Thinking Out Loud

February 16, 2017

Camped Out on the Edge of Belief

southern-ontario

I mentioned a few weeks ago that twice a year I am asked to write a devotion for our local newspaper. It presents a number of challenges, not the least of which is trying to keep it under 550 words. If I I’m writing for C201, I don’t include things that begin with illustrations; we cut to the chase of studying text. But I have to include some type of local references, to our town about an hour east of Toronto. I thought I would share with you what I came up with awhile ago. Your comments are invited.

As I mentally scan the map, I can’t think of any place along the southern tier of Canada where it’s possible to be so close to the U.S. border but have to drive so far to get there. On a clear day, you can see a generating station’s smokestack across the lake with the naked eye, but entering New York State involves either a nearly two-hour drive in either direction to reach a border point.

In many ways, it’s a metaphor for the relationship that Canadians, especially in the days before today’s religious pluralism, had with Christianity. Even now, many sit camped out on the edge of belief. They might even hold church membership or do volunteer work, but a spiritual heart examination would show that they’ve never crossed the border of commitment; they’ve never placed themselves, by faith, under the covering of the cross.

We can all see the border. We see it in the chorus of our federal anthem, which is a prayer for God to keep our land free, just as we see it still in some municipal councils where another prayer acknowledges the sacredness of God’s name, invites His kingdom to be fulfilled and recognizes His power and glory. We see the border when local churches step up to build a house for Habitat for Humanity, join en masse a walkathon for Multiple Sclerosis (canceling a Sunday morning service in the process) or feed the hungry through the Salvation Army…

Just as we can watch U.S. television stations and listen to its radio so easily, because the border is so close, we live in a time and place which has been influenced by Christianity, but still, many hesitate to fully enter in, to fully engage, because, figuratively speaking, the drive to the border is too long. Nothing of urgency has forced us to make the trip.

In Acts 26, we read the story of an encounter between the Apostle Paul and King Agrippa. This is Paul’s moment to secure his release from custody, but from a legal standpoint, he squanders the opportunity and instead tells Agrippa the basis for his belief that Jesus is the long-anticipated Messiah, the deliverer of Israel in particular and mankind in general.

As Paul is speaking, Festus, the Governor, interrupts and says what many still say to passionate followers who seem more heavenly minded than earthly good: “Paul, you are insane. Too much study has made you crazy!” (vs. 25, NLT)

But Paul calmly reminds him that none of the occurrences in the Jesus story were made up, nothing was done in secret, “for this thing was not done in a corner.” (vs. 26, KJV) Agrippa and Festus need merely to check out back issues of The Jersualem Times to read the accounts for themselves of Jesus’ teaching, miracles and crucifixion.

And that’s where Agrippa says, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian;” (vs 28, KJV) or “Keep this up much longer and you’ll make a Christian out of me!” (vs. 28, MSG)

But a few short verses later the scene ends. We’re left with the picture of King Agrippa camped out on the border of belief, but, to return to our analogy again, he never gasses up the car and makes the run for the border. Full commitment is in view, he can see it with the naked eye, but nothing of urgency forces him to make the trip that day.

Perhaps that sounds familiar.

 

April 29, 2016

Camp Memories (4)

The camp that I worked at was large enough that the food services operations had been contracted out to a catering company. Some of the teens who got hired were friends of other people on our junior staff, but there was no screening of anyone in the sense that our staff had to have a recommendation from a pastor, a youth pastor, and enclose a copy of their personal testimony.

All this meant that our dishwashers and housekeeping staff — who were Christians — regularly interacted with non-Christians who were cooks and bakers. Furthermore, the cooking staff got to attend any of the special events that were taking place in the evenings — special speakers, concerts, etc. — which meant that over time they had a number of questions about what we believed.

Evangelizing the people from the catering firm became a priority for the dishwashers (guys who fell under my supervision) and the housekeepers (girls who lived with the female bakers and cooks).

As Labor Day approached, two of the bakers were close to crossing the line of faith, but there was no indication that this was happening anytime soon. This increased the level of concern — and prayer, I hope — on the part of the housekeeping staff to the point where they upped their game in terms of pleading with the two who had expressed some interest.

img 042916I will say this: Regardless of your views on soteriology, or any aspects of the monergism/synergism debate, there is something to be said for the line from the Billy Graham radio show, “This is your hour of decision.” And there’s, “Now is the accepted time; today is the day of salvation.” And don’t forget, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Even if you believe that salvation happens as process and not in a moment of crisis, I believe there is still always a defining moment.

Then, on Labor Day Monday, in other words on the same day, and possibly within an hour of each other, the two girls decided it was time to make that commitment.

So the housekeeping staff were ecstatic.

