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January 2017

My Farewell Address: The Meaning of Life

What does one say in a farewell address?

In biblical times, we have a record of parting words from people such as Jacob (Genesis 49:1-33), Joseph (Genesis 50:24-26), Moses (Deuteronomy 31:1 - 32:47), Joshua (Joshua 24:22-28), David (1Chronicles 29:10-20), Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20 and John 13-17) and Paul (Acts 20:18-25).

In modern times, we can consider the farewell speeches of kings, presidents and prime ministers, as well as sports personalities, actors and entertainers. Whether it's Michael Scott saying 'goodbye' on the TV series The Office, Truman exiting The Truman Show (“In case I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night!”) or Bilbo Baggins's speech in Lord of the Rings at his 111th birthday party ("I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve!"), we all seek to say something meaningful in significant moments such as this.

I am 55 years of age and I see and feel things very differently than when I was younger. Life goes way too fast, kids grow up far too quickly, and as a result you start to ask questions about what it all means and what really matters. 

People have grappled with the question of the meaning of life since time began - whether it be Solomon, the ancient philosophers, or Victor Frankl and his associates in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust wondering what they would live for ... if they survived. 

For me, there are three pursuits worth giving my life for:

1. Love God.

CSEach human being is born with longings and cravings for something or Someone beyond themsevles - for transcendence. C.S. Lewis once said,  “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

God is personal and if we seek him with all our heart we will find him. I first heard God speaking to me when I was 19 years of age as I meditated on the story of a young boy named Samuel in 1 Samuel chapter 3 of the Old Testament. It's one thing to know about God or even to study God but it is another thing to have a relationship with him. Some people find God within the walls of a church. Others find him outside of the halls of religion. After all, the whole world is a Temple where God dwells. We are each invited into the life of God who is Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit. Some days God is silent .... but God is always there. 

Jesus himself said that the most important commandment was to " love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind" (Matthew 22:37-38).

2. Love People.

Jesus went on to say, "A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:39-40). Jesus summarised over 600 Jewish laws into two simple practices: love God and love people. 

Elsewhere, Jesus gave us some good advice as to how to truly love people:

“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12. NLT

We call it the Golden Rule: think about how you want to be treated, then grab the initiative and treat people that way, especially those who are different than you. If you are white, what would it like to be black? If you are straight, what would it be like to be gay? If you are an Australian citizen, what would it be like to be a refugee? If you are a Christian, what would it be like for a Muslim or a Hindu to move into the neighborhood? If you are healthy, what would life be like in a wheel chair? 

Sadly, in many parts of our world, Christianity has degenerated into primarily a ‘system of beliefs’ rather than a ‘way of life’ characterised by love. Jesus did not say, “The world will know that you are my disciples by your statement of faith”. In fact, the Bible isn't a theology book… it is a grand redemptive narrative - a love story of God at work in our world throughout history. People write theology - some of it is good and some of it isn't (because it doesn’t reflect God accurately). Even our creeds are inadequate. The famous Apostle’s Creed, often used as the marker of orthodox Christianity, doesn't even mention love or justice, two topics Jesus constantly talked about. It also has no reference to mission, something Jesus was passioante about in his farewell address (Matthew 28:18-20)!

So let's hold our beliefs, statements of faith, and creeds lightly. Don’t be too quick to push people away who see or believe differently. Try saying something like, “Help me understand.” But let's hold love very firmly. It is the mark of a true follower of Jesus.

3. Serve the World.

BoothIt is said that the Founder of The Salvation Army, General William Booth, once sent a telegram to officers around the world to remind them of the main focus of their work. The telegram contained only one word - "others." That single word captured the foundation for the entire organisation.

In the same way, God desires each one of us to discover, develop and deploy our gifts and talents for the benefit of others. The apostle Peter put it this way:

1 Peter 4:10. God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. NLT

Life is not about YOU. Don’t end your life only to look back and find it was a SELFIE video!

When we look at all of the problems in the world today, it is easy to ask why God doesn't do something. But the prophet Isaiah tells us that God is actually waiting for us to act!

Isaiah 59:16. "God was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed." NLT

As they say in chess, “It’s your move!”

Chess

P.S. You can watch the video of the entire farewell service at CityLife here. My message starts just after the 59:50 minute mark.

