Apprenticeship v. Internship: why we made the change

Recently I was interviewed on Sunday morning by our Youth Pastor, Sean Young about the new ministry apprenticeship track we have started at our church.  It’s a deliberate move away from internships (the classic model that has been used in churches for decades) to something that is more robust and intentional.

Here’s how the interview went:

Why have we started an apprenticeship program at Grace?

It’s the best training model.  And it’s proven.  Let me explain: when young people desire to enter into Christian ministry, the first thing they ask themselves is “How can I be trained?  How can I be prepared?”  They need two main things: 1) theological training, and 2) ministry experience.  So they sign up with a bible college somewhere and then work for a Christian camp or if they are lucky, get a part-time paid position in a local church.  But often the two aren’t connected.  So they’re learning all this head knowledge over here and trying to run a youth program over here with no one helping them to connect the two.  That’s why we’ve come up with an apprenticeship scheme.

I wanted to be Fitter-Turner engineer, so I signed up for an apprenticeship – 8000 hours (approx. 4 years) of training.  It was on training on the job, under a qualified tradesman.  He showed me how turn and cut steel on a lathe, how to sharpen drills, how to mill gears etc.  I went to block courses during the year where I learned all the theory – you know, the technical stuff and then came back to work and put that into practice, still watched by a tradesman.  By the end of it I could do everything a qualified tradesman could do.  This is how you train doctors and teachers and many other professions.  We simply want to do the same in the local church.  Put a young person under someone more experienced and train them on the job.

Why apprenticeship and not internship?

Because internships don’t equip people.  Here’s how an internship typically works:  you take an eager and promising young person who is keen for ministry.  He or she says, “I want to go into ministry.  I need some experience.  I’ll do anything.”  You say, “Great, we need someone to run this program over here.  We can pay you 15 hours.  But things are tight (you know how it is in the church…), we can only afford $6.00 an hour.  You start on Monday.  Oh, and by the way, if you have any problems, don’t call me.”  And what happens?  In 6 months the person is burnt out.  Or, if they do somehow survive, it’s by a miracle.  No one has invested in them.  No one has mentored them.  No one has explained what to do when ministry gets hard.  They throw their hands in the air and say, “I’m obviously not cut out for this.”

Sound familiar?  Happened to you?  We don’t want to do that here.  That’s why we are doing apprenticeships.  It’s an investment.

What does the program look like?

We are going to invest in a young person’s life and help form them in 3 critical areas:

  1. Conviction
  2. Character
  3. Competency

We bring them into the staff team, we absorb them in local church ministry, and we expose them to everything that happens in the local church, so they get to see how church ministry works, how they need to be led, how to deal with problem people and issues etc.   It’s a test run for them.  So, at the end of the apprenticeship they can say, “I sense that God is calling me to this full-time” or “I don’t sense the call to full-time ministry but I am now much better equipped for lay leadership in the local church.”  We also put those individuals under key leaders of ministry, so they can be discipled and mentored.  If they are young women, we put them under Francelle and Rochelle.  If they are young men, we put them under the likes of you or another male ministry leader.

We also want to direct them into good theological training.  I don’t want them signing up with any old place.  If they are going to study theology, let’s have them studying bible-based, gospel-grounded, Christ-centred theology that will provide them with a foundation that will last the journey.  Most Christian workers bail out – not because it was too hard or because they weren’t cut out of it, but because of inadequate theological preparation.  It’s the sole reason (aside from the grace of God) that I’m still sitting here after 25 years of ministry.

How does this all fit with our church’s mission – “God’s grace, to us, for the world?”

That’s a theological statement.  It’s a soundly biblical statement.  And it’s from the heart of God.  It will keep our church on track and on mission with God, as long as we remain faithful to it.  That’s where you need leadership – solid leaders, gospel-grounded leaders who will remain faithful to the mission.  What happens when all the present leaders die?  Who’s going to carry it on?  We need to raise up another generation of faithful leaders who clearly understand the church’s mandate and who are committed to gospel ministry who will lead God’s people forward and raise up another generation of faithful leaders who will then raise up another generation of leaders etc.

Why Mel? Why have we chosen her to be our first ministry apprentice?

She’s here.  She’s available.  And most importantly, she’s teachable.  Mel is one of us.  She is not an outsider.  She knows our church and she knows the people.  And she’s already proven to be faithful in the ministries she has served in.  What better person to start with?

Meet Melody Phipps, our new ministry apprentice at Grace.  Mel helps run our FUSE ministry, is part of the leadership team at DETONATE youth and serves in our children’s ministry on Sunday mornings.  She also works at Waimea Intermediate with 24/7, a program designed to place young Christian leaders in state schools for the purpose of mentoring and support.  Mel is studying toward a Diploma in Ministry Leadership through Pathways College and is being discipled by Sean Young and my wife Francelle. 

