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Like a Sword Swallower


sword-swallower

 

Recently I was asked for a tip on “how to do evangelism”. I chafe a bit at such questions because they presuppose that evangelism is an event and are asking me for a gimmick short cut. I have been considering the question though and decided that my best tip is to get people to talk about themselves. This is often their favourite topic and as they warm to the conversation, I can learn much about their experiences and what they are passionate about.

It is difficult, sometimes, to get people to talk freely about themselves. It often takes time and repeated encounters. 90% of evangelism is ‘just showing up’ consistently, earning the opportunity to hear someone’s story. The other 10% is the ability to hear the heart’s deep cry and recommend Jesus as the answer to that need, based on our own personal experience.

In my circle many people have tats (tattoos) and I have found these as a great opportunity to hear peoples’ hearts. I have discovered that people seldom frivolously ink stain themselves. Their tats are meaningful! After having ‘shown up’ for a while in someone’s life for a time I can ask about a tat. I ask what it is and what it means. As people tell their ‘tat’ stories a light comes to their eyes. They speak about: mothers, sweet hearts, children, places, and times. Sometimes they speak with regret because the relationships evidenced in ink are no longer active. It is easy then to talk about important things! I discover what they care about and often I can be sure that God cares deeply about these things as well.

These tats illustrate brokenness too. One friend has a list of the names of his children. He doesn’t see or interact with them or their mothers. He wears their names and it reminds him of all that he has lost. He knows he has “really blown it” and his tat honours those children and reminds him of his regrets. Jesus has much to say about dealing with such regret! I may never have had that conversation except for our ‘tat’ chat.

I admit to being tat-less, I tell my life story in scars rather than ink! I am often asked if I have a tat, or what I would have if I had one. After much thought I have decided that if I were ever to get one (and I won’t be getting one unless senility sets in) I would get a semicolon A semicolon is used by a writer when he could finish a sentence but instead choses to write on. A semicolon tells us the story is not finished yet. A semicolon is a symbol of hope! I am grateful that I can passionately share about my imaginary tat and share my heart for my friend with regrets. I can tell him that his story isn’t finished yet. The Author is not finished writing. Past mistakes do not dictate the end of the story!

Did you ever hear about the sword swallower with hiccups? He had a semicolon!

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Good For Nothing


I have often taught “The good can be the enemy of the best!” and I believe that is true. We can fill our lives with all sorts of ‘good’ things that we miss the ‘best’ or most important things. We can spend so much time climbing our own version of the ‘ladder to success’ that we don’t realize it is leaning against the wrong wall! Good can keep us from experiencing the best.

While admitting that this is true I also must concede it is also untrue! I was chatting with someone, recently, who had ceased being involved in a particular ministry. I had witnessed that this person had really enjoyed this service and I was surprised that he had stopped. As our conversation progressed he shared that he had seen so many people who were ‘better’ at it than he, that he decided to “leave the field” to others who did it better. We reminisced a bit about his times of service in this field and I noticed a joy in the memories and a melancholy at the same time. Because he could not be ‘the best’ he had decided to “leave the field” and in doing so he was the sadder.

I reminded him that God did not call us to be the best. He is aware of our makeup and limitations. He does call us “to follow him” faithfully. Success is never the measure of obedience and is often seems not to be even a consequence of obedience. Too many are frozen in inactivity because we do not feel we measure up to others, and we may not, but this is an inadequate excuse for abandoning the field. In his incarnation Jesus did not call ‘the best’ to follow him. He delights in calling the “foolish” to confound the wise.

I love the story of the “man born blind”. Without a day of theological training or even Sunday school, he is called to testify to the Pharisees. There is much he doesn’t know but he shares what he does “I was blind and now I see!” He probably wouldn’t get a great mark in a homiletics class; he seems not be a gifted orator, but he simply tells what he knows.

The best can be the enemy of the good you and I can do! Acts 10:39 tells us “Jesus went around doing good…” Our call to follow him means that we must also do good. There may be those with more gifts or more education who can do better but there is no excuse for us not to be doing good! Some may be professionals who are paid to do good but the vast majority of Christ’s followers are to be “good for nothing.”