See also Time to Say Goodbye

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The Stresses of Church Work

STRESS_Open

I would never suggest that pastors and church leaders work harder than other people ... but church work has its unique challenges and pressures.

Here are five of them:

1. Ministry work is never done. It is open ended. There is never full closure. There is always more to do. It just keeps coming at you - day after day, week after week. There are no finish lines. Finish one counselling appointment and there's another one coming. Get through last weekend and there's another one coming. Preach that sermon and you'll need to start preparing the next one - and it needs to be even better (the continual pressure of forced creativity). Today a baby is born. Such joy. Tomorrow, a church member dies, a tense conflict erupts, or a married couple files for divorce. Such sadness and pain. It's an emotional rollercoaster. And it just keep going. Ministry is relentless. Listen to talk-back radio on Friday afternoons and everyone is saying, "Thank God it's Friday!" Listen to pastors and they're probably thinking, "My God, it's Friday!"

2. There are no boundaries. Ministry and church work will fill as much of your life as you allow it too. Most people have a job, a family and a church community they are a part of. There is usually appropriate segmentation between those spheres. Have a problem with someone at work? At least you can head home or to church and put it behind you for a little while. Have a problem at home? At least you can go to work and get it off your mind for a bit. Pastors don't have that privilege. Work is church is family. One big circle. If something isn't going well, it fills all your world.

3. Not everyone likes you and your family. This is really hard to understand - because us pastors  are such nice people! But it is a reality of life. Criticism will continually come and often from people who really don't even know you. 

4. You can never please everyone all of the time. At any given moment in time, someone is not happy with the way things are. There isn't enough worship, Bible teaching, evangelism, prayer, social justice, mission, or whatever. The sermons are too shallow or too deep, too funny or too serious, too long or too short. The music is too loud or too soft. The lights are too bright or the room is too dark. It goes on and on and on.

5. Much of your life is in the fish bowl. Everyone is watching you and your family ... all of the time. I can never forget going to a men's public toilet on my day off while Nicole was shopping. I was standing at the urinal doing what men do, when someone leant over and said,"Excuse me, are you Mark Conner?" They had heard of me and obviously wanted to chat. Can't even pee in peace!

All of this adds up to quite a lot of stress. No wonder there are 13,000 ex-pastors in Australia today and surveys reveal that 50% of those still in church work are emotionally depleted, depressed or clinically burnt out. It's not easy work.

That's why pastors need our support, encouragement, and prayers.

Of course, it is possible to not only survive the pressures of church work but to actually thrive as a pastor or church leader. How? Only through healthy habits


What's Next?

Whats-next-jpg

After you say goodbye, what's next?

What’s Next for Me
I’ve been on church staff for the last 32 years and led the worship ministry as a volunteer for 5 years before that … so that's 37 years of continuous leadership responsibility. You can’t question my commitment :)

Now that I am finished with my Senior Minister staff role, I will take a few months off - a rest, a 'drinks break', a sabbath.

On top of the full array of regular Sunday church services over the last 30-40 years, I've been involved in Saturday night church services for 18 years now and double services for about 8 years. That's some crazy busy weekends. And a lot happens between weekends. Just like chefs know that a meal is gobbled up much quicker than the time it took to prepare it, so ministry preparation takes much more time than the actual ministry moments of meetings led, sermons preached, or people interacted with. My last sermon as Senior Minister only lasted a little over 30 minutes ... but it took 55 years to prepare. 

I am not retiring. Once our rest time is over, we will be open to any new assignments that God may bring our way. 

What's Next for CityLife

CityLife is Jesus' church. I didn't start it. It was already 28 years old when I became its leader and I've done my best to lead it over the last 22 years. A new season is about to begin.

Change is not always easy. There will be some grief and some loss. But endings make way for new beginnings. Yes, things will be different but the church’s mission remains the same.

I've encouraged the church to give the next Senior Minister, Andrew Hill, and his wife Leanne, their full support, encouragement, and prayer. After all, church ministry can be quite stressful (see my next post: The Stresses of Church Work).

