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Neil MacMillan – Live Deeply

I’m Neil MacMillan, minister of Cornerstone Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, and I’ll be preaching at CSPC this Sunday. Here’s how God has been enabling me to live deeply.

“It’s the Father’s Day card I’ll never forget. My daughter, about 5 at the time (she’s 25 now), wrote, ‘Happy Father’s Day, Dad. You’re funny… you’re this, you’re that… you’re a workaholic.’ Ouch. We all struggle with idols, and mine is overwork, or busyness. And unfortunately, things haven’t changed all that much since that card. Busyness is still a struggle. Whenever you have a deep heart struggle over some recurring pattern of sin, you have to ask: What am I worshiping? So living deeply with God, for me, is about asking Him to uncover the where and why of my idolatry: Do I need the approval of other people? Do I need to show the credibility of my ministry? What am I actually up to here beneath the busyness? We planted Cornerstone 10 years ago, and it’s a great church of about 200 people. But Scotland is pretty much a post-Christian setting with a great opportunity for mission (which is my life passion), so over the last 15 years, I’ve usually been not only leading or planting a local church, but also leading church planting networks. (I’m involved with at least a handful of such networks now- in addition to Cornerstone planting sister churches of its own.) I see a deep need for new churches, and I find it very hard to say no to anything that allows me to contribute. That leaves me open to the temptation of finding my identity in what I do rather than who I am. That’s a big struggle for lots of men- and it’s even worse when your work is ministry, because it’s also God’s work, right? So the Lord is constantly bringing me back to this place where I’m asking, ‘God, help me not to find my security, my identity, my worth in this, but help me to find it in you.’ Practically, the challenge for getting myself into that posture has always been allowing God to slow me down. What works against me living deeply is usually busyness of life -too many things going on, too many commitments- and not allowing space for God to come near, dwell with me, and inhabit my life in a richer way.

Because the natural gravity of the human heart is always away from God, I have to keep correcting backward to rediscover that the place of spiritual joy, health, life, and fruitfulness is found by resting in Jesus rather than my own strength. God kindly gives signals to let me know when I’m out of balance. Sometimes it’s physical- I’m exhausted, too tired to pray properly or think clearly. Sometimes it’s my wife pointing out that she’d like to see more of me, or to have me more present in the room instead of having my head in some other space. These are the alarm bells He uses to get my attention and send me back to John 15, where Jesus says, ‘I’m the vine, you’re the branches. Remain in me and I will remain in you. Without me, you can do nothing. In me, you will bear much fruit.’ That’s my fundamental conviction about ministry- that all spiritual life and fruit flows not from what I’m doing but what Christ is doing. How, then, do I get back to abiding in God? Well, ministers like me are probably the most privileged people in the world in many senses, because we actually get paid to spend time in prayer and in the Word. There’s kind of a naturally restorative process in the work. So when I’m preparing a sermon, I get to steep myself in the Word of God-  its truth, goodness, and beauty. When I’m preparing for pastoral meetings, part of the process is to pray for God’s leading, presence, and guidance- that He would speak and work. If you’re paying attention in ministry, it allows you to prioritize a lot of things that are just naturally good for you as a Christian. (The problems come, of course, when I start allowing my schedule to get so filled that these aspects get compressed.) Alongside of that, I try to build good spiritual habits (always a work in process!). I’ll get up before anybody else in the house, find a quiet space, and sit down with my Bible and some kind of devotional aid- easing into the day through easing into the presence of God. The past year, I’ve been using a book called Be Thou My Vision by Jonathan Gibson, which provides me with a set of helpful daily liturgies.

Besides daily spiritual disciplines, God also draws me back to abiding in Him when I say no to certain tasks or events. I’ve been in ministry now for over 30 years, and you learn how to sift what really needs to be done, what can wait, and what somebody else can probably deal with. Eugene Peterson said the phrase ‘busy pastor’ sounded to him like ‘fraudulent banker’ or ‘adulterous husband.’ It’s a betrayal of what you’re supposed to be about and it’s ministering out of an unhealthy spot. The long-term spiritual good of people is not dependent on how much activity I do, but on how much God is at work. Tim Keller had a paradigm he used of ‘gift operation vs. Spirit operation.’ If you’re a very gifted person, you can operate out the strength of your gifts and it looks like you’re doing a great job. But if it’s not rooted in the life of the Spirit, then ultimately there’s no long-term good or fruit. So when I get excited about becoming part a new ministry opportunity that could produce some good things, Keller’s framework is helpful: I’m reminded to slow down, then begin adding the new thing in, then slow down again and add in again, to keep me from substituting my own activity for the work of the Spirit. You need the people of God doing the work through His empowerment- loving one another, praying for one another, carrying each other’s burdens. My role as a pastor is to encourage them in all that and help the body of Christ love each other well. Keeping that in view helps me prioritize things more carefully. So those structural aids are useful, and at the heart of it all is trying to keep the Gospel absolutely central in my life. It’s hearing the Gospel anew every day- to start each day saying, ‘I am a sinner. I am lost and without hope in this world unless I have Jesus Christ. My greatest need this day is to know Jesus in His mercy and forgiveness, to know that I am loved and accepted by the Father in Heaven, and that I live as His child in His world.’ The cost of the cross was that we might live in the presence of the Father and be in relationship with Him. That’s what I’m after for myself, and for other people as well.”

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