Inside Out

“Make an impact”, “Realize your potential”, “Change the world”.  Sometimes I get weary with all the striving and the pressure our students (and myself) face with trying to make a difference in the world.  Is that what God intends?  I get to be at a significant crossroads in people’s lives and help them discern what their ambitions mean in the light of living Christianly.  What sort of compassion, generosity, diligence is required in our daily lives when we seek to honour God?  I am very thankful for all you who work as unto the Lord and seek to be obedient, faithful witnesses in and through your work and daily activities. Glad we are in this together!

A couple weeks ago I shared with some students who seemed particularly driven. In the midst of our leadership and influence it is critical that we are nurtured by our Source and Life-Giver.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote his challenge from God, will we accept that,

 “‘In repentance and rest is your salvation,in quietness and trust is your strength”?

Yesterday I met with several pastors and leaders from the Mount Royal U area including our MRU chaplains, Kristal Hoff and Art Kung(picture below). During our prayer time Kristal also shared this scripture. I was struck by how much we want to work from the outside in but God insists that somehow things work from the inside out.

MRU chaplains

As Paul writes in Romans 12:

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

From Kelly Johnson, Chaplian at University of Calgary

Learning How to Lead in New Ways

Q. What are the most significant challenges that Executive Leaders of church systems are currently facing?

There are a multitude of things that the Executive Leaders of church denominations are dealing with, many of which are new to the American church. I would summarize the biggest issues in three ways. Pew Research titles one of the main dilemmas as “The Rise of the Nones”; in other words, by the largest margin in American history, about one-third of those under age 30 say they have no religion. This is significant for the church in that we are no longer working from commonly shared cultural values and assumptions. Many young people are either leaving the church, or never had a significant relationship to begin with.

Furthermore, the phenomenal growth of various ethnic communities (especially Latinos and Asians) have created fascinating new dynamics. Latino Americans are converting to evangelical Christianity in record numbers, which offers up huge potential for denominational growth. But the intricacies of multi-lingual and multi-generational dynamics within each ethnic group requires discernment and expertise, and some denominations have limited experience in those arenas.

Lastly, denominations continue to face the unchanging problem of younger generations living in tension with the expectations of older generations, all of whom need to live together within the church. And we are not talking cosmetic issues like style of music or clothing worn in church. It’s much more a question of substance over style. Millennials have expressed that Christianity is gaining a reputation for touting shallow, anti-science, and sexually repressive teachings. They want to engage in deep and complex dialogue over these issues, refusing to accept “evidence that demands a verdict” sort of answers.

I sum up all the challenges with this simple statement: “In many ways, the Church is answering questions that people are not asking.”

Q. What are the ways in which you are experimenting and learning how to lead in new ways in order to address these challenges?

Free Methodists emerge out of Wesleyan and Anglican traditions. As such, we have a parochial history, and for our churches in Southern California, we are encouraging our leaders to fight against the freeway culture of our region, and instead build tight-knit church communities in the heart of the neighborhoods in which their churches live and exist. As the world gets bigger and more complex through globalization and technology, we are finding that people want authentic connections that a parish-minded approach can offer.

To reach the “Nones” and disaffected Christian Millennials, we started a robust internship program in 2011. Drawing from local Christian colleges, we have had twenty-five interns in the last three summers, twenty-two of whom were completely unfamiliar with our Free Methodist denomination. Almost every single one has since joined us. They tell us that our five essential freedoms (the reasons we call ourselves Free Methodists) were the main reasons they are staying. The more we function like a movement, and less like an institution, the more we connect with the Millennial generation.

Based on what we are learning from The Missional Network, among others, we have started some new ministry initiatives built around the concepts of Luke 10, where Jesus sent the disciples to enter towns and villages, but wait to be invited in. Rather than coming with a strategic plan or an agenda, we are seeking to understand “the art of neighboring,” especially as we enter ethnic communities. We hope to craft new expressions of the church together.

Reflections from Kelly Soifer

Director of Recruiting & Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California and the Center for Transformational Leadership at Azusa Pacific University

via Learning How to Lead in New Ways.

