Soleil performer green with envy.

Much like having a ‘life verse’, I remember many conversations as a young Christian with my friends about discovering our ‘calling’ — as much or more than we agonized about finding God’s choice of a spouse for us, or pouring over Spiritual Gift Inventories to puzzle out what our spiritual gift(s) might be.
Okay, I’m being somewhat facetious when I say it like that, so let me hasten to point out that all of these areas in life — vocation, marriage, and serving others (the raisón d'etre for having spiritual gifts) — should be seriously and prayerfully considered. Just not via some neurotic, angst-riddled anxiety trip.
Scouring the Bible wasn’t as helpful as we might have wished — mainly because we were working on the assumption that ‘calling’ was the equivalent of ‘vocation’. But as we continued to search the Scriptures, we made a fascinating, life-changing discovery.
There were/are a ton of verses about our ethical, moral, and spiritual ‘calling’:
  1. Jesus’ call to His first disciples was simply, “Follow Me” (Matt. 4:18-22).
    They ended up doing a wide variety of things: handing out fish and bread to 500+ people, baptizing on Jesus’ behalf, accompanying Jesus when He healed the sick, witnessing the Transfiguration, being sent out two-by-two to heal the sick, cast out demons and announce the Kingdom… but the original ‘call’ to the disciples (and us) is simply to stop being our own bosses, and humbly “follow”.
  2. Every Christian shares the same ‘calling’ known as the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20).
    Some people have a special gift at being evangelists, but all of us are called to be “witnesses” (Acts 1:8).
  3. At various points in the New Testament, we also discovered that part of our ‘calling’ — God’s will for our lives — included (but is not limited to):
    • not conforming to the ways/mindset of the world, resulting in a clearer ability to know God’s will (Rom. 12:2)
    • a holy (set apart) lifestyle, which includes both our ethics (aka the Sermon on the Mount: Matt. 5-7), as well as our sexuality (1 Thess. 4:3-7)
    • having an attitude that is joyful, prayerful, and thankful (1 Thess. 5:16-18)
    • speaking truthfully, not allowing anger to fester, working honestly instead of deceptively, choosing our words carefully to bring encouragement, and replacing bitterness, rage, violence and slander (social media ‘alternative facts’?) with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness (Eph. 4:25-32)
  4. Just to name a few.
In other words, a huge chunk of our spiritual ‘calling’ — God’s will for our lives — has to do with our character.
With that understanding in place, another facet of finding your niche has to do with — wait for it — serving. That’s why we are given spiritual gifts: to serve others. That’s why God has given us unique gifts and talents: to serve others. And — not shockingly — that’s how Jesus modelled life for us: by serving others (John 13:1-17).

When it comes to making decisions about where we should invest our time and energy in serving, Wendy & I have often used what we call the “Talents & Macedonia” approach.

The “Talents”, of course, is taken from the parable Jesus told about two servants who were given ‘talents’ (a King James phrase for a sum of money), who faithfully used them and were fruitful, as contrasted to one lazy sluggard (Jesus called him “wicked” as well) who buried what he’d been given in the sand and tried to blame his master for his lack of fruitfulness (Matt. 25:14-30).

In the parable, the master is not impressed, and the point of Jesus’ story is that we are responsible to use what God has given us, for His purposes. Burying our talents in the sand — no matter who we blame for that decision — is not an option in the Kingdom.

“Macedonia” comes from the story of the apostle Paul and his team when they were blocked from entering the provinces of Asia and later Bithynia. They had been tasked with preaching the Gospel among the Gentiles, but for whatever reason, God wasn’t opening doors for them.

Then Paul had a vision in the night of a man in Macedonia, and the team concluded that Macedonia was where God was calling them (Acts 16:6-10). The epistle to the Philippians was later written to the church that was started there.

From these two seemingly unconnected stories, Wendy & I have developed a helpful grid for decision-making:
  1. We have been given gifts — spiritual, natural, personality, interests, vocational training — that we want to use to serve. If there are no opportunities to use our gifts, we can’t use that as an excuse to passively “bury our gifts in the sand”, and so…
  2. We must be on the alert for a “Macedonian call” to serve somewhere else, where our gifts are needed. The call to serve with what we’ve been given is geographically transferable.
    Bloom where you’re planted’, if at all possible. If not, move to a new flower box, and bloom there instead.
So, there you have it:
  1. The bulk of our ‘calling’ is to become more Christ-like in our character.
  2. We have been given gifts (‘talents’) by our Master, and burying them in the sand isn’t a Jesus-honouring option.
  3. If we can’t use our gifts where we are, then God has somewhere else already in mind for us to flourish in.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:10)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Conspiracy

I’ve always scratched my head over some people’s addiction to conspiracy theories.

