Sunday, May 18, 2014

FIRE Conference 2014: Part Two

Day Two
*Note: These posts are real-time Tuesday and Wednesday, but I was not able to post them until now due to internet connection and picture uploads.

The routine today was much the same as yesterday's, except for the requisite additional purchase of books, and thus I shall skip the "we did this and that and then the other" part of narration to plunge into an overview of the messages we heard and the ministries which caught my (and hopefully your) notice.

Josh was hauled into playing keyboard, and he fit right in.
First, for the sermons. As you may recall, we are working our backwards through FIRE, so the topics for today were "Independent" and "Fellowship". Joe Flatt had been charged with the former subject, and he proceeded to deliver a soul-gladdening message from Matthew 16:18-19. Basically, Christ owns the church, and God has deemed it well for ordinary people to be the basis of His institution. People are the keys to the church, and souls saved by grace make up His Bride. Is that not amazing? What is more, God's design includes flawed men running and shepherding His people. Why on earth would He do that? Perhaps to receive glory for the work done here on earth. How else but by His grace could a crowd of fishermen, farmers, insurance guys, coppers, and those strange seminary students keep a church going? Yes, it truly is all grace. Although not directly in the sermon, something struck me about the passage being expounded. Christ is the rock but He is also naming Peter the rock. I know the exact interpretation of this text is debated, but it appears to me that Jesus here is not really setting Peter up as a representation of Himself. No, the idea and play on words is more profound. Jesus is giving Peter His own identity. Christ is the cornerstone, and Peter is the rock because Christ is making him more like Himself. Pastors, and all of us, are Christians, "little Christs," who take on the identity of Jesus by His grace. Glorious much? And I think Peter might be carrying this image of Matthew 16 on into his writing in 1 Peter 2.

Joe Flatt on "Independent"
Anyway, that sets up for the conclusions Pastor Flatt drew from the text. 1) Christ builds His church through flawed human beings, so it must be clear that biblically approved men lead the church, those men are not individually indispensable, and God gets all the glory for whatever the church does. 2) Christ owns the church in the sense of architect, contractor, owner, and builder, so His design serves as the only floor plan. Don't mess with it. The building imagery also indicates the church is a building zone, and the building is not yet complete. Church can be messy and change faces from time to time because, remember, God uses people. But this same church is a guaranteed work in progress, for the owner is the confident Son of God and He boldly declares it will be made perfect. Yeah, stick with it. It's so worth it. 3) Christ owns the church in the sense that it's not yours. Don't behave like you own it, because you don't. No power play, please. 4) Because Christ owns it, the church will succeed no matter what. Not even Hades, Hell and Death and all that evil, will prevail against the battering ram of the church under Christ's banner. Now, that means only the church will succeed. She's the ship to be in, friends, for Christ is manning her. Don't look for salvation or success anywhere else. Oh, yes, and that success is defined by the Owner (Christ), not the gofer (men). Christ's definition of success equals Him saving and sanctifying a people for Himself. That's it, and don't worry about anything else. He is truly the perfect Orchestrator, the glorious Head, and the certain Champion. Therefore, praise God for the opportunity to serve in your local church! And let us not grow fainthearted, for He will fulfill His promises in and through us.

Yep. It was an epic sermon, and I could just see some of the pastors stand taller as Pastor Flatt finished. I mean, there's a lot of pressure removed when you realise you are simply instruments in a completely reliable Redeemer's hands! We non-pastors might want to think about how we treat our church leaders in light of these truths. Are my expectations, or non-expectations, of my local shepherd biblical and Christlike? How should I deal with him/them in light of this? Food for thought.

