A Lesson for the Teacher

Liwonde, Malawi Baptist College Class with teacher James Statham
Liwonde, Malawi Baptist College Class with teacher James Statham

Sweating profusely after the hot midday hike along a winding road, I carefully eased myself into the crowded and dilapidated Toyota minivan. The minibus was made for eight and had seen its better years in Southeast Asia as a taxi, but, like Abraham and Sarah, new life was being wrung out of it. Two nursing mothers and several preoccupied Muslims were my nearby companions. For the next hour, 18-20 of us lurched along the potholed highway, occasionally stopping at tattered villages to disgorge and then to swallow up eager new riders and often huge bags of maize.

It wasn't Canada. It was Africa, and I was way out of my comfort zone. It was Malawi, September 2014. I was neither safe nor comfortable, even though we passed nonchalantly through several police checks. Everybody knows that minibus capacity is "just one more". But I felt secure, for I knew Who had put me there.

Why was I in that land called "the warm heart of Africa" nestled next to Mozambique and Zambia where we Presbyterians have a lengthy history going back to David Livingstone? Presbyterians Sharing, for the last four years has been supporting my son, Todd, and his family, to teach Systematic Theology and Church History at the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Seminary in Zomba. An hour's drive away in Liwonde is a Baptist College that also trains men for the ministry. "Would you be able to come and teach New Testament?" Todd was asked. His answer? "No, I can't, but I'll ask my Dad."

I retired from congregational leadership two years ago into a time of significant and unexpected spiritual renewal. I considered this request as a call from the Lord to step into the unknown. We had been to Malawi two years previously to visit family, but God had more for me to learn than what I was going to teach.

After the Baptist bishop (!) approved my coming, I was asked if I would also teach Homiletics. This College operates on ten-week semesters twice a year for two years and had been functioning for eight years. Out of deference to my being away from home too long, the Academic Dean compressed 36 hours of teaching Matthew to Acts into four weeks, necessitating three-and-a-half-hour seminars, less a fifteen-minute break. In addition, there were four seminars of preaching instruction. The twelve men in the class were mostly in their forties and fifties, and, as Malawi has a subsistence economy, being one of the poorest countries in the world, they were of necessity farmers as well. (Everyone grows their staple food, maize, and everyone knows what hunger feels like. Fifty percent of the population is under fifteen years of age. The national HIV rate is 18%.) What I discovered was that the students had been preaching, pastoring, and evangelizing for many years, but with little formal training. One man had been preaching and pastoring among several village churches for 17 years. To my surprise, only two men spoke sufficient English, so I made good use of an interpreter and a blackboard. I lived nearby in a typical African village with a most gracious family of seven.

Church women meeting on mats in the yard of my host family
Church women meeting on mats in the yard of my host family

Little in Liwonde was familiar to me except the passion that these men had for Jesus. The church in Africa is growing exponentially. I had been told that the church in Africa is "a mile wide and an inch deep". It's true. They are not a book culture and few Bibles abound. John 3:16 is the constant core of preaching. The African church is close to being a New Testament church. Should I be teaching homiletics to men who are doing a better job than me at bringing people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? My goal was to get them into the wonders of God's grace and love in Scripture, but not away from John 3:16. If we have grasped the gospel at all, the essential question will always be, "was Jesus necessary?" So when the goal of our preaching is no longer lives changed for Christ, we have stopped preaching. Jesus' message to Nicodemus was simple and unequivocal. Michael Horton, in his new book, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, writes, "The high minded of our age are offended by the simplicity of God's speech to us, which addresses the learned and the unlearned alike." Nicodemus was a changed man because "It's not the church that creates the Word, but the Word that creates the church" (p.59).

The church that I saw in Africa is rich with a passion for Christ, but lacks education. The church in Canada is rich in educational opportunities, but lacks passion. These twelve meagrely-educated men are passionate about the necessity of being born again/from above for themselves and for others. And they are now concerned about, as one said, "the looming Goliath of Islam in the villages". Thirty percent of Malawi's 14 million population is Muslim. Churches near Liwonde were torched last year. These men are front-line troops.

Spiritual battle is not comfortable, but if we seek only the comfortable, we will never find the Lord who meets us where He is – in strange places – often well out of our comfort zone. I had the privilege recently of listening to Bob Kuhn, the President of Trinity Western University, a college often found fighting for us on our front lines. We are not impacted by militant Islam here in Canada. Our "Goliath" is militant secularism and the narcissism born of excessive affluence. He said, "Christians in Canada fear standing up and standing out. We would rather head for the closets recently vacated by others."

I was ashamed of myself in Malawi. I met again a part of myself that I do not like. Too often, I counted the days until leaving. Too often, I summoned dogged perseverance. The long flights, the intense heat, the squalor, and the boredom stretched me emotionally and physically. I lost ten pounds. I suppose I'll get that back, but I don't want to lose what my students taught me.

James Statham <jhwstatham@shaw.ca>, Peachland BC

Adult Discipleship Studies

St. Andrew's, Scarborough, Ontario, in 2014

We have been blessed in so many ways this year and want to share our recent experiences and thoughts with you. First, we are grateful for the thanks, queries, and comments regarding the studies we wrote about in a 2013 Renewal News article. We only recently learned that while most churches do Bible studies, these "theme" studies are still very much in the minority. This is partly because the concept is fairly new and the books and DVDs are not readily available in local stores. But we go online to see what new studies are available and which themes would be of help to our church.

Our studies are held in our church, and we start off with a social time. This relaxes the group and they are then more likely to participate in the discussion time. In addition, some of the group are friends of our members, and so it is important to strive to help them to feel comfortable. We play the DVD section prior to the discussion time. (If it is not convenient or possible to play the DVD, you can still gain much from the study because the spoken content is usually part of the book.)

When our Pastor Duncan Cameron quotes in a sermon from one of these books, we make note of the author and explore the book to see if it would be a study of interest for our congregation.