Friendship, Servanthood and Love

Sometimes when I think of obedience, I’m reminded of those schools for training dogs. Their obedience is won with treats and repetition. Who hasn’t at sometime been told not to ask questions, but just do it? Maybe in the military such unquestioned obedience is a virtue, but in all other relationships, it leaves a person feeling alone, even unwanted. So when people talk about obedience to God, I naturally get a bit suspicious.

“Relationships first” is the way many cultures in our world get things done. Western businessmen are known to lose patience at the perceived time wasted in building rapport when travelling abroad. However, it is really mostly our industrial based European cultures that are more task oriented. I believe God is more relational than task oriented. In the stories of the Bible, God seems quite willing to put his plans on hold while working with a prophet like Jonah, or with his stubborn people on the way to the Promised Land.

A servant or employee is often expected to say, ‘Yes sir,’ whether he has an understanding of what the boss is doing or not. I imagine in some factories of the world, people have no clue what they are making or how it will be used.  Friends, on the other hand, talk it over and get on the same page.   When Jesus spoke about obedience and servanthood, it was not a militaristic or industrial age type of command. Rather, He spoke about friendship with God and love in the same sentence.

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” John 15:15

God has invited us into a relationship of understanding that moves us from slavery into a new kind of servanthood. When God was planning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he talked to Abraham, his friend, about it.

“Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7)

This invitation is given to us to enter into a friendship that will include our whole being; mind, will, emotions, body and soul. God speaks to the listening heart, through many avenues.  Our awareness of  His Spirit’s promptings will mean being more in tune with our emotions and longings.   In this way knowledge of God and awareness of our own feelings are interconnected.  Emotional intelligence enhances our spiritual awareness.

“With honest and open prayer, we come to recognize how our fear, anger, sadness, joy, or longing relate to the promptings of God’s Spirit and how the force of our emotions can be used to further God’s purpose in our own lives and the wider universe.” Kathleen Fischer

The Brotherhood of the Towel

Famed conductor and music instructor Ben Zander starts his school year by announcing to the class that your grade for the year is an A.  The one condition is that they write a letter now, dated May at the end of the class year.  The letter must begin, Dear Mr. Zander,  I got my A because.  They are then to describe the student they are going to become through that year.  (see: How to give an A)

It seems to me, God does this same thing with us.  Jesus, sitting with his disciple said,

 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  John 15

Jesus and his disciples were a kind of brotherhood of the the towel. Jesus was the chief servant washing their feet and calling them friends.  We discover in friendship with Jesus a new motivation to serve, which is love.

When we are given that A before we deserve one, it takes away the nagging self doubt that keeps knocking us out,  “Will I be good enough”, or “am I loved?”    In serving God, I have sometimes struggled with a kind of performance anxiety.    I can relate to the words of the  DC talk song,

What if I stumble
What if I fall?
What if I lose my step
And I make fools of us all?

Will the love continue
When my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble
And what if I fall?

However, I’m learning,  this  focus on oneself and our inadequacies is not fruitful.   Instead a gentle focus on the unfailing love of God is the path to growth.

These words of Richard Foster are a great reminder that above all God just wants our presence.

“… Today the heart of God is an open wound of love.  He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him.  He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness.  He longs for our presence.

And he is inviting you – and me- to come home where we belong, to come home to that for which we were created.  His arms are stretched out wide to receive us.  He heart is enlarged to take us in.

For too long we have been in a far away country; a country of noise and hurry and crowds, a country of climb and push and shove, a country of frustration and fear and intimidation.  And he welcomes us home; home to friendship and fellowship and openness, home to intimacy and acceptance and affirmation. “ Richard Foster.

Risk Valuing Others

The Most Important Thing In Life Is To Learn How To Give Out Love And To Let It Come In

“There can be no peacemaking or social work or anything else to improve our world unless we are convinced that the other is important.”  Jean Vanier.

One person who sees the value in another can alter that person’s life.  I would like to be that person to someone just as I have needed someone like that in my life.  The truth I sometimes face is that valuing others can feel risky.   How do I view other people with value and overcome the darker urge to one up them?  If I lift others up, does that mean I’m putting myself down? What if my service to others is really about needing to be a Savior to someone?