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Top Twenty Christian Books

A few weeks ago, an individual in our church asked me to write a post on the best Christian books to read.  “Hang,” I thought to myself, “that’s a tough call.”  There is SO much good stuff out there – where do I start?”  Yet, I remember as a young Christian asking the same thing to many Christian leaders and Pastors.  I wanted to know the books that had the most impact on their lives.

So here’s my top twenty.  Of course, not everyone is going to agree with this list, as it is entirely subjective.  Yet I do believe there is content here that you will find in many other “best Christian books” lists.  Some of these are classics (such as “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “The Knowledge of the Holy”), having been around for years, and others appeared only the past decade.   Some influenced me early in my Christian life and others more recently.  There is a real good mix here – theology, biography, church history and apologetics.  It’s not an exhaustive list, and doesn’t cover the entire spectrum of the Christian life or hit every Christian doctrine.  They are just, simply put, great books.

These are not in order of priority, with the exception of the first five, which I would recommend that every Christian read at some point or another.  So here we go:

1. Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan.

It’s a classic.  I believe every Christian, young or mature, should read this book – seriously.  I suggest a modern language version; you’ll find it easier and more pleasurable reading.  But the original rendition is still fine.

2. The Knowledge of the Holy, by A.W. Tozer.

This little book packs a serious punch.  Tozer explores the different attributes of God and then at the end of each chapter invites you to bow down before the greatness of God.  The opening words in the first chapter are priceless: “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  Read that again.  Think about it for a moment.  Then get hold of the book.

3. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, by Paul Miller.

Every Christian should read books on prayer from time to time in order to keep their prayer life alive (I do this annually).  This the best of the bunch.  It is encouraging, grace-filled, faith-filled, and not condemning!  The opening chapters on becoming like a little child and learning to talk to God as Father are precious beyond words.  It will change the way you view God as well as prayer.

4. Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.

If you want to know what God is like, this is your book.  It’s sold millions of copies and still continues to benefit thousands of Christians around the world.  You’ll learn more about God as well as yourself.  You’ll come to understand the weight of sin and the beauty of the gospel.  “Sons of God” (chapter 19) is all about our adoption and has to be one the sweetest, richest chapters on the reality of our salvation I have ever read.

5. Tortured for Christ, by Richard Wurmbrand.

This may surprise some that I have this book as one of my top five.  But I think it is a must read for every Christian.  Pastor Richard Wurmbrand endured fourteen years of Communist imprisonment and torture in his homeland of Romania.  He documents the sufferings he endured, but also the sweet communion with God he enjoyed through, by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  His strong faith and love for his torturers will inspire and encourage you.

6. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald Whitney.

A rich Christian life doesn’t come without discipline, and in this book Donald Whitney examines many different disciplines for the Christian life, such as Bible reading, prayer, journaling, fasting, and solitude.  This is the best book on this subject in my view; it’s biblical, practical and thought-provoking.

7. The Ultimate Priority: Worship, by John MacArthur.

This is not a book about worship in the church.  It says little about music styles and taste.  This is about the heart, and will help you think rightly about what true worship is all about.  It also spells out what true worship isn’t.

8. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs.

This is my all-time favourite of the Puritan Paperback series.  Burroughs defines contentment as “that sweet, inward, quite, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly discipline in every condition.” (p.19).  He then unpacks that in the remainder of the book.  If you find yourself struggling with contentment in your job, marriage, or any other situation, this book is for you.

9. Christ’s Call to Discipleship, by James Montgomery Boice.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked this book off my shelf in my sermon preparation.  This still the best book on discipleship that I’ve ever read!  It will challenge your perspective on Christianity in a number of areas and make you ask some hard questions about the superficiality of the contemporary church.  Boice doesn’t sugar coat anything, so prepare to be challenged.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

10. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, by John Piper.

There are few books that have my understanding of what it means to love God than this one.  Loving God is more than just duty, it is delight. “One has already made a god out of whatever he finds the most pleasure in,” writes Piper.  His mission is this book is to have you finding your greatest pleasure and delight in this life in God.

11. Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, by Jerry Bridges.

All of us will go through trials of some sort, and this book will equip you to trust God in even the most difficult circumstances.  The chapter of the Sovereignty of God is just brilliant: personal, biblical, and faith-filling.  My favourite quote: “Trusting God is not a matter of my feelings but of my will.  I never feel like trusting God when adversity strikes, but I can choose to do so even when I don’t feel like it.  That act of that will, though, must be based on belief, and belief must be based on truth.” (p. 52). Bingo!

