Friday, August 10, 2018

Take Care How You Hear

I peeked in at Pastor Steve this week. Two things stood out. First, he had a lot fewer books in his office as he cleans things out in preparation for his upcoming move:( But second, like the faithful servant he is, he was hard at work bringing together thoughts and themes of Genesis 40 and 41!

My thought this week however doesn’t have to do with Pastor Steve’s preparation, but with your own. Thomas Long, a preacher, says the following about sermons in The Witness of Preaching: People may call it our sermon, but it does not belong to us alone. It belongs as well to those who help create it by their listening. To put it theologically, a sermon is a work of the church and not merely a work of the preacher.

The idea that sermons are co-created between preacher and congregation is something that the Westminster divines captured in Shorter Catechism Q & A #90:

Q: How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?
A: That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer, receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.

Jesus himself, commenting on the sowing of the word by the sower in Luke 8:18, says simply, “Take care then how you hear.”

So how do you prepare to hear well? Let me offer six observations to gauge your hearing. As I offer these observations note that I do not offer them as a list to burden or condemn you in any way. God constantly shows up even in the midst of our abject failures. My hope is that in some way maybe one of these considerations will open up a pathway that will allow you to experience the delights of the Gospel more fully!

Prayerfully Present — Attending to the word is always the Spirit’s work. He is the author. We share the life of Christ through the Spirit. We must seek the Spirit’s illumination if we are to hear well. (Ephesians 6:19-20).

Physically Prepared -- Think of a job interview, an ACT test, your wedding day. These are huge events and we know instinctively that we need to be rested. When we open our Bibles or come to worship we meet with the CREATOR of the universe. That is HUGER than huge! Let’s do our best to be attentive.

Relationally Reconciled — I will suggest two avenues here:

  • Reconciled with God. -- in Psalm 66:18 the Psalmist says with regards to prayer, “If I had cherished sin in my heart The Lord would not have listened.” God does not demand our perfection but he desires our authenticity, repentance and fresh reliance on Christ.
  • Reconciled with others -- so much is dependent on our horizontal relationships -- Matthew 5:23 reminds us to be reconciled with our brother (or sister) before coming to worship. The intimation is that unreconciled human relationships will stunt the yield of the word. Why is this so? I think we can point to double mindedness. Again our relationship with God needs to be that of fresh, total and humble reliance. If we are not working to reconcile with others we evidence the fact that we are not living out a God-reliant life.

Scripturally Saturated — In Acts 17:11 we are told how the Word took root in Berea. Part of its fruitfulness hinged on the eagerness of the Berean’s to search out Scripture. Our own knowledge of, delight in and reliance on Scripture will effect how we hear the Word.

Active in Application --- James 1:22 tells us “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourself.” There is a link between hearing and doing. Let us not be mere evaluators of exposition, devotees of doctrine or hearers of homilies, but may we be transformed by living out the Living Word!

Worshipfully Wondered — In Nehemiah 8:6 after the people the Lord heard the words of God they “answered, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads and worshipped the LORD”. The Westminster Divines call us to “lay it up in our hearts”, to ponder as Mary did, and allow the experience of God through his word to continue to shape us in the days to come.

I know Steve, and I know he will be ready, will you?

Friday, August 3, 2018

Kindness

Before we head into Genesis 39 and look more closely at Joseph for a couple of weeks, I have two thoughts to underline yet in connection with Judah. First, Judah is in many ways the “patron saint” of wandering children. A member of THE covenant family, set off away from home, wandering in a far off country; as lost as one can be. But God was faithful to meet him in his lostness and bring him home after so many years, decades even. I know that many of us have children that are not walking with the Lord. They have been baptized, they know the truth, yet they wander. Take heart from God’s dealings with Judah. Like Judah their story is not complete in the middle. There is more to be written. God’s eye is not dimmed and his arm is not too short to reach them in their wanderings.

Second, we have confidence in God because the work that he brought about in the heart of Judah was evidence of his kindness. Judah was broken and exposed, brought to repentance left with only a desperate faith. Scripturally both repentance and faith are put in context of grace and kindness.
      Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?     Romans 2:4
      In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace.    Ephesians 1:7

It is kindness that leads to repentance, the riches of grace engenders faith. For so many, their relationship with God is born out of fear and maintained in fear. There exists a mentality that believes a step out of line means getting zapped. Yet this is not the picture that we are given. In both faith and repentance, the kindness and grace of God are given as motivators for right relationship. Fear is not meant to call us to Christ or to keep us there; it is His kindness and grace.

So whether you are Judah involved in hardcore wandering, or you have a Judah you pray for, or you are caught in a Judah moment; pray for the eyes to see his kindness!

Lord, give us eyes today to see your kindness. It is so tempting to listen to the Accuser and approach you out of the fear that you could never love us. Help us realize that when we think this way, we are looking for something in us that is worthy of being loved by you, rather than looking at your grace that invites and welcomes us while we are still in our sin. Lord, forgive us for our continual failure to reckon with your kindness. Spirit, help us today, in faith, to respond to your kind invitation to repent!

Friday, July 27, 2018

A Full Share

Never underestimate the Bible. We find truth and wisdom on every page. I was reminded of this recently in talking about the aftermath of a battle that David had with the Amalekites. In this battle there was a group of soldiers that did not go out to the front line, but rather stayed behind with the baggage. Following the battle, those who went to the front line wanted a larger share of the spoils than those who stayed behind. But David was having none of it. Listen to what he says,
“For as his share is who goes down into the battle, so shall his share be who stays by the baggage. They shall share alike.” And he made it a statute and a rule for Israel from that day forward to this day (1 Samuel 30:24–25.)
What an encouragement that there are no little roles, and by extension no little people in the kingdom of God. Those who stay with the baggage receive the same share as those on the front line. There are so many roles in the service of the kingdom. Some we see regularly, those who preach, teach, or lead music. Others labor in obscurity; back in the hallways of the nursery, or tucked away in an office paying bills and balancing budgets. Some personalities stand out, while others prefer to operate in the shadows. But all are judged equally in the kingdom of our God.