We took time to pray for one another in small groups
Next up came Steve Krogh preaching on "Fellowship" from...where? I was stumped on where the text would come from for both "Independent" and "Fellowship". Well, Steve Krogh went with the book of Malachi. Surprised? So was I. But it was awesome (again, in the real sense of the word). "Comfort ye my people" came to mind again and again as I listened through the sermon. Pastor Krogh started off by going through the many times God tells Israel "but you say" as the Israelites counteract God's words with their dreadful doubts about His love, worthiness, covenant, and justice in their time of trial. By chapter three, this slippery mental slope leads the Israelites to command repentance of God, call sin blessed, and question the utility of serving the Lord. It is not a pretty train of thought, yet it is also not a foreign one, even to those of the faith.

We also took time to eat, promise!
But what does this have to do with Fellowship? I was definitely asking that question half way through my sermon notes. And then BAM. Malachi 3:16 starts answering our wonderment. There were those who yet feared the Lord, who yet knew God is loving, worthy, faithful, just, and pure. And what did these God-trusters do? They spoke with one another. To me, that was like lightning. I know a chief defense mechanism of mine when I am hurting is retreat, isolation, withdrawal. Certes, everyone needs time to think and rest, for sure, but 'tis easy to use that good alone time as a cover up and take it much too far. The true solution to pain is fellowship! Fellowship around a common fear of the Lord. Convicting news to me, that was. Sometimes there really is pain in the offering of serving God, and it is within the fellowship of believers that we share and carry our joys and sorrows. How wonderful! What a spur to know Scripture so we might speak His words to our needy brothers and receive His words from our loving sisters in Christ. Although I felt like this would be the high point of the sermon, it just got better, for Malachi goes on to say that the Lord heard and paid attention to this fellowship of believers, and He called them "mine". Awesome. And then God wrote their names in a scroll of remembrance (like the scrolls Mordecai read to the sleepless king in Esther), because He has a purpose for His children, for those who trust even in the dark times. See, He is gathering us up for That Day when He will call all of His children "mine" and be glorified in us as His completed building, a beautiful Bride, a perfect fellowship of saints. God has something more glorious than we can imagine, no matter how prone we are to forget that glory in our darkness. And in Fellowship we remember That Glory and move ever closer towards That Day. The End.

Exactly. No words.

Steve Krogh on "Fellowship"
The day, and the conference, ended with one last rousing message from Joe Boot, who wrote a really really neat book on history for God's glory. He challenged us to live out our faith, speaking of "cult"ure as a "cult"ivation, religion expressed and belief applied. If we believe like a Christian, we need to live like a Christian in every single sphere of life. Christians are not compartmentalists; they dump their beliefs on everything they touch. And thus we go through time here on earth. I love love love that sort of thing, that concept of God working in history, and so I only grew even more glad before everything drew to a close.

What's a conference without those crazy group pictures?
But close it did...and so must this blog post. I know I said I would talk about the missions stuff that excited me from today and yesterday, but for your sake I will save that for tomorrow. This glorified version of sermon notes took up all the space even a long blog post allows, and don't your eyes know it! So come back tomorrow.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

FIRE Conference 2014: Part One

Can you imagine being in a huge skylit room filled with pastors and their families worshipping the same God around His truth and learning from His word? That's me this week, and I am ever so thankful for it.

I am also ever so thankful for FIRE* and their national conference, which by God's grace has made this experience possible. The messages preached by this group of men have been so good, and the encouragement in ministry and love so profound, and the books so abundant and compellingly travel-friendly, that I have decided to conference blog today and tomorrow.

The happiest, most dangerous picture of them all.
The day bounced into motion with an odd search for the correct breakfast room in this sprawling college campus. The search did involve three breakfasts in successive breakfast rooms, but other FIRE conferencers were doing the same thing along with us, so I suppose it was not that strange. The food was great, by the way.

But not as good as the other sort of food awaiting. This morning was one of those bright Canadian mornings where the sky is really blue and the grass is really green and everything else has a kind of cheery yellow hue, and this effect was enhanced by the wall-to-wall windows in the session room which streamed in buckets of good, hale light. We were obviously in a great position to sing and worship the God which had brought us all together from around the world.