12. The Reason for God, by Tim Keller.

In an age of doubt and skepticism, Tim Keller offers wise, winsome answers to those who are asking questions.   This is a great book for believers because it gives a solid platform on which to stand when thrown difficult questions, and a great book for skeptics, atheists and agnostics, because it provides a challenging argument for the existence of God and the reasonableness of the Christian faith.  You should always have one of these one your shelf to give to an unbeliever.  Then go have coffee with him (or her).

13. Shadow of the Almighty, by Elizabeth Elliot.

Every Christian is familiar with the story of Jim Elliott and his four missionary friends who were speared to death trying to reach an unreached tribe in the jungle of Ecuador.  But few know about his life.  In this book you’ll follow Jim from childhood through school and into adult life.  It’s filled with excerpts from his personal diary, letters to Elizabeth when he was courting her as well as a plethora of other spiritual jewels which will enrich your soul.  If you are going to read one Christian biography in your life, read this one.

14. The Holiness of God, by R.C. Sproul.

R. C. Sproul, in this classic work, puts the holiness of God in its proper and central place in the Christian life.  He paints an awe-inspiring vision of God that encourages Christian to become holy just as God is holy.  This is not a safe book.  Once you encounter the holiness of God, your life will never be the same.

15. Disciples are Made, Not born, by Walter A. Henrichsen and Howard G. Hendricks

This is the go-to book on discipleship.  My wife and I have taken scores of people through this in our discipling.  It’s a great book for training leaders (especially Youth Group Leaders) because the emphasis is on life-on-life transformation, not activities and entertainment.

16. Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper.

I took a group of men through this book a number of years ago.  Some of them are still talking about it.  On the back cover it reads, “Most people slip by in life without a passion for God, spending their lives on trivial diversions, living for comfort and pleasure, and perhaps trying to avoid sin. This book will warn you not to get caught up in a life that counts for nothing.  It will challenge you to live and ide boasting in the cross of Christ and making the glory of God your singular passion.  If you believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain, read this book, learn to live for Christ, and don’t waste your life!”

17. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.

I could recommend a lot of different books by C.S. Lewis, but this one is probably my favourite.  Written as a conversation between a senior demon and a younger demon, it provides fascinating insights into the ways of Satan.  You’ll never think of the devil the same way again!

18. Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley.

Every Christian should be somewhat acquainted with their history.  And there’s plenty of it (over 2000 years worth).  As the famous quote goes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana).  In order to remember it, you first need to know it!  You’ll learn everything you need to know about the early church councils and the battles that were fought, famous Christian leaders as well as heretics (there’s a good dose of them).  You’ll also learn about great periods such as the forming of the Bible, the first Pope and the Reformation.  Easy reading, as well as accurate, which is why I like recommending this book.

19. Humility: True Greatness, by C.J. Mahaney.

There are few things more important to God than humility.  If you want to grow in humility, read this book (it’s worth it for chapter 2 – “The Perils of Pride” alone).

20. Found: God’s Will, by John MacArthur.

Navigating the decision-making process as a Christian can be so confusing in life, whether it’s deciding on a new job or making a choice on which church to go to.  MacArthur strips away the confusion and makes it all very simple.  You could read this in one setting.  It’s short, simple and to the point. Great for a new Christian as well as leaders.

 

 

Warning Lights for Highly Vulnerable Leaders (part 3)

Over the past couple of weeks, we have considered a number of warning signs that our spiritual life might not be as healthy as what we thought.  These came to my attention while at a pastor’s retreat some weeks back led by Rowland Forman.  So far we have covered six of them: pride, prayerlessness, oversensitivity, joylessness, fatigue and disillusionment.  Today we cover the last three – insensitivity, immorality and impatience.

WARNING LIGHT #7: INSENSITIVITY

Are you neglecting those that are closest to you?  Rowland writes:

“Thankfully, after attending a parenting seminar, early in our ministry life, my wife Elaine and I adopted a value that we come back to often: “No amount of success in God’s service is worth failure at home.”  We apply that to our marriage and to our family.  I’m aware that ‘success’ at home base is all of God’s grace, but we do need to take 1 Timothy 3:4-5 seriously.  How can we manage God’s household if we are making a mess of our own?”

The question posed to us was:

  • What would your spouse say if someone asked how you are navigating ministry and family?

Well, I decided to ask Francelle this.  Her answer was, “Do you want the honest truth?” (I always struggle with that question).  She did, and I don’t have to repeat that here.  The point is, this is an area I need to constantly guard.  When things are going smoothly at home, there is the potential to neglect quality time with my wife and my children.  Then there is a small crisis, the pendulum swings, and I over-compensate – for a week or two.  Then I fall back into my old habits.