So why are we doing these discipleship groups when we have regular Bible studies? It is because we find that they help us to understand our Scripture readings and our theme studies. In turn, they guide us as we deal with our everyday lives and the challenges we face in our modern world. Since we all have people in our lives who are not believers, these studies also help us to find opportunities to open their hearts and minds to the joys of being a Christian. Do we always succeed? Of course not –- but we keep on trying and praying that some day, they will realize how blessed we are in how we handle difficult times in our lives and that our Lord will guide us if we give Him the opportunity.

In our discussion times, we frequently hear about a painful situation that one of our group is experiencing, and amazingly, often someone else in that same group has been through a similar time and can be of help and comfort to that person. This is an incredible affirmation of how our Lord guides us in setting up the groups and reminds us anew that He is always there for us. And it comforts others as they realize that when they need our Lord to help them, He will find the right person to be there for them.

The last study we did was Grace by Max Lucado. So often, we take the word "grace" for granted and use it in so many ways, i.e. grace period, grace note, graceful dancer, pre-meal grace, etc. We all learned that we had much to learn about grace, and we hope we will never take that word for granted again.

The decision in selecting our next study to start in September is a wonderful lesson in itself. I had been researching what book and author to do next. Pastor Duncan had quoted from John Ortberg on occasion, so I decided to check out his books. Six were of definite interest, but one title just would not leave my mind: "If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of The Boat". So early in January, I met with Duncan about the next study and said that this title really appealed to me. Duncan gave me a big smile and said, "I'm starting a new series this Sunday on l Peter". It was a wonderful example of how our Lord guides and leads us. Have no doubt that something special will come from this study. How could it be otherwise?

– Margaret Maciver, Elder <margaret.m@bell.net>

As Iron Sharpens Iron

Dr. Jeff Loach is Pastor of St. Paul's Church, Nobleton, Ontario; Clerk of the Presbytery of Oak Ridges; and a sessional lecturer in spiritual formation at Tyndale Seminary. This article was adapted from his blog post at www.passionatelyhis.com.

Recently, I had a three-hour conversation with a colleague whom I deeply respect and genuinely like. Our conversation went "around the world" in one sense, but found its focus on God, the things of God, and being leaders of God's people. It was the kind of conversation that leaves one energized and encouraged about the task of serving God's kingdom.

It doesn't matter whether you're in church leadership or not — you need a friend with whom you can have those comfortable conversations. Ideally, you need a friend with whom you can talk about your work and your faith; for my colleague and I, of course, those two things are intricately interwoven. But to be able to chat freely, openly, and vulnerably with someone about life and faith is a real gift. You can do this with your spouse, if you have one, and that's an important part of any marriage. But it's also good to have friends, particularly those who share similar vocational or avocational interests, with whom to exchange ideas and just generally commiserate.

John Calvin certainly had this in mind when he created his Company of Pastors, a weekly gathering of clergy from all around Geneva and environs, in the 1530s. Not all jobs have any sort of built-in method for fellowship, but that doesn't stop us from creating them. Even if we are not working outside the home every day, as is the case with retirees and stay-at-home parents, there can still be room for connecting with friends in a similar place in life. (If you're not sure of the value of this, check out any moms-and-tots group, or the coffee klatch at the nearby doughnut shop most weekday mornings!)

These examples allude to another form of Christian fellowship from which we all can benefit: the small group. Congregations have different names for their small groups; at St. Paul's Church, Nobleton, Ontario, we call them LifeConnect Groups. They are avenues for study, fellowship, mutual support, and service, and are key means of helping the congregation fulfil its mission to connect with God, grow in Christ, and serve in community. Being part of a small group is a great way to remember that our faith is not just a Sunday thing –- God calls us to integrate our faith into every aspect of our living. That's just basic discipleship. Following Jesus is the vocation from which every other part of life flows. Having a church family, a small group, and faithful friends makes a difference in our walk with God.

We all need people in our lives to keep us sharp, in the best way –- they are gifts from God. Sometimes, though, we need to seek out those gifts! Have you?

"As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend" (Proverbs 27:17 NLT).

Last Chance For New Courage?

Editor's Note: This article was received at the Renewal Fellowship early in 2012. With the upcoming General Assembly likely to spend considerable time invested in considering the many facets of renewal, it is felt appropriate to share this with our readers at this time.

Gordon Haynes, who was retiring as Associate Secretary in June 2012, sent the following invitation to the Presbytery of Kamloops:

    I want to invite members of your presbytery to a roundtable discussion we will be holding at Gordon Presbyterian Church, Presbytery of Westminster, on Wednesday, January 11th. I will be present to be part of the discussions so that the issues facing the church in 10 years – and facing each presbytery – might be openly shared.

This event was one of a number held across the country in preparation for his final report before retiring. Approximately 25 people attended, including three who braved the snowy roads through the mountain passes from Kamloops Presbytery.

What impacted me the most was the introductory comment by Gordon indicating that there are already on file precisely 16 similar reports to the national church dating from 1964 on, indicating that change needs to happen in the Presbyterian Church in Canada to reverse our declining membership!

The participants rotated through five tables, each one having a question to be answered. Our comments were written on the newsprint that covered each table. The five questions focussed us in the area of where God might be calling the Presbyterian Church In Canada today and what our barriers are to following Jesus Christ and to growth.

The event was personally significant for me as it was at Gordon Church, my home church, where it all started for me. It was there that I felt and initially resisted God's call to the ministry. In the fall of 1958, our family left Kelowna, where I was attending grade six, to move to Burnaby. Then as a married student, we left Gordon Church in 1970 to attend Knox College in Toronto, Ontario. Now I was living in the Okanagan again and went as a newly-retired minister to speak on what I had learned and observed about my Lord and my church over almost 39 years of pastoral ministry. The recently-heard words of Tony Campolo resonated with me deeply. Speaking of the church in general, Tony said, "My mother is a whore, and I love her very much." Yes, and so I write these words with a prayer for the Presbyterian Church In Canada to find faithfulness.

