Ajith’s Final Session

It’s been a long day and I’m sure my mind wasn’t as sharp of this evening’s session as it could have been. Yet, Ajith was sharp and clear and the Spirit used him to speak to me, and I trust He worked in others’ hearts as well. Dr. Fernando completed his 3-part series on “How Must a Pastor Die?” and here are just a few highlights:

1. Colossians 1.24-29 has given us three keys to knowing how we must die as a pastor, as well as why we must die:
1) rejoicing & suffering go hand in hand; the more we experience both, the more like Christ we become
2) we are called to suffering on behalf of the church, i.e., the church will be blessed by our suffering
3) from v. 25a, as a pastor, I am called to be a minister, a diakonos, a deacon, a lowly term of usage

2. Problem today – there’s been a lop-sided teaching on the spiritual gifts so that people “can’t” serve anymore because it simply isn’t their gift. We have over-specialized which produces a great deal of frustration in just about all involved in a church. Instead, we need generalizers: those who are involved in many areas and have just a little time to dedicate to using their gifts.

3. Our day has great difficulty with this idea of serving, especially where it involves humility. We live in a culture of celebrities who don’t like to serve; it takes them out of the spotlight. But, according to the Scriptures, we are servants. And servants must die to self.

4. This calling is a stewardship from God. And is there any higher calling than to that of being a minister/servant of the glorious gospel? No, we are ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5.20).

5. Our task is to make the Word of God fully known; the whole counsel of God is to be proclaimed. In declaring the whole counsel, we’ll proclaim many things which our culture has deemed beneath it. They are too sophisticated for such things as judgment and hell. But our culture (and Christians who have absorbed it into themselves) hangs this judgment upon Christ as well. “Oh Jesus, you and all that talk about hell. You know that’s not a reality; let’s talk about some other things that will be much more positive, more helpful and boost our self-esteem.” But this is like having a special device that would tell you ahead of time when a tsunami is coming but failing to tell anyone about it. It’s foolishness! How dare we ever think we’re too sophisticated to talk about hell. This is like criminal negligence. We need from Bible-teaching, not less in our day and age because people are so ignorant of the Scriptures.

6. Never lose your wonder over the gospel. It’s like a romance: sweeter than honey to my lips. The thrill of contemplating the calling to proclaim the gospel should never grow old in our hearing.

Ajith concluded with many illustrations for practical application.

One final session in the morning, then the Q & A and then… head for home!


Bethlehem Conference for Pastors Update #2

Bethlehem Conference for Pastors Update #2

Michael Campbell—Sacrificing Self: the Multi-Ethnic Church and the Mandate of the Gospel

We need to think about the church the way God thinks about the church
• this means for pastors to give of self toward the goal of a multi-ethnic church

1 Corinthians 9.19-23: all for the sake of the gospel

Campbell is the pastor of a “growing multi-ethnic congregation in Jackson, MS. The part that should surprise us is this is happening in Jackson, MS. Surprising because church growth experts like to tell us that in order to grow a church you’ll need to find your niche market and pursue that level of homogeneity or sameness. This raises an obvious question: can a multi-ethnic church even exist let alone thrive? Campbell’s answer was a resounding “Yes!” it can and does.

Pastor Campbell then gave us some glimpses into his background as an African-American growing up in southwestern Virginia and how that brings real experience to bear for him in this matter.

In speaking from 1 Corinthians 9, we saw that Paul, too had a strong ethnic heritage as a Jew, a Hebrew of Hebrews (Philippians 3.3-6). This identity is what distinguishes as well as isolates or is used to isolate. In Acts, after Paul’s conversion, it is this identity and the radically proposed change to that identity, not Christ even, that nearly got Paul killed (Acts 22).

Paul’s world had been turned upside down by Christ. Our world should be turned upside down by Christ, but sadly, it’s not. Paul, once a Hebrew of Hebrews, is now a “free slave”. He is a slave to Christ and to all these Christians, but he is, at the same time free from them: free from their financial control, from the political control, from whatever other bondage they might try to impose upon him. He is free in Christ and now he is free indeed. He is even free of his ethnicity: not to deny it or ignore it or move away from it, but free from the bondage to only be a certain way because of this identity.

I appreciated this message a great deal. I agree with it wholeheartedly. I am greatly convicted that I am, most likely unwittingly, a slave of my cultural/ethnic heritage as a white American. I want to repent of that. And in repenting, seek to have Cornerstone EFC in Rochester embrace others, not because it would be good to have blacks or Hispanics or Asians in our congregation, but because they are lost sinners headed to an eternity under the terrible and fearsome wrath of God. I want to live the gospel for the sake of Christ and His body.