“Gullible’s Travels” is how I’ve mentally soothed my bewildered cranium when somebody posts a new link to an outrageous theory (almost always bolstered by the unproveable claim “we've got the proof!”).

I’ve even tried my hand at re-writing the Gilligan’s Island theme song lyrics, á la “Gullible’s Island”.

But two events conspired against me over the weekend, tempting me to second-guess my perhaps too-hasty poo-poohing of the Tin Foil Hat Brigade, and caused me to question whether or not to continue blogging.

Actually, it was pretty mundane compared to believing in black helicopters and zombified hordes of stormtroopers.
  1. The photo hosting service that I’ve been using for years decided (out of the blue) to jack their rates into the stratosphere. And made it instantly retro-active — meaning that every single blog post since 2003 was now not only missing its associated pix, but had been replaced (one and all) with an identical, ugly-as-sin, “Upgrade Now!” icon.
    Trust me — not a sight for the faint of heart. I’d have to re-upload and encode over 1200 images. It was like I was being held hostage by some malevolent algorithm.
  2. And then an email arrived, separately informing me that I had to renew my domain names right now, or else they would expire in a few days.
    Et tu, Brute?
Neither of these incidents, by themselves, were enough to convince me there is an anti-blogging conspiracy afoot. But the daunting idea of (a) the hours required to fix the blog image problem, coupled with (b) shelling out for a domain renewal, resulted in (c) the very real temptation to just pull the plug.

Since you’re reading this, and you may have noticed that all the blog’s posts/images are here, safe and sound — you may rest assured that I did not give in to said temptation.

But working on it the past couple of days — and it took over two full days — provided me with an opportunity to browse through fourteen years of blogging. It was an interesting retrospection.

And I realized that I am by no means done with blogging. Not yet. Beyond that, I know that when I finally hang up my skates (to use a Canadian metaphor), it will be because I’ve decided that it’s time.

And that’s much more pro-active and intentional than thinking there’s an anti-blogging conspiracy, wouldn’t you say?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Life Verse

“Let’s go around the circle, and each one can share what their ‘life verse’ is…”

Honestly, up until that very moment, I hadn’t given it much thought. I wasn’t even aware that people chose — or were they given? — a “life verse”.
I knew that the Bible was full of verses that inspired, challenged, confronted, and comforted people. And depending on the situational circumstances of any given day, some verses might seem more meaningful than at other times.

So, feeling a little like I had somehow missed an important part of my spiritual journey, I waited with bated breath as others began to share their ‘life verse’. (All the while feverishly hoping that a verse would pop into my mind before it was my turn.)

There were some pretty inspiring choices around our circle.
(More than once, I thought: “Dang; I wish I could use that one. Is it okay for more than one person to have the same life verse?”)
Some examples:
  • “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)
  • “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
  • “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
  • “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
My turn was coming, and I was getting a little desperate by that point. All that kept coming to mind was a verse from John’s Gospel that seemed very tame, possibly anemic, and less “triumphant” (in my limited understanding at the time).

And suddenly it was my turn, and I heard myself blurting out:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
And the group nodded in solemn solidarity, and then moved on to the next person. I could now relax — I had successfully passed the Life Verse Test.

In the years since, I have often returned to John 15:5 and marveled at what an appropriate choice it was (although I still think it’s not really advisable to isolate a single verse as a guide for the entirety of anyone’s life as a Christ-follower.)
  1. Jesus is the Vine — the Source, and we, as branches, are the recipients. We are completely dependent on Him. We can (and should) be wise about how we do ministry — planning, evaluating, learning, risk-taking — but we need to do all things firmly connected, and flowing from, the Source.
  2. Jesus wants us to be fruitful — I love the wording in the Nueva Versión Internacional (Spanish) translation: we will “give” much fruit. It’s not about us becoming spiritual giants; it’s about giving fruit to bless others. And it’s a memorable phrase: mucho fruto.
  3. And what should be a warning — “apart from me you can do nothing” — I have always found strangely encouraging, perhaps because the positive outcome of doing the opposite seems pretty clear-cut.
In hindsight, my hasty choice of a ‘life verse’ has turned out to be much more significant than I realized at the time.