At the end of the event, I spoke of how impressed I was with the passion of the attendees to seek ways to bring our beloved church to faithfulness. But with 16 reports already on file, what was the point of adding another? Ought we not to be arranging hospice care? Our problem is not with analysis but with a lack of courage to pay the cost of change, I commented.

Gordon Haynes will have collected hundreds of comments from the various Presbyteries. But to demonstrate accountability and for the information of Kamloops Presbytery, I raised the following needs apparent to me:

1. More significant roles for the laity in ministry through less emphasis on the narrow stream of "Ministry of Word and Sacrament".

2. The need for more practical training at the seminary level for our clergy and laity, particularly in the areas of evangelism (and I don't mean pancake breakfasts but rather how to effectively talk with people about coming to faith in Jesus Christ); and as well, we need training in how to lead effectively in a culture that is suspicious of authority and where everybody is an "expert".

If we are willing to pay the cost of significant spiritual revitalization, we will not need renewal (sewing a new patch on an old garment) but instead experience "renaissance". We will need to be willing to think of, and do, ministry in altogether new ways. For that to happen, I must be certain that I am first personally committed to Christ and only then to the church. The church is no substitute for Christ. In baseball terms, the church may be first base, but it's not home plate.

The reason I resisted God's call to ministry in the Presbyterian Church In Canada in my early years at Gordon Church was that to me, church was about church, and I wanted no part of it. It wasn't until I was converted during my Simon Fraser University years that I came to discover that which has been reinforced to me many times over in pastoral ministry: church has never been about church. It's about Jesus, and it's about whether or not I will seek to know Him and love Him.

Will The Presbyterian Church In Canada pay the cost of renaissance? We are all familiar with the seven last words of the church, "We've never done it that way before." I would like to propose the six first words of a new church. They will also be familiar to you: "Untie him and let him go." (John 11:44)

By Rev. James H.W. Statham <jhwstatham@shaw.ca>
(Jim has recently retired from service at Lakeside Presbyterian Church, Summerland, British Columbia)

A Word of Challenge and Encouragement

Church of the Global North, be encouraged! The Spirit of God, of Jesus Christ, is present and willing to outfit us for life and ministry.

"It is finished!" Jesus, Son of God, Messiah, shouted from the cross. What's "finished"?

Wholeness is ours as we believe; salvation is ours in Christ; healing is His plan for believers (Isaiah 53, following). "By His stripes we are made whole."

    Too long we have followed a "Yeah, but" Bible. God makes rich and many promises and instead of saying "Yes Lord" we respond with "Well, yeah, but". So we don't really believe, or give, or move forward and into "all the fullness of God". We shortchange ourselves, the church of Canada, by unbelief. Try the way of believing instead of the way of unbelief.

Whoever said that was "right on".

I think of Jesus' words in the summit of the New Testament, John 14: "the things I do you will do and greater than these will you do when I go to the Father". We, who are called "more than conquerors", are short-changing ourselves and renewal or revival escapes our experience.

You know God, in Jesus Christ, wants to be experienced. He longs for an intimate closeness with each of us who are called "living stones … precious living stones" … the church. We are the people of God called the church … not a social club or even a place to gather. We who believe in Jesus are the Bride of Christ. We are the Church! And our renewal will be found in believing the Word of God, through being in dance with His Holy Spirit, and acting on what we hear.

Through the Gateway studies of Dunamis we discover that the Holy Spirit is ready and excited to come into us the moment we trust Christ, and willing to come upon us with power for ministry for each episode of serving. As we study the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we all get seriously excited to press forward with Him. He has a plan unfolding even in the Global North church. "I will build my church and even the gates of hell will not be able to stand up against us." So, with us or without us, Jesus will build His Church.

How serious is this plan? I love Spurgeon's picture of the church being built, living stone upon precious living stone … with the history of the world as the scaffold which He uses to build His people. At the end of time, the scaffold will collapse, and all that will remain for all eternity is the Church of Jesus Christ, precious living stone upon precious living stone.

Renewal is getting on board with His plan, listening for His voice and direction. Then worship will be vivacious, the Word of God will be front and centre, and abundant life will result.

I loved the days of March For Jesus. I loved the life, the songs, the colour, and the taking to the streets to announce the church on the move. Sitting on a pew once a week in some building is not the picture of an alive church, not to me.

Studying the person and work of the Holy Spirit, implementing the gifts or tools of the Spirit, and learning to dynamically pray like Jesus … great studies and greater life to experience!

By Patricia Allison <jandpallison@bell.net>

(Pat and her husband, the Rev. Dr. John Allison, are retired after 50 years of ministry in The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Pat's present ministry is to support John who is in a wheelchair as a result of multiple sclerosis, and to serve as a Dunamis facilitator. They are founding members of The Renewal Fellowship and presently live in Smithville, ON.)

For more information about Dunamis please go to dunamisfellowshipcanada.org

General Assembly Additional Motion

The following is an extract from the minutes of the 138th General Assembly.

Rev. Dr. Clyde ErvinePreamble

Over the years, I have attended a number of General Assemblies and been repeatedly impressed and moved by the breadth and depth of the ways we are missionally engaged as a national church. It is a privilege to be a minister in this denomination. I am proud of its people and I'm a passionate promoter of Presbyterians Sharing — the budget that supports such a wide range of ministries and mission.

That said, I want right now, in the context of the Life and Mission Agency Report, to propose a radical reorientation of focus for our denomination. I'm here to plead that our central focus as a denomination be placed on congregations. For a very long time, within a Christendom paradigm, the presence of congregations has been assumed as a given, perhaps even taken for granted. As I read through the General Assembly reports prior to coming to this General Assembly, I found much of interest, yet I confess that I didn't find a sustained focus on congregations as congregations. They are assumed.

