Inspiration From Strange Sources

pilate

In strange times we may find inspiration in strange places. I have recently found great inspiration in a very strange place indeed. My inspiration during this time is …. (wait for it),,,. Pontius Pilate!

He would be inspiration as the most memorable ‘hand washer’ in history but it is his question “What is truth?” which I feel I must ponder most these days.

This is a time fraught with inordinate fear. I have learned a helpful acrostic for fear “False Evidence Appearing Real”. F.D.R. once famously said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Those were perilous times and there were real dangers, but he was warning the populous not to be overcome by their fear. A sober honest look at our challenges will allow us to make wise decisions in order to face the challenges of today.

We need a healthy dose of truth to settle and combat our fears. Pilate’s question is an apt one for me. My dad used to accuse me of “flying off the handle” when I overreacted in an irrational manner. Too many are “flying off the handle” today. Some of this is based on wrong information which has led to weird hoarding on the one hand and others glibly avoiding ‘social distancing’ because of their perceived invulnerability! We need a heaping dose of truth!

When it comes to our health it is best to listen to health professionals rather than Facebook posts or pundits. But there is a greater need for truth than these rational voices can provide, and our inspiration, Pilate, shows us the way.

My point is not just that he asked the question “What is truth?” but to whom he asked it. Pilate didn’t realise it, but he asked the question to the only human that could ever truly answer it. James encourages us when we lack wisdom to ask God and this is the example of Pilate.

Facts only arm us so far, the real battle with fear is in our hearts and minds. I am following Pilate’s example and asking God what is true. What are my feelings and are they based on faith or fear? Am I living in trust or disbelief?  As I examine these questions God helps me realise that many of my feelings around fear are based on things appearing real to me which are patently false.

I read in Psalm 23 that though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.  Recently I heard the story of a pastor driving his children home from the funeral of their mother. He was grappling with a way to encourage them when a semi passed them and for a moment they were in the shadow of that huge truck. He asked his children if they would rather be ‘run over’ by the shadow or the actual truck? Jesus was ‘run over’ by the actual semi as “He became sin that knew no sin” so that we need only pass through its shadow. “Death where is thy sting? O’ Grave where is thy victory”

Let’s follow Pilate’s example of washing hands and let us honestly seek God’s truth in our every situation.

I was in on an online meeting, this week, with the Director of threshold and the Board members to whom I am accountable. We discussed the idea that the economic consequences of this time might have real impact on our ministry. This is especially challenging for Street Hope Saint John as we are on the verge of expanding our ministry by opening Threshold House as early as this fall. We are trusting God and advising our supporters of this need for continued and growing support.

The truth is “God is good, all the time!”

 

What’s in that Tube?

tube

I remember finding a mysterious tube on my dad’s old workbench in the basement. I asked him what was in it? There was no label at all, and he didn’t know, or claimed not to know. He invited me to squeeze it and find out. My hands were soon covered in a black lubricant of some kind. That is when I learned that if you want to see what is inside “apply pressure”. Whatever is inside comes out when squeezed!

We are all feeling the pressure of the current health crisis and it is revealing for good or ill what is inside our shiny facades. The results are mixed. On the one hand we see panic and selfishness evidencing an inner distrust and self-centredness. On the other hand, we find thoughtfulness and creative encouragement. Both are ‘coming out’ under pressure and they reveal the things we should affirm and the things for which we ought to repent.

To make this personal, let me illustrate. ‘Social distancing’ is a good and necessary thing but my original embracing of this new lifestyle was not to protect others. My motivation was out selfishness and fear! Last summer I suffered through a flu. In recent years my lungs seem to be susceptible to these things, with each being worse than the last. The thought of another potentially more serious virus frightened me. I do not like to admit to fear, even to myself, but this fear was dominating my thinking.

Under pressure fear came gushing out! I had to face the facts, my actions might be good, but my heart was wrong! Outwardly that is making little difference. I continue to social distance. I feel I have been training all my introverted life for living in such times. I now admit to myself and God, my fear. I think about the vulnerable people like my son and daughter-in-law and I purpose to love them through social distancing. As I allow love into the equation fear abates. “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Having the hidden things revealed, under this pressure is a blessing rather than a curse. It gives us a chance of self-examination like no Lenten season ever could! It may not be pretty, but it can be purifying if we ask “Search me, God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts” Psalm139:23

Speaking of Psalms, I have rediscovered the power and scope of Psalm 23 through this time as I have been watching a video series “Travelling Light” by Max Lucado. It is a series of 18 half hour sessions all based on the 23rd Psalm. This master wordsmith takes me deep into a psalm I had thought I knew. I had memorised this psalm before I was 10. I have read it thousands of times since but all too often I race through it. Max has me travelling lighter but also slower as I appreciate the unplumbed depths of these seven powerful verses!