And sing we did! I love it when true believers sing. There is in it something divine.

People slowly filtered in as the band rose up to play.
Following this praise of song, about a dozen or so of the gathered pastors took turns presenting the states of their various churches and/or missions. We call these our Ministry Reports. Honestly, I was not sure what to expect from a crowd of men updating people on the past year of life, but I certainly did not expect for their reports to ground and hearten me in the faith. Yet that is precisely what happened! Through listening to these Biblically solid men describe the way God had worked in the last twelve months, I was reminded of the faithfulness of God. Even when your elder's wife is dying from physical abuse she sustained starting at the age of two. Even when your church is growing and you have planted churches and sent off international missionaries and are striving to keep the right intimacy a local church should have. Even when your leading pastor suddenly dies or needs to go into retirement and you don't know who will replace him. Even when you are living in Slumville and your main work is with crack addicts. Even when your town's living costs are much too high and all your young families have to move out. Even when you are a policeman or chaplain who is learning how to balance being a pastor as well ~ in the wake of a terrible mudslide. Even when your fifteen-year-old son dies horribly in a car crash. God is still faithful and trustworthy and good. He always provides. He always delivers. And He always gives His children the best. Those are all real stories from pastors in just this past year. And yet all of the men were calm, and joyful, and complete, knowing that our God is indeed sovereign in grace and unsurpassable in love. It was remarkable to observe the gifted faith of God in these men called by Him to pastor His flock. There are indeed good men out there, and we serve a good God.

Ministry booths set out for browsing
Another great reinforcement of my trust in God was the missionary focus which gushes from these ministry reports. The idea that Reformed people cannot be joyful, fearless, passionate (in the real sense of the word) evangelicals all around the globe positively crumbled before the updates of the men gathered today. There are sola scriptura families going to isolated people groups in Alaska and the upper regions of Canada. There are sola fide couples headed to undisclosed locations to spread the gospel, just so they can keep on serving God after American "retirement." There are sola gratia families going to Berlin and Romania to plant churches and work with troubled youth (I will be telling you more about these kinds of endeavors tomorrow). There are solus Christus men planting seeds and strengthening the understanding of believers in Northern Ireland through the unashamed use of His word. There is a Soli Deo Gloria community around the world all learning and teaching the importance of strong, indigenous local churches that are fully equipped to biblically counsel and disciple their congregations. Friends, there are people living by God's grace doing God's work all around us! Realising this brought me not only joy, but also a deeper desire to join in their work wherever God has me. He works in and through His people, after all.

Corbit and Kelli White, who are going to church plant in Berlin

Lunch. The conference food actually looked pretty good.
Between sermons and ministry reports, we enjoyed a nice lunch spread and plenty of coffee, hot chocolate, and a grand assortment of teas. Whatever else the food was, it involved an oversized basin of Greek Salad, which had Jenn smiling to herself. FIRE always provides ample time for fellowship during "meals" and "coffee breaks", because they know there is where all the action takes place. These hours are filled with pastors and their families meeting up and talking and talking and talking and brainstorming ~ with no time constraints! Apart from the messages, I can tell that this time of uninhibited fellowship is what causes these weather beaten pastors to leave with a spring in their step. It's a happy time all around.

The messages of the conference are going through the acronym of FIRE (Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals) in reverse order, so today we heard a message on "Evangelical", taken from Hebrews 10, and another on "Reformed", taken from Ephesians 2.