Congregations

  1. In the New Testament, and in light of Jesus' ministry, the earliest disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, began their mission. In Jerusalem and going out from there, they go out preaching Jesus. But to what end? The forming of local congregations.-
  2. Further, the documents we know as the New Testament were written largely to help those early congregations. Congregational formation, congregational edification, congregational health, and congregational mission are the reasons why the New Testament was written.
  3. Within our own Reformed Tradition, the burning question among the early Reformers was this: Where is the church to be found? The classic answer given was that the church is present wherever the gospel is preached and the gospel sacraments are rightly celebrated. In other words the church is found in local, concrete, embodied communities called congregations.
  4. I also suggest that as a matter of history, it has been congregations for the last 2000 years that have been the primary bearers of the gospel from one generation to another.

My conclusion: congregations constitute the basic, fundamental fabric of our denomination. But we too often assume that they will always be there.

We know, or perhaps need to be reminded, that fifty years ago The Presbyterian Church in Canada had 200,000 members in its congregations; today the number is 100,000. Fifty years ago, The Presbyterian Church in Canada had 100,000 in its congregations' Sunday schools; today it is 17,000. This reality casts a shadow over the work of the denomination and of this Assembly. But it seems to me this has not yet moved us seriously to give a nationally sustained focus to congregations as congregations. Congregations themselves and presbyteries, and to some extent synods, pay attention to congregations. But it is at the national, General Assembly level that I plead for a radical reorientation of our priorities.

What might a primary focus on congregational vitality look like? I suggest that it means a vast emphasis on making disciples. The formation of congregations in New Testament times arose out of the fact of Jesus, crucified and risen. Claiming all authority in heaven and earth, Jesus told his earliest disciples, "Go make disciples". Those well known words of commission need to be burnt into the national consciousness and practice of our denomination.

"Go make disciples". The commission is based christologically on the crucified and risen Jesus. But the commission needs to be expressed ecclesiologically, as it is in the New Testament, in the creation of congregations, which in turn, according to the New Testament, are meant to embody and express the values of the kingdom of God.

To make disciples begins with evangelism, an evangelism that challenges post-Christian, secular Canada with the claims of Christ. It's going to be hard; congregations feel intimidated by this challenge. Congregations need help in doing this from a national church that has decided, and that has it in its DNA, that congregations are primary. Congregations need help to exegete an unfriendly, even hostile context. Congregations need help to face the social and intellectual barriers in our society that challenge the gospel. Congregations need help through theological and practical resources that will enable them to understand, celebrate and share the gospel.

But if evangelism is an invitation to discipleship, discipleship does not end there. To make disciples is to create and sustain congregations as counter-cultural communities that in concrete, local settings, follow a distinctive Lord, think in distinctive Christian ways, and live out distinctive kingdoms values. It's going to be hard.

For the greater part of our history as a denomination in Canada we have been part and parcel of the fabric of a Christian Canada. But our place in the nation has changed. We are no longer as welcome within the reigning cultural assumptions of our society — which is why congregational life and growth are so difficult, and why so many clergy and congregations are so discouraged.

As I look at the reports in front of us, and as I look at the Life and Mission Agency Report, I wish that there was a greater focus on congregations as congregations. The particular section of the Life and Mission Agency Report that might be expected to focus on the congregation as congregation would be Canadian Ministries. But on reading that report I note that under the one umbrella of Canadian Ministries we have, as a denomination, placed our commitment to congregational worship, congregational evangelism, congregational Christian Education, congregational Youth Ministry, and congregational development and leadership, all under the mandate of one associate secretary. I have to conclude from this, that at a national level, sadly, we are not at this time serious about the fundamental fabric of the denomination, congregations, and about the fundamental calling of the church — to make disciples.

We need a radical reorientation of our priorities. It's going to be hard. If we were as a General Assembly to commit ourselves nationally to placing a primary and central focus on congregational vitality, it will involve tough, courageous choices in the use of limited resources.

Yet not just because I want The Presbyterian Church in Canada to survive (and I do) but because of a desire to be faithful to biblical patterns and principles, I move that the 138th General Assembly go on record as giving priority to the reimagining and renewal of our congregations and ask the Life and Mission Agency to consider how new energy and resources may be focused on congregational vitality, and that the Life and Mission Agency share the mind of this Assembly with the Assembly Council as the latter develops a new national mission and vision statement.

Clyde Ervine, Presbytery of Hamilton

Additional Motion

W.J.C. Ervine moved, duly seconded, that the 138th General Assembly go on record as giving priority to the reimagining and renewal of congregations and that it ask the Life and Mission Agency to consider how new energy and resources may be focussed on congregational vitality, and that the Life and Mission Agency share the mind of this Assembly on this matter with the Assembly Council as it further develops a national mission and vision statement. Adopted.

Leaders

It seems to me that it is always fruitful to discuss Christian leadership. I hope many of the readers of this brief article will respond as they agree or disagree with these thoughts and hopefully add insights gained from their personal experience, study, and reflection. Rather than using a bunch of words that start with the same letter, I have chosen to use ten words that rhyme with "lead" as a device to tie this discussion together and to show a limited amount of cleverness.

I am indebted to many for any valuable insights you might gain and I am fully responsible for any errors. I admit to no originality but steal from so many it is hard to remember who to give the credit. I do remember however where this thought process began. It was through the leadership of Chuck Congram and his Difference Makers conferences a decade ago. Thank you, Chuck.

Christian leaders should FEED. The sheep need feeding. Those called to lead them are called to feed them. The problem is only babies and the infirmed should be spoon-fed. The maturing and mature should learn to feed themselves. That frees the shepherds to search for lost sheep and for disciple-making. Showing the sheep where the good pastures can be found is a role of leadership.

Christian leaders should HEED. Before they set a direction to lead and before they set an agenda for the sheep, they should be deep into God's Word and listening to the Spirit's direction. For those who preach, they should be willing to respond to the call of the text before they pass the call along in a message.

