For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Friday, October 12, 2018

My Last TICOS Post...And The Last Verse of the Bible

 "May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen".

This is the last verse of the Bible, and it is a fitting text for my final post as pastor of Trinity International Church of Strasbourg. As the ending words of Scripture, the Holy Spirit magnifies the importance of grace. It is an essential reminder for us as a church family. 

Salvation by grace through faith.
The gospel is at the core of our message as a church. We are guilty sinners and worthy of the wrath of God. But God, in his mercy, graciously sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. Those who repent and believe in him are forgiven and receive eternal life. This salvation is completely undeserved. We deserve wrath and are given forgiveness. It is gift. This is grace. Most people struggle with this concept. Either they think that they must do something to receive grace (go to church, give money to the poor, etc.) or they think that they have done something evil (like adultery, stealing, murder, etc.) that disqualifies them from receiving grace. The grace of God found in the gospel must remain central to what we believe and to our ministry as a church. In fact, if it doesn't, TICOS will cease to be a true church. 

Ongoing walk with God by grace (and the challenges of international life).
One of the ways I have grown in my relationship with God while here at TICOS has been understanding how deeply embedded the idea of the blessings of God being tied to my performance is in my soul. There are things that make me feel worthy of his love that were stripped away in the transition to life here. The result was a fresh discovery of grace.
One of these things was a sense of competence. In the United States I considered myself to be fairly adept in a number of areas, but moving to France meant that those areas were stripped away. Mailing a letter, buying groceries, and understanding street signs all became challenges. While they have become easy with time, the experience of uselessness chipped away at my sense of value. It exposed the fact that I thought I was valuable because of what I could do rather than considering myself valuable because I am loved by God.
Not only that, but the stresses of expat life reveal cracks in our character. Impatience, anger, criticalness and other sins are exposed. This ugliness can make us feel unworthy of God's love. We can think that there is no way God can still love us after we lose our temper (again).  Of course, we are unworthy of God's love, but he loves us anyway. That is the point of grace. And by understanding grace we can start to deal with the the sinful patterns that God has graciously brought to our attention by bringing us to a new place.
This is why the grace of God is so important to the TICOS family. It brings us into the presence of God Almighty.

Grace with others.
It isn't just in our relationship with God that we need to understand grace. We need it in relationship with other people. In order to love others as Christ loved us, we need to extend grace and mercy to other people. We need to live gracious lives. It is not an option but a basic part of following Jesus and is one of the building blocks of church unity. Because churches are made up of redeemed sinners of various degrees of maturity, we will need to extend undeserved and unearned love toward others. We will need to forgive, bear with, and embrace others.

Grace in the International Church - Cultures/Experiences/Short-termers.
An international church like TICOS is a great place to earn a graduate degree in extending grace.  With such a wide variety of cultures and languages coming together, the opportunities for misunderstanding and hurt feelings are around every corner. If we withhold love and acceptance every time someone does something that offends or annoys us, TICOS will become a cold and hard place. With grace, it becomes alive with the presence of God.

Our cultures give us certain expectations about how people "should" behave. We will differ in how free we are to express our opinion, how much we should question leaders, how early (or late) we should come to a worship service or dinner and how long we should stay, etc. For example, bringing a gift when going to someone's home for dinner is a cultural expectation in France. Failure to bring a gift can be seen as being a little rude. A foreigner may learn this and adopt the habit, but even then make mistakes that could easily offend. Like the time we brought a big bouquet of mums as a gift. (In France, mums are only used to decorate graves!) Thankfully, our hostess extended grace rather than being upset.

Our cultures also teach us to interpret things people do and say. "He wouldn't have said 'x' if he really didn't think 'y'" is an equation that is culturally learned. For example, in American culture a mild "put down" of someone is usually a sign of friendship. We wouldn't joke that way with someone we didn't like. In other cultures, it can be considered highly offensive. After all, why would you put down your friend?

On top of cultural differences is the fact that we must deal with multiple languages in TICOS. When we listen to others it is easy to assume we understand what someone means. But if they are not speaking their native language, there is the possibility that they did not actually say exactly what they meant. If we are listening to a native language speaker, we may not have the capacity to interpret what they said. These difficulties were initially designed by God to bring division between people. Overcoming them requires grace.

Grace is also needed because the international church is made up of some people who are "short-termers." They may only be in town for a few months or a year or two. If they choose to get involved, they will need to learn how we do things. This requires grace while they learn because it takes time to figure things out. Then again, some may choose not to get involved in serving. They may not want to commit to something because they are only here for a short time. What an opportunity for those who are "long-termers" to extend grace and love to them while they are here, even if they are not helping in practical ways!

Fortunately, during the five years I have been here in Strasbourg, I have seen the people of TICOS extend grace over and over again. Their love and mercy seems to know no bounds. Their willingness to listen and to understand people from different backgrounds overwhelms me sometimes.

Perhaps that is why I think the perfect final sentence in my final blog article echoes the last verse of the Bible:

May the grace of Lord Jesus be with all the saints 
(and especially my friends at TICOS). 

