"The Blessing That Keeps On Blessing"

The root word for blessing is used often in Scripture and in its simplest form can be defined as “Spiritual and material benefits given by God to be enjoyed.” [1]  On June 19th, 2014, I celebrated the second most significant blessing in my life; a blessing that keeps on blessing.  As a believer in Jesus Christ, my greatest blessing is that I have been adopted as a son of God.  Through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ my sins past, present and future have been paid for and I rest in the truth that the Holy Spirit is continuing to transform me into the likeness of my Brother, Friend and Savior Jesus Christ.  That by far is the greatest blessing any human being could ever receive . . .  a blessing that keeps on blessing!

However the blessing I celebrate today comes through my parents Jim and Gloria Orner as they celebrate 60 years of marriage.  The further that I get in this journey we call life the more I am amazed by them.  They met while students at Moody Bible Institute and spent almost 40 years on the mission field in Africa.  During those years God gave them four children; Roger, Marsha, Doug and myself.   If my math is correct, they have 10 living grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.   God used their words, prayers and faithful witness to draw me to Himself.  In other words they blessed me with their faithful love for Jesus which led me to the first and greatest blessing!  Even more significant are the grandchildren who have all been blessed in the same way. 

Second to their love for Jesus was their love for each other.  No marriage is perfect and I am sure they had challenges, but from this kid’s perspective I never doubted that they loved each other.  It was clear in how they talked to one another, worked through differences, and by sitting next to each other or holding hands whenever possible.  It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered how rare that was!  It is a tremendous blessing for a child to grow up having no fear of their parents leaving each other.  Their love for each other made the unconditional love the showed for me tremendously rich… yes a blessing that keeps on blessing!

Beyond their love for each other was an unconditional love for each of their children.  As the youngest I am often harassed by my siblings for being spoiled and getting away with more, but not one of us doubts their love for us.  They had a way of overfilling each of the love tanks though each of us is quite different.  I never felt manipulated by them.  They did not shame or compare me to my siblings, they just loved me!  This built into me a sense of security that many children never get to experience.  But most importantly it gave me a real life example of the unconditional love of Jesus!  That is a priceless gift that no words can describe.  Yes, a blessing that keeps on blessing!

It has been 33 years since I left home, yet our relationship has continued to deepen.  Dad often gets discouraged because the years have taken a toll on his body and mind.  Yet even though we cannot communicate at the level we once did, our times together remain precious.  Mom’s cooking tastes better as the years go by with each bite taking me back to days long past.  Many of those memories are of a table surrounded by guests who often showed up without notice.  Hospitality was simply a way of life, and though I cannot prove it scientifically, I believe I experienced a miracle more than once as mom’s Sloppy Joes feed more people than they should have! A blessing that keeps on blessing!

Beyond their love for Jesus, their love for each other, their love for the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and their love for any who showed up at their door, was their faithful prayer for each one of us.  In a world that undervalues prayer, they made it a priority and because of that I have been deeply blessed.  Words cannot describe the comfort and confidence I have for each new day knowing that they have lifted me before they throne of grace.  Their prayers have truly been a blessing the keeps on blessing!


Mom and Dad, thank you for dying to yourselves and taking up the cross to follow Jesus!  Thank you for being a blessing that keeps on blessing, a blessing that we enjoy as celebrate with you now, but one that will pass on to many generations to come.  May “the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)

[1] Manser, M. H. (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes.

Wisdom and Innocence


"I want you to be wise to what is good and innocent to what is evil.
(Romans 16:19b) 

It may be my post 50 slanted perspective on life, or possibly because I work at an institution of higher learning, however it seems to me that innocence has become a negative characteristic if you are past the age of seven.  Somehow innocence is equated with “narrow-mindedness, naiveté or even anti-intellectualism. I can't tell you how many times I have felt the awkwardness of having not seen, read, or even heard about some internet discussion or phenomena!   I am not sure what happens, but some inner high schooler comes out in me when I am not in the know.   

Webster’s Dictionary gives us three uses of the noun "innocence."  They are "a: the state of being not guilty of a crime or other wrong act, b: lack of experience with the world and with bad things that happen in life, and c: lack of knowledge about something."   My concern here is not with definition "a" but rather confusion Christians may have over definitions "b" and "c"[1].   I am totally convinced that people are to be lifelong students.  After all I am a pastor and a professor!  Knowledge is good and we live in age were information is more readily available than ever before.  Read! Learn! Study!

Nevertheless, as we take our long swims in the deep warm waters of the internet it is important to do so with a sober understanding that not all knowledge is helpful or beneficial.  In other words, it is a not a negative characteristic to have a level of innocence past the age seven.  Though I am a recovering legalist, my intent is not to bash the internet or the times we live in.  I happen to believe this an exciting period to be alive.  This is simply a challenge to invest your mental time wisely.  It is a reminder that it is actually healthy to be innocent in regard to much of the information that is readily available and specifically "what is evil."  