This is the prayer I wrote after contemplating these things:

“Lord Jesus, I know I neglect those closest to me – my wife, my daughters and my sons.  I think this is due to my working too hard (question to myself – for what? What’s driving that?).  Or it may be due to selfishness and lack of real care.  Please work in me a deep, caring love for my family Lord, for your glory and their joy.” 

WARNING LIGHT #8: IMMORALITY

Are you spying greener grass?  Rowland writes:

“Have you been taking liberties – becoming more intimate with members of the opposite sex?  Like King David, have you begun to feel indestructible?  It’s as if everything was on the rise for David up to the affair with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel Chapter 11, and everything was on the decline after that.  Joy disappeared from his life (Psalm 51:12), fatigue became the norm (Psalm 32:4), and his family disintegrated (2 Samuel 12-24).”

Just this past week I was alerted to another incident with a high-profile Christian leader: Ravi Zacharias.  If you are unaware of the detail you can read his statement that he wrote for his lawsuit here: www.rzim.org/global-blog/ravi-zacharias-statement-on-my-federal-lawsuit/

Going on everything I have read, and especially this statement from him, I believe he has being truthful.  This was an innocent exchange (on Ravi’s end) of correspondence in order to help someone that he thought was genuine.  It all came back on his head.  This was a very close call for him.  It could have ended his ministry.

I wrote to my elders asking them to read the report and to pray for Sean (our Youth Pastor) and myself, as well as our whole staff team.  I asked them to pray that Sean and I would be vigilant and wise and careful whenever we correspond to, or meet with women – especially outside of our church family.

The world’s a minefield for this kind of thing.  Pornography, sensuality, sexual exploitation of women and children, immorality and unfaithfulness and the list goes on.  Pastors and Christian workers are not exempt.  In fact, if anything, they are MORE vulnerable.  They are direct targets for the enemy, who seeks nothing more than their total spiritual ruin and disqualification from ministry.  If you are a pastor like me, you need to be extra vigilant.  You need to have people who will get in your face and ask you the hard questions.  And if you are married, you need a jealous wife (the more suspicious, the better).

The question asked of us was:

  • How are you doing in the crucial area of purity of mind and body?

Here was my prayer:

“Lord, thank you for alerting me once again to this danger.  I know how easy it is for me to become lax in this area, thinking that as long I am the Word and in prayer each day, and I’m not looking at lewd or sensual images, I’m all-OK.  Lord, how foolish I am to think that.  Lord, the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).  I cannot trust it.  How quickly I can rationalize some foolish action – “it’s fine to meet with so-and-so alone; nothing will happen” or “there’s only a couple of sexually explicit scenes in this movie; the rest is OK.”  Lord Jesus, help to guard what I do, what I watch, what I read and where I go.  Keep me close to my wife, so that I will cherish her and love her and remain faithful to her to the end of my days.”

WARNING LIGHT #9: IMPATIENCE

Rowland shared with us the story in Numbers chapter 20, where God instructed Moses to take his staff, gather the assembly of Israel, and speak to the rock.  He did the first two and then he lost it.  He struck the rock and spoke roughly to it.  He didn’t obey God’s instruction, nor did he trust him with the outcome.

Rowland writes:

“Are you patient with your people?  Are you tired of trying to do the right things, of applying church growth, then church health principles and then apparently failing? Craig Brian Larson in Pastoral Grit tells of one-step-forward, three-steps-back experiences in several small churches he pastored.  Then he says, “I must have patience.  I cannot be intimidated by the expectations of others but must have a sense of security about who God has made me.  And I must have faith in God’s Word despite what I see now.  In short, I must follow in the steps of Abraham.”

The question we then had to contemplate was:

  • To what extent are you impatient with people and progress in ministry?

Well this one really hit home.  I am, by nature, a very impatient person who rushes from one thing to another.  I have a hard time staying with God’s timetable, which typically operates a lot slower pace than my own.

Here’s my prayer in response:

“Lord Jesus, you know how impatient I can be with you and with your people.  I want things to happen in my time, not your time.  I am often unwilling to wait on you and let you build your church your way and in your timing.  Forgive my impatience Lord.  Expose every sinful frustration and annoyance and every ounce of resentment.  Cause me to love your people the way they are, and not what I want them to be. Amen.”

CONCLUSION

If you were the sole driver in a car and saw warning lights come on the dashboard but took no notice, that would be very sad.  But if you were a pilot of a 777, responsible for hundreds of people, or an air traffic controller accountable for thousands of passengers as well as flight crews, and you ignored flashing lights, the result would be catastrophic.

