Sunday in Rochester

Fresh from a hearty dousing at Niagara Falls, we rolled into downtown Rochester for the weekend. On Sunday we walked to a nearby church — and came away even more refreshed than from the Falls.

Their service featured a greeting, two songs, teaching from Romans, and two more songs. That was it. Gather our attention, focus on God, explain His Word, focus on God, send us off encouraged.

We sat in the middle, surrounded by several hundred Millennials. If I lived in Rochester, would I come back? Absolutely.

How many places on earth can you show up in an unfamiliar city, walk to a pleasant venue, get blessed for an hour — for free — and walk away better off than you came? We have much to be thankful for.

Described with thunder

Poetic metaphor is stealthy. Magnificent references can be mistaken for sleepy flourishes. Beware of this, for not all metaphors are meant to be delicate.

Back in the day, we tacked Niagara Falls onto the end of too much vacation. Bad move. I still hope not to be remembered by my kids for that visit. Two weeks ago, feeling redemptive, we again stopped at Niagara, this time on our way to Rochester. Here’s what we discovered.

Niagara is actually three falls, the smallest of which is Bridal Veil Falls. Picture a grape tucked between an apple and a watermelon. At the foot of Bridal Veil Falls is a wooden deck that takes you right up to the spray from the edge of the smallest of the three falls. When you first see it, you think, I paid money for this? And now they’re making me wear a rain slicker and plastic flip flops? Huh.

But then something happens. You see people coming back from the end of the deck — and they’re soaked. And you notice that, the closer you get, the harder it is to hear each other talk. In fact, the people ahead of you are screaming and shrieking and holding their hands over their faces.

And the closer you get, the more wet you become, until there’s so much water flying around you can’t even keep your eyes open. And, despite the crowds, there’s no one actually standing on the final platform — the one right up against the spray from the edge of the smallest of the three falls. Taking a group selfie is out of the question. You’re all just shouting over the thunder and trying to keep your eyes open against the force of a fire hose driving you back from the edge.

Some of us forced our way up to the railing and faced into the torrent — but not long enough to count to ten, for the pain and the pounding and the thunder and the force of the spray in your face makes it impossible to see or get any closer.

Imagine what it would be like to step into the full force of six million cubic feet of water crashing down from over a hundred feet above. Who could stand against such unrelenting power?

Now, picture the full force of this poetic metaphor:

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

When we petition the Almighty to bring justice or righteousness to a land, people, or situation, we are not tiptoeing about. Not at all.

Bridal Veil Falls

The quandary of shepherding groups

We recently visited a church of twenty people. They invited us to stay for lunch, and by the end we knew names.

A week earlier we’d attended a much larger gathering. Two or three people greeted us, but mostly it was like sitting in a movie theater — hundreds of people watching the stage.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with large churches or right about small ones. What matters is shepherding those who attend.

Shepherding twenty people seems doable. I can imagine praying for each of them daily, and moving as a group toward “completeness in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). That said, keeping in close and regular contact with twenty people is not easy. Make it fifty, a hundred, or thousands, and how would you do it?

Back in the days of World War Two, The Navigators ministry in Honolulu was thriving. They had thousands of seamen from the Pacific coming to Christ and looking for growth. Short-handed, they herded them into classrooms for teaching. However, while classrooms accommodated the volume, the teachers did most of the learning.*

This crisis of growth prompted The Navigators to embrace a “pass it along” approach based on 2 Timothy 2:2:

What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.

How would this work in a church setting? To be honest, I’m not sure. Westerners avoid “personal” and trend toward private. Yet, most of us who follow Jesus Christ want to grow in our relationship with Him — and with others who follow Him. We want to grow, and to do it together. So, whether it happens in 2 Timothy 2:2 relationships or small groups or a culture of intentional hospitality, personal shepherding still seems the crucial challenge to solve in the local church.

* from Daws; pages 262-263

Training in reality

What Christians believe can be viewed as quaint.