So, I have the opportunity to save others’ lives by resting with my Shepherd as he restores and nourishes my soul. I often challenge people to find the ‘missional’ opportunity in whatever the times may bring. This Lenten season provides us with a bountiful opportunity. If I don’t like what I see (and I don’t) when I am squeezed, what better time to be quietly renewed from the inside out.

Fat Lip & the Image of God

fat lip

I gave myself a ‘fat lip’ this week, and I didn’t even realise it! I sensed that something was up and then I looked in a mirror and saw what looked like a chocolate streak below my lip. I went to wash it off only to discover it was bruised and my lip itself was swollen.  This may seem odd to you, but it is not out of the realm of my experience. Due to a fall I had years ago I have no feeling in my lip or lower face. I can, and have injured myself without knowing it, though this was my first ‘fat lip’. I have often accidently bitten my lip, only to realise I am bleeding because of the taste of blood. I take precautions by regularly rinsing with a non-alcoholic mouthwash to avoid infections.

One of my tests for the health of my lip is to say the name “Jesus”. Try saying his name when you get out of the dentist’s chair and you’ll soon realise what I mean. What I am unaware of is dangerous to me and so I have to make it a habit to check my oral health and take care of problems before they become unmanageable.  I’m not complaining, in fact I have learned a lot about spiritual life through this time!

Knowing is always better than not knowing! Awareness of my physical health can help me avoid catastrophe. The same is true on a spiritual level.

I have often wondered at the description of King David as the “apple of God’s eye” a cursory look at his sordid and bloody history indicates that this sobriquet was not given on merit. Rather it was David’s willingness to look at his spiritual state and take remedial steps. His writing in Psalms illustrates his awareness of God’s standards of holiness and his absolute failure to measure up to them. He cries out time and again for mercy.

Confession, after the manner of David, cannot be solely a corporate rhyming off of a General Confession, but must include a personal look in the mirror, and recognition of the flaws we then see. Only then can we take the remedial steps of asking for a cleansing (crying for mercy) and receiving by faith the gracious gift of God.

So many of us are occupied with the Corona Virus and we ought to take all necessary precautions, but the deadliest virus is sin. Like injuries to my mouth and lip, sin is an inevitability. We are fallen people living in a fallen world. A daily examination accompanied by confession and reception of forgiveness is the only way to avoid sin taking hold causing serious consequences that later require more drastic action. I so far have avoided serious infection through a diligent regimen of inspection and remediation. Lent is a good time to develop this same habit in our spiritual lives. This habit will produce life and health in us.

If we say we have no sin, scripture says we are lying and making a mockery of the cross (calling God a liar). Let us purpose to check in our spiritual mirror to ensure that we see the Father’s image there!

 

Good Monotony?

swing

Sameness is often wearisome to me. I have some routines that anchor my day and life but even in these routines I demand a kind of variety. It is, after all, the spice of life. Monotony is to be avoided.

This week I had a revelation! God is quite unlike me, or more correctly I am unlike God. God it seems delights in monotony. He continues to create daisies as daisies. He has the sun set day after day and rise again in the morning. God seems to delight in doing the same creative thing over and over. There is of course endless variety in creation but there is a distinct element of repetition.

This occurred to me as I prayed this week. I found myself saying “God you must tire of forgiving me for the same sin, over and over again!”  But I felt God say “I never tire of forgiving and restoring. It is for this very reason I sent my Son.” It was in that moment that my heart was gladdened to be in relationship with a God who can make monotony a creative force.

G.K. Chesterton tells us this is an aspect of God we best witness in little children. They might have an experience like being pushed high on a swing, and say with a giggle, “Do it again!” only to giggle again and make the same request. The fun only stops as the ‘adult’ tires of the monotony and the fun halts. Chesterton suggests that God is like that child. He does something wonderful and delights in it “Good, Good, Very good.” Only to do it again.