My big problem is this: I simply don’t know how. If there are one or two books that might give me and my congregation some good, solid, biblical practical help in this, please recommend away. I want to look like Christ. I want our congregation to look like Christ to the praise of His glory.

Ajith Fernando: How Must a Pastor Die? Part 2

Later this morning, Ajith Fernando came to the pulpit again to address more teaching from Colossians 1.24-29. This morning we moved on to the phrase “…for the sake of His body…” We saw that we, as pastors must die, so that the church would be blessed.

Suffering. What a foreign concept to most church “stuff” put out today, at least in almost any church growth materials I’ve seen or in the emergent church writings/bloggings/ramblings I’ve read. Ajith continued to give example after example of those who have died and suffered for the glory of God, the cause of Christ and the blessing of His church.

Then, five points were given how suffering spurs on church growth. Here they are without much else included (I fear I’ll never do justice to the full text of his message. The mp3 discs will be made available through the Desiring God web store at some point in the future):

Suffering spurs on true, biblical church growth…
By creating situations for the church to out
• see how this happened throughout the book of Acts: because the church was persecuted, they were scattered and the Gospel spread to the known world
• persecution opened the door for the gospel

by helping to demonstrate the gospel
• John’s gospel uses this word of Christ’s death: glory!
• suffering shows the heart of the gospel; martyrdom does this like nothing else
• in today’s pluralistic culture absent of “absolute truth” people are craving that which is truly real and martyrdom is eminently real!

By helping us to identify with people, thus having a more effective ministry among them
• this is the incarnational aspect to the gospel: we become Christ to them, just as Christ became man to us
• perhaps the greatest need of the church today is found in this 1 Corinthians. 9 passage: to the weak I became weak. When was the last book title on growing a church and doing evangelism with that line in it?
• the key to incarnational ministry is learning to live with frustration, suffering and pain because we’re going to be living & serving people

By helping us through spiritual turmoil in our hearts as we face failure
• Jesus seemed to face failure frequently, as seen most poignantly in the Garden of Gethsemane (Could you not pray for one hour?)
• most important lessons learned from failure
• most of the epistles are written because of failure and problems in the churches and yet these churches grew through these struggles

Finally, by giving us credibility
• Ephesians 4.1 exhorts us to walk in a worthy manner
• this will involve passion: commitment to Christ
• we’ve lost this in today’s churches; instead we give people what they like and then marvel with incredulity that they leave for bigger churches with more programs to offer

Can we avoid suffering? Yes, if we avoid commitment, passionate commitment to the gospel
• Dr. Fernando highlighted the biggest pain in his ministry has not come from Sri Lankan wars or revolutions, nor from tsunamis or political opposition, but from within the church itself!
• why? Because I care and love them and have strong commitments to Christ & his gospel for them
• we live in an aspirin generation—we don’t like pain and discomfort, so we avoid commitments of all kinds when they demand more than we’re willing to give to be comfortable
• so be committed, be prepared to suffer, be expecting to see the church blessed because of this.

John Piper: “Always Singing One Not… a Vernacular Bible – Why William Tyndale Live and Died”

Fortunately, we were given about an hour and a half to feed our physical bodies and rest our minds for just a bit before John Piper spoke to us about the life of William Tyndale. My goodness, I couldn’t write fast enough to take good notes. This being my 15th year at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors I usually wait for the manuscript to be handed out following this Tuesday afternoon session (they haven’t done this for 2-3 years now; sometimes it’s made available online). Since that isn’t happening and since I couldn’t take copious enough notes, let me once again highlight and dwell on one tremendously significant and timely, relevant bit touched on by Dr. Piper.

Piper said there were three things he hoped and expected for us in this time together:
• to see that justification by grace alone through faith alone is at the heart of the Bible
• to see that vague doctrinal minimalizing language is not new; it’s not post-modern, it’s pre-modern because it’s perpetual! (more on this bit in a moment)
• to see that God’s Word is worth suffering and dying for

The key source for Piper’s lecture was from David Daniell’s William Tyndale: A Biography published by Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994 (one of the my first purchases upon arriving Monday afternoon!). So, if you want to know more, you’ll have to wait for the mp3 disc or get the book.