So what role are you carrying out for the kingdom? It may be your time and place to shine, smack dab in the middle of the front line. Terrific! Those roles are needed. On the other hand your station in life, gifts or personality may have you tucked away; a necessary support role for the active mission of Christ. Know this, in the Lord’s army all receive a full share.

Friday, July 13, 2018

See you on the dance floor.


Tonight as the Big Band plays, I expect we will see some really young kids out on the dance floor. Maybe we will also see some folks out there who danced to those tunes back in the 1940’s when they were first popular. Some of those guys could probably teach us some moves!

What a delightful image of the church -- gathering together, enjoying good music, out on the same dance floor -- the tiniest of tinies together with the oldest folks in our church family.

Isn’t it marvelous?

When we gather together to worship this Sunday, look around you. Find some kids. They’re the ones standing on their chairs during the songs so they can see the worship leaders. They’re the ones crinkling packages of fruit snacks during the sermon. They’re the ones waving the colorful flags during the closing song.

This is just as it should be.

This is the church. This is the body of Christ.

Each Sunday morning as a church body all the generations gather together, worshipping and soaking in God’s word. Some of us are still and quiet, some of us wiggle and ask questions. And all of us are on the same dance floor together.

~ Debbie Bukovietski






Friday, June 29, 2018

Accessorize


In Titus 2 the apostle Paul lays out instructions for the church community in Crete with regards to life style. He exhorts older men and women to be active in the discipling of younger men and women. He exhorts bondservants to be submissive to their masters in everything, so that in everything “they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” (cf. Titus 2:1-10) Like finding just the right accessories to complement our outfit and bring out our eyes, so our lifestyles are to bring out the beauty of the Gospel which we have been given!

It is this Gospel that Paul goes on to say is both the “why” and “how” for pursuing Godliness. Here are his words:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14) 
Why do we pursue godliness? Because Christ gave himself to redeem us! In whose power do we pursue godliness? By the power Christ has given us in redeeming and purifying us!

As we head towards Independence Day this next week, may we recognize that our true freedom is to be the people that God has made us to be in his Son. And may the loudest and most vibrant firework be the illumination of the Holy Spirit as we follow the path of Godliness he lays out.




Friday, June 22, 2018

Patient, Hopeful Trust


Let me start with a confession. In the outworking of ministry I regularly fight an internal battle between the felt urgency to accomplish what I believe God is calling us to do and the patient trust that God is working out his will and plan in his time. There are many facets to this struggle, but I now focus on how this struggle affects our ability as a community to serve together.

In Numbers 20, Moses was leading the people in the wilderness and seeking to provide food, and in this case water, for the people. God showed him a way forward that involved him speaking to a rock. Moses grew frustrated that things were not moving more smoothly, particularly that the people were being difficult. In a fit of frustration Moses said, “'Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?' And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice.” (Numbers 20:10-11) Some of you know that it was this incident that prevented Moses from leading the people into the promised land, despite his many years of faithful service.

What is the issue here? Is it not the struggle mentioned above, that of Moses’ felt urgency to move things along versus waiting on God by doing things his way? Again, I share this with you in way of confession. I really relate to Moses here and the frustration that he experiences as he works to serve God’s people. Striking a rock in frustration doesn’t seem that radical.

As ministry leaders, our desire is to shepherd well as we seek to follow the Lord. There is much work to be done. The places to jump in and serve feel endless in our context. There are task-oriented jobs such as office admin, building maintenance, and finances. There are people-nurturing opportunities ranging from nursery, to teen discipleship, to shut-in visitation. We need people to handle God’s word, to show hospitality, to share musical gifts. And the list goes on and on and on.

Recently our staff talked about walking this line of needing to get things done and trusting God to work in his time. I am grateful for my colleagues and was encouraged by their insights. Betsy Bray captured much of the conversation with these words: "have a hopeful trust that calling servants to work is God’s business under his control. As leaders seeking to fill needs, we must focus our trust in God, who calls each to the work prepared in advance by him. It takes the pressure off us to be convincing, and leaves it between the person and God. Our work comes of praying for our needs, and praying for future volunteers to be prepared to respond in faith to the call to serve...

...no work for God is without cost. Trusting that “God doesn’t call the equipped, rather he equips those he calls” means embracing the adventure of seeing God work things out after being obedient to begin (or even after agreeing to pray about the possibility of beginning!). The idea of obstacles being in the way of saying "yes" to serving God is an acknowledgment of the existence of a working enemy (who is already defeated). Obstacles exist for whomever God is calling to serve, so ultimately it’s not about only saying "yes" when the path is perfectly clear, rather it’s all about the call."

These are wise words and I am grateful to have such colleagues. I hate it when the urgency of tasks overtake the care for people and the patient trust in God. I hope you will forgive me when that inevitably happens. My prayer going forward is that together we will look to God's leading and fulfill with joy the roles that he has, and is, calling us to.

A final word here. In Numbers 20, again verse 11, we are told, "and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.” This is a tremendous outpouring of blessing that God gives to his people despite their rebellious hearts, and despite the anger and poor leadership of Moses. It is a reminder that God strikes straight blows with crooked sticks, and truly this is our hope going forward!