Christian leaders should PLEAD. Communications on every level should be calling the faithful to greater commitment, greater response, greater holiness, greater surrender, greater obedience, greater mission. The list of areas where our people need to grow and mature is virtually endless. The status quo is not the end of the race. We all need to be exhorted to greater faithfulness.

Christian leaders should BLEED. It's a matter of relationship and really connecting to the pain and suffering of our people. We should be fully sharing both the joys and the sorrows while always taking time to explore where God is in both.

Christian leaders also NEED. They need encouragement. They need prayer. They need Sabbath. They need affirmation of their gifts and support in the areas they are not gifted.

Christian leaders should READ. The thirst for wisdom from their Bibles and from other leaders should be a mark of all leaders. There is a power to a team or group working through a great book together. Processing great ideas leads to great leadership.

Christian leaders should SPEED. Okay, this might be a bit of a stretch. I don't mean reckless or careless speeding. I mean moving with urgency. Leaders can't be stopped with fear. They need to act in faith. No matter how tempting doing nothing sometimes can be, leaders are called to action.

Christian leaders should SEED. Planting seeds that others may harvest is one of the Kingdom's principles. Investing in future leaders is one of the most important responsibilities of any leader. Making disciples requires great sacrifice and patience. It also is a source of wonderful joy.

Christian leaders should BREED. While somewhat similar to seeding, breeding is the intentional actions required to activate organic growth – passing along leadership DNA to leaders-on-the-way, granting authority equal to the responsibility we want others to take on. Risking that potential leaders might do it a different way or even may fail a few times is a necessary part of bringing new leaders to maturity.

Christian leaders should WEED. It is true that good leaders should insure that only good projects and ministries are receiving investments of time, energy and resources. That is a huge challenge in many churches as "the way we have always done it" receives way too much support as opposed to "the way we are called to move forward". But an even tougher and more important idea is weeding out "good" things to make space for "great" ones. It is an attribute of the most effective leaders that they can "see" a preferred future and focus on the key steps to make it become a reality.

And so, Christian leaders should LEAD. Romans 12:8 is a call to those who are gifted as leaders to exercise the gift. We don't do it because it is easy or because it gains us power or popularity. We do it because it is the call placed on us with the gift provided. The Kingdom is too important to not give it our best.

Fred Stewart
Executive Director of the Renewal Fellowship

Stuff Happens

Recently I wrote a light poem for a contest entitled. I titled it, "I Blame Ketchup".

Ketchup on fries,
on chilli, on rice,
on Jello, on meat pies,
on pizza by slice.

Ketchup on eggs,
poached or fried,
soft boiled or hard,
deviled or dyed.

Ketchup they boast,
on steak is the most,
on hot dog, or bun,
foot long's more fun.

Ketchup on jerky,
chicken, or turkey,
dark meat or light,
'til belt is too tight.

Ketchup on chives
may give you hives
sniffling, or sneezing,
and horrible lives.

Yes, I maintain,
ketchup's to blame.
Ketchup by name,
is to blame.

I blame ketchup,
not God.

Cassandra WesselOf course, blaming ketchup for what goes wrong is laughable. Stuff does happen. Natural disasters plague our planet. Stress zones in the earth's crust snap. Earthquakes and tsunamis devastate. Fiery volcanos erupt. Hurricanes and tornados roar, rend and ruin. Low pressure systems collide with high, causing massive storms. Jet streams propel them like missiles across oceans and continents. Natural disasters fiercely tear through human attempts at civilization.

Stuff happens. It happens because this earth is a living thing. It struggles as with the pain of childbirth. St. Paul, wrote. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." Romans 8:22 (NIV) The earth has done this because pride laden evil entered in the form of a serpent at the beginning of human history. When Adam and Eve reached proudly for God-forbidden fruit and consumed it, they soon found themselves consumed. This action propelled them from God's presence. It became the spiritual barrier between themselves and God, but it also tore the physical realm, making ongoing tragedy certain.

Nevertheless, people never seem to expect tragedy. Often they never even think about 'stuff happening'. They shove death and disaster far from their minds. When it happens, they find themselves unprepared. Then, face to face with tough questions, they ask "Why? Why me? Why my family?" Their questions compel them to search for answers, usually in all the wrong places, like alcohol or drugs. Instead, their questions lead to even more fearful questions, which remain, unanswered.

Similarly, some believers fail to think about "stuff happening". They simply assume nothing will happen to them because they are Christians. They believe God protects them. They are right that God protects His people. The book of Job bears testimony to it. Nevertheless, godly Job suffered terribly. Satan battled for his soul causing all sorts of disasters to happen to him. The Accuser is the spiritual cause behind physical troubles.

To think that God will protect believers simply because they are believers, forgets the lesson of Job. To believe that God will always elevate His own people above the rest of the human race, reeks of sinful pride. People who ascribe to this view soon find their cocksure belief system crumbling because those beliefs are wrongly grounded in their own self esteem, rather than God's grace. Thus when "stuff happens", the people who wrongly placed their faith in pride of position, find their lives shaken as with a 9.0 earthquake. 'Stuff happening' dismays them.

Dismay can be found everywhere people hug a sense of deserved destiny to heart. There's a phrase in an old song that goes,"life is just a bowl of cherries". It reflects the idea that life only brings good things. It affirms what some believe – that no plague, or disaster ought to come near them. They believe they deserve luxury and happiness wherever they find it – simply because they are human. They feel entitled to good things. Deep down, they have a sense of deserved destiny buried in their bones.

Scripture begs to differ with this expectation. The witness of the Old Testament refutes the sense of self-centered destiny. Thousands of years ago, when God's chosen people engaged in all sorts of forbidden activities, God expelled them from their homeland for pridefully breaking their agreement with God to live by God's laws. Both law abiding and law breaker lost their homeland. This event counters the idea that deserving people will always receive good things.

