Since Monday I’ve been attending the national conference of our church association, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada. This conference is an annual opportunity to hear about what’s happening in our association of churches, talk about the future of our movement, and learn from others in ministry. There’s no question that God is at work in our country. In BC, the number of believers in our churches has grown by 7% and one church reported a baptismal service where 97 people were baptized on a single day. The Fellowship’s Chaplaincy Ministry continues to grow with 54 chaplains serving across the country now in prisons, airports, hospitals, nursing homes, in the military and among first responders. One community worker, ‘the Sensei Chaplain,’ serves with churches to help them teach community children the Bible through karate classes. Karate for Christ has 1200 children involved in six locations learning self-defence, memorizing verses and learning stories from the Bible.
In Ontario, there are currently 36 church plants underway and another 20 in incubation. And eleven couples in Lebanon are preparing to come to Canada as church planters, seeking to work among the growing Arab population and to see Christ lifted up among the refugees that have poured into our country. At last year’s Canadian Church Planting Congress, the Fellowship was the largest contingent with 50 church plants represented. By contrast, one mainline denominational leader who attended to try and learn from what’s happening among Evangelicals, shared that their attrition rates are so high that he has been tasked with selling 2000 church buildings over the next five years.
In between business sessions, Paul Tripp has been encouraging us from the Scriptures. With 17 books to his name, he has been used to speak to the church in unique ways. His book on the perils and pitfalls of pastoral leadership, “Dangerous Calling,” and his encouragement to parents of teens, “Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens,” are two that I have that I can highly recommend. What I didn’t know was that he experienced acute renal failure two years ago – His kidneys were dying and he didn’t know it. His kidneys were only working at 65% and so his body went into spasms as a result. Five surgeries, and a sixth planned, have taught him much about God’s purposes in suffering. He shared some of the lessons he has learned through this time.
He taught from the familiar passage of Jesus walking on the water in Mark 6:45-52. After feeding the 5000, Jesus sends the disciples ahead by boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. On a regular night it would have been a two-hour trip. But despite the fact that they were already on the sea “when evening came” (v.47), they were still “making headway painfully … about the fourth watch of the night” (v.48) which was between 3 am and 6 am. Why would Jesus send the disciples out alone on a night where He must have known that the wind and the waves would be so rough? Clearly, that was where Jesus wanted them.
When they had struggled for about eight hours, Jesus chooses to act. We know the story well and so we’re familiar with the fact that Jesus walked to them on the water and calmed the storm. But Paul Tripp pointed out that if the goal was rescuing the disciples from the storm, He could have very easily done that from the shore. But seeing their struggle, “he came to them, walking on the sea” (v.48). Obviously, He’s in no rush! Couldn’t He at least have jogged to them on the sea? The text adds that “He meant to pass by them” (v.48), meaning that Jesus hoped to make a big enough arc around the boat that they could see Him and find peace and courage from His presence in the storm. Mark uses the same word that the Greek translation of the Old Testament used to describe the scene when God’s glory passed before Moses (Exodus 34:6) and Jesus hoped that this experience would similarly build the faith of the disciples and convince them that He was the one that Job said “trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8).
He wanted them to understand who He was and experience hope and confidence as a result. Instead of encouragement, they were filled with fear, mistaking Him for a ghost. Jesus speaks to them to relieve their fears, He gets into the boat and calms the storm. When Mark says that they were “astonished” (v.51), it’s not a compliment. In fact, despite all of the miracles that they had witnessed, still “their hearts were hardened” (v.52).
I thought of the many times when I’ve just asked God to take my trials away, without thinking what He might be trying to teach me through them. Tripp encouraged us instead to develop a theology of uncomfortable grace: the conviction that God often blesses us with circumstances intended to refine us not just relieve us. The difficulties we face, far from being signs of God’s abandonment, are often His means of showing Himself to us. The storms of life refine and mature us in ways that more comfortable circumstances can’t. But hardened hearts can’t see, so I pray that my heart would be tender to what He’s trying to show me and open to ways He’s trying to refine me. May God do the same in all of our hearts.
In awe of Him,