Thursday, June 14, 2018

All the People Said Amen


I am coming to you from Atlanta this week, this year’s home of our denomination’s General Assembly (GA). GA is a wonderful time of reunion and refreshment for folks in the trenches of ministry. It is a chance to share ideas, to pray with brothers and sisters, and remind ourselves of why we do what we do. GA is about affirming the things that are important to us as a denomination, like a commitment to the Scriptures as the authoritative rule for faith and practice. Like the rightness of t marriage being between a man and a women despite what others may be saying. Or like the importance of loving all people and seeing their gifts utilized, whatever their background or ethnicity. GA is unique among many of the Reformed denominations that you may be familiar with because of its larger size. Every church across the country can send all of their pastors (TEs) as delegates and at least two elders (REs). Hence the assembly has over 1200 voters! While it is unwieldy at times, and debate can be ponderous, every church truly has representation and the actions taken are representative of the denomination. ByFaith Online our denominational magazine, has regular updates for those interested.

Missionally I have been encouraged. Sometimes being in MI and a bit isolated from much of what is going on in the denomination, I forget just how passionate the PCA is when it comes to church extension and reaching the culture for Christ. ​It is encouraging to know that as we take up the opportunities given to us in our little corner of the kingdom, that we are joined with sisters and brothers throughout the world pursuing the same goals.


Friday, June 8, 2018

What are you doing Sunday 8:30 or 10:30?


So what are you doing this Sunday at 8:30 or 10:30? My hope of course, is that you will be attending one of our worship services as these are the summer hours that begin this Sunday!

On the one hand, the above sentence was ​a ​clever way of reminding you that our summer worship hours start this Sunday. (Hint, Hint. Don’t miss it!) On the other hand it really is an expression of the hope of my heart. Weekly worship is so key for our life as believers. Worship is what we were created for. And while it is true that all of life is worship, focused, praise of God weekly, is a clear way to fulfill this calling. Gathering for worship is also where we avail ourselves of the means of grace, i.e. - word and sacrament, where we are met by Christ and sustained in our journey through the days of our weeks. It is here where we encounter the blessing of Christian fellowship, true koinonia, in which we find those true soul mates that walk with us through life. So yes, my hope is to see you Sunday.

Pastor Steve will be picking up the story of God working in and through his people in Genesis 25, focusing on vv. 19-28. We will be reminded again that while his ways are not our ways, he does have a plan and we can trust him.

A final word, as much as you need worship this Sunday, don’t forget others need you as much as you need them. We are all mak​ing our way to Zion together!




Friday, June 1, 2018

How Wise, How Strong!


Lisa and I were talking the other day and noting that apparently we were under the mistaken impression that with summer upon us things would slow down a bit. In some ways just the opposite has occurred. Graduation parties, mission trips, General Assembly, weddings(!), even things like vacation, all add layers to our life. Then go ahead and throw in the unplanned stuff of life, illness, kids in crisis, house projects, car failure, you name it, and we often catch ourselves coming and going. In the midst of this, I sometimes wonder, “Am I hearing the voice of the Lord?” “Am I really following his path?”

As much as we ask these questions personally, we ask similar questions corporately as a church. Attached are documents pertaining to our proposed capital campaign and the ongoing search for an assistant pastor. These are huge initiatives where we look for the Lord to guide us. On top of that, we continue to pray for and support Gracehill as they look toward a public launch date. We look forward to summer picnics and getting out to engage our community. We seek to care well for one another as the body of Christ, especially as we see people wrestle with recent diagnosis and surgeries. In the midst of it all, we ask ourselves, “God, are you with us?”

As we dive back into Genesis this summer, it is instructive to note that God always shows up for his people. In chapter 24, Abraham is again in trouble as he sees his life coming to a close and Isaac still not married. How will the seed survive? Will the promises come to fruition? But, Abraham has learned a thing or two in his sojourns. And, in the midst of crisis he affirms his faith in YHWH in the presence of his servant, "The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you… “ (Genesis 24:7). God sees! God knows. God acts.

A lot is going on in life, and the way forward is not always crystal clear. We may not even be certain we are hearing his voice. But, what is crystal clear is that our God is faithful. He who brought us this far will continue to guide us.

Paul Gerhardt in an old hymn, Give to the Wind thy Fears, puts it appropriately this way:

Leave to His sovereign sway
To choose and to command;
Then shalt thou, wandering, own His way,
How wise, how strong,
how wise, how strong
How wise, how strong His hand.




Friday, May 25, 2018

Grace in the Shadows


Our brother, Daniel Eguiluz, will be installed as a pastor among us this Sunday. Like a graduation, an ordination looks back as a celebration of sustained trials necessary to get to this point, as well as looks forward. After all, the ordination is really just a beginning with most of the story yet to be written.

So, we wonder what will the story look like? Being called as a pastor is to be called to carry out a role in a community of equals. In other words, there is no clergy/laity distinction as a pastor is not inherently more holy than a plumber or a stay-at-home mom. But, like each of us, a pastor has a particular role to play in the community to which he is called. They are to handle the Word, be diligent in prayer, enter the difficult places, seek green pastures, and always point to the finished work of Christ. Eugene H. Peterson, one who has reflected much on the nature of pastoral ministry, offers this reflection in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant: an Exploration in Vocational Holiness:

Pastors enter congregations vocationally in order to embrace the totality of human life in Jesus' name. We are convinced there is no detail, however unpromising, in people's lives in which Christ may not work his will. Pastors agree to stay with the people in their communities week in and week out, year in and year out, to proclaim and guide, encourage and instruct as God works his purposes (gloriously, it will eventually turn out) in the meandering and disturbingly inconstant lives of our congregations.

