August 18th, 2010

The Seen and the Unseen

A few weeks ago I stood with my mother at Dad’s grave in the city of Winnipeg, Canada. It was the first time I had been back since we buried him there six years ago. My Mom, 83, is still quite active. It meant a lot to share this graveside moment with her, although we both found the experience strangely surreal.

Mom’s words captured it best — “It’s like he’s not here.” Biblically she was right. Dad, who loved Jesus, is more than a decaying body in a cemetery somewhere on the Canadian prairies. He is right now in the presence of God. His new address is Paradise and he is awaiting the actual resurrection of his decaying body. The ultimate triumph of Christ’s cross and empty tomb is the defeat of death itself!

As a pastor I have stood at many gravesides. In those bitingly painful moments I have often observed to grieving families that this is when our faith either means everything or it means nothing. Either we are locked into the temporary dimension of what we can see, or we have a faith that liberates us to walk in the eternal realities of what we cannot see.

Scripture goes to great lengths to describe the difference between what is temporary and what is eternal, and how that difference affects what we focus on. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:18).

Faith always focuses us on the eternal “unseen,” not the temporary “seen.” This, in turn, makes our hope unshakable. Focusing on ever-changing, temporary realities actually enslaves us to those same fickle realities. Hope built on the unseen liberates and stabilizes us. When the eternal defines us we can live with a sustaining hope that brings perspective, comfort, security — and even joy!

“It’s like he’s not here,” Mom said. She was right. So, Lord, lift all of our eyes today to the eternal unseen and a heart-securing, unshakable hope.

August 8th, 2010

Cowards into Brave Men

winston-churchill.jpgWinston  Churchill was possibly the greatest political leader of the 20th century, a modern day Cyrus of sorts. He loved the hymns of the Church of England and professed a belief in Christianity, although perhaps not in the  evangelical sense we would understand it. Yet his passion for good against evil, his soaring rhetoric and his strategic genius inspired England and the free world to face unsurmountable odds and defeat the Nazi killing machine.

What was the key to Churchill’s ability to inspire? Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin answers this way — Churchill idealized the English people “with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them.” In doing so, he “transformed cowards into brave men and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armour.”

Churchill lived with what in his time was a fairly old fashioned vision of the glory of the British people, who proudly belonged to the ‘Empire upon which the sun never sets.’ In 1939, most of the English population did not see themselves that way. They just wanted to make a living and avoid at all costs another war like WWI. But, Berlin observes, Churchill so ‘idealized’ the people that with time they began to see themselves as Churchill saw them and in doing so, Churchill ‘transformed cowards into brave men.’ A fundamental axiom of leadership is that people will tend to conform to what a leader thinks of them and will rise to that leader’s expectations of them.

As spiritual leaders we, too, carry a vision of the the glory of a Kingdom centered in the rule and reign of Christ, creator of all. This shapes a Kingdom lens through which we look at every other human being. Our ministry of loving, preaching and exhorting transforms how people see themselves. They come to see themselves as Christ sees them. In the process they rise above fear, insecurity and the curse of unworthy, self-centered aims. This, by the Spirit, through Christ, transforms people from cowardice to bravery, from consumerism to servanthood, from being victims to rising as victors.

“No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

 

June 27th, 2010

Sovereign, Surprising Seasons

I have been watching a documentary on the life of Winston Churchill, lent to me by a fellow Churchill admirer, Randy Hurst. We both agree that Churchill may have been one of the greatest political figures of the 20th century.

After a decade of political exile during which his warns about the rising threat in Germany were largely laughed at, Churchill experienced a kind of “resurrection” from political death and became Prime Minister of England shortly after the onset of World War II. When he took office he said that he felt:

“. . . as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. . . Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams.”

The seasons of Churchill’s life, ironically, read something like the three 40-year seasons of Moses’ life: success, wilderness, significance. This is true of many leaders. Early success sometimes leads to barren years of either obscurity or frustration, followed by the accomplishments that person is most remembered for. It is, indeed, like a life “death” resurrection rhythm.