So, God delights in forgiving me, that is good news, but what does it say about how I should live? I think I might become ‘weary in well doing’ not because of exhaustion but because of a malaise of boredom. I too easily lose my wonder at the everyday miracles I see God do in people’s lives, even when God does so through me. As a ‘jaded’ adult, I have abandoned the child-like wonder which was once mine. It is to this wonder Jesus is calling me when he exhorts me to become “as a little child”.

God is wonderful! God is wonderful not just because of the delights he creates but God is wonderful because of his unchanging stability. He can be counted on to “Do it again!” God is “the  same yesterday, today, and tomorrow”.

Stability is not something I appreciate as I should. I am thankful for God’s unchanging nature. I am grateful for a stable marriage. I’m glad to live in a country of relative political stability. I believe God has called me to a creative stability as part of my ministry. I have been a part of the same community of Evangelists for over 40 years now. I continue to walk with my Street Hope friends for about 17 years now. There is something wonderful about stability, but monotony and boredom can easily rob us of our perspective, and wonder slips away, replaced by rote joyless duty.

Can I “Do it again!” with recaptured wonder and joy? With the Lords help, I believe the answer can be “Yes”. I find true hope in that.

In His Footsteps

footsteps

I found the video very affirming. It was titled “God Speed” and in it, N.T. Wright spoke about the 3 mile/hour speed of God. This is the pace that Jesus and his disciples might have walked.

As someone who has done a lot of walking I could appreciate this. In fact, my current ministry began with leisurely walks. I stopped and chatted with people on their stoops. I invited folks for coffee. I listened. I listened to people and I listened to God. Over time (too long for my impatient liking) I got to know people and their hopes and needs. I discovered avenues of ministry that would prove useful for the Kingdom. Slowly, ever so slowly, despite my reticence, folks got to know me. I was not seen as a ‘do-gooder’ who parachuted into the community, I was known as the flawed person I really am. The surprising thing was that the more people came to know me the better I was accepted! The more people knew me the opportunities to share Jesus grew exponentially!

It is funny (not funny ha ha, but ironic) that we instinctively believe a lie that if people really knew us they wouldn’t like us. The One who knows us best, loves us most! This isn’t just true of our relationship with God but also our dearest human relationships. Spouses know each other with all the flaws and ‘warts’ and love each other. Children, well know their parents flaws and mistakes, many of them were made raising them, and they love their moms and dads. Our fear is based on a lie! Only when we take the opportunity to really know and be known, can true love flourish.

Too often, though, we live in a ‘drive through’ culture. We race about in busy-ness and nominally know and are known. Our Kingdom impact is blunted through this broad way of superficiality. We think the more people we can communicate the Gospel with, the greater our impact but the reverse is probably closer to the truth.

I found it hard at first to raise enough support for my vision of a ‘micro’ ministry in the midst of a mega-church culture, but enough sweet souls have come alongside me on this 3 mph. journey that we are able to continue.

I was asked recently if the addition of Threshold House to the ministry might deflect from this 3mph. ministry and my answer is “I don’t think so.” In fact, we are looking to ‘walk’ alongside our residents in the same sort of way.

When I started this aspect of ministry I was at first also involved in College life, and then I was engaged with Corrections Canada. Now I will be involved with Threshold House alongside and as a part of my continuing 3 mile per hour ministry. Things change and they remain the same.

I am won over to the idea that if 3 miles per hour suited Jesus ministry then I will try and walk in his footsteps.

Your Super Power!

Romans 12.2

This last week I have heard or read several people as they have encouraged folks to get ready for Lent. My first and unbidden, thought was “Isn’t Lent a time of preparation and now they want me to prepare for that? Is this Baden Powell gone amok?” Sober second thought tells me that one can never be too prepared, but this incident may open a glimpse of my typical inner conversation.

I was asked once “What would you do if you were not in ministry?” I answered before I thought. If answering before thinking was a super-power I might rule the earth. (It is probably just as well that it isn’t!) My quick answer was “Stand up comedy!”

I have always thought I was funny. I amuse myself! This is one reason I am seldom lonely. Since childhood I just see things from a different angle than most people. Some say a glass is half full. Some say the glass is half empty. I think “Why is that glass so big?” Such thinking combined with a penchant for unthinking, made for an adventurous childhood. Parents and teachers and peers did not always appreciate my observations! Amusing myself with off the wall thoughts helped pass the time through hours of detentions, in school. Adults despaired that I would ever grow out of this ‘smart Alec’ phase, and I never have.