This necessarily means taking seriously, and in faith, the dull routines, the empty boredom, and the unattractive responsibilities that make up much of most people's lives. It means witnessing to the transcendent in the fog and rain. It means living hopefully among people who from time to time get flickering glimpses of the Glory but then live through stretches, sometimes long ones, of unaccountable grayness. Most pastoral work takes place in obscurity: deciphering grace in the shadows, searching out meaning in a difficult text, blowing on the embers of a hard-used life.”

Perhaps it is a good time to stop and pray for pastors and congregations. These are perilous times for pastors and we need your prayers, daily. It is so easy to deviate from the vocational calling Peterson describes above. But pray for yourselves too, both as individuals and as a community, for it is truly together that we seek grace in the shadows. May God give us eyes to see!

If you want to read ahead we will be exploring this pastoral ministry a little more through 1 Thessalonians 2:1-16.


Friday, May 18, 2018

What does this mean?


This Sunday we remember one of the most significant days in the history of the church, the day we call Pentecost. Most of you probably know the story as it is told to us in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–4)

But knowing the story is not the same as understanding the story. Those gathered during this outpouring immediately sensed the difference between observing and understanding — And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12)

So what does it mean? Pentecost is full of meaning. Let me make just a couple of observations. First, it means that God is true to his word. As we have seen throughout our study of the upper room discourse, Jesus has promised the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is the keeping of that promise. Second, Pentecost is the fulfillment of the journey that the Incarnation began. When God became flesh we experienced Immanuel, God with us. Now, in Pentecost, we are reminded that God continues to pursue his people, drawing even closer. One Jesus, physically located, was not his full plan. God's intent was to take up residence in each believer, God in us! The implications of this are rich and full.

I am looking forward to digging into this with you on Sunday. If you get a chance read Acts 2 as you prepare for worship.

God in us. Amazing!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Sent


As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. - John 17:18

What do you think of when you think of being sent into the world? Do you think of packing up your stuff and moving to a 3rd world country? Perhaps you have images of feeding the homeless in an urban setting? Maybe you think of street preaching on the corner of a busy intersection? Or, maybe it is something more ordinary such as going to school, attending a neighborhood picnic, or joining the local cribbage club (15-2, 15-4, and a double 3 card run is 12)? It could be any of these things (and many more), but it is never less than leaving our comfort zones because our love for the other is greater than our love for security. Sent, as Christ was sent. Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). And in Philippians 2, "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:5–7).

Yesterday Scott, Ruthy, Addison, and I had the opportunity to attend a forum for church leaders thinking through the opportunities and challenges presented to the church as we engage an LGBT+ world. I share this in connection with the above thoughts on being sent because surely this LGBT+ world is a world into which we are being sent. The “sending” in this case may not be as much locationally as ideologically. In fact, there is little doubt that you have people in your orbit that are on this LGBT+ journey. From those who identify with this orientation to friends whose kids do, and to those struggling with the social and theological implications of LGBT+ ideology, we all encounter this reality, maybe daily. The invitation (or if you prefer, the call) is to leave our ideological and relational comfort zones, equipped with the truth and grace of the gospel, to love those who find themselves on a different journey of faith and life than we find ourselves. Some of our “going” will look like educating ourselves. What does the Bible have to say? What is science telling us, or not telling us? What does love look like for those on this journey? Much of the "going” will involve listening. Almost certainly we will need to apologize for assumptions made, cues missed, or bad behavior of those identified with the body of Christ.

Yet, Jesus doesn’t send us on a mission doomed to failure. According to Andrew Marin*, who closely studied the relationship between the LGBT+ community and the church, 83% of those identifying as LGBT+ were raised in the church. Perhaps surprising only 3% left church because of the church’s belief in a historically Christian view of sexuality (i.e. between a man and woman). Overwhelmingly, people left the church because they did not feel safe or relationally connected, because there was an unwillingness to dialogue, or in some cases they were kicked out. Obviously, these kind of experiences make our “going" an uphill battle, but the good news is that truth engaged with humility and grace will get a hearing.

It really is an amazing journey that Jesus has us, his imperfect community, on! Left to ourselves it would be hopeless. But, our hope is not in ourselves. We can never forget the potency of Jesus’ prayer for us. We must never underestimate the Gospel’s power to heal, restore and renew. Armed with this hope we really can engage the sending both personally and corporately. And, as we will be reminded Sunday (in John 17:6-19), like the Trinity we can expand the circle of our love because the Gospel truly is good news.

*Marin, Andrew. Us versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community.


Friday, April 27, 2018

Near the Brokenhearted


No, I haven’t forgotten what day it is, I am simply writing a day early. A day off afforded me some space for reflection and the calendar reminded me that 24 years ago today our oldest daughter, Madilyn, died of complications arising from congenital heart defects. She was 3 months and 16 days into her earthly journey when the Lord took her. Even after 2 dozen years I can still feel the vacuum that Lisa and I experienced in those days of empty arms. Those of you who have experienced loss know that there is simply no way to escape the pain.

But, pain is not the end of the story for the Christian. Certainly in our family the Lord has "restored the years the locusts have eaten" (cf. Joel 2:25) by filling our home with 3 amazing sons, 4 delightful daughters, and a number of other wonderful young image bearers to share our home and life with. We have been reminded of His sovereignty and believe that His best has operated both in our life and in Madilyn's. Even more than these things God has filled empty spaces with Himself. The One who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son has entered the heart of this grieving parent with life-giving promises of hope.

David, who also knew the pain of loss, says this:

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living!
Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:13–14)

So, in our places of pain or confusion may we find ourselves before the Lord who restores the brokenhearted (Psalm 147:3). May we cry out with saints from all ages, "We believe, help our unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Together, let us all wait for the Lord who conquers death and intercedes for His people. This Sunday we will begin a first-hand look at the intercession known as the "High Priestly Prayer" by diving into John 17:1-5.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Ready for Growth?


