Friday, March 25, 2011

OnFire #254 Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes?

OnFire Encouragement Letter

OnFire #254 Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes?

I have added two more introductions to Bible books on my website. Isaiah and John are now part of my Bible Reading Tips page


I owe my ministry to people who have taken a chance on me. I wasn’t out of school very long when I found that things don’t always work the same in life as they do in the classroom. What seemed so easy to decipher in a case study was much harder to discern in real time and soon people were beginning to question whether they made a mistake in calling me as their pastor. I didn’t know it at the time, but thankfully there were people who saw something in me and advocated on my behalf. “Just give him a little time” became a kind of byword.

Since then there have been many other times when people have stuck their neck out for me. I know about some of them because I was there when they laid their reputation beside mine. What an encouragement to know someone would stand beside me when I was otherwise alone. It didn’t take long in ministry to understand that I was the newcomer to the church and to the community, and most often people side with those they know best.

It is a risky thing to stand up for someone, really an act of faith, because there is no guarantee that things will work out well. I promised to attend court with someone with a troubled past. On the appointed day I couldn’t find him at the courtroom. His lawyer asked what I knew and I simply told him we had been meeting and he seemed to be taking initiative to change his life. It was a 15-second conversation at most.

When the judge asked where he was, the lawyer gave a little speech saying that he did not know the location of his client, but that his minister (me) was present, he was attending church and that he was taking steps to turn his life. He was simply doing his job, presenting the best side of his client, but I felt used. We later learned that he had stolen his landlord’s van and gone on a joyride to Quebec.

In Acts 9 we see the miraculous conversion of Saul. Jesus appeared to him while he was on the way to Damascus, where he planned a full-scale persecution of believers. We should not doubt that he was going to make good on his “murderous threats,” (9:1*) but this changed when he met Jesus that day.

We have the benefit of being able to read the clear evidence of his conversion. He stopped arresting believers and started preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. Ironically, his own life came under threat and he escaped one night by being lowered outside the city wall in a basket. The church in Jerusalem did not know this. When Saul came back it was hard to believe that this tiger had changed his stripes.

It was Barnabas who saw the change in Saul and took him to the apostles. Once again, he proved his nickname as “Son of Encouragement” by standing at Saul’s side when few would take the risk. Here we see the power of an encourager. Would we have the incredible account of the spread of the gospel in Acts if Barnabas had stayed silent? Without this encourager, would we have so much of the New Testament?

Our churches need encouragers. As a pastor I need encouragement. But more than that, there are people who are trying to make a fresh start by the grace of God. Many times I have seen people shut out of church life by others who think it is just a matter of time before they slip and fall again. I understand this feeling because I’ve been burned a few times myself.

Encouragement is not without its risks and in this we don’t have to be naive. But Barnabas provides an example of the power of encouragement. Can we make room in our hearts to encourage, to stand at the side of people that we are tempted to give up on?

I hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published March 25, 2011. *Scripture taken from the New International Version. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at

Friday, March 18, 2011

OnFire #253 What’s in a Nickname?

OnFire Encouragement Letter

OnFire #253 What’s in a Nickname?

Hi Folks:
Nicknames can be a lot of fun, at least once we get past the mean ones. I was, shall we say, a portly young lad, and 6 year-old boys can be very cruel. But, thankfully, that was a long time ago.

Like I started out to say, nicknames can be a lot of fun. In school there was one boy everyone called “Soup” because his last name was the same as a major brand of canned product. In our college dorm guys picked up names like “Mick” and “Nobby.” Mick rhymed with “Rick,” his real name, and “Nobby” started when someone switched letters of his first and last names.

Our student has picked up the name “Chia,” partly because her own name is hard for us to say properly, and partly because it is a cute name and she is full of fun.

In Honduras last year, I picked up the nickname “Toro,” which is Spanish for bull. It stuck one day as a bunch of us were sharing a laugh while we shovelled sand. “Troy” was hard to pronounce, and I did a lot of the wheelbarrow work. One of the men made horns with his fingers against his head and pointed to me.

I love that Jesus called James and John the “Sons of Thunder.” Were they just so loud? Did they have a roaring kind of laugh? It sounds like the kind of nickname that comes when people enjoy each other’s company.

In Acts 4:36 we read about a man named Joseph who was a Levite from Cyprus. In many ways this tells us that he was a very ordinary kind of guy, but as the verse continues, we see that he picked up a new name from the apostles. They called him “Barnabas,” and Luke translates this as “Son of Encouragement.” What would we call him now? Perhaps “Sunny” ?