My friend realized that he was letting feelings of inadequacy keep him from the service he enjoyed. His contribution is needed. Jesus’ followers, every one, are called to “go around doing good” This is how the Kingdom comes on Earth as it is in Heaven. This is the answer to our own prayers.

To paraphrase the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews “let us spur one another on to be good for nothing!”

 

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Epic Fail


epic

 

This week I engaged in a conversation “What makes a church a success?” This question generated a lot of thought and a variety of opinions. This week I also read about a Church conference I had never heard of before. It is the “Epic Fail Church Conference”. At this conference church leaders get together and share stories of failure. They empathize and encourage one another.

I must admit that I am drawn by the “Epic Fail” theme because I have a closet full of “Epic Fail” stories. I feel like the last thing I need is another conference by some mega-church leader that sells the ‘successful’ strategies of victorious Christian Leadership.

I believe that a failure can be a success if we fail (fall) forward.

A dozen years ago 12 leaders gathered to start a new ‘church’. The vision was to reach out to the folks in the neighbourhood that were not attracted to liturgical and literate Sunday worship. I approached a very gifted intercessor to pray for us. She recommended that we emphasize “the love of the Father” to our friends. She gave me a copy of “The Father’s Love Letter” and suggested I use it in worship. Initially I thought that we would use this cd for a few weeks. I did not know that folks would so enjoy bathing in the love of the Father each week that we would continue with this for years to come!

We were so influenced by the love of the Father that when we did the work of describing ourselves, at our best, we wrote “Up Town is an honest accepting community of broken people who are: experiencing the love of the Father….”

We certainly were broken people! And we were honest and accepting too. Some of the prayers remain fixed in my memory: “Dear Jesus, I love you”, “Thank you that …. Was there when I cut myself last night. Help me to never do that again. I want to live for you.” “I’m so sorry. Last night I spent my whole cheque on prostitutes. I am so lonely!” Such prayers were not unusual at Up Town. At our best we were honest and at our best we were accepting. People gathered around the hurting knowing that they too hurt. They comforted with the same comfort they had received on other numerous occasions. I remember thinking “Where else could these things happen?”

Up Town had a good run! At our best we were brilliantly flawed! But we did not remain at our best. After approximately 10 years troubles started to loom large on the horizon. Broken people were not always so accepting of one another. Bitterness and unforgiveness and eventually violence erupted. The gentle innocent folk were being hurt. What had been a place of safety and acceptance became a place of lurking danger.

No amount of teaching or private chats with the angry seemed to make any difference and so Up Town closed. Epic Fail!

After some time passed we have tried to restart something for the folks who miss those ‘golden’ days. Street Hope’s emphasis on discipleship is in part a reaction to this “Epic Fail”. We have not and may never recapture the days when Up Town was at its best. What is left to us is to remember and to grieve. We also move on to what ‘new thing’ lies ahead.

I used to brag about what God was doing in Up Town and now I seldom speak of it. I don’t even think of it without a wince of pain. I do hope though that in some way we have “Failed Forward”.

What stories of Epic Failure do you have to share? I know you have some.

 

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Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree!


I recall the time I learned the word ‘ubiquitous’, suddenly and ironically it began to pop up everywhere. This often happens. Scripture talks about having “ears to hear”. When we find ourselves in the place where we seem ready to learn a topic we begin to see the subject everywhere.

I have been thinking much on the subject of our relationship with the earth. We again planted a ‘Street Hope” garden this year and were experiencing our best yield ever but before the harvest much of our crop was despoiled. Vegetables were picked and left to go bad in the sun. It was very disheartening!

Coincidently (or God-incidentally) I have been asked to speak at a local church this week on the topic of “God and the Environment”. As many readers will know, I am enamoured with St. Francis and I have been reading his ‘Canticle of the Creatures’. This proto-type evangelist had a profound love for all creation and most of all for the Creator who called all creation “good”.

Christendom, it seems has long forgotten Francis and glommed on to a theology that all this earth was going to be burned up at the consummation of all things and so ought to be exploited without conscience or consequence. This is a position the Church is now rueing and I hope repenting.