What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, ....
(1 Corinthians 3:5-9 ESV)

We come to this Friday with a hope of Spring. I know the calendar has claimed that it is spring for a time now, but perhaps our weather is finally catching up. Spring means lots of things. It means a winding down of school. It means a wardrobe change. It means baseball. And, it means a season of planting and cultivating.

As you get ready to till the soil in your gardens and as you prepare your lawns, perhaps it is a good time to think about the fact that this is an image that God uses to describe His work in our lives. We are God’s field, Paul tells the Corinthians (I Cor. 3:9). Plowing, planting, pruning and watering all take place in the fields of our lives. And like a master gardener, God is working the process in just the right way, at just the right time, in order to produce just the right harvest. We recognize that not every stage is pleasant. Who likes the churn of the blade or the cut of the knife? But like the vine stripped of its grapes, standing bare through winter, cut back to the stem, despoiled, disfigured, left a leafless stock we are being shaped into fruit-bearing instruments in the Redeemers hands. Ugo Bassi sums up this life of the vine with these words: While the vine undergoes this death, the wine it has produced is gladdening the heart of man.… We need the paradigm of the vine, which is not bitter for the torment undergone, not barren for the fullness yielded up … the vine from every living limb bleeds wine.

May God give us the grace to look ahead and trust the work He is doing in our lives and in our church. As we move forward we can take heart for, as we will hear this weekend in God's word that Pastor Steve will be opening with us (John 16:25-33), Christ has overcome the world. With this as our basis, may our life together bleed wine.


Friday, April 13, 2018

Present Perfect Progressive


Without giving away too much, a question has been percolating in my head these last couple of weeks heading into our text from John 16:16-24 for this coming Lord’s Day. The question has to do with which tense the Christian life is best lived in. Is it the past, the present or the future? You will have to wait till Sunday to get the full reflection, but we can at least agree that because of the resurrection of Christ, who is the firstfruits of our own resurrection, Christians live in the present informed by the promises of the future. Perhaps the present perfect progressive, a tense which describes an action begun in the past, continuing in the present, and that may continue into the future, best captures the sentiment.

Practically it is this present perfect progressive that has occupied the session lately. As you know, there are a number of issues before Christ Church as we seek to carry out God’s calling for us in GR. (I shared the 8 pressing initiatives a couple of weeks ago). Just this week the session had an opportunity to meet and move along some conversations that have been ongoing both in the session and in the congregation. First, we were thrilled to be able to commit to our missions team an extra $30,000 due to the generous beyond-the-budget giving in 2017. As an extension of our January missions month, the missions team came with a plan to encourage and expand some ministries of current missionaries for the cause of the Gospel. It was a delight to be able to support those plans.

Second, we continued discussions centered around ministry vision going forward, including building expansion. The Lord has been gracious in giving a great deal of unanimity within the session to see that building expansion is a means to continued stewardship of our calling, not an end in itself. That said, we are excited to share with you in the coming weeks thoughts on building expansion, continued church planting efforts, and efforts to continue to be welcoming to those who do not have a relationship with Christ or a church home. We are excited about the direction of the conversation and look forward to hearing your thoughts as collectively we refine things further.

Finally, a key piece of maintaining a strong “home base” at CC and ensuring continued Gospel worship, teaching, discipleship and congregational care will be initiating a search process for a pastor who will eventually address some of the gaps left by Pastor Steve. As you know, Steve has announced his intention to retire. The session has begun to assess pastoral needs going forward and has tasked our personnel team with leading this search. Specifically, over the next months they will be seeking guidance as they develop a profile that best fits our needs and add members to their team to be representative of the congregation. Note the special Session Soundings Live version of our April Showers of Praise (April 25) as a further invitation for dialogue.

I hope you catch that we are excited about the things God is doing in our midst. Even as we are excited we are mindful that every person connects with growth, change, and development differently. For some, these changes are full steam ahead excitement! For others, change is more colored by loss of what was and fear about what is to come. For most, the journey that God has Christ Church on is probably some mixture of the two. But, as always, we remember that we don’t journey alone. Our Savior has promised to never leave us or forsake us. Or, to put it into the context of our text for Sunday where Jesus speaks to disciples facing an uncertain future, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. ... Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:22–24). What wonderful promises these are indeed! Made all the sweeter because they are Yes! and Amen! in Christ! So we journey, but we journey together with the joy of the Lord as our strength (cf. Neh. 8:10).


Friday, April 6, 2018

Convergence

I am not sure where it started. I know my sermon prep for this week’s message at Gracehill had something to do with it as I was digging into Ephesians 2:11-22 and thinking about the truth that is in Christ we are fellow citizens of a heavenly kingdom (v.19). Then there was the conversation in the sauna on 2nd amendment rights and the responsibility that churches have to love and protect. (fascinating conversation by the way, with a Vietnam Vet who subsequently taught for a number of years.) There were also the many reflections on the 50th anniversary of the MLK assassination. Where are we as a nation 50 years later? What was the central message of MLK? How can I, as a member of the majority culture, listen and learn from the reflections of others? There were other strains too; the conversation through tears with a minority sister in Christ sharing pain, voicing questions, seeking her place in GR. Conversations in our own family about belonging. Conversations echoed with friends, one of whom intimated “is it OK as an adult to long for a best friend?”

While each these streams has its own course they converged for me while reading in 1 Peter 4:8–10. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace. Our privilege and responsibility as a church of Christ is to welcome others as we have been welcomed in Him. Fundamentally what we long for as humans is to belong; to be received, cared for, protected. When alienation occurs socially, racially, or personally we are set adrift and we flail about seeking purchase. What Christ accomplished in redemption was to bring those who were far off near, to make those who were not a people, a people (cf. Eph 2, I Peter 2). In Christ we do belong! We have found our footing. More than just personal forgiveness, we have come home.