And they ran and got me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I had never been in the spiritual delivery room before. I just thought it was interesting that after evangelizing and sharing their faith journey all summer with the two catering staff members, they felt they needed a professional to lead the actual conversion moment. And they thought that I was that professional. (We did have people with theology degrees on staff, but…)

So, not knowing what I know now, I felt it necessary to have them “pray a prayer” because that’s what the Bible says you do when you want to enter into eternal life, right? (Well, it does and doesn’t.)

Girl One joined me in the dining room, which was an appropriate setting given their summer had consisted of preparing the food which was eaten there. I told her that I was going to give a line and she simply had to repeat it after me. She did. Smiles. Hugs and high fives.

Then Girl Two came in and after a brief discussion, I told her to simply repeat the prayer after me. I was on a roll now. Any chance there’s a third person waiting outside?

“Dear Jesus;” I said.

“Dear Jesus;” she repeated.

“I acknowledge that I’m a sinner;” was the next line.

Silence.

“I acknowledge that I have sinned;” I repeated with slight editing.*

“I can’t pray this;” she said. 

Wait, what?

At this point I could have concluded that she just wasn’t ready; or that she’d felt coerced into this moment; or that peer pressure had resulted from the other girl’s decision. Or perhaps she just couldn’t give intellectual assent to committing to follow Christ. Or maybe I’d worded it wrong and she didn’t want to think of herself as a sinner.

For all those reasons, I could have just suspended this and suggested she think about it and get back in contact with the camp or her new friends at some point in the fall.

But I didn’t go that route. Instead I opened my mouth and this came out:

“Then just tell God, in your own words, what you want to say to him right now.”

I have no idea what she said next; I only remember that it was sincere, it was beautiful and it passed whatever was my ‘sinner’s prayer’ litmus test. And there were more smiles, more hugs and more high fives…

…Today I know so much more. Entering into new life is more than a prayer; it’s a commitment to live a new life in a new way under the Lord-ship of Jesus Christ even when the cost is difficult. But for that day, that would have to suffice.

There was little time to arrange for follow-up, but I heard some encouraging news in the short-term through my housekeeping contacts, and we did have monthly camp reunions — this was a huge camp — back then which kept some staff in touch in a world before email, texting and social media.

In the years that followed, I got to pray with other people while doing itinerant youth ministry** as a guest speaker in various churches; but there was never another moment like this one.

I’m just so thankful that I was there when needed and when the opportunity arose.***


*After 11 weeks at camp, I think the doctrine of sin had been clearly defined, but today, if I was going to introduce a prayer at all, I would probably word it differently.

**I got to experience some interesting situations and meet some great people in itinerant ministry, but there is something to be said for working in a local church environment where you really get to know the same people over an extended period of time. At camp, working and living and sleeping in community created some close relationships, but eleven weeks seems like such a short time and the nature of the organization made follow-up challenging. I love the context for ministry that camp creates, but it’s important to recognize the shortcomings of any evangelism model.

***It’s easy for an organization to miss the importance of ministry to its workers. Some of the greatest life-changes are taking place at the staff-level and it’s important for senior staff to see the summer as a two-pronged program.

 

October 25, 2015

It’s Not What You Do, It’s Who You Know

Moses and the Bronze Snake← ← Why Isn’t This Story in Every Bible Story Collection?

That’s the question we’re looking at this weekend. Perhaps the story just has credibility issues with adults. A snake on a pole? You only have to look at it; not touch it, or do something else with it?  Perhaps the story simply gets bumped in Bible storybooks by stories involving a giant, or a whale, or a den of lions. But seriously, the way the Numbers 21 story prefigures the crucifixion, while we may not include it in our gospel presentations, we should at least be conversationally familiar with it. If you’ve missed what we’ve said so far, read the articles posted Friday and Saturday.


The Evangelism Explosion Question

Evangelism Explosion was a door-to-door evangelism campaign launched at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida when James Kennedy was pastor, and then made available for churches to train volunteers and use the program in their city or town.

Wikipedia records this about the program:

Evangelism Explosion is best known for its two “diagnostic questions” that users can ask non-Christians as a means of determining a “person’s spiritual health”, and of stimulating an evangelistic conversation:

  1. Have you come to the place in your spiritual life where you can say you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?
  2. Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say?

After the diagnostic questions, the evangelist is encouraged to explain the gospel in terms of grace, man, God, Christ, and faith.

What the article doesn’t say is that most people would reply to the second question in terms like,

  • I’ve been a good person
  • I lived a good life
  • I prayed to God regularly
  • I kept the Ten Commandments
  • I went to church
  • I always gave money when people needed it
  • I didn’t smoke/drink/take drugs/sleep around

…and so on.