Why don't we ask the God of all grace to build in us a passion for all that is good and revulsion to the evil that we all experience?  You see Paul's challenge in Romans 16:19 is not only a contrast between "good" and "evil" but a distinction between simply knowing about "evil" and the understanding a "good" that comes through experience. In other words through "tasting and seeing that the LORD is good" (Psalm 34:8).

Think about this for a minute.  People who are "wise to what is good" are those who have been impacted by the Gospel.  They have experienced the goodness of God in ways that are beyond explanation.  They bask in the comfort of His grace.   Being "wise to what is good" then not only brings comfort to our troubled souls, but enables and empowers us to be agents of good to those with whom we live, work and play.  On the other hand "what is evil” tends to exhaust, discourage, and often incapacitate us.  

The Professional Evangelist - Part 1

As we continue to look at the history of evangelism in the United States we see a new pattern developing as it didn't take long for the Great Awakening to move beyond the walls of the church. Englishman George Whitefield (1715-1770) made several trips to America, preaching to crowds far too large to fit in any church building.  Whitfield who often preached on a daily basis to thousands at a time saw many converts.  

A friend and contemporary of Whitfield was Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764) whose father is known for his “log college” seminary training. Gilbert and his brothers John and William Jr. were passionate evangelists.  Gilbert, who gained recognition as a traveling evangelist in the northeast, followed Whitfield’s ministry in Boston and traveled from church to church preaching several times a day in Boston and the surrounding communities.

Like Whitfield, Gilbert was a passionate preacher who was once described as 

“Frequently both terrifying and searching” as in Edwardian fashion “exhibited the dreadful holiness, justice, law, threatening, truth, power, [and] majesty of God; and His anger with rebellious, impenitent, unbelieving and Christless sinners; the awful danger they were every moment in of being struck down to hell, and being damned forever; with the amazing miseries of that place of torment . . . It was not merely, nor so much, his laying open the terrors of the law and wrath of God, or damnation in hell; as the laying open their many vain and secret shifts and refuges, counterfeit resemblances of grace, delusive and damming hopes, their utter impotence, and impending danger of destruction; whereby they found all their hopes and refuges of lies to fail them and themselves exposed to eternal ruin, unable to help themselves, and in a lost condition.  This searching preaching was both suitable and principle means of conviction” [1].


The work of these itinerate evangelists was not without controversy as their zealous and creative methods caused a schism in the Presbyterian church commonly referred to as the “Old Side-New Side Controversy.”    The primary concern of those in the Old Side was the new evangelistic methods being widely used.  As a means to curb men like Gilbert Tennent, presbyteries placed restrictions on them by requiring approval prior to preaching outside of a church.  In addition, educational requirements for all men seeking ordination were implemented. The New Side, who often embraced these new methods, accused the Old Side of having no passion for the lost; some accused those on the Old Side of not being unconverted! Though only lasting sixteen years, the schism played into much larger changes that would be coming to America. 

Though the old school-new school controversy was quieted, the problem did not go away and continued to grow.  Magnetic and gifted populist preachers “associated virtue with ordinary people and exalted the vernacular in word, print, and song” [2].  The result was a collision of the canon of American religious history – deeply rooted in respectable intellectualism and cohesive institutions – with a populist religious chaotic situation led by men and women from the uneducated lower class.  Hatch adds: At the same time, British clergy were confounded by their own gentility in trying to influence working-class, America exalted religious leaders short on social graces, family connections, and literary education.  The religious activists pitched their messages to the unschooled and unsophisticated.  Their movements offered the humble a marvelous sense of individual potential and collective aspiration (1989:5).

Men like Francis Asbury, were part of this new movement and saw it as his obligation to condescend to people of low estate, while Peter Cartwright recast the gospel in familiar idiom.  Most notably, they welcomed the commoner into their ministry, “creating a cadre of preachers who felt and articulated the interests of the ordinary people” (1989:8).   These Methodist preacher/evangelists traveled the country speaking at camp meetings primarily held in a central rural setting where people traveled too and set up camp.  These camp meetings were new brands of revival marked by emotional excitement and bizarre manifestations such as shouting, barking, dancing, fainting and the jerks; all considered to be signs of the Holy Spirit’s work.  

To be continued . . . 




[1] W.L. Muncey Jr.
 1945 A History of Evangelism in the United States. Kansas City, Kansas: Central Seminary Press. (p.33)
[2] Hatch, Nation O.
1989    The Democratization of American Christianity.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (p.5).