Keep a record of these warning lights somewhere.  Tuck them in the flyleaf of your bible or put them somewhere where you can quickly retrieve them.  They may one day save your life.  Really.

(You can read Part 1 of this series here and Part 2 here)

 

SERVE-tember Sunday

If you visited our church a couple of weeks ago, you would have experienced a Sunday with a difference.  Instead of seeing people gathering to sing and listen to a sermon, you would have seen them scattering in two’s and three’s in cars, on bikes and on foot – some with food, some with shovels and spades and others with guitars.  Sound a little odd?  I guess it does, unless you understand the bigger picture.

We started out this year with the launch of our new mission: God’s grace, to us, for the world.  Let me break that down briefly.  God’s grace is the transforming power of God which comes by way of the gospel.  And it’s all about Jesus.  We make a big deal about that each and every week.  The to us part describes the community of people who the gospel creates – the church of God which is being built up through the ministry of the Word, mutual service and exercise of our spiritual gifts.  For the world describes the mission or task of the church.  This wonderful, saving grace is not to be hoarded, but shared with those who don’t know Jesus.

Most churches are strong on the first two.  But they tend to be weak with the third.  That is because by default all their energies are directed internally, to their own needs – so much so that they forget about the people who live around them.  These are the very ones God is concerned about!  And he wants us to share the good news with them.

So how do you mobilize a church of over 250 people to be more outward-focused?  Well that’s a mission in itself!  And there’s no magic bullet for it.  We are trialling a few new things here at Grace.  One of things we trialled was canning a morning service and sending everyone out to bless and serve our community.  This sounds great on paper but when you consider our age range – 80 years down to 8 weeks, we were going to have to be creative.  So, this is what we did:

  • We contacted the Tasman District Council to ask if we could send teams onto the cycle ways to pick up rubbish and pass out gift packages of water bottles and muesli bars to passing cyclists and walkers. They were amazed we’d do this and even supplied us with the rubbish bags
  • We ordered a bunch of high-viz vests with our church logo imprinted on the back for the work crews to wear
  • We bought a few hundred sausages for cooking on BBQ’s on the cycle way and local skatepark
  • We organized a muffin-making brigade to bake hundreds of home-made muffins
  • We ordered 500 colourful gospel tracts to go with the muffins and snack bags
  • We contacted the local Retirement homes and asked if we could bring in a team to sing to and bless the elderly
  • We also contacted the Nelson Hospital and Police Station and asked if we could come in to thank their workers for their contribution to the community
  • We mapped out streets in Richmond city to take gift packages to those who are working on Sunday (Gas stations, auto parts stores, liquor stores, motel staff etc)
  • We appointed a prayer team which would stay on base and pray for the entire operation and for door to be opened

When people arrived on Sunday morning they were directed to a board with sign-up sheets where they selected which area they wanted to serve in.  Then they met with their team to discuss a plan on how they would go about it.  After packaging up containers of muffins, tracks and snack packs, they headed off into the community.

The plan was simple: bless people!  Give a simple explanation of what we are doing (as well as why we are doing it) and give them some morning treats.  We didn’t know how the whole thing would go – whether it would fly or it would flunk.  And we didn’t know what conversations or opportunities might open up.  We simply put the whole thing to the Lord in prayer and asked HIM to do with it as He willed.

After we were done, we all met back at the church for lunch and to share some stories.  Here are a few snippets:

One small team visited a Campervan park close to our church.  When they approached one couple a woman asked, “Do you give away anything else than muffins – like prayer?” (I’m serious – that’s exactly what she said).  It had been a rough week for her.  Her husband has a heart condition and her son is going through a separation.  She had asked God to send her someone that day.  He did.  Rowena and Anisha were delighted to pray for her.

Rowena and Anisha retelling the Campervan park story with Francelle

Vern washing down the house

Ken, one of elders, took a small team to assist a woman in our community called Adelle.  During a visit with her doctor earlier that week, she shared how she was feeling overwhelmed – even her garden had gone to pieces.  Her doctor wrote down a phone number on a piece of paper and said, “If you want help with your garden, call this number.”  It was the number of our church.  Perfect timing!  Ken’s team made short work of it, washing down the outside of her house, pulling out some unwanted weeds, and giving her an instant vege garden.  They left with her beaming, and sending an awesome thank you message later that week.

Adelle getting her new vege garden

The staff at the hospital really appreciated the muffins and words of encouragement.  One of the nurses in A&E pulled out her wallet, thinking we were selling them.  How surprised she was to find out they were gifts!