My great desire, both personally and for Christ Church, is to steward well this grace we have received. Listening this week has reminded me how deep the longing is to belong.



Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday

What to write for a greeting on Good Friday? Is it Happy Friday?

My prayer is that this week has been a week of allowing the space in our lives to be filled with the truths of Christ. That you would let the paradoxical truths of the Gospel pervade your being.

Melito of Sardis captures the paradox of our faith in an Easter Sermon. Melito is not a household name, but he held a foremost place in terms of Bishops in Asia in the 2nd century due to his personal influence on Christianity and his literary works. It was said of him that his “whole walk was the Holy Spirit”. So through the centuries I offer his thoughts to you this Good Friday for your reflection:

“And so he was raised on a cross, and a title was fixed, indicating who it was who was being executed. Painful it is to say, but more terrible not to say ... He who suspended the earth is suspended, he who fixed the heavens is fixed, he who fastened all things is fastened to the wood; the Master is outraged; God is murdered.”

“Who is it that contends with me?
Let him stand in opposition to me.
I set the condemned man free;
I gave the dead man life;
I raised up one who had been entombed.
Who is my opponent?
I am the Christ
I am the one who destroyed death,
and triumphed over the enemy,
and trampled Hades underfoot,
and bound the strong one,
and carried off man
to the heights of heaven,
I AM THE CHRIST.” Amen.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Comfort amid March Madness

March Madness is truly upon us. Not only are there basketball games happening all day (Go MIZZOU - sorry had to) but Gracehill is preparing for soft launch this coming Sunday. Easter is ever approaching and there is also this little little thing called life that is still happening day by day. Some of us find ourselves in the middle of lenten fasting, a task that can prove to be very difficult, dare I say, mad at times? Some of us are preparing for the madness of a church plant launching. Some of us feel like vagabonds, wondering what else 2018 is going to hurl our way. All of us are in the throws of life. Which begs the question, where does one look amidst the madness? How does one live in the madness?

Comfort. That is what we long for when we are in the throng of madness. We look for something, someone or some situation to soothe us, console us, to bring cheer in or through the madness. A national championship, a vacation, physical healing, all examples of mediums that can result in comfort.

This Sunday at Christ Church we are delving into our last installment of our intentional look at the Holy Spirit in our Upper Room series. Andrew will preach on the Holy Spirit as Comforter. Consider these words from Jesus in John 14;
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid”
What’s remarkable about this passage is what Jesus leaves with his disciples. Peace. Shalom, the Hebrew word that peace derives from had a much more rich direction than our word and translation peace. Shalom conveys the absence of conflict, but it also, at the same time, conveys the notion of positive blessing, most pointetly in terms of a right relationship with God. One might say its a “two-for”, both comfort from turbulence, AND blessing in Union with Christ.

Here we find true comfort, provided to us through The Comforter. So whether you are scrambling through your taxes, managing a household of kids, preparing details for a church plant, fumbling through a full calendar, or sitting alone - wherever you find yourself in this March madness, remember we have the peace, the comfort and the blessing of The Comforter working through us.

“And this is his work [The Holy Spirit] to the end of the world—to bring the promises of Christ to our minds and hearts, to give us the comfort of them, the joy and sweetness of them…”
(Vanhoozer, Communion with the Triune God)

~ Addison Hawkins

Friday, March 9, 2018

Foundation of Consolation

Many of you know that today and tomorrow we will be greeting the family of Mark Kolk to offer our sympathy, share in grief, remember a life well lived and ultimately reconnect to the Source of Mark’s hope and ours. We come together as a community; individuals whose lives have been woven together to love one another and bear one another’s burdens.

But we are not alone in this burden bearing. As we have been learning through this Upper Room Discourse of Jesus’, he has given us another Paraclete. That word, paraclete, is translated helper, comforter, advocate, counselor in the various translations. Literally it means a side-caller, one who comes alongside to speak for us and to us of things that are greater than ourselves.

Part of the question is why don’t we call to mind more readily the presence of the Holy Spirit? Why don’t we invite the help that is so readily offered? John Owen put it this way in his book Communion with the Triune God:
I deny that ever the Holy Spirit does absolutely and universally leave a believing soul without consolation. A man may be darkened, clouded, refuse comfort—actually find none or feel none; but radically he has a foundation of consolation, which in due time will be drawn forth. 
We have a “foundation of consolation”! We may not always experience it, but for the believer, it is there and will be drawn forth in due time. What a gift it is to lean into this foundation during our grief. Whatever your grief is, whatever questions you have, whatever pain you are in the midst of, know that the paraclete is with you.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Youth. Not Wasted on these Young.

“Remember your Creator during your youth: when all possibilities lie open before you and you can offer all your strength intact for his service. The time to remember is not after you become senile and paralyzed! Then it is not too late for your salvation, but too late for you to serve as the presence of God in the midst of the world and the creation. You must make take sides earlier—when you can actually make choices, when you have many paths opening at your feet, before the weight of necessity overwhelms you.”

Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes

A couple of years ago we brought on Addison Hawkins to help us think through and provide some intentionality in welcoming college students into our community. He, along with his wife Lynnette and more recently Ruthy and Simon, have been doing just that. And not only welcoming them but discipling them as well.

