Our 2019 Renewal Day and Annual General Meeting was held on Saturday, April 6, 2019, at Grace West Hill Presbyterian Church in Scarborough, Ontario. The day was billed as “One Mission, Three Points, Three Speakers” and featured Renewal’s new mission statement: “To lead each other and The Presbyterian Church in Canada to authentic Biblical thinking, powerful, Spirit-led prayer, and effective Gospel witness.”
Authentic Biblical thinking
by Ian Shaw, Renewal Fellowship board chair
There are many ways to tackle this subject. However, for the brief time we have, I want to explore the theme examining how Jesus approached the Scriptures of His day.
First though, some thoughts about the implied verb: thinking. We often define the word as a matter of logic or a left-brained approach – researching etymologies and context, analyzing, discussing, even debating, seeking core truths and probable implications. Jesus employed both sides of His brain but His default approach seems more right-brained [visual, feeling, and intuitive], which we see clearly in His parables. This preference shaped how the left side was applied, and together, His use of the whole mind, I believe, provides a framework for an authentic approach.
Before offering perspective on this part of our vision statement, I want to comment on it from a negative angle. Early in Mark 2 and Luke 5 and slightly delayed in Matthew 9, Jesus encounters strong opposition from the religious community. That opposition increases until, allied with political forces, they turn Jesus over to Pilate. The two main opponent groups are the Scribes and Pharisees, and Jesus singles them out in Matthew 23 – “Woe to you …”
1. Scribes [experts on and teachers of the law; lawyers] exemplify the struggle of talent. Able people, such as Scribes, see deeper and faster and wider than the rest of us.
It’s a powerful gift, but like power itself, the seed of corruption is woven into the DNA. Commonly, it emerges as some expression of hubris.
Instead of the Scribes’ learning being subservient to the Word and the Spirit, it rises above both.
I once heard this voiced by a very talented person as “the Bible at its best”. What this incredibly able man was doing was using his mostly left-brained filters to judge the Scriptures, and any parts that didn’t measure up to his standards were either minimized or set aside completely.
Authenticity demands our best, but our best must be offered in humble service to God and God’s people.
2. Pharisees used a different left-brained filter. While the Scribes’ hubris of the mind had a focus on theology, the Pharisees’ hubris of the mind had a focus on ethics.
No doubt pride can take root in the right-side of our perspective, but from Gospel encounters with Jesus, those from the left side seem to be more prevalent in thinking about the Scriptures.
3. There is a third filter that Jesus casts in a negative light, though it is rarely as confrontational as the hubris of the mind. In fact, it is almost a polar opposite.
The common crowd brought not hubris into thinking, but sloth. They bought into the prevailing truth with little reflection [John 9, Matthew 21:1-9], almost unfiltered superstition.
From a more positive angle, I’ll make some observations on Jesus’ style.
1. Jesus used what I call a big picture context filter. This is God’s character of holiness and mercy, compassion and righteousness as well as God’s sovereign power. Jesus starts with those over-arching perceptions and goes narrow and focused. The large image of who God is and what God desires manages the specifics, whether it is inviting others to take a second look, reframing a tradition, or offering a new teaching to embrace.
This approach takes specific Scriptures and expands, deepens, and modifies the law [see Matthew 5]. Mark 7 provides an example of Corban as the wrong way of changing law versus the right way.
It corrects errors and omissions [e.g. Luke 4:16-30]. God’s people had narrowed mercy to us, judgment to them. Jesus leaves out judgment and includes Gentiles [Matthew 22/Mark 12/Luke 20]. Jesus adjusts concepts around the relationship between David and God’s anointed; parables of grace [e.g. sower, prodigal son] bring to the fore an understated attribute of God.
Jesus’ approach introduces major new understanding [See Luke 24]. This account is a left- and right-brain one-two.
2. Jesus could fit into modern strands of the Jewish faith; he was reformed as well as orthodox and conservative [See Matthew 13:51,52]. As our ordination vows affirm, God may grant us additional or new insights through the Spirit. His use of story emphasizes openness to newness and growth and affirmed wonder as an essential partner with wisdom.
Jesus reconfigured the family [Matthew 12:46-50], the whole concept of Messiah [Matthew 16:21-23, 22:41-46], the understanding of the law [Matthew 5:21-48], and especially God’s grace [Matthew 8:5-13, 18:23-35; Luke 4:25-27; John 8:3-11].