But like most misfits in school the very thing that made life difficult turned out to be the attribute that makes me useful now. Seeing things from a different angle or through a different lens has enabled me to see ‘missional’ opportunities where others have not.

In my first placement as a student I found myself sitting with a toddler watching Sesame Street. I decided to amuse her by imitating Kermit. To my surprise, I sounded much like him. I tried Bert and then Ernie. Soon I had a full-blown children’s ministry using Sesame Street puppets. While other young evangelists used their guitars, I used my quirky voices and comic bent for script writing. These characters took me all across Canada until I was finally invited out from behind the puppet theatre into pulpits.

I listened to Elders in northern communities as they told tales of life and wild life in their environs and began to use stories like Aesop did his Fables, to tell stories with a Gospel truth as ‘the moral of the story’, and by doing so earned a very respectful hearing.

I saw the opportunities to share in prison and learned to tell the good news in plain language that spoke to their needs. Prison is not a lot of laughs, so I discovered that I could earn a hearing by making them laugh, mostly through self-deprecating humour.

When I began inner-city ministry, it was through seeing life through a different lens that brought me to the ideas for: a laundry ministry, or vacation from the city ministry, or to a lavish banquet ‘Fiesta’. The list goes on, but the up shot is that seeing things differently is a useful skill.

God gives each of us unique ‘gifts’ to be used to his glory. I wonder how often adults have left behind their superpower and been conformed to this world. Instead God would like to transform that gift and renew us in the process and make us useful to his Kingdom. If he can use my silly skewed view think how he might use you! I urge you therefore sisters and brothers, to throw off the shackles of conformity and search out once more that unique gift that has been yours, and offer it to him to be renewed to his glory!

Doing Valentines Right

heart

I purposed that I would not let another Valentines Day opportunity slip by. I would make a plan!

My first creative thought was to send my bride a telegram. “No one sends telegrams any more, so this endeavour would stand out by its specialness.” Was my thought. It turns out no one sends telegrams for a reason! I’d need to come up with another way to gain my rightful acclaim for ‘doing Valentines Day up right’.

I could use money from our joint account to buy flowers. Each time I sneezed for the next week or so, before they died, would be a testament to my martyr-like affection. The fact that we might be reduced to Kraft Dinner for the last days of the month persuaded me that there was a better way to gain proper recognition for my regard.

Perhaps chocolates would be the answer, though neither of us needs the calories. Maybe I could get the milk chocolate ones I like so much (I’m sure she would share).

Then I thought about writing a Facebook post! She might not read it for hours or days, but I could get all sorts of ‘likes’ from my ‘friends’. I would look very good, indeed. At last I would get acknowledgment that I had done Valentines Day well.

I am glad God is not like me, and I bet you are too! He didn’t send his love by sending flowers or chocolate. He demonstrated his love in self-sacrifice! He quite simply gave himself through the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, and continues to give himself through the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Not through carnations but through incarnation, does God demonstrate his love.

“We love because he first loved us.” He asks us to follow his example and love him and others in like manner, not in word but in self-sacrifice.

I may not get the acclaim I yearn for, but I love best when I follow the template set by Christ. Such love has no calories and does not drain our meagre bank account, but it is a costly love.

I still have the chance to do Valentines right. Maybe I can give this a try. Care to join me?

Formative Community

Over forty years ago a group of us were sitting around the living room of the Church Army National Office/Training Centre, when the then Director of Training asked us where we would “see ourselves 10 years from now?” When my turn came I pointed back at him and said, “I want your job.” I thought he might be taken aback but he seemed quite pleased and encouraging.

I guess I  must be a slow learner because it was over 25 years later that I was asked to fill that role and I became Director of Formation at Taylor College of Mission and Evangelism. The mandate was to help “form missionaries for the 21st Century West”. I had become convinced that education/training had severe limits in the formation of such missionaries and that Christian community living was an indispensable element. I recalled my formation as being nurtured in the ‘hot house’ of Christians living together.

When my ‘experiment’ with Taylor College abruptly ended I was quite literally bitterly disappointed. I went to talk to a friend and Christian counsellor about my feelings. After listening and probing carefully he posed the question, “Do you believe that God is good?” I realised that I had begun to feel/believe that ‘it’ was all so unfair, and by ‘it’ I really meant God. This recognition brought me to repentance, and I began to be purposely thankful and just as purposely to recognize the theology behind my bitterness and avoid dwelling there.