The Pastor Evangelist


As we look back at the history of evangelism in United States it is evident that the primary means has changed.  Early evangelistic efforts in the United States were centered on the local community and done through the efforts of the local church.  Men like Dutch Reformed Pastor Theodore Frelinghuysen (1692-1747) who upon coming to the colonies in the early 1700’s was saddened by the spiritual condition of the churches and preached the necessity of a “vital religious experience.”  A fervent evangelist, Frelinghuysen was in many ways a forerunner to the Great Awakening.

Frelinghuysen was influenced by Pia Desidera or “Heartfelt Desire for God-pleasing Reform” written by pietist Phillip Spencer in 1675.  The third section of this influential book was entitled Proposals to Correct Conditions in the Church, which included 1) a renewed focus on “a more extensive use of the Word of God” privately, to the family and studied in groups.  2) The priesthood of all believers with the goal to see more laity involved in the ministry of the church. 3) A greater emphasis on the believer putting their faith into practice, 4) and an avoidance of needless debate by placing love above dispute, “as no soul would be won through dispute.”  5) His longest proposal advocated a change in how pastors were trained as he emphasized the place of piety or personal spirituality along with that of formal training.  6) Last, he proposed that sermons use loving persuasion to edify rather than be displays of rhetoric or intellectual argument.

The most well-known evangelist of the First Great Awakening was New England pastor and evangelist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Edwards began his ministry as an apprentice under his grand-father Solomon Stoddard. When he later became the minister of that church in Northampton he too became concerned about the spiritual deadness in the church, and as a result preached a sermon on the doctrine of justification by faith alone that resulted in a tremendous work of the Holy Spirit.  This appears to have caught him by surprise as he wrote, “the spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in.  Revival grew, and souls did as it were come by floods to Christ.”  Edwards, who saw tremendous fruit in his evangelistic efforts, primary focus was a reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit as he faithfully preached in a church setting.    

Holistic Evangelism

As part of my teaching responsibilities at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando I teach several classes that fall under the category “practical theology.”  I will not bore you with a discussion on how I believe all theology should be practical, but go on to say one class that falls under that designation is Evangelism.  As required by our academic dean I had done my due diligence and submitted the syllabus for the class several months earlier.  This particular class was a summer intensive and therefore needed special attention.  As I reviewed the materials and prepared my lectures, I found myself highly skeptical of my own material!  I was going to make twenty plus students sit Monday through Friday from 9 to 4 for this?  Not only was it boring, but it was the “same ole stuff.”  Though I had consulted with a close friend and faithful evangelist – who interestingly was the one who came up with the two diagnostic questions used in Evangelism Explosion – something simply was not right. 

As someone who planted a church and spent over a decade training and coaching church planters, I had a good grasp of what methods of evangelism were working and what ones weren’t.  I understood the challenges of evangelism in a post modern, post Christendom context presented and was prepared to address that in the class.  Nevertheless, I was convinced that what I was offering would inform, but not motivate.  I scrapped the entire course outline and started over.     

As any good preacher should do, I set aside time to pray and reflect on what was going on in my heart.  Then it hit me.  I was not excited about the material because it was not addressing the issues in my own heart!  I was like a revival preacher condemning the evils of alcohol while sipping on whiskey in a Styrofoam cup to get me through the sermon!  How could I effectively teach others to do evangelism when it as not a rhythm in my own life.

Some of you may assume the professor teaching on a topic they no longer practice is typical seminary modus operandi, but in my case something had changed.  Looking back over my twenty five years of church ministry, which included youth ministry, church planting, and serving as a lead pastor, I have been honored to see people from every stage of life come to faith in Jesus Christ.  In fact, both students and parishioners have often heard me say that as a pastor my two favorite events are the birth of a new child, and the rebirth of convert.  Both are exhilarating and joyous occasions.   

So what changed in my life?  How had I gone over two years without seeing any conversions, or more poignantly, shared the Gospel?  Unfortunately, those two years pointed back to the time when I left my church ministry and started working at the seminary.   Prior to joining the seminary, I had served as the lead pastor of the church my wife and planted south west of Atlanta, Georgia.   There, we were surrounded by two groups of people.  Those who participated in our church, and an assorted mix of non-Christian friends we had come to love during our time there.  The non-Christian friends were a regular part of our lives, and they watched us as we lived our lives in front of them.  Please understand, these were not people we simply targeted to do some “life on life” evangelism with, they were our friends.  In fact, at one difficult point in the early years of our church plant, one of them heard that due to financial constraints we weren’t going to get paid that month.  One morning while I was mowing the grass behind our house, he stopped me, and said, “I made a little extra money this week and thought you could use this.”  After handing me an envelope he left.   Looking inside, I found a $1000 dollars in cash!  My family’s ministry story is riddled with accounts of non-Christians who loved on us!