Churchill noted that the seasons that had preceded him becoming prime minister had been “but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” At 80 years of age this was certainly true of Moses. I like how Bernard Ramm put it “in Egypt Moses earned his bachelor’s degree in public administration and in Midian he got his master’s degree in desert survival. Now he was ready to take on the real reason for which he had been born.

The rhythm and nature of the preparatory seasons in our lives are the result of God’s sovereign intention. Often they involve “sovereign surprises” that don’t always fit into our 5-year plans, or our 50-year plans for that matter. The important thing is to not resist or resent the seasons, but to let each season drive us deeper, knowing that God is in the process of preparing us to go wider.

The seasons of our lives can either ruin us or forge us. But if we trust God with the unknowns of our future and embrace each season for what it can teach us, God has a way of eventually bringing those seasons full circle. Some seasons may be frustrating, but they are not purposeless. They are all a part, in Churchill’s words, of “walking with destiny.” As Jesus-followers we would say that each season is a part of God’s strategic, sovereign design, preparing us to fulfill the unique calling that is upon each one of our lives.

More on Churchill next week, but for now may this week serve to shape and temper and train you for what God has for you — no matter what life season you are in.

June 20th, 2010

My Dad and Volunteer Ministry

It’s Father’s Day morning as I write and, not being a pastor any more, I am waiting to ‘go to church.’ Although I am looking forward to it, I am still getting used to not being in pastor mode anymore. The day also makes be reflective of my dad who spent his life not only going to church, but actively serving as a volunteer.

He died nearly 6 years ago at the age of 75. At the time he still owned his own business and was voluntarily donating huge numbers of hours to ministry as volunteer director of the Billy Graham telephone call center in Winnipeg, Canada, and as an Alpha Course table leader at church, working with pre-believers and discipling new Christians.

Over my lifetime I watched him direct choirs, lead ’song services,’ build Sunday Schools, direct singles ministries, print bulletins on Saturdays, lead home groups, raise money for our Pentecostal camp in Manitoba, partner with national evangelism outreaches, lead the district men’s ministry, etc., etc. He did this all without pay. That’s why he always wanted to own his own company. The ability to be flexible with your time comes with being your own boss.

No one eclipsed my dad as the ultimate volunteer. Having now been a pastor for 30 years I realized that guys like this don’t come along every day, but they are invaluable if God gives you one. In fact, most of what I believe about volunteer ministry I learned about my dad. Here are a few of those lessons.

1. You don’t have to be a pastor to be a minister. People would often say to dad, “You missed your calling; you should have been a pastor.” Dad, however, was very confident in his calling to be a business man. I liked that. He would not buy into the myth that you had to be in full time ministry before you could be a minister. I saw his volunteerism actually help turn churches around, but he never saw himself a ‘pastor.’ He relentlessly clung to a biblical understanding of ministry, not a sociological one.

2, The local church is worth sacrificing for. Dad volunteered A LOT. Although he was not neglectful of his family (4 kids and a wife) it was also not unusual to ask mom, “Where’s Dad tonight?” Invariably the answer would be, “At church” He was not self-serving with his discretionary time but invested it to make a difference for God. He somehow had linked his service to the church with a deep love for Jesus. How could he love God and not give away his time to God’s work?

3. You stay faithful even if you get hurt. When I was a teenager dad was the volunteer Sunday School superintendent at a our home church. The program had doubled in size under his leadership. At one point he suggested to the pastor that we switch from the denominational curriculum for the sake of more updated teaching materials and methodologies. Unfortunately the pastor interpreted his suggestion as disloyalty. Dad got pretty hurt. Disloyalty was not even in his nature. He was just trying to help, and for free at that. The point is, however, that he stayed faithful. Beyond not getting bitter, he stayed engaged in volunteer ministry at that church. He knew that if you volunteer, you sometimes get hurt. So what, Jesus got hurt too.