Scheming? Encouraging? Chit-chat? All of the above.
Jim Elliff preached on "Evangelical" and did a fantastic job of it. The point of his message was that at the heart of the gospel is Christ. This sounds simple and obvious, but it is not, for we often live as though it were not true. Pastor Elliff took us through Hebrews 10 and showed how Christ fulfilled and surpassed the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, pointing out the way Hebrews uses priestly language and imagery to make much of Christ as the Great High Priest. The blood of sheep and bulls could not dream of taking care of sin; they just pointed all the more blatantly to the sin we carry and to the Christ we need. Christ's work is the perfect work, and no other sacrifice counts. Yet we see the author of Hebrews warning people who know this gospel to not drift away from its centre: Christ. And don't I know it is our tendency to drift from His perfect sacrifice! How easy it is for us believers to slide away from His atoning work and start relying on other sacrifices, on our own works, on our past religion of self. The author of Hebrews, and thereby Pastor Elliff, exhorts us to just don't. Don't rely on the blood of sheep and bulls, on our own blood, sweat, and tears, to make us holy. No, His Sacrifice is the only one that works. Holiness comes from Him, who redeems us, sets us apart, consecrates us, for good works which He already has designed (Titus 2 and 3). Good works go up in our estimation when they are because and born of Christ, and this is something evangelicals - all believers who are all ministers - must keep forefront in their life. Also using more priestly language, Hebrews calls us to draw near as Christ's Body because His sacrifice was so perfect, so perfect that there could not be a more perfect sacrifice. What confidence we may have in Christ, in the true gospel! The point of the message is that we are as forgiven, cleansed, perfected, as we could possibly be through Christ for God. So let's live that out. Amen?

Pastor Crotts preaching on "Reformed"
Then, John Crotts preached a solid sermon on "Reformed", from (where else?) Ephesians 2. It was a beautiful message resounding with the grace of God and the humility yet boldness with which we live because of what He has done for us. He described our desperate condition before salvation, God's gracious solution to our desperate death (that glorious "but God!"), and the new characteristics of believers saved by God for God. My favourite ideas drawn from this sermon were, first, that God planned salvation in such an awesome way so that He would get all the glory. Really, now, the song we will be singing in Revelation 5:4-9 is a chorus of praise for His great work of salvation. And since we are humbled before yet exalted with Christ {!}, we are happiest when we see Him get all the glory. Yes, yes, yes! Secondly, I loved how Pastor Crotts highlighted that we are God's workmanship. Our salvation was the work of a virtuoso, our sanctification the masterpiece of a superb artist. He even designed the good works He would have us do beforehand (Ephesian 2:10, and an excellent throwback to Pastor Elliff's sermon)! Yeah, salvation is exciting. God is awesome. The end.

As if that were not enough joy and food for application for one day, there was another message preached by Glenn Dunn on "Unity, Liberty, and Charity" because FIRE's motto is "In essentials Unity, in nonessentials Liberty, and in all things Charity." Taken from Ephesians 4 and John 17 mainly, the thrust of this message was that our unity is centered on truth. When we throw truth away, we throw away the possibility of Christian communion. We see Jesus praying in the garden for us to be united in truth (His word is truth), and He prayed this right before He went to the cross, so obviously this was very important to Him. That ought to sober us up straightaway. These were "last words" requests, and His work has made His request a sure reality. Pastor Dunn outlined four areas to grow in for unity: 1) Love ~ we love because He first loved us, 2) Mind ~ we have the mind of Christ being formed in us, and His mind is definitely not divided, 3) Evangelism ~ fellowship among believers is an amazing witness to the lost, for they will know us because our love one for another, and 4) Purpose ~ we are united in our goal and aim, God's glory. That is our chief end, and if we are all working to the same goal, of course we must be and behave in unity. May God be glorified in His people!
Not exactly the point of the conference, but, hey, it's important.
That is all for today. It certainly got me singing a tune! I expect tomorrow's lineup will be just as good. Since I covered the introduction here, tomorrow's post should be shorter than this doozy of an info message.

*Without getting into too much detail, FIRE (Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals) is a group of churches and pastors who rally around the sufficiency of Scripture and the sovereignty of God, and their conferences are basically these pastors sitting around and talking about it. Oh, and coffee and food and note-taking on tiny digital apparatuses, mainly iPads. And wonderful fellowship. And books!!!