Encouragement From The Word

Grace and Speeding Tickets

I’m ashamed to admit it, but a couple of weeks ago, I got my first speeding ticket in almost 18 years. There really was no excuse for my behaviour. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was just looking forward to getting home. I was only about 8 km from home, priming myself to watch some championship women’s curling on television. The next thing I knew, there was a police officer standing in my lane, pointing to me to pull over. I looked at the speedometer. Oops.

Meanwhile, the person driving the vehicle behind me was laying on her horn, and swerving around me, while I slowed down (in a hurry!) and prepared to pull over. As she swerved around me, the police officer motioned to her to pull over, too – which she began to realize perhaps five metres before nearly hitting the officer.

The officer came to my car, took my information, and told me how fast I was going, according to his well-concealed radar gun: 80 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. Ouch. I suspected I was speeding, but didn’t think I was going quite that fast. I apologized to the police officer, and expressed gratitude that the driver behind me had not sent him to an early grave. He said, “Yeah, I need to have a conversation with her.”

The police officer took my licence and registration with him, and approached the other vehicle. The driver decided to argue with the police officer. This is not a good idea, Ma’am, I’m thinking to myself. After she had had her say, the policeman retired to his warm car where he proceeded to do what officers do when they get back to the car. When he came back, he came to me first, gave me my information, and explained that he had to give me a ticket – almost apologetically.

The good news for me was that he had reduced the fine, and it wouldn’t cost me any demerit points. I thanked the officer for his leniency, and s-l-o-w-l-y made my way back onto the roadway. As I drove past the officer, now having another conversation with the other driver, I wondered to myself whether he would be as lenient with her as he had been with me. I doubted it, simply because, while I had been compliant, the other driver had nearly killed the cop, and then argued with him about it!

But then, I thought to myself, I couldn’t know for sure that he wouldn’t be gracious to her. I was immediately reminded (no, really, I was!) of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Jesus told a story of a vineyard owner who went into town to gather some workers for his fields – first at 6 in the morning, then at 9, noon, 3 and again at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Quitting time was 6, and when all the workers lined up to get their pay, they saw that the workers who had been brought in just an hour ago were paid the standard day’s wage. They were thinking, Man! If these guys are getting a whole day’s wage, we must be going to get a lot more!

But they were wrong.

In the end, the owner gave each worker the very same amount of money. They complained to the owner that this was unfair, but the owner reminded them that they had agreed to work for the wage they were paid. “Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20.14-15, NIV). The vineyard owner extended to all the same grace out of his own generosity.

In my heart, I was torn. Part of me was hoping that the other driver would not receive the same grace I had. Another part of me was hoping she would.

Isn’t it great that God doesn’t think like we do? Jesus introduced that parable by saying that this is what the kingdom of heaven was like. God’s kingdom is characterized by God’s grace. This means that people who make authentic death-bed professions of faith will receive all the riches of heaven that the lifelong believer will receive. It means that I had no reason to hope that the other driver received a ticket for anything more than I did. If anything, by thinking with a kingdom of God mind-set, I should have hoped that she was let off with a warning.

If you’re a seasoned believer, pray for those who have yet to come to faith, that they will experience the true riches of God’s grace.

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Musings, Uncategorized

Hockey Safety Fail

Every once in a while – okay, more often than that – some sign catches the eye and screams, “Something’s not quite right here.” So it is with this sign, found at the Golden Arches on Highway 27 in west Toronto.

They’re trying to tell us two things, but, well, they failed.

Kids, don’t try this at home.img_0047

Biblical Messages

When You Talk To God…Look For The Kingdom

The concept of the kingdom of God is not an easy one for anybody to wrap the mind around – even seasoned Christ-followers.  Yet when we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”  What do we mean when we say that? 

That’s what I explored in this message, based on Matthew 20.1-16. Included in this message is a video clip from the “bridge of death” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which can be found here.

Listen to the message here.

Encouragement From The Word

Contrasts in Customer Service

        Recently, I had the opportunity to visit two different businesses in a community different from the one I live in.  One was a musical instrument store, and the other was a hobby shop.  Anybody who knows me well can understand that both are the kinds of stores I tend to frequent.