Friday, October 5, 2018

What Makes TICOS "Work"

My time as pastor at TICOS is rapidly coming to an end. It has been an incredible five years of growth, challenges, and fun. We have had people from over 60 nations into our home. I’ve learned about other languages, cultures, and customs. I’ve worshipped with ambassadors and homeless people, company executives and refugees. What a ride! How is it that a church like TICOS can exist and even thrive with such an enormous variety of people?

You know I am going to say “Jesus”, but I want to help us think about why this is. After all, we live in a city that is home to several multinational organisations. Is TICOS just like them, or is something different at work? What makes TICOS different than other multinational groups? After all, they all deal with issues of language and culture. I think that TICOS is very different. Let me explain.

Our Condition

Deep inside the human condition is a desire to justify ourselves. We want to prove ourselves to be right. This tendency to justify ourselves extends to our relationships with other people. We say we want what is "right" but almost invariably what is "right" is also to our benefit.

We seek to get the things we desire and find reasons that we should get our way instead of someone else getting theirs. Often we appeal to “rules” which we think entitle us to getting what we want. For example, the athlete argues that they should be put in the game because they are faster than another player and will help the team win. Or the worker who argues that they work harder or have more experience so they deserve to be promoted. Or the child who argues that their sister got to choose which TV show to watch last time and it is now their turn to pick. They are appealing to rules to insist that what they want is right or just. They are trying to prove that they entitled to have their way.

These things seem benign, and they may even seem logical, but lurking in them is the intense desire to get what we want and it often spirals in ways that bring deep division.

For example, we may argue that because our country is wealthier our ways should be adopted. Or if we are from a poor country, we will argue that the wealthy have somehow become rich because they have not been fair and it is time to correct the injustice so we get more. The person with power believes "might makes right" while the powerless person says, "power corrupts." Those with an advanced degree will argue that they are more qualified than the person who only has experience. The person with experience will insist that their “on-the-job” learning is much more valuable than sitting in a classroom isolated from the real world. And on and on it goes. They are justifying themselves to get what they want and what they feel they deserve.

Reality check: We don’t really want what we deserve

We spend enormous energy trying to deserve what we want. The message of the Bible is that what we actually deserve is hell. We are rebels against a holy God who is infinitely worthy of both worship and obedience. What we deserve is infinite punishment. All of our self-justifying tendencies are stopped dead in their tracks by the truth of Scripture. All of us are guilty. None deserve mercy. Before God and his perfect justice we stand mute. We have no excuse. There is no justifying our behaviour. We are all guilty.

Becoming a Christian begins with the realisation that we are guilty and do not deserve whatever it is we want. We don’t deserve to get our way with God or with others. Our salvation is completely a gift of God’s grace. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins and those who repent and believe in him are forgiven. His righteousness becomes ours. It is a gift of grace and mercy. Salvation ceases to be a gift of grace if we think it is something we really deserve.

Because salvation is a gift of God’s grace and mercy, boasting of our own righteousness (which is really justifying ourselves) is eliminated. Everything that might have counted to our advantage we now consider as garbage (Philippians 3:2-10). Notice in that passage Paul specifically mentions his nationality. He considers it worthless. He did not cease to be a Jew. In fact, he expressed a special heart for his countrymen (Romans 9:1-5), but his Jewishness gave him no special rights or authority  before God or other people. Neither did his education, his religious zeal, or anything else.

The Gospel and our Relationships 

The fact that we deserve nothing but condemnation and that our salvation is a gift of God’s grace to be received by faith is a game-changer in our relationships. It breaks our pride and our sense of entitlement. It causes us to hold loosely to those things that we once sought value and meaning in. It causes us to be “poor in spirit.” And this is the first characteristic of those who belong to the the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3) and from this characteristic the rest of the Sermon on the Mount follows. 

The result of the gospel working deeply is a person who no longer seeks to justify themselves. They are no longer seeking to get their way. This gospel-centeredness is the key to how TICOS works and it's also the thing that makes us different than an "ordinary" multinational organisation.  We are a people who have been shown incredible mercy who now want to simply love God and love others. We come from a variety of nationalities, but we don’t seek to have our nation’s way of doing things dominate over others because it isn’t our nationality that gives us a sense of value. We come from a variety of careers, but the worldly prestige of our career doesn’t mean that we have any special status in the church because we realise that we don’t deserve anything. 

Having been humbled by the gospel, we seek to learn from others, realising that they may have learned something we don’t know. We seek to honor others in meaningful ways. We seek to bring true peace into our relationships. We seek to encourage one another to pursue Jesus whole-heartedly. We learn from others what being a devoted follower of Jesus might mean for us. We continually turn to the Scriptures to understand what the culture of the kingdom of God is so that we can work to create that culture in our church and in our lives.

The gospel is what makes TICOS work. And it will continue to make TICOS a special place long after I am gone. If I have learned anything at all at TICOS, it is the power of Jesus to unite sinful people from around the world into a community that seeks to love him and love one another together.