So I (Aaron) have been looking back over my notes from the 2011 European Nazarene Leadership Conference this week, and I got so excited about some of the ideas and issues presented by Dr. Len Sweet, Rev. Jon Middendorf, and a couple of guest devotional speakers that I wanted to share some of the highlights with you.
This first installment is taken from Pastor Jon's first devotional message on the night of 17 January, about the love of God and how our perceptions of him (and it) shape our faith and practice.
Jon's jump-off text was from the sermon on the Mount (a passage that's a personal favorite of mine): "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled by men...in the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven." (Matthew 5:13, 16, NIV)
Jon began by positing that the ways we see God directly shape the way that we reflect his image to others. "What your God looks like -your functioning image of God- is an excellent indication of what your faith and your ministry look like," he noted. "And I'm not sure that it's possible to minister effectively without a specific image of God to communicate."
Jon therefore argued that our perceptions of God ought to be deeply rooted in our understanding of his central attribute: love. For this Jon pointed to Paul's explanation of God's love from Romans 5:8. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8, NIV) In other words, Jon argued, God's love for us (his children) is both unconditional and prevenient! "If we are saved, it has a lot more to do with God than it does with us," he poignantly observed. "This is the work of grace."
Jon closed with an illustration of God's love taken from his real-life experience as a pastor, an incident that touched my and especially Brit's lives quite directly: the story of Ron & Allison Lester.
Allison was a high school friend of Brit's at OKC First, and she suffered from a fatal disease that severely stunted the growth of her skeletal structure and made it difficult for her to breathe. Allison outlived her doctors' initial diagnosis by more than a decade, but finally succumbed to her disease shortly after her high school graduation. When the time came, Ron (Allison's dad) rode with Allison in the ambulance that transported her to the hospital for the last time.
When Jon and Brit arrived at the emergency room, Ron was sitting up straight on the gurney, supporting Allison in his arms as she struggled for life; it was the only position they had found in which she was able to breathe. "And there in that emergency room, I finally found my image of God," Jon related (through his tears, and mine, and Brittany's). "He's the God who cradles us in his arms...because he loves us so, and because it's the only way we can breathe."
PS: Pastor Jon preached Alison's funeral at OKC First in 2005. The sanctuary was packed with her fellow congregants and friends (like Brit) and people who knew or had worked with Ron (like me and my grandfather). Jon also sang a song -Chris Rice's Untitled Hymn- and every time I hear it I think about Ron and Allison on that gurney, and about God's love for his children.