Eugene Peterson refers to this in his book, The Contemplative Pastor, and he doesn’t like it. When some business person shakes his hand after church and says, “This was wonderful, Pastor, but now we have to get back to the real world,” Peterson bristles. He isn’t taking this seriously, he thinks.

Continuing, he observes:

If he realized that I actually believe the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn’t be at all pleased.

Yes, I believe that. I believe that the kingdoms of this world, American and Venezuelan and Chinese, will become the kingdom of our God and Christ, and I believe this new kingdom is already among us. That is why I’m a pastor, to introduce people to the real world and train them to live in it (page 28).

This merits consideration. As we serve in the local church (or mix with business colleagues), are we reinforcing reality? Here’s how the Apostle Paul described reality to the Ephesians:

All this energy issues from Christ: God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence (Ephesians 1:20-23; The Message).

Revealing reality is hard work. It requires ingenuity, prayerful experimentation . . . and humility. Peterson calls it subversive. I can’t think of anything more significant.

Prayer is the work

In his book Deepening Your Conversation with God, Ben Patterson observes: prayer is the work and ministry is the fruit. He’s right. Praying for others is the heavy lifting of wielding influence — especially when your advocacy involves searching Scripture and using God’s revealed will and reputation to make your case.

As R. A. Torrey writes in How to Pray:

We live in a day characterized by the multiplication of man’s machinery and the diminution of God’s power. The great cry of our day is work, work, work, new organizations, new methods, new machinery; the great need of our day is prayer.

If your heart is bent on making a difference, search out God’s interests in the matter. If it’s more than you can lift, enlist others. Join forces with a praying friend, or discover who prays at your church. It’s the giant first step toward fruitfulness.

Seven things I’ve learned about biking to work

BikeToWork

When we moved to the city I tried commuting by car, bus, and train. They’re all OK — driving is quick, you can read on the bus, and the train laughs at traffic. But the best option, if you’re not fussy about ironed shirts, is biking. After two years of it, here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Your ride depends on your reason.
I’ve had flats, falls, snow, and scrapes with cars. Once, the headwind was so stiff I got passed by a runner. But none of that matters if you have the right goal. If you’re trying to set a “best time” record, you’ll chafe at not having a better bike. If you prize tidiness, you’ll wince over rolling your clothes into a backpack. If you dislike weather, you’ll only ride half the year. My goal is staying healthy, so every challenge is my friend. Especially the wind.

2. Your weight goes down as your health goes up.
If you set a hearty pace, your clothes will get baggy. I lost thirty pounds my first year. However, I didn’t lose thirty more pounds my second year. That’s because the harder you work, the greater your appetite.

3. Your routine is your friend.
Biking seems ridiculous. You get up, put on your bike clothes, pack your work clothes, ride to work, stow your bike, shower, put on your work clothes, work all day, change into your bike clothes, pack your work clothes, fetch your bike, ride home, unpack your work clothes, and hang your bike clothes on door knobs to dry (biking = sweating). Plus, there’s the weather, so you’re always checking Dark Sky. Every ten degrees means a different setup. So does rain. And don’t forget toiletries for your workplace shower, time to get cleaned up when you arrive and to change when you leave. This sounds crazy, right? Actually, it takes less time than daily exercise plus commuting — but it helps to have a routine. By doing the same things the same way every day you get quick without having to think about it. Without a routine you’ll show up at work one day without your computer. Or your clothes.

4. It’s all good.
Runners will veer in front of you without looking. Cars will crowd you. Pedestrians won’t get out of your way. Faster bikes will rocket by from behind and startle you. Just shake it off. People are mostly oblivious, not malicious. If you get upset, it will spoil your ride.