3. Don’t major on the minors. For example, do you not think Jesus was aware of the challenges of stories like Jonah and Daniel’s fiery furnace? Doubtless, we are far more accomplished technologically and scientifically than those ancients, but thinkers like Aristotle and mathematicians like Pythagoras could doubtless hold their own in today’s campuses and laboratories.
Jesus didn’t lose sight of the forest because the occasional tree seemed out of place. In fact, he adds to the challenge of Jonah by making the fishy part of the tale a sign of His own death and resurrection [Matthew 12].
We should be no quicker to diminish these troublesome stories than Jesus was.
4. As Jesus placed Himself in obedience under God’s authority and God’s Word given through the law and the prophets, He was given a fuller grasp of God’s will and purpose [Matthew 5:17-20, John 14:15-26; 16:5-10].
The apostles continued that practice as the gospel or new covenant gathered in the Gentiles.
In conclusion, I share a warning: Jesus was crucified. Authentic Biblical Thinking (ABT) essentially led to Jesus’ death. It is a dangerous venture. Nonetheless, I would also contend that ABT begins at the cross, when you and I humbly submit our gifts to comprehend the word to the One who is the Word.
ABT begins with a prayer: “Lord if you open my eyes to see, my ears to hear, and my mind to understand, and give me a heart to obey, then I will have words of life to speak. Grant me courage also to express what you would have me teach.
Powerful, Spirit-led prayer
by Andy Cornell, Renewal Fellowship executive director
We begin life with the human instinct to connect to our Creator. Children, whether they’ve been raised in a Christian home or not, reach out to God in their thinking. And it continues throughout our lives. Even a professing non-believer might say, “O please, please, please let me find my wallet” as they’re desperately searching around. Who are they talking to?
For many people, the prayer journey ends there. Others are introduced to prayer at church, in popular culture or through family. It registers and they pay attention – they go beyond the instinct. That’s the second group. The third group are actual believers. They may sincerely pray to God through Christ. Taking another step forward, they may pray out loud, a huge step.
I was in that third group for many years; I scripted all of my public prayers. Finally, I took the bold step to pray extemporaneously – the fancy word for prayer that is unscripted and unprepared. It’s step four. It was a significant mark in my journey. And it felt great. But then I stopped the journey. I set up camp in the school of prayer in which you thought about each word, but they were still my words.
Little did I know that a fifth step lay head. A couple of years ago, I started feeling that my public prayers were a little empty. All head, no heart. And then one day, while reading through the Bible I came across that wonderful verse from Romans 8:26, “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us.” Wow. I’d read that verse 100 times before but it finally clicked. It was as if the hands of God had reached down and gave me a shake. That was it. I was praying with my head and not my heart.
So my journey resumed. I was drawn to Dunamis Project, the intensive training in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has ever taken part in Dunamis knows that this is something missing in many of our churches. Submission to the Holy Spirit is where powerful prayer starts.
There is plenty of scriptural inspiration as we seek to become prayer warriors. But one stands out. “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (James 5:16b)
Earnest? We pray from the bottom of our hearts. It’s pure and motivated by altruistic submission to God’s will. It seeks God’s will. It’s not about us. Can you picture that? Do we pray that way? Most of the time? Then there’s righteous. Do we trust and obey? Do we have enough faith to live in obedience to God’s holy commands? Most of us try to live by the Golden Rule. Are we virtuous and upright? Most of the time?
The sobering truth is that as earnest and righteous as we think we are, our prayers aren’t going to be powerful and we aren’t going to get wonderful results because something very important is lacking. Too many of us look at that one sentence without putting it in context. Look back one sentence: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16a)
There’s an element in the Presbyterian Church which downplays the presence of sin and the power of sin in our lives because to do so is a downer. So we often ignore the power of sin and how it prevents God’s hands from working.
It is vitally important to identify sin, call it out, and pray the blood of Jesus, which takes away the sins of the world. In the same way that we recognize the power of the Holy Spirit, we also need to recognize the power of the enemy, the demonic strongholds that are found throughout our secular culture – and which creep into the church. It’s an illness.