Luke introduces us to Barnabas because he will be an important figure at Paul’s side later. He is never again called Joseph in the New Testament, always Barnabas. The name seems to fit, and that’s not a bad way to be known.

For the next little while we’re going to look at what made Barnabas such an encouragement. The first thing we see is that he gave money, but this is not why he was encouraging. Other people in Acts gave money and they were not called encouragers. In fact, this little blurb about Barnabas in Acts 4 leads into a section on Ananias and Sapphira, who gave money but did it with the idea of making themselves look spiritual to other people. It was the way that Barnabas gave the money that was so encouraging. There was no pretense, no hidden agenda, no strings, just a spirit of generosity and wanting to help.

As a teenager, I was once asked by a good-looking girl to go to a banquet with her. Normally this would have been very exciting because I didn’t get that many offers. The way she asked me, however, suggested that she was hiding something, or perhaps she was making sport of me. I had heard her making fun of people to her friends, and I suspected I was next. The same offer from someone who genuinely cared would have been very different.

That was what made Barnabas stand out. His generosity and kindness was sincere. No one doubted the spirit or manner in which he gave. He saw a need and looked for ways he could be involved, even if it meant personal sacrifice.

People like this are encouraging. They build us up because we know they’re not looking for something in return. We won’t owe them or be indebted to them. They’re just trying to help.

We can learn a lot from Barnabas. May we not fall into the trap of helping someone because of what we might get out of it. Sometimes we get disappointed because we helped someone and they didn’t say thank you or come to church with us. We have to be careful about that. Our helping has to be genuine, from the heart, without expecting anything in return.

I hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published March 18, 2011. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at

OnFire #252 - A Noisy Place (Silence and Solitude)

OnFire Encouragement Letter

OnFire #252 - A Noisy Place (Silence and Solitude)

Hi Folks:

Jan and I were out shopping and there were times when I had to tell her I couldn’t hear her, not that there is any problem with my hearing, but because the store was noisy. I’m not even sure we perceived it, or perhaps we were used to it, but there was noise all around us. The freezers hummed, the lobster tank bubbled, the shopping carts clacked and rattled, people chatted. We didn’t realize how loud it was until Jan’s voice disappeared among the noise.

I like a little noise and buzz around me. Most mornings I get up and turn on the radio in the bathroom to catch up on the news while I shave. When we were students Jan knew she could find me in the large cafe area of the student union building. Believe it or not, that’s where I studied my Greek and Hebrew in seminary, in the middle of the crowd, watching people coming and going, and repeating my vocabulary words under my breath.

Noise and hubbub are all around us and sometimes we even enjoy it, not the noise perhaps, but the sense of being in motion, of being around people, not being alone, and getting something done. Maybe that’s why this next spiritual discipline can be a tough one.

Solitude and silence are the practices of getting away from other people and removing spiritual “noise” in order to encounter God. This is different from just getting away. We’ve all had the feeling that we just need some peace and quiet and so we go somewhere, to the park, garage, or for a drive. The purpose then is usually just to go somewhere where no one can find us and we can “turn off.”

The purpose of solitude and silence, however, is not to hide, but to remove noise so we can hear God as he speaks to us. There is a pattern we see in the Bible about this. It was only as Moses turned away from his normal routine to investigate the burning bush that God spoke to him.* God did not speak to Elijah in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in a gentle whisper. Jesus often withdrew from the crowds to pray in “lonely places.” Peter went up to a rooftop to pray, and Paul and his companions were looking for a place to pray outside of Philippi when they met Lydia.

I know God can speak to us in great, dramatic, noisy ways. Look at Paul on the road to Damascus, for example. But it seems rather that God prefers to get us alone somewhere where he has our attention. I would venture to say that it is much better for us to listen for God’s small voice. If God needs to speak to us in a loud way to get our attention, then we haven’t been listening and there may be big changes coming. Again, look at Paul on the road to Damascus...

In silence and solitude we “get away,” but we take the Bible and perhaps a notebook or journal, and we intentionally meet with God in prayer. One way to do this is simply to turn off the phone, computer, radio, music, and tv. There are lots of times when this is not possible because there are other people around the house. Be creative. I have used a storage closet, a tent in our backyard, the car, my workshop, a corner of the library, a coffee shop in another town, and even a friend’s basement for micro-getaways. For longer periods I have used a friend’s cottage or camp.