5. Share your workout with your mind.
When I’m deeply invested in something I can pray or solve problems while I ride. Otherwise, I’m just rehashing the day. What good is that? It’s better to include your mind in your workout. Listen to books! While my heart and legs are pumping, I’m learning about Einstein, Genghis Kahn, Daniel Burnham, Elon Musk, the Lockheed Skunkworks, WW2, and more. When I get where I’m going, I wonder how I got there so fast.

6. Courtesy might surprise you.
Good manners should be second nature, right? Defer the right of way. Pass without crowding. Go easy around pets, kids, age, and love. But adrenaline and neighborliness don’t always ride together. One day I sped past an older man. He shouted at me and I shook my head to signal my annoyance. Two weeks later I came up behind him again and thought, here it comes. Just then, some guy on a racing bike blasted past both of us. Sure enough, the old man shouted after him. This time, however, the racing guy slammed on his brakes, turned around, and started shouting back. It was ugly. Since it’s never pleasant to see someone shouting at an old man, I pulled alongside him and scowled at the racing guy. He paused his rant, then, his oaths apparently spent, took off. I kept pace with the older man and said, “You feel strongly about people passing you. Why is that?” For the next three miles he told me his story of being knocked over by a reckless biker on a winter night. He went sprawling, broke his elbow, and passed out. By the time someone stopped, he was nearly frozen. It took him eight months to recover, and now he thinks bikers should ride more courteously. Which makes good sense, right? When we reached my exit, I was wiser and he was calmer. We both said goodbye and parted as friends.

7. Entropy applies to bikes.
Things wear out. Whether you’re replacing a tube or cassettes, sprockets, chain, and crankset, these are natural expenses incurred by use. Since my bike is 28 years old, I’ve replaced all these items this year. At first it made me wince. Then my wonderful wife reminded me that, before we moved to the city, I was filling the gas tank every three days. That’s like buying four new bikes a year. Which gives me an idea . . .

Following Jesus • 44 / A question of kingdoms

Read This: John 3:1-8

Nicodemus: We know that you have come from God.
Jesus: Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Like all devout Jews, Nicodemus was seeking the kingdom of God. Scripture pointed to a God-anointed leader, like David, restoring the kingdom to Israel. Since God was with Jesus, Nicodemus wondered if Jesus might be that leader. The Messiah.

Nicodemus was right — Jesus was the Messiah. But he was also wrong, because his understanding of the Messiah was incomplete. The Messiah’s work wasn’t limited to restoring Israel’s political sovereignty. He was here to restore all people to right relationship with God. Everyone.

Nicodemus was an intelligent, well-educated man. His coming to Jesus was a discerning and honorable thing. But his expectations were too small. Jesus helped him see the larger story. Here’s how the conversation went.

Nicodemus: “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

He was investigating if Jesus was the promised Messiah who would restore the “kingdom of God” (Israel).

Jesus: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God is not a national or political thing. It’s a spiritual thing. “Born again” refers to spiritual birth. You have to be spiritually alive to perceive God’s kingdom.

Nicodemus: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

He’s essentially asking, “What do you mean?” Being born a second time is absurd. No one can be born twice. He’s thinking about physical reality, and he’s right.

Jesus: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus knew the Scriptures. He would have immediately recognized “water and the Spirit” as a reference to Ezekiel 36:24-27, which described spiritual regeneration. This is a paradigm shift. Jesus is revealing that our lives and relationship to God are rooted in the spiritual realm. We are spiritual beings who express our spiritual life in the physical world.

Spiritual reality was not new to Nicodemus. The Scriptures spoke of spiritual beings, activities, and the spirit as the life of the body. This was familiar territory. Yet, the nation of Israel had been a reference point for God’s kingdom for over a thousand years. That’s where God’s involvement with the Jewish people had occurred, and, based on biblical prophecy, it’s where they expected it to continue.

Now Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom is not physical, political, or geographical, but spiritual. One is “born” into God’s kingdom spiritually.

This conversation continues, but it features themes not native to our daily conversation. Kingdom. Flesh. Spirit. To provide context, we’ll need to take a quick look at those themes.