Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Pope Has Died

Before I start any sort of international wave of misinformation, I should clearly state that the current sitting pope of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict is just fine, as far as I am aware, and is in good health - sitting at his desk in the Vatican. However, another pope, the once named and so-called pope of the evangelical movement around the world has passed away - Rev. John Stott has died at the age of 90.

Rev. John Stott died at the age of 90 at 3:15PM at his apartment near All Souls Church on the West End of London this past Wednesday afternoon, July 27, 2011.

A recent commentator once bemused that if the evangelical movement in the world had a pope, it was surely be John Stott. John Stott lived at a time in England when it wasn't at all kosher, or as the Brits would say, "pucka" to be an evangelical. Stott clung fervently to core principles of the orthodox faith (orthodox in this context meaning the original Reformed faith as encapsulated by Calvin). For Stott these included; "the authority of scripture" the "centrality of Christ", and the transformational impact of the cross.

To give you an idea of the towering figure and influence on Christianity that Stott was, and conceivably shall remain, keep in mind that Billy Graham just recently issued a statement after John's passing that; "The evangelical world has lost one of it's greatest spokesmen, and I have lost one of my close personal friends and advisors. I look forward to seeing him again when I go to heaven." Rick Warren flew to John Stott's bedside regularly during Stott's later years of infirmity and always heaped heavy praise on his contributions to evangelical thought through the years, especially through the writing of Stott's 50 books about the nuances of evangelical thought. Time magazine recently named Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the past century.

Perhaps the highest testament to Stott's impact on the world was his ability to speak to and communicate with people outside of the faith. Stott was a true evangelist. One of the most poignant essays about Stott was recently written by conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times. David Brooks, a man of Jewish cultural heritage, and at least until recently, a professed agnostic on issues of religion, said that Stott's great contribution was his ability to think about and communicate paradoxes. Stott, according to Brooks, loved paradoxes. Stott was always thinking about questions like:

* If Jesus was always so humble, why was he always talking about himself?
* How are we supposed to love others, in the face of a world which often hates us?
* How can we be generous of our resources in a world that is so self-possessed in it's desire to

My favorite things about Stott are his perpetual desire to connect and communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ with outsiders. While Stott could, by his own self admission, at times be tone deaf to the nuances, trends and currents of the modern world, he never shrank from a desire to share the gospel with all people. Stott loved India, a completely "other" place, and traveled there regularly throughout his ministry (one of my own friends and mentors, Mark Labberton, traveled to India with Stott in the 1980's). Most of all, Stott, a man of soaring intellectual powers, always sought to communicate intricate details of faith in a down to earth, common and understandable way.

I am closely reading John Stott at this juncture in Presbyterian history as a figure who remained a man of faith, in the context of his own denomination, The Church of England, which was largely liberal. When Stott was challenged to leave his denomination because of pressure by other luminaria of the evangelical world such as Martyn Lloyd Jones, Stott clung to the notion that denominations should remain intact and evangelicals should remain in the fight. This excerpt is taken from Stott's recent biography "Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott", written by Roger Steer: "When John became President of the Evangelical Alliance he told a 'President's Night' event that 'some evangelicals like myself, believe it is the will of God to remain in a church that is sometimes called a 'mixed denomination'. At least until it becomes apostate and ceases to be a church, we believe it is our duty to remain in it and bear witness to the truth as we have been given to understand it. Some of us who do this, however, are thought not to care about truth. I want to say to you with all the strength of conviction that I possess that we care intensely about the truth, because we believe that God has revealed it fully and finally in Jesus Christ."

And John Stott might have added, "not in the life of every and all church experience."

All for Now,

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why I'm a Pastor

About a month ago I remembered what my favorite thing is about being a pastor. About a month ago I remembered why I went into the ministry.

To be honest, it had been a long day, and I wasn't in a particularly affable mood. I had received a series of emails earlier in the day from folks from other communities, who were wondering why I didn't offer more "meat" in my sermons. Why I didn't offer messages with more "depth," more "complexity" more "Je n' sais quoi?" (I actually think the phrase they used was "Je n' sais quoi?")

Then, a very special woman came in to see me for counseling. My assistant told me that her name was, "Jane (we'll call her Jane), she is new to Highlands, she wants to tell you a few things that are on her mind." Now, just an FYI, I never like to hear that someone is just, "coming in to tell me a few things that are on their mind." That could mean so many things. It could mean that the person is preparing for divorce, has problems with theology, wants some Samaritan Fund Assistance, is upset about the volume of music, or wants to discuss details related to the fastest land mammal on earth - the cheetah.