Having said as much, good things do come to people, but not because of any human right to have them. Good things happen by God's grace. Because God rules over everything, He grants good things when He chooses.

In democracies, people find this idea troublesome. They can more readily accept "mother nature's" fickleness, than God's rule. In an attempt to ensure the validity of their position, they try to remove God from public places and minds. However, this effort does not erase God. It merely highlights human pride.

There is a saying traveling through Christian circles."You may not believe in God, but God believes in you." That saying shouts that God exists, but even more, in spite of human rebellion, it proclaims His love for people. St. Paul wrote in Romans 5:8 (NIV). "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Absolutely no one deserved good things more than God's perfect Son. Nevertheless, our Lord Jesus, when faced with the cross said, "Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine, be done." God's own Son cancelled human pride and cheekiness by going to the cross. God's answer to 'stuff happening' is the cross of Christ. God in Christ Jesus went to the cross to counter for all eternity the horrible effects of sin. While this earth may still reel beneath them, eternity does not. Through Christ Jesus, God sovereignly opened the way into eternity for those who accept His offer. When they do, death becomes the open door to life, eternal. This is why, when 'stuff happens', I no longer blame God, or even ketchup. I pray that I will praise Him in all things, instead.

The Spirit Unites Us To Christ: The Christian Life

Rev. Dr. Richard ToppingIn order to become a person who can be taught by others, nothing less than conversion is required; and that is a work of the Spirit who tames our egocentricity so that we can learn as pupils, together with other pupils, in the school of Christ.

In the last issue, we closed Part Two of Rev. Dr. Richard Topping's article with this first sentence. Now we move into the third and final instalment of this wonderful reflection, which was originally presented at the Renewal Day in November 2009 at St. Andrew's Newton Presbyterian Church in Surrey BC. Dr. Topping is St. Andrew's Hall Professor of Reformed Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver BC. — Kit Schindell

Read Part 1 and Part 2

What would this mean for sermon preparation and/or personal Bible study? Do we get our ideas of Christian scholarship more from the academy than from the Gospel and our Reformed tradition?

Jesus Christ by his death and new life has won the benefits that God intended for us. Salvation is won through Christ. God redeems what is broken in the world that He has made. However, these benefits lost in the fall and won back by the Son of God remain external to us. There is potential grace afoot in the universe through Christ. This grace is apart from us, external to us, because we are sinners; we don't receive grace automatically. Book Three of the Institutes of the Christian Religion is called, "The Way in Which We receive the Grace of Christ . . ." and the whole of this section is about how the benefits of salvation won in Christ come to us through our contact with God.

Christ is the mediator of grace and so to receive the benefits of his life into our lives we need personal contact with Christ. "He must become ours and dwell in us." Calvin loves to speak of our union with Christ, our engrafting into Christ, our being made one with him: "We are apparelled with him." So close is our fellowship, our personal contact with Christ that we are united with him more closely "than are the limbs with the body." Calvin says that our hope for resurrection and eternal life would be faint were it not for our "complete and entire" union with Christ. Fellowship with Christ is close, personal, intimate — he lives in us and we in him. What happens to Christ, death and resurrection, happens to us, because we are in him. Our union with Christ is the condition for our access to a spiritual life.

But Christ remains outside of us, apart from us, until by faith we are joined to him. And for Calvin, faith is always and everywhere the work of the Holy Spirit. Faith is confidence and trust that the benefits of Christ are mine. That what happened back there and then on the cross and at the empty tomb applies to me here and now. Jesus Christ by his death and new life achieves salvation and the Holy Spirit is the means by which this salvation reaches even us. It is the work of the Spirit to create faith, not just that God and Christ exist but faith in God come among us in Christ for us and our salvation. Faith is the channel opened by the Spirit, at the hearing of the Gospel Word and at the sharing in the sacraments, through which the blessings of salvation achieved in Christ flow to us. Faith is what is generated in us by the Spirit's work of breaking down our sinful resistance to God so that we can behold the love and grace of God come in Jesus Christ. By faith, which is the work of the Spirit, we are bound to Christ and his benefits. "Perfect salvation is found in the person of Christ . . . that we may become partakers of it, he baptizes us in the Holy Spirit and fire . . . bringing us into the light of faith in his gospel and so regenerating us that we become new creatures." And again, "The Holy Spirit is the cause of our enjoyment of Christ and of all his benefits."

The Spirit works (ordinarily) by means of the Word and Sacraments. In Calvin's thought, while it is certainly true that the Word read and proclaimed is never effective without the agency of the Spirit, it is also certainly true that Calvin is not an "enthusiast" or a spiritualist, and his thought could never give rise to a generic understanding of spirituality. While Calvin always respects the freedom of Almighty God to work as God chooses, he does note again and again that the Spirit works by certain regular means in the life of the people of God. These are scripture and the sacraments.

Scripture is a clear and sufficient witness to the Gospel in its own right. However, we misconstrue and misunderstand it because of sin. And so the Spirit illumines the Scriptures so that we see what we ought to see and know by means of it. Nothing is wrong with the Bible, for Calvin. It speaks clearly and plainly and sufficiently of God and the Gospel and of the benefits of Christ. However, something is wrong with us. God is broadcasting, but our reception is faulty. And so the Spirit, as we have noted, repairs what is broken in us so that we can know God and share in the benefits of Christ. The Spirit adds amplitude so that we get God and the Gospel and our need for them. The Spirit creates faith by means of the witness of the Word and we are united with Christ.

The Spirit also works in the sacraments. We are weak. Our imaginations, as we noted, lead us astray. We like tangible and visible things and so we fall into idolatry. Ah, but God, gracious and accommodating as God is, comes to us not just in a verbal witness (scripture), God presents Christ and his benefits to us in visible items/actions (the sacraments). We hear God's word in Scripture by the grace of the Spirit, and we see God's Word in the bread and the wine. Indeed, for Calvin and Calvinists, one of the reasons we break the bread — 'fraction it' — at Holy Communion is as a symbol of Christ's body broken for our benefit. And when we share together at our Lord's Table, praying, "Lift up your hearts," the Spirit actually and truly answers our prayers and we are raised up to commune with Christ at the right hand of the Father. We share spiritually in the life of Christ by the work of God's Holy Spirit — and faith is created and helped by this intimate communing, this fellowship with our Saviour.