Tyndale, an ordained Catholic priest had some similarities with his contemporary, Erasmus: one must think hard and work hard in order to achieve spiritual growth. This was applied to their desire to translate the Scriptures into the vernacular of the people. Many great examples given here, e.g., one classroom assignment was to give 150 different ways to say, “Your letter has delighted me very much.” Yikes! So much for dull, boring, repetitive offertory prayers!

Where they parted company was that one must die to the notion that our thinking hard and diligent work are the keys to spiritual growth. Tyndale was Catholic, but was a reformer also, for he came to passionately believe that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone. And this, along with his tremendous desire to see the Bible translated into English so all could know this glorious truth, cost him his life.

Powerful, powerful stuff. Dangerous stuff for pastors, if we’ve grown comfortable and complacent and cushy.

In all this, we saw clearly that the Emergent Church and the New Perspective and other slithery talk like them are not new. The concepts that drive them to play their word games, to remain foggy on truth, to have no corners of conviction or commitment, to proudly display their pretentious superiority of ambiguity is not only Erasmus-like; it’s also Arian-like (see last year’s conference bio sketch). McLaren (I name him, not Piper), Wright and others just ape Arius and Erasmus. There really is nothing new under the sun. The problem with this is they are misleading 1,000s of 20-somthings who can’ see past 1975.

Oh that we would die to self and live to Christ. Oh that we would die to our wishy-washy notions with no corners and live to the four-cornered edginess of the gospel of Christ for His glory’s sake.

Thankfully, we’ll have about a 4 hour break before our minds are filled once more from Ajith Fernando this evening.

Highlights from the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors

Highlights from the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors

Here are some of the notes from the portions of the the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors attended so far:

Pre-conference meeting featuring John Piper
This pre-conference session focused on Piper’s book, God Is the Gospel. John Piper spoke for about 30-40 minutes, simply giving some “bullet points” about how this book came to be written. Then the floor was opened up for questions for Pastor John regarding his book.

Our time began with a prayerful reading of 2 Corinthians 4.5-12:
For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.

A couple of the points which Pastor John shared behind the writing of the book:

1. Most recently, his daughter-in-law was returning from Scotland with her 5-year-old daughter (Carsten’s there studying at St. Andrews) to see her mother, who was near death from a stroke. As they were flying through the clouds, the sun shone on the tops and the mother said to her 5-year-old: “That looks like heaven where Grandma will be soon.” And her young daughter replied: “No, Mommy. That can’t be heaven. Jesus isn’t there.”

In, God Is the Gospel, Piper asks the question: If you could have heaven with all the joys & pleasures & delights we usually associate with heaven and not have Jesus there, would you still want it? Sadly, most of us, as evangelical Christians, would be scared to answer for fear that our shallow desires would be found out.

2. 37 years ago, John & Noel got married. The primary text read as a “banner” over their marriage was Habbakuk 3.17-18:

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.

Again, note the clear statement that even if all else is taken from them, they will still exult in the Lord and rejoice in God. During John’s first year at Bethlehem Baptist Church, he would frequently go to Psalm 42 to calm his anxieties. What held him through these times was verse 5:

Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him
For the help of His presence.
Once again, God is clearly central, no matter what is left in this life.

3. Finally, and this comes from the book, “Nobody goes to the Grand Canyon in order to increase his self-esteem. They go to marvel in the sight of the Grand Canyon.” In this analogy, God is the Grand Canyon: we don’t come to God to increase our self-esteem. We come in order to marvel at God and see His glory. In other words, we don’t go to the mirror of the gospel to see how wonderful we are; we go to see how wonderful God is for us in Jesus Christ. Our society/culture loves self-esteem and most evangelical churches have built their version of the Gospel around this love of self: God makes much of us; this, instead of the far more biblical gospel, “God makes much of Himself in Christ Jesus so we’ll long for Him.”

These notes are sparse. We were told this gathering will appear on the Web at some time in the near future. If it comes up as a web-video, I hope you all can get a hold of it. But even more, just get the book!

Then came the opening session of the Pastor’s Conference featuring Ajith Fernando. Seldom do I take notes during these sessions (this is my 15th conference in a row; missing only the first four conferences); I like to soak up the message at the time, receive the CDs later and go over them more slowly to absorb it better. However, now that I’ve taken up blogging, I thought I’d better get my rusty pen out and try to take a few notes, so here are some highlights from Ajith’s message:

Our passage for the evening was Colossians 1.24-27:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.

