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!!!

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