To get a better sense of how things are going I thought I would share a “by the numbers” look that Addison recently gave in his session report:



I was so encouraged by that list. I think we all know how critical the college years are for faith formation. Steve Garber in his book The Fabric of Faithfulness, which seeks to explore the factors that influence the sustainability of faith through the college years and beyond, identifies three key ingredients for said sustainability: 1) Worldview formation - does the student have a view of the world that distinguishes truth from falsehood and incorporates a narrative that makes sense of good and evil, death and life, success and failure. 2) A nurturing community beyond the campus in which the student can continue to draw from and grow in once the college years are done. 3) Mentors who can give a vision for what faithfulness can look like as the years play out. What better place to gain all three of these is there than in the local church!

So praise the Lord for these young people and pray for them! Pray specifically that leadership would emerge, both from within the group as well as from these “mentors” who would walk with these college students. Specifically we have a desire to expand our hours spent on downtown campuses to even more intentionally connect with students, many of whom are unaffiliated with church. And don’t be afraid to pull some of these folks aside and introduce yourself, invite them over, take them to a movie, whatever … They need people like you in their lives.



Friday, February 16, 2018

Lenten Longings

My heart is heavy after yet another school shooting. Seventeen young lives lost, senselessly, tragically. My heart is heavy for the 19 year old who pulled the trigger; himself a sufferer, a victim of loss. My heart is heavy over the polarization that exists in the country, evident in the op-eds and the political rancor that fills our FaceBook feeds. Where do we go? To whom do we turn?

Throughout scripture the answer comes back resoundingly. Whether it is Asaph in Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you? There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. ” Or Peter in John 6, “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”; we realize that in Jesus alone we find what we need. In Jesus alone we find both truth and grace. He is the one who came both preaching repentance and healing the sick. We struggle for that kind of balance. Politicians cry for more freedoms or more controls. But both our freedoms and our controls will prove to be empty cisterns (Jer. 2:13) if they are outside of Christ. We look for more truth or call for more grace when what we need is more Jesus.

Which brings us to Lent and a prayer from my good friend Scotty Smith. May our thirst be for Christ alone.

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? Ps. 42:1-2
     Lord Jesus, thirst is certainly an appropriate theme to ponder this Lenten season. For Lent is a season of igniting our longings for you; and there’s no craving, yearning, or need more demanding than thirst.

     Thirst is neither patient nor polite, and we’re usually quick to slake its unrelenting demand, one way or another. Thirst will not be denied. We’ll do almost anything to satisfy its cry and ache.

     Because this is true, we join the psalmist in crying out: Jesus, intensify our thirst for you. Keep us panting like the deer, which pants after streams of water—the unpolluted, un-distilled, never-ending brooks of your grace.

     Quickly drain the broken cisterns of our own making. Don’t let us be even momentarily satisfied with any other beverage than the draft you draw, the potion you pour, the life-giving libation you alone give.

     If we take up King David’s lament, “When can I go and meet with God?” you answer back without delay, “Right now, my beloved; do not wait. If you’re thirsty, come to me and drink.” “Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:38).

     If we should say, “But Jesus, where can we find you?” you answer back even quicker, “Not in the law; not in your strivings; not in your labors; not in your penance; not in your earnestness; not in your self-loathing; not in your re-dedications; not in your vain promises; but only in the gospel of my grace.”

     “Come and fall into the rivers of my love. Come, you who are thirsty, come and bring your poverty of heart and I will make you rich in my love. Stand under the cascading waterfalls of my compassion. Open your heart wide to my affection, and I will fill you to overflowing with everything you need, and more than you want.”

     Even so and evermore, Lord Jesus, school us well in panting after you. Fill us afresh that we might be a people to the praise of your glory and grace. So very Amen we pray in your all-glorious and all-generous name.



Friday, February 2, 2018

On Into Mission

Whew! Though some posters and wall hangings still remain, the formal missions month is over. It has been mentioned to me a couple of times that there has never been such a focus on mission at Christ Church. It truly was something to behold and difficult to walk away from unchanged.

We don’t truly walk away though, do we? Rather than walking away we walk into this mission that the Father inaugurated, Jesus died for, and the Spirit continues to fan into flame. We walk into mission; in our neighborhoods, at the grocery store, in our schools, our families, churches and around the world. Everywhere we go we see the need for the welcoming, healing, liberating, stain-removing Gospel!

As our missions conference was going on, we have been reminded by events in our own state how terribly broken the world we live in is, both in the hearts of individuals and in the institutions that they run. We have been reminded that we are surrounded by hurting sisters and brothers, many of them victims with very few places to call “safe”. This is our mission: to extend the welcoming balm of the gospel to these hurting. To invite those who might not be sharing the sweet fellowship of Jesus into our church, our homes, our lives.

So how do we, a disparate group of ragtag individuals carry out this mission? You know the same thing could have been asked about the disciples who gathered with Jesus in the upper room, the same ones he called to carry out His mission. Judas would betray. Peter would deny. Philip and Thomas were confused. And all would scatter. And yet … These were the ones through whom the Lord would build his church.

This Sunday we will find ourselves with these disciples listening to the words of Jesus in what is known as the Upper Room discourse. We will begin with the first 20 verses of John 13. Like the disciples, we are an imperfect community to be sure. But as we walk with our Savior and allow him to minister to us, we find that he will use us nonetheless.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Worthy of Mission

One of the issues that I wrestle with, both personally and pastorally, is the idea of making progress in the Christian life. To put it in context of missions, one of the most frequent barriers that people need to overcome is their own sense of worthiness to share the good news. As we noted last week the Gospel, i.e. the good news, is precisely good news because it meets us in both our brokenness and our guilt and makes us new. The Gospel isn’t about good people becoming better, but rather it is about enslaved wretches finding freedom and life.

But why don’t we make more progress in the Christian life? What if I am still struggling with this sin or that, does that mean I am not getting closer to God? What does it mean for mission?