“How hard it is for people to live without someone to look down upon- really look down upon.  It is not just that they feel cheated out of someone to hate.  It is that they are compelled to look more closely into themselves and what they don’t like in themselves.”   Martin Luther King Jr.

The walls of our world are most often created by a fear that someone else’s success or prosperity is a threat to mine.   The competitive drive that motivates so much of modern society is based upon this self protective insecurity.    The divisions in our world between rich and poor, good and bad, powerful and powerless, result is broken relationship and distrust.  The end game becomes, get more power than the next guy.

Behind the falsehood, what we so often dread deep within, is the feeling that we are of no value or that we are not loved.

“When you look at all these kinds of fear, the common denominator is the fear of being pushed down or being seen as valueless or non existent. “ Jean Vanier

The antidote to fear is to grow in the understand and experience of the love of God.  Being secure in the knowledge of God as lover of my soul, overcomes the worry and strain of working at being worthy.   Then our living is free and our love is genuine.  As God fills our emptiness with his abundance of love and grace, we are able to risk loving and valuing others.

……..that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  Eph. 3: 18,19

 

 

Melting into God

The Great Slave Lake can be powerful and majestic when its mighty swells are driven by the winds, or it can be bleak and frozen and still like the winter ice.  It is a marvel to me that a lake as vast as an ocean can become frozen over each winter.  Yet, it is even more of a wonder that the human heart can do that too.

The human heart can be majestic and inspiring, reaching the heights of God’s love, or it can be as hard as the rivers that turn into trucking roads in the far North.  Hardening begins subtly, like the lure of Turkish Delight that the White Witch used to captivate Edmund in Narnia. Then the chill of cynicism or the freeze of trust results in the loss of natural affection.   God’s way seems like a fairy tale, and love becomes a passing sentiment.   Simply being emotional does not mean the heart is tender.  The heart is more than emotions; it is mind, will and emotions combined.   Tenderness of heart includes being sensitive, pliable and yielding.  Puritan Richard Sibbes say the tender,  “quakes at threatenings, obeys precepts, melts at promises and the promises sweeten the heart.“

The heart of man is in such a desperate state that there is no remedy except for a heart transplant.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.  Ezek. 36:26

This new kind of heart enjoys the word of God and beats wildly when touched by His Spirit.   Yet still, my old nature threatens to undo the good work of the Spirit at every turn. It seems I live in a world where Turkish Delights are offered on every corner.  The pleasure and profits of the world are competing with the Spirit for my affections.  Who will I yield to today?   “The hard heart is like wax to the devil and stone to God or goodness.”  says Sibbes.    The one we yield to is the one who gets our heart.

Here we need the Spirit’s help.   In my struggles I discovered the simple prayer of King David,  “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!”  In praying this, I turn my heart away from the lure of pleasure and profit and even away from the inner battle and trust in God to direct my heart to his promises.  “The highest form of prayer”, says Julian of Norwich, “is to the goodness of God.

”God only desires that our souls cling to him with all of its strength,  in particular, that it clings to his goodness.  For of all the things our minds can think about God, it is thinking upon his goodness that pleases him most and brings the most profit to our soul. “

St. Theresa of Avila
 

Approved

An inner stamp of divine approval, is like a the loving embrace of a parent who says, “You’re alright.”  This affirmation of our Heavenly Father gives us the assurance and self acceptance we need. (continued…)

The gold embossed seal on the corner of my ordination certificate says that I’ve been recognized by my religious organization and approved for the work I’m doing.   This document hangs on my wall as a reminder to myself and other that I’m qualified.   God by his Spirit does even more than this, by placing the stamp of his approval on my heart.    St. Paul says, God has… “set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

Without an inner confidence that my loving heavenly Father receives me in Christ, I try to earn that approval through religious works.  However, this kind of performance faith only serves to reinforce in me the feelings of unworthiness I’m trying to overcome.  My attempts to talk myself up or have others talk me up is not enough to shake feelings of self doubt.   It is from God that we must first sense approval after which it matters little whether others do or not.  In Christ he approves and accepts me so that I am able to forgive and accept others regardless of how they respond to me.