 

When I walked into the music store, I was in the place perhaps thirty seconds when I was greeted in a friendly way by a fellow who turned out to be the manager.  He told me his name, and asked me mine as he shook my hand.  With his disarming demeanour, it was easy for me to tell him exactly why I had come into the store.  Like a good salesman, he took me into a separate room to show me a high-end version of what I was looking for.  When I said that I was impressed but unable to spend what that unit would demand, he completely understood and escorted me to another area of the store to show me a unit that was well-priced and, while not as good as the first unit he showed me, would serve me well.  He took the time to demonstrate it, and answered my somewhat amateurish questions without missing a beat.  When my wife came in, he even made a joke with her that we all laughed at.  All the staff in this store handled customers the same way. 

 

Needless to say, I made a purchase there.  I had seen other units in other stores, but the service I received at that point in time was what made me buy there.  And because of that experience, I will shop there again, even though it’s not exactly handy to my home.

 

By contrast, when I walked into the hobby shop, I was ignored – despite the fact that I was one of two customers in the store and there were three people working there.  Since I had come all the way to the place, however, I browsed for a few minutes.  A stock person spoke to me when I spoke to him, and he opened a locked cabinet to allow me to examine more carefully something that had caught my eye.  I picked up something I needed, and when I went to check out, I waited for ten minutes.  (Remember, the help-to-customer ratio was 3:2!)  When I produced my ‘loyalty club’ card, which I assumed would save me 7 percent on cash purchases such as the one I was making, I was told that because I had not spent a sufficient amount of money in the store in the past year, they could not honour the 7 percent discount.  And the clerk was in no way apologetic about this.

 

I walked out of that hobby shop – in which I had spent quite a lot of money over the course of several years – having decided it is unlikely I will ever spend money there again.

 

Do you see the contrast between those two businesses?  Both sell things that musicians and hobbyists need.  Neither holds a monopoly in its field.  These are tough economic times.  Every business should be grateful to have customers at all!  So why was one so encouraging and the other so ignorant?

 

Personality will have something to do with it, to be sure, but I think the key is that the music shop staff refused the temptation to take customers for granted. 

 

Lest you think this is merely a consumer rant, let me apply this to the Christian life.  When I was inducted as pastor in an earlier church, the preacher at the induction asked this question of the church:  Who is the customer, and who is the sales person?

 

Many church people assume that the customer is the church member, and the sales person is the preacher.  Wrong.

 

The customer is the newcomer to the church, and the sales person is the church member.  This has always been true, but in these days when many churches are in a state of decline, it is more true than ever.

 

The apostle Paul wrote, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5.20a, NIV).  Paul was writing about himself, but he was encouraging all believers to be ambassadors, to be ‘in sales’ for the gospel.  Churches where the people believe that they have no responsibility to care for guests don’t grow, because their guests often have experiences at church like I had in the hobby shop.  Churches where the people know they have a hand in caring for guests will grow, because their guests will feel cared for and will want to come back.

 

Of course, the Holy Spirit plays the major role in church growth, but, oddly enough, the Spirit chooses to work through God’s people.  Thanks to you, and God working through you, your church can be more like the music store than the hobby shop.  That’s my prayer for you!

Book Reviews

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church

beyond-the-first-visitLately, I’ve become more intentional about welcoming guests at our church, and encouraging others to do the same.  To that end, I’ve read Fusion (see my review here), and now, Beyond the First Visit.  The two volumes have much in common in terms of encouraging the reader to prioritize the importance of first impressions among guests, and to look at the life of the church, and even the property, from the perspective of someone who has never been there before.

 

In this book, author Gary L. McIntosh teaches the reader how to think like an outsider, so that the church can do many things – even post signage – in ways that make sense to the first-timer.  He also warns congregants against badmouthing the church, noting that while a good reputation can be built with hard work, a bad reputation can be created with just a few words – even if what is said is untrue.

 

McIntosh encourages significant advertising, at least four times a year, to reach your target audience.  When that involves newspapers, he wisely suggests not advertising on the “church page”.  After all, who reads the church page?  People who go to church!  If your target audience is guys who watch football, advertise in the sports section.  If it’s people who like movies, advertise in the entertainment section.  Sure, it will cost more, but we’re talking about an investment in eternity here!