When Jane entered my office, she had a semi-bowed head. I could tell from her clothes and the wrinkles around her eyes and the lines on her forehead and her lack of dental care that she had not lived the easiest life. Her $20 Walmart Jeans still had a tag on the back pocket indicating the size of her waist. Because, as I later found out, about her life-long struggle with annorexia and alcoholism (a double condition that left her wrent with nearly permanent vomiting throughout the day) her waist size wasn't larger than a 12 year old girl's - I think she was a size 5. Her clothes hung on her like the maniqjuin from the Walmart rack they occupied only hours before. But, it touched my heart deeply that she had purchased new clothes for her meeting with me. She asked, "Can I sit down?" "Sure," I said. We prayed - the first thing I usually do with all conversations. She said, "Well, I just wanted to tell you that I love your church, I love the music, I love your welcome team, but most of all I love your messages." "Thank you," I said. "But......" she said, "with a pursed lip, "I want to tell you what I most love about your messages." And then, this woman (and I don't want to generalize or condescend) who probably hadn't finished her high school education, or done much professionally with her life, and who had been married multiple times said, "What I like about your messages is that....I can understand them. I understand what you are saying. Thanks for making them simple enough, concrete enough, tangible enough for ME to understand them."

And then, I remembered why I'm a pastor. Why I went into the ministry. It wasn't to preach sermons with "Je ne sais quoi?" but to connect with people like Jane who never learned to read, but who wants so deeply to be read and loved by the One who made her,

All for Now,

Monday, July 25, 2011


I've been thinking about "holiness" lately, what it means, and how I want to become more "holy" in my life.

But "holiness" is a difficult word to define. The word itself derives from the Middle English word (from the Danish), "Haly" or "Helieig" or "Hal" which means WHOLE. The notion of purity can be found in the concept of holiness - something that is WHOLE, made up entirely of one thing, is also pure, it is purely that one thing. In the Judeo/Christian tradition, holiness has always referred to a sense of elevated-separateness. The things that were/are holy are elevated and separated and set aside for a special purpose. The "Holy of Holies" was the place in the temple set aside and elevated for God. It contained ark of the covenant, which itself contained the most holy and set apart rules of the Jewish faith - the ten commandments. More importantly, however, the "Holy of Holies" was a space for only Yahweh Himself to occupy. Like the name itself, "Yahweh" there was an emptiness and a fullness to holy space in the temple. It was purely for God - it was Wholly for God.

This past week, my wife Star and I were reflecting on the fact that we have been married for 10 years - a wholly unbelievable fact to me. We were remembering that after we had purchased and planned for all of the accoutrements of our wedding ten years ago (the cake, the dress, the flowers, the place, etc...), we remembered that we had forgotten to buy a wedding ring for me. So, we went to the nearest jewelry and asked the store manager to show us his wares. We wanted him to sell us something that was pure, that was complete, that was HOLY. I told him I wanted a pure ring. The manager's face bunched itself up in a smirk and said, "You don't want a pure ring. Pure gold, for example, is too soft. It's too pliable it's too moldable. You want a ring that's a blend. You want a brass/copper/alloy metal which will be stronger." "No," I said, "I want a pure 100% gold wedding ring, I want 24 carrot gold. I want a Holy ring."

Well, ten years into the wearing of my wedding ring, I can say that the manager was correct. My ring has been bending back and forth, getting nicked, getting slivers and cuts in it for ten years now. Actually, I can't even take it off my finger, because my ring has bent all around my finger. But I love my ring. I love my Holy wedding ring. I love that it bears the marks of ten years of my marriage. My pure, holy ring bears the marks of a good life.

Jesus is the holiest thing I know. Jesus is the Holy of Holies. He is pure. He is complete. He is true. He is good. He is completely without sin. He is Whole. And like my pure wedding ring, he is also soft. He still bears the marks in his hands and his feet and his side of the things that we did to him while he was with us on earth. He bears the marks of the cross. He is soft enough to cry at the loss of a friend or laugh at the birth of a child. Jesus is holiness itself.