4. People are more important than programs. It’s a cliche, I know, but beautiful when it is actually lived out. The one thing that impresses me most about dad’s ministry as a volunteer was not the programs that he would lead at church, but the phone calls he would get at home from people going through hard times, struggling with life, needing prayer and a word of counsel and encouragement. We always had good pastors, but people would often go to him first. I am sure he was often tired, especially when the late evening calls would come, but he never seemed to resent it. Then he would be up early the next morning to spend an hour devotionally with God before going to ‘work.’

Thank you, Lord, for a humble dad who taught me to love Jesus and love serving, even when you don’t get paid. And thanks to all of you dads out there who are making a difference at home AND at church.


February 15th, 2010

Dreamers, Thinkers and Doers

A friend of mine, who lives in the home of the 2010 Winter Olympics (Vancouver, Canada) has for years been highly involved as a Pentecostal layman in the ministry of The Salvation Army. He once gave me this summary of the ideal team members that they need to accomplish their goals with effectiveness:

Dreamers, Thinkers, Doers.

Dreamers will be the visionaries; Thinkers will be able to develop a plan to fulfill the vision; Doers will carry out the plan.

Example:

* William Booth was the ‘Dreamer.’ He saw the destitute men under the London Bridge and had a vision of how their lives could be made easier.

* Bramwell Booth, his son, was the ‘Thinker.’ At his father’s insistence (with the words ‘Do Something’) he came up with a plan to provide food and shelter for these men and to meet many of their other needs.

* Countless others were the ‘Doers.’ They put the plan into action, which has resulted in similar facilities and programs around the world to meet the needs of marginalized people.

WITHOUT THE ‘DREAMER,’ THE NEEDS MAY NOT HAVE BEEN RECOGNIZED.

WITHOUT THE ‘THINKER,’ THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN NO PLAN.

WITHOUT THE ‘DOERS,’ THE PLAN WOULD SIMPLY BE GATHERING DUST ON A SHELF.

Obviously, all are vital to a vibrant, effective organization. God bless as you build your team!

January 4th, 2010

TWENTY-TEN LEADERSHIP

Welcome to Twenty-Ten! As today we begin our first full work week of the new year here are some ministry leadership axioms that I have been trying to embrace these past few years:

1. Pray hard and have faith;

2. Get the right people doing the right things;

3. Solve problems and add value.
The first has to do with spirit-building, the second with team-building and the third with trust-building. They remind me again at the outset of this new year that I need to be Holy Spirit empowered (#1), empowering of others (#2) and using of power as a servant (#3).

To an unusual degree may 2010 be spiritually fruitful and missionally effective as we lead on into the future.

December 1st, 2009

The Scandal of Joy to the World

Over this past Thanksgiving weekend I was looking through the most recent issue of Christianity Today. On their ‘Where We Stand’ page the editors quote G. K. Chesterton when he claimed that a person is fully human when “joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.” The quote continues: “Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday. Joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.”

The editors rightly note in that same article, “The gospel remains a scandal, indeed, because it announces joy right when everything is falling apart, just when today’s experts offer ’sober assessments of the current situation,’ and in their euphoric moments can only say they remain ‘cautiously optimistic.’”

The scandal of ‘Joy to the World’ imbedded in the first Christmas story lifts our heads above the waterline of day to day stress and survival to catch a breath of something other-worldish. It’s not joy ‘from’ the world, but joy ‘to’ the world. Neither is this a carrot-at-the-end-of-the-stick hope designed to frustrate people with melacholic personalities or tendencies toward depression. Depression is actually a rather complex issue. Its roots can be biochemical and physiological as well as spiritual and psychological.

