FRUIT AND POWER

On a comic I recently saw it showed two ‘sign up’ tables.  One was for the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ and the other was for the ‘fruit of the Spirit’.  The line for the ‘gifts’ was long and no one was in the line for the ‘fruit’.

This depiction, although some would see as funny, I found it quite sad.  It displayed yet again how we tend to seek power over character.

Perhaps you have heard the quote before which says, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The original phrase was written to an Anglican Bishop by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, also known as Lord Acton, in 1887.  He was thought by many to be the most educated and thoughtful man of his day.  The actual quote is this:

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”

The lure to have power and influence is a great temptation in our day, perhaps as it always has been.  We see it in the many abusive kings in the Old Testament, but even Peter sought influence on the mount of transfiguration, or with the sword in the garden, or by dining only with Jewish Christians (Galatians 2).  Likely all of us have succumbed to this temptation at some point. We see this when we seek to use our position or our argument of a moral right to put down those against us.  Certainly there are times to rise up and express a moral imperative or to use our God given position, but often we fail to see the inner agenda driving us.  We can easily yield to pride (wanting others to think better of us), to fear (showing anger and using emotion to influence others), and to gain the ‘ring to control all rings’ (real power).

We underrate the fruit of the Spirit values of self-control, patience, kindness, or just plain goodness.  We ‘win’ by having these virtues … not by having dominating influence over others.  Yes, we might be discouraged with politicians, school policies, church politics … but beware of the tendency to feed fuel to the fertilizer that makes our emotions get the best of us.  We are to watch our heart and let the peace of Christ rule it.  The servant of the Lord is not to strive, which is what seeking power promotes.

Take a true sabbath.  Breathe.  Enjoy God’s presence and creation.  Focus on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.  Stand for truth and for Jesus, but don’t fight battles Jesus Himself is responsible to meet.

Your co-worker, Dennis

LANDMARKS

The view of Square Butte was the landmark I saw every morning as a child.  The living room picture window faced the mountain in the photo. In an area of Montana known more for its bald prairie, this butte stands out for miles in every direction. Growing up we never needed to know which way was North, South, East or West, it was just ‘Where is Square Butte?’

As my children approach their mid-thirties, it is interesting to see how family is a landmark for them. This was not as apparent when they were young, but now they are interested in their family heritage and connections. One of my sons went to Ellis Island on a search, and even in Minnesota found headstones of past family unheralded for decades. The phonecalls my wife and I receive now are different, as it seems we—in a way—are their familiar landmark whereby they set their bearings.

Every believer can point to certain individuals as landmarks—those individuals who helped us set our bearings spiritually. That may be a parent, friends from a youth group, a Christian friend, a pastor, a childhood friend, or even a neighbour. God placed us within families and communities where relationships affect us and we affect others.  

The serpent raised in the wilderness is a symbol of how we need to look to God, look to Jesus as our landmark. Of course, I am speaking metaphorically, but in relationship with Him we set our life, our bearings. This is true for us individually, but also for the whole of God’s Church. In the words of Paul, “In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you, too, are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.” (Eph. 2:21-22)

I am at an age where there is more looking back than looking forward. Time passes by for all of us, and the next generation eventually takes over. At some point, they will look back at the landmarks, at the history that brought the present. In the future as others look at me, at us, at the Church, I want people to see foremost in their eyes that God lived in us by His Spirit. The story here transcends the words. It is not in the black and white. It is the Life of Christ in us that needs to show forth.

Your co-worker, Dennis Stone

Starting Over

How many times did God have to start over? Adam and Eve had a rough start, and God had to reset and restructure their lives to move forward. Under Noah, God dealt with a corrupt society, and He started anew with our physical world. Under Abraham, He created a new covenant relationship. After enslavement in Egypt, a new nation was built. After the time of the judges came the kings, after which came captivity, after which came restoration of Jerusalem. All of this preceded Jesus, through whom came life and rebirth through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling––changing people from within. It was something completely new that was beyond expected structures of what was before.

So, we stand at this point in our world history wondering: Is Covid over? Can we make plans again? Is there going to be a ‘new normal’ or can we just go back to our old sense of what was normal? Can we really start over with any level of confidence that our world will not be thrown into chaos yet again?

Starting over is difficult. I work with church search committees that have worked and prayed to discern who should be their candidate of choice. Sometimes a candidate is chosen by the committee, only to be turned down by the candidate, or by another level of authority within the church’s structure. Reassembling a search committee, after a season when they thought their work was done, is difficult. Momentum levels are hard to rebuild after such disappointment. Some may want to just settle on a ‘someone’ rather than taking the time to discern a true calling to this particular ministry.