It has long been our prayer that God would give us the grace so that our “daily lives may win the respect of outsiders” (1 Thessalonians 4:12).  And I believe God heard our prayer as we became a source of hope and comfort.  These “outsiders” were attracted to our lives and regularly asked us to pray for them, and sought counsel from us.   These friends introduced us to other friends, and when there was a funeral or a wedding, I was often invited to not just conduct it, but join in with the family.   

In moving to Orlando, it was my intent to establish new friendships in the community where we live.  I was convinced that working at the seminary, and not serving as a pastor would actually give more time to develop new relationships.  Much to my shame the opposite had happened as I let seminary work consume my life.  Without being aware of what was happening, I had not only moved to a new city, but for the first time in my ministry career I had moved into the Christian ghetto.  In fact, we had become so busy that hospitality in our home ceased to exist.  Oh, we had an excuse!  Not only were we too busy, but we had rented a 1950’s Florida style cottage in Winter Park as we looked for a home to purchase.  It was small, quirky, mustard colored; a house waiting to be torn down for a new more glorious “mcmansion” to be built in its place.  In other word’s we were living in the “hood” of our neighborhood!  

Our entire ministry was either at the seminary, preaching in different churches or the Sundays we did children’s church!  My time and energy was spent entirely on fellow Christians!  And I was going to teach a class on evangelism!  I was so convicted by this that I almost went down to witness to some homeless people. And I was only considering that because I had no trips planned where I could witness to the person sitting next to me on the plane!

I didn't end up doing any sniper evangelism, but rather spent time with the Father confessing the coldness of my heart and asking him to show me what to do with the class.  As I prayed, studied and reflected, God used my failure’s to put together a perspective on evangelism that is unique in the United States and Canada.  It is a model rooted in “being” rather than “doing.”  It does not require intense training, there is nothing you need to memorize, and is not just for those with the “gift” of evangelism. It is for every follower of Jesus. 


Over the coming months I am going to take you along with me on the journey of turning this class into a book.  It won't be a model for quick evangelism training in preparation for a short term mission trip or to work at a soup kitchen.  This project is for those who want to experience the Gospel in a new and deeper way and “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19a).  It is for those who long to personally experience the re-birth of someone they deeply love.  This is for those of you want to join in the great adventure of seeing King Jesus “seek and save the lost.” 

Stay tuned as we start by looking back at how we got here . .  evangelistically speaking that is! 
   

Passing on the Big Stage

Below is an article for Bloomington, Illinois' The Daily Pantagraph about my late grandfather Rev. R.J. Zehr.  There is a lot that I admire about him - as seen from my earlier blog - however this article reminded me of his commitment to community or region where he served.  As you will see in the article, he was given the opportunity to a national radio program in the day when radio was king.  However, he passed on the "golden microphone" to say focused on the people with whom he lived, worked and played 

Looking back it is clear that he made the right decision.  Ture, he never got the name recognition of others in his era - many who were his friends - and as a result I am confident that you never heard of him.  Nevertheless, he got to know his people and his community and in the end had an incredibly fruitful ministry.  He earned the respect from those in and outside the church as he stayed focused on loving and serving the people right in front of him.

It has only been in recent years that I have come to appreciate his decision as I see countless men more concerned about their notoriety then they are about be faithful service to Jesus, His people and their community.  Yes, they get far too concerned with the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers, but my primary concern is that they preach to the world wide web and not the people sitting right in front of them.  As result they miss the very people that God has called them to shepherd!

The next time you preach, will you pause and think about who you are REALLY preaching too?  If you are preaching to your web audience, why are you doing it?  Has God called you to that, or are you hoping to be discovered?  

10 Acres, 5 Cows, and 150 White Minorcas

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the impact that Ben Haden had on my life.  Another important pastor in my life was mom's father Rev. R.J. Zehr.  I doubt any of you have heard of him, and if he were still with us, he and I would probably have some interesting theological discussions . . . nevertheless he is one of my spiritual heroes!

Much of what I have come to appreciate about him came long after his death.  Oh don't get me wrong, he was a fun grandpa!  My deeper appreciation came after God called me to the life of a pastor. Grandpa Zehr was the son of Mennonite Pastor who migrated to central Illinois from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century.  He only had one year of formal training at Moody Bible Institute before beginning his pastoral ministry.  I believe East White Oak Mennonite Church, was his second and only church he served.  He and the church left the Mennonite denomination in the 1930s, and became East White Oak Bible Church.  He was there, and the church still growing when the Lord took him home in 1971.  

The article below which was published sometime in the late 1920's really needs no commentary.  Nevertheless, I am struck by his passion for ministry, and despite it being a large church for a rural setting, a modest or shall we say meager salary.