The Creation story paints a wonderful picture of harmony between God and humans but also between humans and the rest of creation. Humans were involved in care and stewardship of creation in harmonious partnership with the Creator. A mark of the “Fall” is breach of harmony and a break in relationship: Godward, between each other, with self, and with creation itself. Paul writes in that great eighth chapter of Romans “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom. 8:22 -23)

Instead of being on the forefront of exploitation of creation we ought to be at the forefront of care for creation. We would be in a more creditable position with the world if we held this place. As we pray “thy Kingdom come” as we actively seek to see his Kingdom realized more and more, we look for a return to the Garden. It is not meant to be ‘pie in the sky when we die” it is meant to be “steak on the plate while we wait”! There is much work to do toward that time. I remember an article written by N.T. Wright “Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree” in which he advocates the work of care of creation as one of the means of extending the good rule of God.

Now back to our Street Hope Garden. While losing the crop was a disappointment (and I was quite angry about it!), the crop yield was never our main goal. We wanted to beautify an abandoned lot in an ‘abandoned’ neighbourhood. Our goal has always been a prophetic one and any temporal blessing was ‘gravy’. So as I have cooled down, and sought prayer and counsel, I have decided to keep on gardening. To do less would be sin! Next year we will likely turn our vegetable beds into flower beds which will point people, by their colour and scent to the Creator of all. We have had some generous offers to purchase locally grown produce so that we can host our Harvest supper and I expect that is just what we will do.

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry which says so well what I would like to communicate.

The Clearing Rests in Song and Shade

 

The clearing rest in song and shade,

It is a creature made

By old light held in soil and leaf,

By human joy and grief,

By human work,

Fidelity of sight and stroke,

By rain, by water on

The parent stone.

We join our work to Heaven’s gift,

Our hope to what is left,

That field and woods at last agree

In an economy

Of widest worth.

High Heaven’s Kingdom come on earth.

Imagine Paradise.

O dust arise!

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The Ring of Truth


 

rings

My weeks are filled with some very interesting chats. This week one of my friends and I were talking about his temper. This is a subject that I have some experience with. He said that these days he was mostly angry with himself for things he had left undone and unsaid. This kind of self-directed anger is not beneficial in anyway. We all have regrets. We have things we have done or left undone as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer asserts in the General Confession. By continuing to beat himself my friend was stuck.

I found myself talking to him about the rings on a tree. Each ring represents a growing season. Some are quite close together indicating that there was not much growth during that season, but occasionally there is a much wider gap in the rings. This gap indicated a period of marked growth! I told my friend that this last painful year was a time of great growth. Now as he gazed back on his past he was judging his past decisions from the position of his new found understanding. This was not fair to the “one-year-ago” him! He had acted or not acted with the knowledge and light that he had at the time. I invited him to give that ‘one-year-ago’ self a break.

I look back on the battles I once engaged. Every little theological difference became justification for ‘hammer and tong’ combat. I have scars from those days and I inflicted wounds. I regret many of these encounters and have confessed them but I do not continue to beat myself up. I acted the best I could with what I then knew. I now know better. I know that every difference is not “a hill to die on”. I know that I do not know the whole truth and so if I convince others to my way then we would both be wrong!

My friend left feeling lighter because he had cut himself some slack. In his new freedom he would be more gracious with others and with himself. He left knowing more peace so he could be an “instrument of peace” as Francis advocated.

When rings on the tree are close together it means the tree went through a hard season and did not grow. Conversely difficult seasons are most often the seasons we grow the most. The other day as I awoke Linda asked me if I knew what happened on this day in the past. I had that deer in the headlights feeling. Had I forgotten an important anniversary? Not that I knew. “What I asked?” in dread. “10 years ago you had your fall.” I recalled the long painful recovery but I also remember that season as a growing one. My rings were far apart that year!

I can and must judge my actions and inactions based on my ‘light’ and knowledge. As I know better I must expect that I will act better. The more that I grow, though, the more aware I am that I need mercy and grace. I want to offer that same grace and mercy to others and to myself.

This has the ring of truth!