Starting over is actually something I do every day when I roll out of bed. I admit it is easier with the sun coming up sooner every day this time of year. Every day includes some Scripture, some prayer, some encouragement of others, some questioning of philosophical positions…and life goes on. On very few days, there is a big success story to tell—though they do come occasionally.

This all reminds me of the text: “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up” (Galatians 6:9 NLT).

So, let’s pick up our cross again and follow. Faithfulness is sure to be rewarded.

May God help all of us with our ‘restarts.’

Your co-worker, Dennis

A BETTER TAKE ON ‘REMEMBER ME’

It was my privilege to share a devotional at the Banff Ministers and Spouses Conference this year. Many of you were not there, so I’ll share an emphasis I have thought about since.

Nehemiah’s time in Jerusalem did not seem to end well. In Chapter 13 of his book, we see him beating people up and literally pulling out people’s hair. All of this ends with the prayer: Remember me with favor, my God” (NIV), which could well be a statement like “I tried my best” (you do not have to agree with my assessment). It is the last words from the Old Testament, chronologically speaking, until after the 400 silent years end. The people were settled back in Jerusalem, but there was no evidence of God’s glory for the newly-rebuilt temple, and there was lots of intermarriage which gave a complicated social setting for rebuilding ministry in Jerusalem. At Banff, I shared my opinion that a spirit of anti-climax may well have settled over the people of Judah for those 400 years.

Then there are the events of the coming of John the Baptist and of Jesus Himself, which brings us into the coming season of Advent. It seems to me that one could say that the pre-church age ends at the Last Supper with the institution of what we call the Lord’s Supper; a new ceremony for the Church which seems to begin with a different turn on the phrase, ‘Remember me’.

I am not getting into much eschatology here, but this turns my mind toward what will be the end of the church age. Revealing my cards here, I think Jesus could return at any moment, in any fashion He chooses. I am imagining—and this may not be how it happens—but I perceive the possibility of the trumpet blast, then Jesus descending as He said, then Him saying, “Hey, remember Me?”

Without question, I have certainly taken liberties here, but it is a progressing thought traveling through my brain at the moment. To top this off, one might watch the Casting Crowns music video on Youtube of ‘Only Jesus’. The legacy for our work is to have people remember Jesus. Let’s take our rightful place and honour Him to that end.

Your co-worker, Dennis

The Desire To Win

Okay, I just tweeted, “The desire to win gets in the way of healthy dialogue.”  That is a paraphrase from the book: “Crucial Conversation Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High”.  Out of all the thoughts I’ve seen, heard or read this month, this one has struck a cord with me.

In my work I deal with policy writing, conflicted individuals, politicized debate, stereotypes, and conversations with various levels of potential conflict.  The tensions or potential tensions continue into relationships with family, neighbours and friends.  Fear is behind all of this.

We will never see and end to tension.  I think some believe that somewhere in the past or somewhere in the future, even before Jesus returns, that there will be a time of no stress, no conflict, and no infighting.  That kind of self-talk will drive us bonkers.  At some point we need to realize and accept that conflict will always be with us … ‘until death do us part’.

If we are only observers of others in a squabble, it may be easier to see through to the individuals’ motivations.  That is not always the case.  We become experts at hiding our real motivations … the outcome we really want.  It is this desire to come out on top and win that complicates us in a battle.  When we ourselves are in an argument, we usually convey only aspects that help our side.  Our own desired ends may even be hidden to ourselves.  Perhaps we just want validation, affirmation, or an action that will help us get to another goal we have for ourselves.

Scripture says that ‘the heart is deceitful’.  Perhaps we should acknowledge this more readily.  We are often blind to what is stirring the pot, what is making us agitated, or what gets us riled up.  Looking back each one of us can see the plots where we were on the wrong side of a discussion.  That would be several times over for me personally.

May God help us to see more clearly where we need to repent, apologize, calm down, grant grace, and start from scratch.  God says we are to love our enemies.  If we could even get a small slice of that in our hearts in conflicted situations, we could likely come out honouring God more and living with outcomes more easily.

Your co-worker in the conflict,

Dennis

A Prayer Amid Diversity

Gavin Ortlund’s book Finding The Right Hills To Die On (2020) deals with our handling of diversity within the Church.  Gavin is a contributor with the Gospel Coalition, which generally promotes a complementarian perspective, but he himself was ordained in an egalitarian denomination.  He ends his book with this prayer:

“Lord, where we have sinned either by failing to love the truth or by failing to love our brothers and sisters in our disagreements about truth, forgive us and help us.  For those of us who tend to fight too much over theology, help us to remember that you also died for the unity of the church, your precious bride.  Give us softer hearts.  For those of us who tend to fight too little over theology, help us to feel our need for courage and resilience.  Give us stronger backbones.  Help us to be people who tremble at your word and therefore ultimately fear no one but you.  Lead us toward that healthy, happy balance of adhering to all your teaching while embracing all your people.  Amen.”