I went with a couple of guys and hit the gas stations and auto parts stores.  We sure surprised a few people, often having to repeat ourselves because they didn’t believe they were hearing it the first time.  I think that goes to show how little people are appreciated in general – in whatever they do.

Jason blessing a Sunday morning worker at a local dairy

The folks at the retirement homes were really touched by those who went to sing and give small bouquets of flowers to the ladies.  Tears ran down cheeks as worship songs were sung and words of blessing were given.

Note: not everyone had a wonderful “God” moment and nor did many get into deep spiritual conversations.  But some did.  And that was our expectation.  We were simply vessels in God’s hands.  We depended on him to use us as he saw fit.  Some doors opened; some didn’t.  But everyone we encountered was blessed, in some way or another.

Would we do it again?  Absolutely!  What we sacrificed by losing a Sunday service (which was small) we gained in forging teamwork and a missionary spirit.  The faint-hearted were strengthened, unity was built, and people were hugely encouraged.  And those who stayed away that morning – well, they just missed out on seeing God at work – big time.

I’ll leave you with a video clip that shows some of the highlights of the morning (thanks William for your hard work on this):

 

 

 

 

Carl

Two weeks ago, I received a phone call while sitting in an airport waiting for a flight.  I recognized his voice immediately; it was my friend Carl.

“Hello there Peter, it’s Carl.”
“Hi there Carl, it’s good to hear from you”
“I have you on my list of many people to call.  There’s something I need to tell you and the news isn’t all that good.  I have only a short time to live.”
The news came like a bombshell.  “Carl,” I replied gently, “what happened?”

Carl unravelled the whole story.  Some melanoma growths appeared on his body a few years ago which were removed.  He went in for check-ups regularly after that, but unbeknownst to everyone, the melanoma was spreading.  They found it in his lymph nodes in his neck.  Carl was then operated on and a large number of those nodes were taken out.  That was eight weeks ago.

They sent Carl home to recuperate.  But Carl didn’t recuperate.  In fact, he got worse.

His wife Rina saw that something wasn’t right.  But when she tried telling the medical personal about this all she got was, “It’s just post-op depression.  He’ll come right.”  His condition deteriorated even more.  Finally, with some advice from some friends, she got their attention.  Carl was brought back in and a full scan was done.  A very aggressive form of cancer was growing in his liver and spleen.  It was terminal.

Life expectancy: approximately 3 weeks.

Carl had been a hard worker all his life.  He ate well and lived a healthy lifestyle.  He was looking forward to a new season in his life of slowing down and spending more time with his family.  One of his dreams was taking a river cruise with his wife in Europe.  They had even booked the trip.  Carl had also just received his gold card.  The first time he got to use it wasn’t for travel, but his operation.

But it gets even more difficult.  At the time of this news, his two sons were overseas along with their wives and young children – one working and living in Holland and the other on holiday in Canada.  They both had to be notified: “You need to get home.”

While Carl was telling me all this, my mind was reeling.  I knew this family well.  They were very close and all loved Jesus.  Still, this would rock them.  More importantly, how was Carl himself holding up?  Would his faith in God and hope in the gospel be strong enough to endure this?  Carl answered that in the next part of the conversation:

“Peter, I absolutely for sure, for sure know where I am going.  I am going to be with the Lord.  I am going home.  That’s not a concern.  My concern is for those I know who aren’t.  So while I still have a clear head and I can think straight, I’m calling them all one by one.”

Carl had phoned his mother and brother and sister in Holland.  For many years he had tried to tell them about Jesus and why he came, but they didn’t want to listen.  Now, things were different.  Carl was dying.  They were ready to listen.

Then Rina got on the phone.  She told me about all the visits they were having.  Carl is an engineer in a large company, so he has many co-workers who know him.  They have all made a special trip to come and see him.  As they come in, one by one, he has them sit down and then for 30-40 minutes, he shares with them how they can get to heaven.  No one argues.  No one gets up and walks out.  They all stay and listen.  “Peter,” she said, “I’ve never seen Carl like this.  He has always struggled with witnessing and finding the right words to talk about God.  But you should see him now!  I’m absolutely amazed.”

Something very special was happening here. This wasn’t a tragic tale about a friend who was dying.  God was at work.  Carl’s prayers were being answered.  He wanted to be a better witness for Jesus.  Now at last, he was – and in a more powerful way than he could ever have imagined.  Carl was using his cancer for the glory of God.  Through his slow and painful suffering, others were hearing the message of life.