But this invasion of joy ‘to’ the world crashes in on whatever condition we may find ourselves in. It defies resignation, despair, grief, pain. and emotional darkness because it’s more than a prescription, it’s a person. Jesus emodies in himself the message that God loves us, forgives us and frees us. The command to ‘rejoice’ is the call to deliberately give place to joy — that is, give place to Jesus’ life as a faith choice. Feelings follow choices, and this choice roots us in something heavenly, not earthly. On the day of Pentecost we are told that God’s Spirit came from ‘heaven’ to the ‘house.’ (Acts 2: 2). Joy ‘to’ the world. Joy unattached to the world. Joy not from the world. Joy from heaven, in a person — and for us!

So with God’s help let’s not focus on things earth-bound to prop up our emotions this season. Let’s dare to give place to the scandal of Jesus-given  joy.

“Joy to the world, the Lord HAS come.”

October 29th, 2009

Right Rules for Living

calendarI have been thinking about what a good friend of mine, Randy Hurst, calls “Jim Bradford’s Frustrating, Impossible but Right Rules for Living.” He heard me talk about them in a sermon from 2nd Timothy and has posted them, under that title, by his work desk. They go like this:

1. Put your best energies into your most important relationships;

2. Put your best resources into your highest priorities;

3. Put your best attitudes into your deepest disappointments.

Frustrating? Yes. Impossible? Maybe. Worth a try? Too much hangs in the balance not to — for God’s glory and for the sake of those who need us at our best.

October 29th, 2009

Personal-Life Leadership Questions

For the Reflective Reading on the back of our church bulletin last Sunday I listed 7 ’self-diagnostic’ questions I need to keep asking myself as a leader. To the end that we all fulfill God’s calling with personal lives that stay holy and healthy, here they are again. I hope you find them helpful.

KNOW GOD: If ministry activity were taken away from me, would I still have a personal, growing relationship with Jesus?

PURSUE INTEGRITY: Are there areas of ongoing secrecy in my life that I am intentionally hiding from those closest to me?

BE MYSELF: Am I living under the self-imposed pressure of always having to prove something to somebody?

OWN RESPONSIBILITY: Do I acknowledge my mistakes or do I project blame and use my influence to vent unresolved anger?

EMBRACE CHANGE: Is my attitude faith-filled and future-focused or am I overly nostalgic of the past and fearful of taking risks in the present?

LOVE LEARNING: Am I coasting intellectually or am I applying myself to the disciplines of personal study and reflection?

LIVE JOYFULLY: Do I love what I am doing or have I taken the pressures of ministry onto myself?

October 29th, 2009

Who Loves Unconditionally?

There is an ad I have been hearing on the radio about experiencing unconditional love. Turns out it’s ad about having pets. The point is well taken — pets do tend to love us in spite of ourselves.

I personally never had pet a pet growing up and am not particularly fond of the idea to this day. Outnumbered by a wife and two daughters, however, we all compromised years ago with a rabbit. His name is Titus and he is now almost 10 years old. That is VERY ELDERLY in rabbit years. He can’t see or hear very well although he actually seems healthier now than he was last year. This we believe is in answer to prayer.

Even though he chews through electrical cords and does things that aggravate Dads, Sandi and the girls love Titus. He is soft, cuddly and, I suppose, cute. His thick fur, floppy ears and pudgy body make him the perfect pet for ‘hug therapy’ when the girls get home. Everyone but me feels very attached to the rabbit, but for their sakes I continue to pray that he will live long and prosper.

And Titus, in spite of his occasional foot-thumping attitude, does seem to love unconditionally. That is something we humans appreciate but have trouble doing ourselves. It is what makes God’s love so remarkable. We are loved unconditionally, not because we own a pet but because we are created and loved by a redeeming God. This love frees us from approval-soliciting performance and heals us from the wounds of people who have loved us less than perfectly.

So may that life-giving, Jesus-centered, Cross-proven love of God wash over you today. You are important to God and relentlessly loved by Him.