THE SPIRIT OF DIOTREPHES

Well the spirit of Diotrephes (3 John) is still at work in a few of our churches, not only ours but churches everywhere.  This is the fellow who wants to play leader and keep certain voices out of the church … a gatekeeper of sorts.  (Please understand that I am not in any way experiencing this among our CBWC staff or our CBWC board!)   I do from time to time see people in our churches who feel they have some special authority to short circuit good process which would involve humility, listening skills, healthy conversation and the hard work of finding spiritual direction among the consensus of believers.  They somehow feel entitled to a role of control.  This negatively affects the short term and long term credibility and reputation of other Christians and of some of our churches. 

We see this when people push their agenda toward an imagined end goal deemed so important to them that they are willing to display the fruits of the flesh.  I’ve seen uncontrolled anger.  I’ve heard hateful statements.  I’ve seen where someone pushes for an end result while sacrificing their godly temperament to do so.  Many of these are well meaning individuals, but they can carry a mis-guided sense of purpose.  They think they are protecting the church in some way. 

When the spirit of Diotrephes is at work a secular hierarchy is superimposed on the church.  Servant leadership disappears.   Being right overtakes being godly.  Polarities deepen.  Sides are drawn.  Listening stops.  No one takes time to encourage.  Being faith-driven is replaced with being fear-driven.  Stress levels rise in the church.  Smiles and hugs lessen and volunteerism slows down.  Ministry workers and their family members get hurt and end up demoralized.  People sense something is not right but they may not be able to put their finger on the culprit.

Those who propagate the spirit of Diotrephes do not understand the destructive depths of their work.  I knew a lady who was the daughter of a minister.  Before she died she expressed with emphasis that she did not want any service of remembrance for her to be in a church.  For her that was the place where her pastor-dad was verbally sliced into bits.  She carried that pain for decades and decades.  As I imagine it, someone in an ungodly fashion got their way at a church meeting, but she was among the unseen fallout.

What happened to Jesus’ hope for us – that people would say of us: ‘See how they love one another’? Are we really behaving like believers?  Too often we have bought into the philosophy of ‘might makes right’.  To take that farther … whatever happened to ‘love your enemy’?  Believers are to bring walls down when possible.  Our title or influence can give us the feeling of privilege, ready and able like a fullback to stiff-arm those who oppose, but should we submit to this temptation of power usage?  Jesus laid aside his rights … taking the form of a servant.

Let’s learn again to be strong in the Lord and the power of His might, letting ourselves yield and let go of any power we may theoretically have.  May God help us all to know our own inner motives, to know the motives of God, and to know the difference.

Your co-worker, Dennis

P.S.: Sorry for the preachy tone!

Living With Less

I was reading online an article by Amanda Ruggeri on the dangers of perfectionism.  She writes the following in “The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism”:

The trouble is that, for perfectionists, performance is intertwined with their sense of self. When they don’t succeed, they don’t just feel disappointment about how they did. They feel shame about who they are. Ironically, perfectionism then becomes a defence tactic to keep shame at bay: if you’re perfect, you never fail, and if you never fail, there’s no shame.”

Likely you know a few people motivated by perfectionism.   I’ve heard it preached in subtle ways.  I’ve seen it sometimes in the way some keep their homes, their vehicles, their hair, and even in the expectations of their children.  I am not against cleanliness or neatness, but there is something wrong if the motivating factor is fear of shame or that sense of personal identity.

Most false religious practices get twisted by some strong teaching related to being or becoming perfect in this life, with all the attachments of a style of legalism.  For those of us adopted into Christ’s family, I believe in a practical sense we will never attain perfection in this life  However the good news is that by being ‘in Christ’ we have already gained a perfection that is not our own.  For me I can now rest in being loved and accepted.  I am not perfect in that practical sense, but I am forgiven and I can rejoice in being an adopted son of God!  My shortcomings do not need to impede my sense of identity.

Yes, shortcomings I still have.  By the Spirit’s work in me I am not left alone in my inner wrestlings on attitudes and behaviours that are not of God.  The Spirit is continually at work in me.  Yes, there may be some outworkings of that which might have the appearance of a type of conformity to a Christian standard.  There is good in that, but not if I by my own strength am trying to put forward the right ‘look’.

In this current season many of us are living with less.  We may have less salary, less social gathering, less in terms of populating of material goods around us, and less in terms of freedoms we used to enjoy.  Maybe a better goal is to have less of ‘me’ and more of the fruit of the Spirit.  More love, more joy, more peace … you get the picture.

The Apostle Paul knew what it was to have plenty and what it was to have little.  We need to be able to embrace whatever circumstances surround us with joy and a strong sense that God is still in charge of all things.

The prophet in Habakkuk 3:17-18 writes:

“Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty,
 yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!”