 

A good reminder in this book is to give newcomers a task of some sort, so that they get an opportunity to meet other people in the congregation.  In order for guests to become regular participants in the life of the church, they need to form relationships within the congregation.  Engaging them in some task that gets them connected will accomplish this.

 

A most helpful learning point in this book came early on (beginning on page 34) where the author writes about “moments of truth” that guests have when they consider the church.  Those moments of truth are:

  • Receiving an invitation to church
  • Driving by the church building
  • Walking to the front door
  • Entering the front door
  • Meeting people
  • Experiencing ministries and services
  • Entering the sanctuary
  • Participating in the worship service
  • Leaving the worship service
  • Being contacted during the week
  • Ongoing contacts in the future

 

Did you notice that six of those “moments of truth” came before the worship gathering even began?  There are many, many factors that can and will influence guests in their decision to return (or not) to a church, and several of them occur before worship starts.  The worship must be excellent, because God desires our excellence, but we must also focus on that which surrounds it if we are going to encourage guests to return, and become vital parts of the body of Christ.

 

Beyond the First Visit:  The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church  by Gary L. McIntosh (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2006); ISBN 978-0-8010-9184-1

Book Reviews

Essential Church? Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts

essential-churchIn this follow-up to Simple Church, Thom Rainer and his eldest son, Sam, write about their research – and the implications – of people who drop out of church between the ages of 18 and 22. In most churches, that tends to be the “missing link”. Those who are completing high school and are in their undergraduate years are the people who tend to fall away from the church. In many cases, it’s not an intentional act – it’s something that happens almost by accident. Changing circumstances, changing friend circles, changing pressures – these all contribute.

But so does the church.

The Rainers spend much of the first half of the book sharing the bad news – that young people are leaving the church in droves. But they don’t leave it there: they then offer encouragement to the church on how to work intentionally to keep youth and young adults engaged. One of the key players in each church, according to the book, is the lead pastor. The lead pastor needs to be able to relate to this age group if they’re to be kept. That doesn’t mean that she or he needs to be the youth leader; but it does mean being sensitive to that age group’s peculiar place in life.

One paragraph, near the end of the book, sums up what constitutes an essential church: “Essential churches have simple structures that can be understood and embraced. Essential churches strive to take their members into deeper biblical truths. Essential churches have an environment of high expectations of members. And essential churches seek to multiply, to reach beyond their own fellowship” (p. 222).

The worship life of the church should, of course, engage the youth and young adults and unapologetically make them sense that God is relevant to them. But relationships are the real key. According to the authors, when a congregation is caring, welcoming, authentic and inspirational, many more 18-22 year-olds stay in church than drop out (p. 38).

This was my greatest learning point in this book. I think three of those four characteristics are relatively easily attained by the church. I’m less convinced about one other.

A church can, through effort, become caring, welcoming and inspirational. It takes much more work – and the breaking of many habits – in order for a church to be authentic. Most congregations are not known for being authentic.

 What does that mean?

Lots of people, when they go to church, get dressed up and put on their best ‘game face’. When people ask about them, they say, “Fine!” When they ask about other people, the response is, “Fine!” If someone ever chose to respond by saying, “My life is a shambles and I feel terrible”, folks wouldn’t know how to respond – if they even listened for the response!

To be an authentic church means being real with God, and real with each other. It means being vulnerable. Why should we do this? Simply put, we should be authentic because God knows how we all feel anyway. Furthermore, youth and young adults can see right through our well-intentioned fakery. Let’s be authentic as the church! This will make us even more open to deeper biblical teaching and to high expectations. And then, reaching beyond our walls will become that much easier.

May yours be an essential church!

Essential Church: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts by Thom S. Rainer and Sam S. Rainer III (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2008); ISBN 978-0-8054-4392-9.

Biblical Messages

When You Talk To God…Say ‘Holy’

Prayer is, simply put, talking to God.  Some find it easy, others find it difficult.  Most people would be interested in knowing more about it.

In my new series, “When You Talk To God…”, I’m exploring prayer in a deeper way, based on what we commonly call The Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. This week, we looked at the stanza, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”. What does it mean to call God “hallowed” or “holy”? What does it mean that God is in heaven? What does it mean that we call him our Father?

You can listen to the message, using Bible texts in Isaiah 6.1-8 and Revelation 4, here.