But none of these is the right answer. It is only through the blood of Jesus Christ that any of us obtains the righteousness that is needed before a just God; something I assume the EE people would then go on to explain. (In what’s sometimes called a “law and gospel” approach, the point is additionally made that none of those actions or omissions could be considered good enough when standing before a God who is all-holy.) 

DO versus DONE

So how does one do that? How do we move from people whose religion is all D-O (do this, do that, do the other thing) to one who simply accepts what’s all been D-O-N-E (freely given, and able to be taken irrespective of one’s spiritual balance sheet)?

Growing up in what was then Canada’s only megachurch, The Peoples Church in Toronto, Dr. Paul B. Smith (who also baptized me) would give an invitation almost every Sunday night and ask people to raise their hands if the wanted him “to include them in the closing prayer.”

While being prayed for to receive salvation or praying a prayer are both models that are subject to intense scrutiny and criticism these days, I think his approach is good at least insofar as one must want to placed under the covering that the cross provides.

I often compare this to the cards we get from the postal service telling us that they are holding a parcel for pickup. We can show all our friends the parcel card and even wave it around, but until we actually go to the post office and exchange the card for the benefit it represents, then all we have is piece of thin cardboard. And think about, the analogy really fits because the parcel is yours; it has your name on it.

How else do we describe this invisible transaction? Most people want to do something in order to gain right standing with God. That’s why religion is so popular. People at least can quantify their acts of piety, devotion or righteousness.

But Christianity, in this sense at least, is not religion. You don’t do anything.

And that’s where the transaction model really breaks down for some people. See, when I do a transaction at the ATM, I get a receipt. At least I can hold that in my hand (or affix it to the inside cover of my Bible). But as much as people so desperately want the equivalent to a proof of purchase, such is not the case when it’s something that happens invisibly. You simply, in a way so similar to the story of Moses and the Bronze Snake need to look to the cross.

Truly this is faith.  


 

As stated, there is no magic prayer to pray, but in your own words, you can simply tell God that you recognize that in his higher plans and purposes, the death of Jesus fulfills the requirements of a system that was set in place long before the world was created; and that you realize that as someone who misses the mark of his standard of holiness and righteousness, what you really need is grace. Tell him you want to be included in all that Christ’s death and God’s infinite grace and love have to offer; and in return, you want to begin living a new life in a new way.

 

September 10, 2013

Christianity: What Have I Got Myself Into?

Another lifetime ago, I could have recited the titles of all the appropriate follow-up materials for people who had ‘made a decision,’ ‘committed themselves to Christ,’ or ‘crossed the line of faith.’ There were booklets like Now, What? (not to be confused with What Now?) and The First 30 Days of Your Christian Life and a handful of great study booklets by The Navigators (which is not the name of a Christian rock band or gospel quartet, so far.)

Adventures in ChurchlandBut you could do a lot worse than simply handing someone a copy of Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion by Dan Kimball; in fact you could give someone this book before they decided, committed or crossed, especially if they present themselves as even the least counter-cultural. The book covers the waterfront of challenges anyone might face being a newbie at the whole Christ-following thing.

Which brings me to saying that now I finally understand Kimball’s pompadour-coiffed looks; it’s a tribute to his love of all things 1950s, especially the music described as rockabilly. It’s hard today to imagine a senior pastor telling him that this type of haircut was inappropriate for youth ministry, but it helps you to appreciate the culture shock he experienced entering Churchland (the world of both mainline Protestantism and Evangelicalism) for the first time. His hilarious description of his first Anglican/Catholic-styled communion service is alone worth the price of admission (and the fact he shares the experience with a guy named Randy makes the whole episode sound like a scene in My Name Is Earl.)

Because I spent the summer defying the publishing establishment and simply reading books I wanted to instead of books currently being promoted (though Churchland is a 2012 title), I approached some of them differently and must confess that I read some of this one out of chapter sequence. This turned out to be a viable method, as the book is very much a series of essays and some of the biographical information is repeated, even in chapters that follow consecutively.

The book is really equal parts biography, basic doctrine, and apologetics. In a casual, offhand manner, he covers most of the essentials; and if all you knew of the belief system was what you read in newspapers, saw on television, or learned from blogs and websites; this would set you straight as far as confronting the things that tend to make headlines and tend to be an embarrassment to those of us on the inside.

Only weeks earlier, I had read Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not The Church. He is currently working on a book with an eerily similar title. When it comes to presenting Christianity to those without a church background, Kimball gets his audience.  He was once one of them.

…If you missed it two weeks ago, here is an excerpt.

(Note to Zondervan: That’s two blog posts on a book I bought. You guys owe me!)

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