What then are the benefits of Christ communicated to those who have faith by the Spirit? It is a double grace: justification — that is the imputation of Christ's good standing with God to us so that our sins are forgiven. Engrafted into Christ a blessed exchange takes place, our sins are laid on him and his new life is infused into us. We are in Christ, clothed in his righteousness. He is in us, and we are in him.

The benefits of Christ come to us from the Spirit and we make progress in holiness. If in the fall of human beings the image of God in us is corrupted, the Spirit is busy in the lives of the saints to restore it. We are, for Calvin, never made entirely holy in this life. In fact, part of sanctification (becoming holy) is found in the recognition of how far from it we are. Calvin sees regeneration, being made over again in the image of God, as consisting in two parts: mortification of the old person and vivification of the new person. The shape of the Christian life is in this way determined by the shape of the life of Christ who died and then rose again. We are "in Christ" by faith and the grace of the Spirit, and so what happened to Jesus happens to us. We die with him to an old way of living for sin. We rise with him to live our lives to God. The power of the reign of sin over and in us is done.

However, Calvin says that this life is "a perpetual battlefield" with sin. God by the Holy Spirit is continually at work in the saints killing in us what kills us so that God may fill us with the life of Christ. Calvin says, "This restoration is not accomplished in a minute of time nor in a day, nor in a year; but God continually abolishes the corruptions of the flesh in his elect in a continuous succession of time, and indeed little by little; and he does not cease to cleanse them of their filth, to dedicate them to himself as temples, to reform their senses to try piety, so that they exercise themselves all their lives in penitence, and know that this war never comes to an end until death. (I Corinthians 1:8)". Self-love and ambition were, for Calvin, particularly besetting sins. In the fall from right praise, the praise of self — ego-centricity — is particularly troublesome on Calvin's account.

On the other side is vivification — life — new life in Christ born of the Spirit. If mortification of the flesh is the answer to the fallen praise of idols, then vivification is the answer to our ingratitude and self-congratulation. We are raised with Christ to live gratefully all the days of our lives to God. Here and now in definite deeds of gratitude, the image of God in us begins to be restored. Every thankful deed offered at the prompting of the Spirit (our obedience) for new life in Christ is a restoration of what we have been created for. Obedience to God is for Calvin the form that gratitude and love for God takes in this life. "The Spirit nourishes and confirms in us the love of obedience . . ." and "The aim of regeneration is that people may perceive in our lives a melody and harmony between the righteousness of God and our obedience; and that thereby we ratify the adoption in which God has accepted us as his children."

New life in Christ includes the love of our neighbour. We praise God in the love of the neighbour for they are created in the image of God. It is regard for the neighbour as image bearer that stokes the believer into the service of others and so to praise God. In a striking passage, Calvin writes, "We ought not to dwell upon the vices of men, but rather to contemplate in them the image of God, which by his excellence and dignity can and should move us to love them and forget all their vices which might turn us therefrom."

Our gratitude to God — in the form of obedience to God and love of our neighbour — ought to be spontaneous and free. However, we resist the Spirit through sloth and we struggle, particularly in times of trouble, to be faithful. And so the law is given as a spur and help to guide us in the right direction. We require guidance in the new life God wants to give us. And here Calvin lays down a very different path to Luther. The law has a positive use in the life of the Christian, it guides, it leads us to life; the Spirit makes use of it to guide us toward right and grateful living in the love of God and neighbour — we were created for this.

The new life comes hard, on Calvin's view. For it is guided not just by the law but by the life of Jesus Christ himself. To live for Christ in this life is to suffer. Calvin doesn't say that the whole of the new life in Christ is suffering, but almost. Suffering and tribulation predominate in this life, and if there are moments of respite in the struggle to deny ourselves and take up our cross, those are allowed by God so that we may take up the struggle again with renewed vigour.

For Calvin, the sufferings in this life, taken up in faithfulness to Christ by the power of the Spirit, are to be viewed in the light of eternity — if we share in Christ's life of suffering, we shall share in his glory as well. "We must," he writes, "always look to the end, to accustom ourselves to despise the present life . . . the Lord knows very well how prone we are to a blind and even brutish love of this word" and so God uses affliction "that our heart should not be too much attached to such a foolish love."

Calvin will also speak of prayer as the intended result of the suffering we undergo. When what faith seeks is not plain to sight, obscured as it is by present sufferings, we pray and ask for the fulfillment of God promises. In this movement toward God in affliction, it is the Spirit at work in us, inciting us to call out "Abba Father." "Wherefore God, in order to make up for our weakness, give us his Spirit for a master, who teaches us and tells us what it is legitimate for us to ask, and who also rules our affections."

Let me end with a question? Is this good enough? Is this a scriptural and Christ-centered enough way of speaking about the Christian life? Do we have sufficient warrant to summarize almost the whole of the Christian life in terms of suffering? Is the almost principal warrant to pray to be found in suffering? What about gratitude to God for so great a life and so great a salvation — doesn't the Spirit move us to thanksgiving too?

We might note that here Calvin follows the Apostles' Creed, which summarizes the whole of Christ's life in these terms: "suffered under Pontius Pilate." I've always wondered whether we might add a line in the creed here from Acts 10 — "he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed." It seems to me that Calvin's account lacks the liberating, healing, lifting work of grace, even in the here and now. He seems to equate vivification (new life in Christ) with suffering; new life with just about dying?