Saint John says, “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: ……..We know it by the Spirit he gave us.  1 John 3: 19, 24. 

The lofty claim of divine favour will be mistaken by some as a form of religious arrogance.  I suppose there are times when declarations of divine approval are used to promote a kind of self importance.   Worse still, there are those who assert their divine privilege as they seek to dominate others in the name of their God. These attitudes are not the same as the blessed assurance I’m thinking of.  Rather, a genuine inner capacity to feel approved by God is a gift that results in deep humility.

Since divine approval is given freely, my response is simply to ask and receive so that my joy may be full.  In my seeking I have found it helpful to ask for mercy through Jesus and to request the Spirit to enable me to put my heart at rest in his presence.    

 

Jesus in Disguise

Being present with people in conversation and living in the moment, isn’t always something that comes natural, at least to me. Perhaps this woolgathering comes from insecurities or my short attention span. Being on the introverted side of the personality scale, I know I can be less interested in small talk and tune out unless the subject grabs me.

In an attempt to overcome inner obstacles to being present with others it helps me to remember Jesus words,

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matt. 18:20.

He is putting a value on human relationships in promising that this is a place where God shows up.

It is a worthy desire to seek after an encounter with God. Through the centuries people pursued these experiences through prayer and solitude and truly this is one of the most important spiritual paths. We discover the depth of God when we develop an inner stillness that allows his presence to be recognized and our earthly self to be quieted. However, bringing this sense of being present with God into relationships can be a challenge. We might even conclude that it’s easier to avoid relationships. Yet, God himself dwells in the perfect relationship of Father, Son and Spirit.

Being a pastor I am called upon to be with people in their difficult times, to listen and learn and see God as a present helper. However, today’s leaders are often conditioned to believe that it is the big events in front of the crowds that matter most. We might even begin to believe that one on one encounters aren’t that important in the work of God. If we think this way we will miss many opportunities to see God in the disguise of another human being. It seems from Jesus words that no encounter with another person is trivial to God.

When someone like mother Teresa says she saw Jesus in others she reminds me that God can be encountered in the ordinary interactions of life. She says,

“We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us to put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise.”

With this open hearted approach, self is forgotten and God is discovered in even the uncomfortable conversations of our lives.

Increasing Our Heart Capacity

Solar PanelWhen I was buying a car battery at Walmart, I asked another man buying batteries for some advice, as he seemed knowledgeable. He told me about his home solar system that generates enough power to run most of the lights in his house. However, it lacked the storage capacity it needed to carry him through the dark nights and overcast days. To be completely self sufficient, he needed to add another battery or two. I was buying a battery for a car with a parasitic drain. It occurred to me that, like the solar guy, we need to increase our soul capacity with light of the Lord, so we can shine on in the dark nights, the cloudy days and through the deep valleys of life.

Jesus told a story about 5 foolish virgins and 5 wise virgins. The five wise virgins had extra oil to watch through the night for the coming of the bridegroom; the foolish virgins were left in the dark as their oil supply ran out before the big day. We need a healthy capacity of virtue if we intend to make it through the darker days of our lives without losing our way.

You can’t just close the bag of chips, turn off the TV, get up off the couch and go run the Boston Marathon. You’ll have a heart attack on heartbreak hill. You need to train to run the Boston Marathon. Training increases our capacity to run the distance.

Training in the Christian life means spiritual disciplines like: prayer, bible mediation and solitude. These are not ends in themselves; but means to the end, of an increased capacity for service to God. Solitude may be the most challenging of these, it is for me. Without these my storage capacity is not expanding, and may be shrinking.

“Let those that are great activists and think to circle the world with words and outward works, note that they would bring far more profit to the Church, and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half [the time given to action] in being present with God in prayer . . . Most certainly they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and do so with far less labor. Through prayer they would merit the result, and themselves be made spiritually strong. Without prayer, they would do much hammering but achieve little, even nothing at all or even cause harm.” (St. John of the Cross)

A continual development of our inner life will keep us effective and fruitful in the Lord.

2 Peter 1:5-8 “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For, if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”