All for Now,

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Dream Church

Today, while teaching my class on Joshua, I read a perfect description of my Dream Church. Here it is; it's in the middle of a river, it is the holiest thing imaginable (the holy of holies), it is being upheld by great priests - the greatest - priests of the Word and Sacrament, it's location is just west of the wilderness of sin and lostness, and it is just east of the promised land itself (East of Eden)....

No, I'm not drinking too much single malt at the moment, bear me out...

"Now the priests who carried the ark remained standing in the middle of the Jordan, until everything the Lord had commanded Joshua was done by the people, just as Moses had directed Joshua." (Joshua 4:10).

Can you picture the image from the book of Joshua? The priests of Israel (whatever that meant exactly in the year 1,400BC) carried the ark of the covenant (the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai). The people had been in the wilderness for at least forty years - Moses, their leader, God bless him, actually died there. God tells the priests, who are carrying the ark, to stand in the middle of the river, while the Israelites walk across. God protects the people who are crossing (Crossing Jordan) by stopping the river up on both sides. Behind them is the wilderness, ahead of them is the promised land, a river of people, ideas, clans, commerce, travelers, and sojourners are passing by.

That's it. That's my Dream Church. The church, of course, is the ark of the covenant. the church is the holy of holies. Nothing less will do. The ark carries within it the holiest Word/Law God has ever dispensed. Years later, Jesus would expound upon the law and make it more understandable, but not any easier. I want to be one of the priests upholding the holy of holies. I want to be in a place where thousands (some historians have said, 1,000,000 Jews crossed over that river the Jordan in 1,400 BC) of people pass by every day. I want to be near enough to the wilderness (an area of true sin and depredation), so that I am constantly connecting with truly "dechurched" and broken people. I want to also have the promised land in clear sight. The Promised Land as the Israelites experienced it was not always easy, but it was always sure, and good. I want to uphold the law, and the gospel in the midst of the chaos and turmoil of the world today.

The church is a part of the current, and yet it is separated from it. It is right in the middle of people, currents of thought, where we have come from, and where we are going, the wilderness from which we have been saved and paradise to which we shall return. Most of all, I want to be living out the call of ...Crossing Jordan...

All for Now,


Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Disconnecting Church

Ever since Highlands Church began, we have been focussing on the concept of Connection. To this end, we have the Connection Team that greets people every week - and that do and incredible job of making people feel welcome right from the time they park their cars. We have our Connection Time, after worship, where we offer good quality coffee and a time to meet one another. We have the Connection Moment in the middle of worship that is a form of the "Passing of the Peace" where we emphasize the importance of being a church that reaches out to one another. Every week when I write my sermon, the very first thing I ask myself, and the question I keep before me as I write my whole message is, "Will this connect?" "Will this meet people where they are?" Will I be connecting enough with the context of where people are on that particular given week, in this moment in time."

So, Connection is a big deal for us...

However, this past week, while teaching my mid-week Bible study on the book of Joshua, I came upon a word which really carries the opposite meaning of connection - it's the word "Consecrate". The Hebrew word for Consecrate is "QADASH" which means to literally separate from, to set aside, to make holy, to distinguish from. The word QADASH can also mean "chosen"; as in the Jewish people were God's chosen people, God's separate people, the people that God set aside. Before Joshua and the Israelites forged the Jordan river and entered the Promised Land, God said that they should, "Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you." (Joshua 3:5). God was, in essence, telling the Israelites to separate themselves, to set themselves aside, to designate themselves for something special. And that is, I am challenged to admit, what God is also telling us to do.

So, what are we supposed to do - to connect with people at all costs, or to separate ourselves from others at all costs. The answer is, of course, a series of dichotomies:

* We should mark ourselves as separate by being followers of Christ. We should QADASH as Christ followers.
* And yet, this separateness should not be a mark of arrogance or elevated self importance, class distinction, educational elitism, social stratification.
* We should be separate in doing what Christ teaches and commands. We should QADASH on Christ's commands.
* And yet, we should continue to connect with those who do not follow his commands, at least as far as it does not impact our own ability to be separate.
* We should realize and recognize that by being followers of Christ we have a special mark, a special call, a special designation. We are a people of QADASH.
* And yet, we should remember that our special distinction comes not as a result of our own justification, but only through Christ's death.

Up until now, Highlands has striven to be a Connecting Church. This evening, I am contemplating what it means to be a Disconnection Church. Connected and Disconnected...

All for Now,