Ajith focused at the beginning of this passage: “rejoicing in suffering…” He pointed out that in Scripture, it would be difficult find places where suffering and the blessing of suffering aren’t linked together. And one of the chief blessings of suffering is joy. However, it’s ironic in our day that so many have lost the taste for joy; they’d rather have success or pleasure or any number of other things, but not joy. In fact, most Christians would be willing to sacrifice joy for something else – the satisfaction of getting what they want instead of the joy that comes as a gift/blessing from God, especially in times of suffering.

Our joy is often a response to the great truths that undergird our lives, e.g., God is gracious, Christ is the Son of God, etc. This joy opens the way for a love relationship with God through Christ Jesus. It is this joy that comes in the hardest, bluest of times that increases this relationship rather than decreasing it. A friend, quite ill, once was told he must have hit rock bottom. His response? If I’ve hit rock bottom, then I’ve found that the Rock is solid!

The problem is that so many have substituted this joy for a shallow cake of pleasure. But as another acquaintance of Fernando’s once said, “I discovered that without Christ, I was a fish out of water; with Christ, I could swim in an ocean of His love.” Apart from this, apart from this kind of joy in the Lord, any other pleasure simply has a hollow ring to it.

In Scripture, we also see that often, one has to mourn before they can rejoice. In the Psalms, 50-60 of the Psalms that are classified as lament psalms still end with joy… joy in the Lord. Yes, we lament our trials and sufferings, but we lament to God, a God who loves us and gives us Himself. It can then be seen that God loves to give us a comfort greater than the pain He allows (or causes) in our lives. The big challenge for those of us in ministry is to find out how to help people see that God cares in the midst of their pain.

Then Ajith went on to detail this point from Col. 1.24: “…filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…” He gave a brief description of various options offered to explain this. I’ll simply give you his explanation of it: Paul was speaking of filling up what was lacking in his own experience of Christ’s suffering so that the gospel might be all the more powerfully delivered. In order to become like Jesus, we must know suffering. We must suffer with Him if we hope to be glorified with Him. If we desire to be close to Christ, to have Christ near, then suffering will be part of this fellowship, this nearness. And while it seems odd to say, this fellowship of suffering will make us happy – filled with joy. Scripture affirms this elsewhere (suffering brings joy, cf. James 1.2). This suffering & testing purifies us and proves the genuineness of our faith in Christ. So, to be identifies with Christ is to know the truth of Hebrews 13.13, bearing His reproach and suffering outside the camp.

The conclusion of the matter is this: this solidarity with Christ in His sufferings brings us strength and this strength prepares us for suffering. it’s a symbiotic relationship building upon itself. As we suffer, we’re united more closely to Christ and as we’re united more closely with Christ, we will suffer.

The evening ended and I found myself thinking hard on these things. The theme is, once again, How Must a Pastor Die? The Price of Caring Like Christ. And now I’m left asking myself, “Am I willing to die for Christ’s sake? Am I willing to suffer? Can I know what it means to be truly sorrowful, yet rejoicing?” Big questions. Hard questions. God will provide His answers by His grace.

On the Road Again!

I’m basically a home-body; I don’t mind traveling a bit, but for the most part, I could just stay home and be content.

Last week, at this time, I had just come off three days at the EFCA Mid-Winter Ministerial (Wed – Fri.). Then on Monday, I turned around and headed back to the Twin Cities for our district’s Council on Ministerial Standing meeting. This coming Monday, I leave again for three days.

I’ll be attending (for the 14th years in a row) the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. This year’s theme is: How Must a Pastor Die? The Price of Caring Like Jesus. Looking forward to it would be a bit of an understatement; having gone so many years in a row, this is obviously an important gathering for me personally. It’s the one conference I’ll do just about anything short of selling my kids to get there (although there have been days… just kidding, Jonathan!). And it’s the one conference I attend each year where if I were unable to attend any others, I know I would be ministered to and fed spiritually enough to sustain me for the year.

However, this theme “frightens” me just a bit. I have convinced myself that I seek to care like Jesus. Yet asking if I would be willing to die, to lay my life on the line for what and for whom I believe pushes that envelope further… a lot further. So, I’m going, and I’m going with the prayer that God would do a work in my life to bring me to that point. Whether He ever asks me to give my life for His sake, I don’t know. But my willingness to follow Christ, taking up His cross (the truest sign of death there is for a Christian) and serving Him for the rest of the days He allots me is my heart’s desire and my heart’s prayer. I’ll try doing some blog updates from there, if there’s wireless access close enough and I’m not spending the in-between times visiting with other pastors I only see at this conference.

May God be glorified in all we do for Him.