Recently John Newton has been my teacher in these areas. His short letter entitled The Advantages of Remaining Sin has given me fresh eyes to the work that God is doing in our lives. What Newton highlights is that the goal of God’s work in our lives is not independently moral and upright people, but rather a people that live in grateful, loving, intimate, dependence with their Father, Savior, Redeemer, Friend, and Counselor. To that point, what Newton highlights is that our need is what keeps us at the feet of Jesus, leaning on his loving breast (to quote a hymn). Here are some lines from Newton himself that capture much of this same thought. I offer them for encouragement, that in our struggles and in our need, God has us exactly where he wants us and there is no better springboard from which to tell out the Good News!
I asked the Lord that I might grow In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know, And seek, more earnestly, His face. 
I hoped that in some favoured hour, At once He’d answer my request;
and by His love’s constraining pow’r, Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell Assault my soul in every part. 
Yea more, with his His own hand He seemed intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed, Blasted my gourds, and laid me low. 
‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried, ‘Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?’
’Tis in this way,’ the Lord replied, ‘I answer prayer for grace and faith.’ 
‘These inward trials I now employ, From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy, That thou may’st find thy all in Me.’ 
Indeed let us find our all in him, and invite others to do the same! Are we worthy of mission? Probably not. But our Savior is infinitely worthy to be lifted high!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Astonished at Grace, Expecting the Same.

It is good to be back from vacation, though I will confess that coming back there is always that moment, when facing the mound of things to do, you wonder if it was worth going away 😃! Nevertheless it could not be more exciting to come back and be into the heart of this missions emphasis month! Everywhere I look there are things to remind us of the vastness of our world, the importance of our call, and ultimately of the goodness of our Lord.

Seeing, reading and hearing all the testimonies of God’s power to change hearts and lives has made me reflect a bit on why I am often slow to believe that he will show up here, in Grand Rapids, in the lives of the weary and the wayward. I wonder if part of my problem in believing the power of God has to do with my own lack of astonishment at the grace he has shown me. When I look over my list of accomplishments for the kingdom, when I compare myself with others who are battling obvious sins and addiction, when I read the news with a judgmental spirit about “those people”; I secretly pat myself on the back for being deserving, at least a little, of being one of God’s chosen. Isn’t he lucky to have ME on his team.

The problem with this way of thinking is obvious. For starters it is incredibly shortsighted to highlight only my strengths and not focus on the MANY ugly aspects of being Andrew. I am easily irritated. I waste time. I idolize sports. I even idolize myself. I frequently avoid sacrifice, even when I know it is the right thing to do. I fight the same battle with lust that many men fight. I take advantage of my wife’s giving nature. And what’s worse, these are only the appetizer portion of the full menu of my sin! When I fail to deal honestly with this, I ultimately rob myself of the chance to be astonished by the power of his grace and short-circuit my expectation that Jesus can work in the hearts of the profoundly weary and profoundly wayward. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9,10 lays out a laundry list of sins and sinners: the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers; and he affirms that these labels fit the Corinthians. But then he turns the corner and says “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Being astonished at grace is the recipe for expecting change in the heart of the lost. Paul’s own mission and expectation of the power of the gospel was driven by the realization that he was “the foremost of sinners” (cf. I Tim 1:15). The equation might go something like this: little knowledge of our sin equals a need for a very little Jesus--  which leaves us with little expectation for the power of the Gospel to manifest itself. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16). Praise be to him!

These reflections come in the flow of our missions emphasis. Throughout this month we will be encouraged by what God is doing in the world, but also invited/challenged to step into God’s call! To help us gain this broader perspective we will be hearing from different speakers, preachers, presenters over the next 3 weeks. This week we will hear from Justin Beene who is the Founding Director of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, in the worship service. And our own Dan Churchwell, a teacher with the Acton Institute. Their focus will be on Grand Rapids as our most immediate mission field. Next week we will hear from Dr. Stephen Um, pastor of CityLife PCA in Boston and director of Redeemer PCA’s worldwide City to City program. And we will finish with Dr. Greg Perry, who is currently serving with Third Millennium ministries.

The grace of our God is so good! I look forward to seeing you this Lord’s Day.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Declare His Glory

This Sunday is the launch for our Missions Expo month. We started brainstorming for this event about 18 months ago, and it is exciting to see it coming to fruition. We have an amazing month ahead of us. I think you will be impressed to see the new look of the sanctuary, with flags and the huge banner covering the whole front of the room. You will be struck by the international art in the halls, the trifolds of our missionaries on the windows, and much more. We have been praying, again last night as a planning team, that God will visit us in a unique way, and that we will never be the same, that our hearts would be won by Jesus call to the ends of the earth, that we will learn more what it means to love our own city.

It is fitting that this event should begin on Epiphany Sunday, when we remember the visit of the Wisemen to the Christ child, and thus the revelation of God to the gentiles, or the nations. It is an opportunity for us to reflect again on how God has revealed himself to each of us. In these last days, God has spoken so powerfully through the incarnation, the ultimate revelation of his Son, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). I look back on my own life and consider the huge difference it makes that God has made himself known to me again and again. How have you seen this in your life?

Pastor Steve will lead us into Psalm 96, the theme passage for our Missions Expo—Declare his glory among the nations. It has been our tradition on this Sunday to invite one of our members to share a testimony, and Shinji Yasugi will share a very international testimony, bringing together Japanese, Korean, and Australian cultures.

It is also communion Sunday, so let’s prepare our hearts to meet Christ in a unique way through these common elements of the bread and the cup. We can come to his Table in our weakness, failures, sickness, and frailty and find healing, strength, forgiveness, and renewal.

Consider these words from Psalm 96:7-9 as we gather for worship on Sunday:
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
    tremble before him, all the earth!

~Dan Denk