Jesus said to his disciples that it would be good that he left because then he would send the Holy Spirit. I'm not suggesting I'm Jesus (!) nor is Andrew the Holy Spirit but change can be a good thing. I’ve given 22 years of my life to this role and I believe I have brought the church as far as I can. CityLife will benefit from new leadership with abundant energy and fresh vision for its next chapter.

Coming Up: My Farewell Address


Time to Say Goodbye

Fare

Last weekend was my final weekend speaking at CityLife Church as it's Senior Minister. It was a very emotional time for both Nicole and myself, but with a real sense of celebration of all that God has done. We are deeply grateful for the many words of encouragement, 'thank you' notes, gifts (I felt like a Christmas tree!), and the parting love offering from the congregation. Thanks to Peter Sheahan and the Board of Elders, as well as Peter Leigh and Daljit Gill for arranging all of this. We felt very honoured. 

It has been an honour and a privilege to be the Senior Minister at CityLife for the last 22 years. Nicole and I are very grateful for the opportunity we have had to serve this amazing group of people over so many years. I’ve grown, I’ve changed, I've learnt a lot (often through my mistakes!) and I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to use my gifts, build relationships, create meaningful experiences, and see God work in and through our church.

I am very proud of who CityLife has become - particularly the culture of welcome, generosity and outreach that pervades the church. The Church has grown in size and quality, men and women serve and lead alongside each other (some of our best leaders, pastors and speakers are women), there has been no scandal, and we have had healthy leadership transitions. Of course, my greatest joy has been intersecting with God's work in individual people's lives. I only wish I had had more time to slow down and speak to each person, hearing more of their story and getting to know them better. That's hard with around 10,000 people who now call CityLife their church home.

As I reflect on the last 32 years of being on church staff, it is very clear to me that, “No one achieves anything alone!” At this time, I want to give thanks to:

  • Our founding pastor, Richard Holland, for believing in me as as 20Something and encouraging me into church ministry.
  • My parents, Kevin and Joyce Conner, for all they have sown into my life since I was a child.
  • The church leadership team of elders, staff, ministry leaders, and volunteers who I have served alongside over the years. Special thanks to my personal assistant Sue Veal and to Peter Leigh and Daljit Gill, my two associates for over 20 years. I couldn't have done it without you!
  • Our faithful prayer partners: Gurmit Gill, Stan and Coral Leigh, Miva, Anthony Storey, Linda Leigh, Anne Otyek and Ray Henderson.
  • Finally, thanks to my family - our three amazing kids, Josiah, Ashley and Natasha (who have sacrificed a lot and have been my best fans ... and critics!), and to Nicole - still my best friend after 30 years of marriage. My most enjoyable and effective years were when we were leading side by side. I look forward to our future together.
  • And most of all to God … without him I could be or have done nothing. I am indebted to his daily grace, wisdom, courage, strength and faithfulness over so many years now.

Many of you know my story, but let me recap … 

I'm a PK, a "Preacher's Kid", or a TO as my dad used to call me - a "Theological Offspring". When I was younger, my dad used to say to me, "If you can get out of church miniustry, son, get out of it! But if God has called you, you won't escape it." Well, that "call" did come, and quite early - at the age of 10. I wasn't sure how it would unfold, but it did. First through worship ministry, then youth ministry, and eventually as as Senior Minister. 

In many ways, I consider myself a “reluctant leader”. Not that I don't enjoy leading but I’ve been thrown into the deep end many times with new responsibilities. Over time I have learnt a lot and eventually I have really enjoyed everything I have done ... but before long, another door seems to open. In many ways, my journey has been very much about responding to opportunities that have come my way, to new open doors, and to other people's encouragement.

Why change now?

This is not a sudden or reactionary move. I considered another 5 years or 10 years but "sooner rather than later” seemed to be the best decision for me and the church. I remember praying one morning and asking God, “Would you be okay if I finished up as Senior Minister?" I sensed a warm smile and a softly spoken ,"Of course." A calling is never meant to be linked or bound to a particular role or expression of ministry. We must follow our curiosity and not allow a calling to ever become a sense of duty or obligation. Nicole once asked me, "Would you apply for your job today, if you didn't have it?" That's a good question. I enjoy a lot of what I do but CityLife has become a very large organisation, the Senior Minister role is a big responsibility, and it is a burden that never goes away. I'm at a stage in life where I'd like a smaller world not a bigger one, a slower pace not a faster one, a simpler life not a more complex one. So here we are ...