When the phone call ended, I sat there for a few moments in the airport staring through the windows outside.  This is what life is really about, I thought.  It’s about people.  It’s about relationships.  It’s about knowing for absolute sure whether or not we are going to heaven and helping others find their way there also.  Carl has a few weeks; others may have a few years.  Sooner or later, everyone’s time will be up.  Like someone said to me once: “We’re all sitting in the departure lounge.  It’s just a matter of what flight you’re on” (which was somewhat ironic considering where I was sitting at that time).  How is it that we all get so busy, we don’t have time to think about what matters most?

I was still in deep thought when an announcement came through the speakers.  “Last call for flight 8239 to Wellington. Passengers must board immediately.”  I grabbed my bag and water bottle.  I didn’t want to miss my flight.

Epilogue

When I arrived home, I booked a flight for the next week to Auckland so I could go and see Carl.  It seemed the fitting thing to do.  It was possible he wouldn’t make it until then, or his condition would deteriorate to the point I wouldn’t be able to talk with him.  Too bad, I thought.  I’m going to trust God and take the chance.

I’m so glad I did.  He was alert and very pleased to see me.  We had a beautiful time together, talking about many things – his family, his work colleagues, and the many conversation he’s been able to have with people.  Rina was there alongside of me, constantly adjusting his bed and pillows so he could be comfortable.  The pain levels were increasing, and so was the medication in order to cope with it.  We read some scripture together and prayed and then let him rest.  I stayed a while to talk with Rina and the other members of the family.  Many tears had been shed and many more would in the next few days.

Regardless of the strength of your faith, death is still death.  It’s distressing.  It’s painful.  The greater the love, the deeper the sense of loss.  But Jesus provides a comfort deep enough to match it.  He understands death.  He knows.  He was there.

After dinner, Carl asked if we could sing.  We stood around his bed and sung together – “I Know Whom I Have Believed.”  Here are some of the words:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

But “I know Whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.”

I know not how this saving faith
To me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word
Wrought peace within my heart.

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.

I know not when my Lord may come,
At night or noonday fair,
Nor if I walk the vale with Him,
Or meet Him in the air.

While we sung, Carl closed his eyes and listened.  He knew whom He believed.  He is the same One who imparted saving faith and brought peace to his heart.  He is the One who redeemed Carl for his own.  He was the One walking with Carl right then and there, through the vale of the shadow of death.

It suddenly dawned on me – in a very real sense Carl wasn’t going to Jesus.  Jesus was there with him (and with us all), in that very room.  Carl would soon see him.  His faith would become sight.  And then he will finally be, home.

Post-haste: the Vatican

Pastoral ministry is never dull.  It’s full of surprises.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something happens where your only response is, “Well I’ll be…”  That was certainly the case with my friend Sue.  Sue grew up a Catholic and after a bad experience with the church, decided to steer clear of anything religious.  She turned up at Grace one day through a connection with a lady in our church.  After attending one of our Long Story Short courses (introducing people to the basics of the Christian faith), she decided to give her life to Jesus.  She was wonderfully saved.

Sue came up to me one day after the close of a service and said, “I’ve decided to write a letter to the Pope.”  I gave her a wry smile and said, “That’s a great idea.”  I honestly thought she was joking.  Sue read my facial expressions perfectly.  “I’m dead serious.  I going to write to him and ask for an explanation.  I want to know after all those years of attending mass, praying the rosary and all that stuff that I was never given a bible and never heard that we can be saved by grace.”  This was definitely not a joke.  Sue wanted an answer, and what better way to get it than go right to the top.  “Do it,” I said.  “If God has impressed this on your heart then you need to follow through.”

So she did.

Now Sue has a unique way of sharing the good news with people.  Instead of shoving booklets and tracts under people’s noses, she gift-wraps them.  She has done this with a number of her friends and some family members.  She planned to do the same with the Pope.  Before sending it she asked me to read the letter she wrote.  Here is some of the content:

Your Holiness,

 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus. Ephesians 1:2

 I hope you can help.  My name is Sue, I am 68 yrs of age, I was born in London and have lived in New Zealand for nearly forty years. I was baptised at 53 days old, had my first confession, communion and confirmation at all the correct times. I was educated through Roman Catholic Schools and Church. Through school and church, I was taught the catechism and learnt about the Holy Trinity. As far as I remember we did not have Bile studies in school nor were encouraged to own or read the Bible. I have been unable to attend Mass or Church as I a married a divorced man.

Two years ago, I watch a lady teaching the Word of God on TV. I bought a Bible and it has opened my yes.

Sue then points out some of the discrepancies between what the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church teaches:

The RCC teaches that by going to Confession and attending Mass and Communion you are guaranteed a place in heaven.

The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from ourselves; it is God’s gift (Ephesians 2:8–9).

The RCC encourages its followers to pray to Mary and the Saints.

The Bible teaches there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).