I once did a 20 minute exercise in a Sunday school class to show that even a short time of silence and solitude can be very powerful way to draw close to God. I asked people to be quiet. We prayed silently for the first five minutes as a way to settle into the process. Everyone read Matthew 5:1-12 and answered the following questions silently. What verses stand out? In what ways do you feel blessed? In what ways have you experienced the truth of these verses lately? Are there ways in which these verses seem odd to you? Are there ways you sense God is telling you to change? How do you react to this? How do these verses intersect with your life right now?

The questions were really just a process for letting God speak and provided a structure for using the time. Instead of wondering what to do, I provided an outline. As we become more comfortable with being quiet we won’t have to worry about what to do. We’re simply giving God the opportunity to speak to us.

Our world is a noisy one. Lots of people and problems draw our attention. But when we take the opportunity to turn off the noise of the world, even for a short time, we allow ourselves to hear God’s small voice.

I hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published March 11, 2011. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at *Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).  Moses (Exodus 3:1-3) Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13) Jesus (Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:16; Luke 6:12; Luke 11:1) Peter (Acts 10:9) Paul in Philippi (Acts 16:13)

Friday, March 4, 2011

OnFire #251 Journaling and the Word

OnFire Encouragement Letter
OnFire #251 Journaling and the Word

There is something very powerful about words. Through them we communicate our thoughts, express our feelings, make our ideas come to life. Think about it for a moment. There was a time when the universe was nothing but a thought, an idea in God’s vast and creative imagination. We had no earth, no sun, moon or stars. No trees or birds, dogs or cats, elephants, ants, fish or whales, and we certainly did not have us. None of it existed. Just darkness and nothingness.

Then God spoke and suddenly idea became reality.

Words have power to create. Not in the way God creates, of course. But with them we have the power to be creative, to express emotion which was only a feeling, to bring into being something which was only a thought.

I don’t want to be too philosophical about this. I’ve never had much patience for people who seem to live in some other-world, dreamy, idealized kind of place. But at the same time I am amazed by the connection between us, God, and the power of expression through words. Put it all together and we have Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

This brings me to the spiritual discipline of journaling. In journaling we gather our thoughts, express our feelings, record our memories and speak to God through our fingers.

Writing helps me to focus my thoughts. In traditional prayer I sometimes feel scattered and my mind wanders. God sometimes uses that wandering to bring people and things to mind, but at other times it is frustrating because I can’t gather myself productively. Writing helps slow me down and finally express what is swirling inside me, whether bad or good.

Journaling helps me to remember deeply moving spiritual events. How soon we forget those high points of meeting with God or of answered prayer. I don’t often go back through my journals, but I know those moments are there. Interestingly enough, I have had a few moments when writing in my journal has become a high point with God and I have that record.

I have used a couple of approaches which you may find helpful. Always start with prayer. This may or may not be written, but prayer helps to separate this from other forms of writing. Commit this time to God.

In option #1, we simply start writing our thoughts: current life, prayer requests, praises, confessions, goals, fears, frustrations.

In option #2, we begin with a passage or verse. The verse may come from a retreat, a daily Bible reading or devotion, or even the pastor’s message. Write it out. Summarize it in your own words. Then record your responses to it _ your questions about what it means, good things you like about it, and even the bad things you react against. This is the crucial part, because growth does not always come in our good reactions, but in our questions and negative responses. Why do you think you react against this? Don’t get caught in analyzing it - be more concerned with what is going on in your heart and your spiritual condition than with trying to apply what you saw lately on an afternoon talk show.

In both approaches it is important to remember that, like prayer, journaling is a two-way communication process. Not only do we want to tell God what is going on through our fingertips, but we want to make sure that we allow time for God to respond in the conversation.

Finally, it is OK to write our only-half-formed thoughts. In contrast to speaking or teaching where we want to present a formed conclusion, journals can help us express, work through, and develop the thoughts we still can’t make sense of. Sometimes we get glimpses of something important, but we can’t put the pieces together. Sometimes we’re confused by conflicting parts. We’re working through something, but we don’t even know what it is. That’s actually OK, and where a journal can be particularly helpful. Its just us and God, we don’t have to put it together right now. We can give the pieces to God in writing.

There are some neat passages dealing with writing and the power of recording our experiences with God. For a sample of these, see the longer web-version of this at my website (here) or

I hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published March 4, 2011. *Scripture taken from the New International Version. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at