Karl Barth says that Calvin on the Christian life is "stern," "sombre" and "forbidding." He argues that, "Calvin suffers from a curious over-emphasis on mortification at the expense of vivification." And Barth asks, "Who authorized him to almost completely conceal . . . the clear and positive meaning and character of conversion as liberation by giving vivification only a minor position as the reverse side of mortification." And then here's how the Reformed tradition reforms: Barth writes: "The truth is that in the New Testament the real dying and passing and perishing of the old man is matched by a no less real rising and coming and appearing of the new."

Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God; it is the perpetual work of the Spirit in our lives and in Christ's church. (Dogmatics, IV/2: 575, 579).

The Kingdom of God and the Future of the Church

Rev. Dr. Dale Woods"The Kingdom of God and the Future of the Church" was the focus of recent discussions among leaders and followers within The Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). Dr. Dale Woods of Presbyterian College was the keynote speaker at the 2011 Annual General Meeting of The Renewal Fellowship, held at St. Andrew's, Etobicoke ON in March. Dr. Woods warned us that the Christian community may present itself in radically different forms than those familiar to us. He highlighted three trends that help us reflect on the future: Global, Emergent, and Missional.

The Global Church: Dr Woods pointed out that while we see a decline in the church attendance/interest/growth in western nations, the church has strong growth in Korea, China, Africa, and Latin America. In a study of churches in South America, Donald Miller highlighted these keys to church growth:

  • visionary leadership with a humble expectation that God will act through His people;
  • passionate devotion to God through a deep spiritual life;
  • vision for transforming people in the world; and,
  • a spirit of expectancy.

Their focus of leadership is to train the people to do the work of ministry. Academic qualifications take second place to spiritual experience and a passion for Scripture. Growing churches need creativity, imagination, and faithfulness.

The Emergent Church is a new way of "being church" and of practicing Christianity. Supporters of the Emergent Church believe that the old model can't last, and no-one knows what the new one will look like — hence "Emergent" or "Emerging" Church. They compare the present church to pay phones — there are still some in use, but fewer and fewer people are using them. The new way, emergents argue, will not emphasize denominational distinctives but will embrace a more generous orthodoxy. The gospel today has become encrusted like a volcano — the crust that prevents the flow is dogma, bureaucracy, institutionalism, individualism, and consumerism. The Emergent Church looks for new ways for the gospel to break through. The church of the future will not be identified with a building, but will operate as an open source network more than a bureaucracy. It will need to be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit rather than dependent on methodologies and formulas.

The Missional Church distinguishes itself from the attractional church which seeks to draw people into church. The Missional Church says we need to listen to the culture. Supporters of the Missional Church say this is the church God wants for the world. The Missional Church emphasizes God at the centre of all activity. Two key questions are asked: "What is God doing in the world?" and "What does God want to do in His world?" Pastoral parishes ask, "How can we save the church?" But Missional churches ask, "How can we save the world?"

This is about spiritual and theological realities with profound consequences. Leonard Sweet argues that the future church will be EPIC: Experiential, Participatory, Image-oriented, and Connected. Leadership will need to be apostolic. Followers will need to have a deep sense of call by God.

Following Dr. Woods' presentation, three PCC leaders offered their views on a panel moderated by Calvin Brown, Executive Director, The Renewal Fellowship within the PCC.

The Panel members were Charles Fensham of Knox College, Jeremy Bellsmith, pastor of Burns Presbyterian Church (Ashburn ON), and Rick Fee, General Secretary of the Life and Mission Agency. Fensham began by saying that the future of the church is in the hands of God but in a secondary way — how we respond to God — we can also say the future depends on us. He quoted numerous times in the history of the church when renewal was necessary and God raised up strong new leaders. When we think of renewal we think also of the past. This affects theological colleges looking to train ministers for the future by reminding them that renewal comes through profoundly committed leaders — not just intellectually trained but people whose daily lives are shaped by their devotion and commitment to the mission of God. Fensham asserted that his heart is with the Missional Church. Where will we be in thirty years?

Jeremy Bellsmith, a new pastor, began by saying that in thirty years he would be retiring! He affirmed his desire to see the church become all she can be. He said, "I'm a dreamer. Dreams are a form of prayer to get us moving." He wants the church to be a people united in a common desire, to be a church deeply connected with God, with each other, and with their communities. We are called to diversity if we are to connect with our communities. Each congregation recognizes a mission calling unique to their setting. This may mean new worship forms and a new understanding of mission. This is the emphasis of the Emergent Church. As pastors, we need to "do" Ephesians 4 — train the people to do mission and think theologically in their lives. All of this happens in congregations. Jesus Christ and the mission He came to the world for is worth living for!

Rick Fee led with the quotation: "The church is the only institution that exists for the sake of serving its non-members." He noted that if we place an emphasis on the institution and the maintenance of that institution, we may be misleading ourselves and missing the mark. The issue is not decreasing membership and lack of people in the pews, it is our failure to recognize how our society has changed in seismic ways. Society has gone through major secularization and we have not yet learned how to be church in this society. Fee believes that we will learn, but we need to learn to speak the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a radically new culture. The work of the national church is to try to get resources to people in congregations struggling to comprehend what they should be doing, who feel they are caught in a hurricane, hiding in the basement as the hurricane is threatening to lift their house off the foundation. The national church tracks and reports on the progress of the hurricane. Congregations need help to get outside themselves to become engaged in society around them. Fee asserted his view that a Presbyterian renaissance will demand that we dig deep into the very core of our religion, re-experience it in the content of full modernity, and assume that nothing is too sacred to be questioned, reinterpreted, or modified. We need to be an open and collaborative church that depends on all its members — not just the leaders — to discern our faith. We need to grow up. We do find emptiness, but it's an emptiness that holds open the possibility for the divine to emerge. That is what the national office seeks to do — to engage all of us in working for that nothingness to determine where the PCC will be in thirty years' time.

The Renewal Day was challenging and hopeful — an important beginning in helping the church understand itself and focus on some questions that need addressing.

Calvin Brown, Retired Executive Director
The Renewal Fellowship