 

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Like the Emperor


 

During the Olympics many of us are watching runners in a variety of events. I am old enough to remember the fad of streaking. Streakers stripped off all clothing and raced through university quads. This combination of exhibitionism and prank, fortunately, did not last long, but a spiritual version has continued in the Christian community.

Many Christians have plunked on the “helmet of salvation” and begun “the race set before us” as spiritual streakers! In Ephesians 6 Paul reminds us that there are other necessary elements to Christian apparel. Righteousness is vital. Christ’s righteousness imputed to us is the virtue that allows us standing as children of God. In other places we read injunctions to “put on Christ”. We are to live out this righteousness in our lives if we are going to truly be clad with Christ! This means while trusting in his perfect righteousness, I imperfectly live a life which imitates his in love, justice, and mercy, otherwise I am streaking.

Paul speaks about peace. Through Jesus we have peace with God, though we were once enemies. It is crucial that we know this peace which passes all understanding, but if we do not live as agents of peace in the world we streak!

On the passage goes to speak of truth and faith. These are necessary to us personally and need to be expressed in our lives or we streak! Like the Emperor of fable, the Church (the Bride) parades before the wondering eyes of lost, unaware that she is “poor, wretched, naked and blind”. This would be funny if it weren’t so sad!

I spend time with those on the outside of the Church and they often point these comic/tragic flaws. I readily admit to my own imperfect attire. I love to point at those areas where I see the Bride clothed in beauty. I tell my friends of Christ who stands at the door ready to feed and clothe us spiritually so that we can imitate him in this world.

I spend time with ex-offenders. Several times when I first met a guy he would rant and rave at the “system”. They often thundered and threatened. These initial encounters always took me aback. I would wonder “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” In each case as I have hung in with my raging friend they have changed. Over time I saw their tempers cool and I witnessed them begin to care for others and their feelings. This miracle has been repeated so often that I have begun to ask guys what has made the difference. They tell me that it is the acceptance they find in our little community. They enjoy this and begin to imitate the ethic until it becomes their own.

Our righteousness is imperfect and perhaps rag like but as we seek to imitate Christ, something of his beauty shines through.

We will be most beautiful if we are dressed in the Christ at the door, rather than by Christian Dior!

 

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Don’t Run Fast! Stand Fast!


I was sitting on my newly renewed deck listening to the cardinal singing from my neighbour’s treetop. I gazed with deep satisfaction at the spirea bush we had transplanted several years ago. It was festooned with the most beautiful blossoms. Then I eyed our lilac tree. It now stands over six feet. I recalled planting it with my son as a Mothers’ Day gift almost a decade ago. It was a mere twig and for years we despaired that it would survive. For years I felt foolish as I carefully mowed around this twig stuck in the middle of the yard but eventually it decided to grow and now I gawp in wonder.

These are the pleasures I can enjoy because we have remained! We are experiencing the gift of stability. Throughout our married life we have often moved and each move brought with it a sense of excitement but excitement is overrated. I am finally learning that this ‘race’ we are in; goes not to those who run fast but to those who stand fast.

We have been blessed with this same kind of stability in our ministry. Rather than having a ‘call’ to a project we are called to a community. This stability is a call to “a long obedience in one direction”, as Eugene Petersen calls it. I do not mean that there is anything boring about stability.  There is great variety in every day. The calling is to a certain place and a certain people. As we have spent the past number of years with the same community (people) in the same community (neighbourhood) we have seen much change. Like my spirea bush, we have witnessed some blossom into beauty. Others we nurture like my lilac, it may seem like wasted effort but we live in hope that like my lilac it will one day decide to grow. In faith we look forward. We look to the power of the cross which seems foolish to the world and we gawp in wonder! No transient mission, no microwave ministry, no short-term stints will be blessed with the deep, deep satisfaction of a stable, loyal, and grounded (quite literally) service.

There are, to be sure, some serious disappointments. People we love fall more often and further than we could have imagined but over time we see others rise to heights we could never have predicted. The disappointment is reminiscent of my early feelings about my lilac twig. Each harsh maritime winter portended its doom but today those fears are almost forgotten.

I am convinced that those in ministry move too often and too quickly. Stability, of place and people, is a blessed gift. Too few of us enjoy it!

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