How do I feel?

Check out my recent poem: The Finish Line.

Coming Up: What's Next? 

In the mean time, you might want to check out Home - Seasons, for some insights on the apostle Paul's departure from 3 years of significant ministry in the city of Ephesus. There are some excellent lessons we can glean from this story about endings and new beginnings. 


Who have you been eating with?

Dinner

One day Jesus was having dinner at the home of one of the top Pharisees (the religious leaders of his day). As always, there was some lively and interesting conversation around the dinner table. Near the end of this meal, this happened ...

Luke 14:12-14. Jesus turned to the host. "The next time you put on a dinner, don't just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You'll be — and experience — a blessing. They won't be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God's people."

Who have you been eating with lately? 


The Story of Your Life

Story-of-your-life

I love the idea of life being like a story. History itself is a narrative of the story of the human race of which we are all a part. Within that grander story, every one of us has a story to tell. Your life is your story. Your story is your life. 

Like a story, your life has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. There is a theme, characters, subplots (work, family, health, happiness, friendship), trajectory, and tone.

 What kind of story is your life?

  • A comedy?
  • A drama?
  • A thriller (horror) movie?
  • A romance or a love story?
  • An action movie?
  • A fairy tale?

In reality, each of our life stories is an EPIC. It’s a long journey with many scenes, experiences, twists and turns, characters, and smaller individual story lines. It's our own personal growth adventure!

Right now, I'm reading a very interesting book called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Scheinderman. Drawing from a number of disciplines, including narrative therapy, she presents life as a spiritual story which we are co-authoring. She suggests that we "can re-imagine ourselves as the hero of our own unfolding story, with the power to reclaim our personal narrative through choice and voice ... rather than remaining entrenched in tales of victimisation and martyrdom."

Here are a few questions for you to reflect on:

1. It's been said that most people spend more time planning their holidays than they do planning their lives. When is the last time you took some extended time aside to think deeply and honestly about your own life?

"Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of the mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering." St. Augustine - Confessions.

2. If you could view your life as a story, what is the 'narrative arc' of your story so far? Are you happy with where the story is going?

3. Who is writing your story? Is it really you ... or are you simply following the scripts of other influential and even well-intentioned people in your life?

"Freedom begins the moment you realise someone else has been writing your story and it's time you took the pen from them and started writing it yourself." Bill Moyers

[Watch the movie The Truman Show for a classic example of a person living out someone else's script]

4. Use a third person lens as you look at your life.

  • Draft a brief character sketch of the main character (the protagonist) of your story - YOU.
  • What does this character want out of life? What are their motivations, dreams, and aspirations? 
  • What is getting in the way? What are the obstacles (or antagonists), whether people, emotions or things?
  • What's at stake? How intense is the character's motivation? How much do they care? What is to gain by overcoming the obstacles? What is to lose by failing to do so?

Notice how different you write about, or see yourself, when taking a somewhat neutral observer/onlooker role.

5. The biblical character of Joseph went through a horrible family ordeal of rejection and betrayal. Yet at the end, when re-united with his brothers, he said, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good" (Genesis 50:20). Without denying his painful past, how did Joseph learn to tell his story from such a redemptive perspective? How can we learn to re-tell our own stories with more of a redemptive spin that allows for God's providence in all things - the good, the bad and the ugly?

"What matters in life is not what happens to you, but how you remember it and how you tell it." Gabriel Garcia Marquez

6. In one of the darkest times of ancient Israel's history, the prophet Jeremiah said this:

"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope." Jeremiah 29:11.

How could this powerfully, positive statement inform your understanding of God's intentions for the remainder of your story, regardless of what has been in your past?

Whatever your story has been so far, may your next chapter truly be your best chapter yet!

See also: Storyline: Understand your Story

Psalm 9:11. Sing your songs to Zion-dwelling God, tell his stories to everyone you meet. MB

Psalm 145:4. Generation after generation stands in awe of your work; each one tells stories of your mighty acts. MB

Matthew 13:3. Using the boat as a pulpit, Jesus addressed his congregation, telling stories. MB

Mark 4:30. Jesus said, "How can we picture God's kingdom? What kind of story can we use?" MB