There’s a line in the old hymn, “There is a balm in Gilead” — “to heal the sin-sick soul.” It is to the balm of Gilead that we must turn before we pray. He is the only one who can take away our sins. It’s why we pray in the name of Jesus, who lived with no sin, but who was made to be like sin in order to pay for our transgressions.
Because we are human, we possess a certain amount of pride. We are quick to point to the sin in others and not so fast to shine the light in our own dark places.
This need to come clean is found throughout Scripture and witnessed powerfully in Psalm 19:12-13. “How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults. Keep your servant from deliberate sins! Don’t let them control me. Then I will be free of guilt and innocent of great sin.”
Notice the word “hidden”. Each one of us harbours some sin that we don’t actually think is sin. There are things that I do which I think are okay and in God’s will but aren’t. So, part of repentance is asking God to show us those dark places in our lives which we might not be aware of.
Sin controls us. When we call it out, we take much of its power away.
Easy enough, right?
But wait. Read James’ words again.
“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
Each other! It is easier – much easier – to confess our sins to God than it is to confess them to each other, face to face. And so in true human weakness, we fail to do that. I pray for forgiveness daily in prayer, sometimes several times, depending on the day. But when was the last time when we pulled someone aside and confessed? It doesn’t have to be a crime or an egregious moral failure. It can be something minor. But minor things left unchecked become significant things, which left unchecked can lead to serious transgression.
Confession of sin – before God and each other – is essential if we are to achieve any sort of freedom from sin’s control. The need to confess and be free from the control of sin is essential if we are to call ourselves righteous in any way and pray earnestly.
The challenge to each other and to The Presbyterian Church in Canada is as straightforward as a three-step program.
First, we confess to God and to each other and seek forgiveness. Second, we search. We humbly ask whether we have been deceived and are harbouring sin.
Only then can we present our honest prayers for God’s will to be done and we can seek and allow the power of Christ’s Spirit to pray for us, to provide the words. Humbly let go of our own expectations and open our minds to what God can do. This is powerful, Spirit-led prayer. It is achievable if we prepare, if we focus, if we submit. It takes work. It is a journey. And it’s one that never ends.
Effective Gospel witness
by John Park, Renewal Fellowship board member
Simon Sinek, in his book “Start With Why” argues that many people, organizations, and companies know WHAT they do and some even know HOW. But a very few know WHY. WHATs are our products or services we provide. HOWs are meant to communicate what makes us special or sets us apart from others who do something similar. WHYs are the purposes, causes, or beliefs that drive us to do what we do.
Likewise, many churches and Christians know what they do and even know how they do. But a very few ponder on why. I find that many Christians struggle with Gospel witness and evangelism, not because they do not have right tools and programs. The real issue lies in our hearts; we do not share because we are often afraid of rejection or because there isn’t strong motivation to share the Good News with others. At least that’s where I was.
Start with why. Why should people come to your church? Why is Christian faith so important that you need to share it with others? Answering these questions should not just be an intellectual exercise. You need to involve your heart. Before looking for good evangelism programs or tactics, start with your heart. Learn to be moved by God’s compassion for your city and weep for lost souls. I suggest you start by dwelling in the Scripture and discover God’s heart for the world and why the Gospel is so essential and relevant to all human souls. Having a regular prayer meeting to pray for your city may be a good idea as well.
Once you identify your why, finding how is easy. Once we are moved by God’s compassion, not our human motivations (e.g. “We need to invite people because our church membership is declining and/or we are struggling financially”), it becomes clear that God needs to initiate and provide us plans to reach other souls and cities. So, you pray; prayer becomes your major strategy and plan for your evangelism and outreach. You also begin to focus less on your own resources (e.g. your amazing choir, praise band, or church facility), but more on what matters most: God’s grace and presence. The churches that are effective in Gospel witness may or may not have great music programs or church facility, but they sure know what people need to receive through all these means: the grace and presence of God.
Then, what shall we do? I believe God’s words to Moses in Exodus 4:2 are helpful: “What is that in your hand?” What resources are available to you? Who do you have in your congregation? Everyone has gifts and talents that God has given to use for his glory. Also, study your neighbourhood and city and find out what needs you can meet.
Lastly, I believe that the Alpha program is one program worth mentioning to help us become effective in sharing the Gospel. You can check more details at www.alphacanada.org.
May God bless His church to share His glorious Gospel effectively. Amen.