We have enough if we have Jesus.  We need no more, no less.

Your co-worker,  Dennis

 

Trust Is The Measure

Trust is the measure of your ministry. A person can be 100% right and people may not trust you. A person can make significant mistakes and yet people may still trust that individual. Just because a person has good reasoning skills and relevant head knowledge does not mean people will automatically place “trust”.

There is no class you can take in seminary that makes assurances that people will trust you. There is no past experience you can go through, no significant book you can write, and no quality reference given by another that can make people trust you. Then again, not all people who are trusted should be granted that privilege.
We live in a world of broken trust. People often point out (albeit inaccurately) the percentage of marriages that end in divorce. Politically we can speak of treaties not followed. Businesses make agreements and then break them through some loophole. Too often politicians have said one thing and done another. The news emphasizes clergy that are guilty of moral inconsistency. Parents have been heard saying to their children, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  We see broken trust all over as people seek to take advantage of situations for personal gain.  I know I too have become cynical as I watch the promises of endless commercials parade across my path.  I am slow to trust.
Is it any wonder that the world is in a mess today? For the average person coming into the world today the concept must be very strange one when we say “Trust God!”.
We depend and trust in our bank accounts, our hard work, our achievements, our ancestry, our self-perceived position in society, our reputation, our plans, our discerning skills, our ability to defend ourselves, our goodness, and other facets feeding our sense of self-sufficiency.
One stock market crash, one job loss, one hospital visit, one accident, one internet thief, one virus taking root … any of these can change our plans and perspective. It might even bring us back to reality.
Whatever happened to understanding “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10)? That kind of attitude makes one humble. It leaves one in awe of our Creator. It makes a person an individual of integrity even when no one is looking. It makes one trustworthy … worth being trusted. Even when we do everything right it does not mean people will trust us … that is a choice others make on their own. We do not make trust in ministry by doing our stuff, but by doing His … and it is usually over the long haul! It is not really about having people follow us, but it is all about our following Him. Too often people seek to go up some invisible ladder to make themselves a capable leader, when going down the ladder is likely more important. Keeping our attitude in check is the greater accomplishment. Unfortunately it can be faked, so be genuine!
May all of us seek the proper balance of humility while being courageous in our own setting!
Your co-worker, Dennis Stone

Walls That Divide

My son found this interesting written piece taken from the 1978 Pasadena Consultation on Homogeneous Units from the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism:

… the dividing wall, which Jesus Christ abolished by his death, was echthra, “enmity” or “hostility.” All forms of hatred, scorn, and disrespect between Christians of different backgrounds are forbidden, being totally incompatible with Christ’s reconciling work. But we must go further than this. The wall dividing Jew from Gentile was not only their active reciprocal hatred; it was also their racial and religious alienation symbolized by “the law of commandments and ordinances.” This, too, Jesus abolished, in order to “create in himself one new man in place of two, so making peace” (Eph. 2:15).

The list of those who met in the consultation include a list of then distinguished theologians (John Stott, Peter Wagner, Ralph Winter, etc.).  You need to know that my son works directly with the poor in Edmonton and wrestles with why the church is slow to meaningfully encounter the poor themselves or welcome them into worship services.  Most church goers seem to give to a church budget and expect that their church is doing something for the poor somewhere, feeling comfortable with that as long as they do not have to touch, smell, hear or mingle with the poor themselves.  He has an excellent concern, however in my role I wrestle with how ‘hostility’ divides the Christian community over entrenched theological positions.  Even though we might readily acknowledge that in heaven we’ll be rubbing shoulders with those we’ve put down or shunned here on earth, we put up our own walls of separation.  Peter was forced by Paul to integrate with the Gentiles in Galatians 2.

The paper itself expresses how we are all in some sort of sub-culture.  It is natural to support our own position of perceived correctness and importance.  Our white Western culture has taught, though not necessarily intentionally, that ‘being right’ is more important than ‘doing right’.  This is a judgment the younger generation is making of the Evangelical church today … with some level of justification.  We have generally stayed away from things that might taint us or make us uncomfortable.

We almost never apologize but we easily justify our past and present actions.  We would rather not take time to apologize for looking the other way for the mistreatment of the indigenous, neglecting of the poor, or ignoring deserved equal rights treatment of women or the LGBT.  I’m not saying every aspect of every special interest group deserves our respectful attention.  I know I’ll never be a vegan or match their values, but vegans deserve my respect and they should respect me too.  Perhaps there are even vegan Christians.

Jesus brought down a wall.  I know the theology of that, but there is some practical application of this for which I need to pay attention.  Perhaps the lack of evangelism effort is due to the walls we ourselves have created.  Perhaps our own silo is leaking … and perhaps it should.

Your co-worker,   Dennis