The RCC teaches Purgatory, and that we should pray for the souls in purgatory because they cannot get out without our prayers.

The Bible does not say anything about Purgatory anywhere.

Sue concludes,

As you can see, I need help.

 I pray each night for our world leaders, that they are doing the best for the people they serve, and more importantly they are doing God’s Will.

 God’s peace be with you

I wondered what the Cardinals might think after they read that one!  No doubt the Vatican receives hordes of letters each day and have a team of secretaries and administrators whose job is to sift through and file them accordingly.

Still, one never knows.  One never knows that a letter like this could be placed in the hands of someone “up the line” so to speak.  One never knows that it might pass under the eyes of some Cardinal.  And one never knows, that this Cardinal may mention a word about it to the Pope himself.

We see in the pages of Scriptures, all kinds of amazing things happening to God’s people when they step out in faith and act out of the convictions of their heart, to do something that they believe would be honouring to God.

Good on you Sue.  You go where angels dare to tread.  And it is that very daring spirit that we need in more of us in the church today.

Note:  According to Roman Catholic doctrine, St Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and the Pope is not only his lineal successor in that office, but also inherits in its fullness the unique commission given to him by Christ (Matthew 16:18 f. and John 21:17).  When the Pope speaks ex cathedra (literally, “from the chair”) he speaks with absolute infallibility and has authority even over the Scriptures.  Also based upon the claim of an unbroken chain of Roman bishops, Roman Catholics teach that the Roman Catholic Church is the true church, and that all churches that do not accept the primacy of the pope have broken away from them, the original and one true church.  Outside the RCC Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church. That teaching still remains today.

 

 

 

 

John

Meet John and Maureen.  John was diagnosed with diabetes in his early twenties, has been struggling with health issues for a number of years.  He was taken into hospital last week with a serious heart condition.  We heard that he might not make it.  Well he did make it, and I got to catch up with him with his wife a couple of days later in their home.

He was surprisingly upbeat.  He wasn’t perturbed by the fact that he came very close to death.  Smiling, he pointed his finger up in the air – “I know the reason,” he said, “My room isn’t quite ready yet.”  No, I guess it isn’t John.

We chatted together on a range of different subjects – family, the people at Grace Church, Nelson weather (always a talking point in this area), and his former work as a tool-maker in the Kapiti Coast.  That’s when my eyes lit up.  A fellow-machinist!  That moved the conversation in the direction of lathes and milling and gear making and the like.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Maureen smiling politely, but looking a little bored.  It was time to move the conversation on.

John then shared about his life as a diabetic.  He was diagnosed early in life, just after the second world war.  Little was known about the disease back then.  He told me about one of his early visits with the doctor.  “Just pull up a piece a skin like this and jab the needle in.  Here’s your insulin.  You’ll need to sharpen the needle every once in a while, but you’re an engineer – I’m sure you’ll come up with a way to do that.”

I stared at John in disbelief – “You re-used the needle?”
He laughed – “Yes, unheard of today isn’t it?”

I forget how far we’ve come.  But that was the way things were.  He was told he must clean the skin first with rubbing alcohol.  Then later he found he didn’t need to do that.  He also found out that pulling up the skin stimulates the nerve ends and causes more pain when you inject.  You are better to push it straight in.  Injecting for John was much more comfortable after that.  Sixty years of three injections a day – well, that’s a hang of a lot of jabs!

John and Maureen took an overseas trip earlier in life, while John was still in good health.  They went to Egypt, Israel and Greece.  The highlight for John was Greece, visiting the cities were the Apostle Paul travelled and standing on the very spot he preached.  “It was magnificent”, he said, “to be there.  I’ll never forget it.”  They went into a restaurant in Athens (or was it Crete?) and people thought they were Americans.  They weren’t getting any service.  When it was made known they were kiwis people were jumping over the counter to come and talk to them.  We laughed about that.  Kiwis’ are loved where ever you go in the world (at least, for the most part).

“We are so blessed,” said Maureen. “God has given us some wonderful years.  We’ve had such a good life.”

There was a lovely serenity about this couple.  They were utterly at peace, perfectly content, trusting God for each and every day, because “days” are all John may have.  One by one, all of the pressures of my day and the tasks that were left undone slowly ebbed into the recesses of my consciousness.  Here was beauty, here was loveliness; here was wholeness.  This was a picture of how God intended things from the beginning.  It was a glimpse of Eden, only with old age and diabetes and decay.  But it was also a glimpse of the new Eden, when all things will become new.

Lord Jesus, may I be like couple this in my latter days. Let me live fully for you now, so when I have lost all strength and vigour, I can end my days in peace and bask in the memories of a life well lived.  Let me live like it’s my last day, every day.