I transferred my enthusiasm for Christian community to my work with Up Town, Community Chaplaincy, and finally Street Hope, all with varying degrees of success and heart ache. Experience teaches that glorious or ‘ecstatic’ moments in Christian community are few and fleeting, and if we spend our efforts chasing those ‘high’ moments we miss the entire point.

This was all reinforced to me as I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “Living Together”. He teaches that in chasing these moments we idealise them and make them idols. Life with Christ is the point of all Christian community, which means it is lived out in humble service to one another in the very mess of life. It is easy to love my sister or brother when we are ‘caught up’ in a moment of praise and worship but that is about a feeling rather than seeing love as a verb with a thousand and one practical applications. Love is practised in the mess of life rather than in a pristine chapel. I relish the opportunities to pour coffee and listen carefully as my friends ‘pour out their hearts’. I welcome the opportunity to stoop and tie a shoelace or wipe up a spill. More and more I see this ‘love in action’ become contagious. People have begun to serve me. Folks bring bags of chips or tins of coffee. They set up tables and chairs and put out the games. They tear it all down again and sweep and smile! Together we are being fashioned in the image of our Servant King.

I look forward to many more, and perhaps more intense, experiences of Christian Community, when we open Threshold House for residential and non-residential Christian Community.

In our Home Church we have been looking at the story of Joseph. He had a dream that took a long, long time to fulfill. There were some terrible and unexpected turns along the way, finally his dreams did come to pass. Mayhap this is true in my case.

 

Demands of Citizenship

I have been reading the story of the Exodus. On its face it is a marvellous story of deliverance from enslavement to freedom. It is that and much more. As I read it today I see how the miraculous deliverance was the prelude to a more daunting task.

The people were saved from the oppressor and God’s plan did not stop there. His purposes included making a ‘peculiar’ people. People whose citizenship would no longer be in the Kingdom of Pharaoh, but in the Kingdom of God. I say that this is the more daunting task because the prior deliverance required only miracle after miracle as God intervened, in history, to bring about the salvation of the people. This next task requires the willing participation of the ‘saved’. God alone could save but true citizenship would need to be the choice of frail humanity!

God provides evidence of his faithfulness and ushers in the new ethic of the Kingdom of God. The people enjoyed the manna. They ate up the quail. They stood in awe of the Shekinah glory. They witnessed the transfiguration of Moses’ face. Still they longed for the savour of the leeks of captivity!

Later Christ (the greater Moses) brought deliverance and salvation. He taught the ethic of the Kingdom, that was to be marked by love. He showed what citizenship really looks like in the Red Letters especially what we call “The Sermon on the Mount”. He sends the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to help us live into this Kingdom.

Perhaps our deliverance was, like the Exodus, the easier miracle! Here in the West the Church of Jesus is all too often indistinguishable from the Kingdom of this World. We resemble Pharaoh more than Christ. Even in the pursuit of perhaps laudable goals, the Church takes up carnal weapons. Any victories are likely to be empty. No where in God’s rule do the ends justify the means.

It has always been unpopular to call people away from popular values of the culture, yet this is our collective calling. This is the task for which we have the Paraclete! If we only invite people to ‘get saved’ we shortchange both them and the Gospel. We call people out of darkness and we call them into Light.

To be about this task we must live our lives under Christ’s Reign as citizens of his Kingdom. We will certainly do this imperfectly and we ought to admit our failures and go ahead in assurance of his pardon. Only in this way are we truly ‘peculiar people’. It is through this peculiarity that we become attractive to those ensnared in this present darkness. As visible citizens we point to our King.

Our King is entirely capable, and he looks only for our frail cooperation.

On June 1st Threshold House will become the permanent home of Street Hope Saint John. We are excited and daunted by the challenges ahead. Would you stand with us in prayer and if you are able help us in our growing financial responsibilities.

Stories in Serial

story telling

Like an old-fashioned serial, that is how I have approached our weekly “Word From Our Sponsor” these past few weeks. We have been taking a peek at a variety of episodes in the life of Gideon, complete with cliff hangers!

We began by meeting Gideon, who from all appearances was less than heroic. He was cowering in a winepress threshing his bit of wheat, hiding from marauding Midianites. We can relate to his fear and the measures he took to protect what little was his own, but he is no role model for bravery. At this very juncture the Lord appears to him and addresses him. How does the Lord address him? “Frightened?”, or “Timid”? No! He is described as “A mighty man of valour”! At this point in the story we stop and chat about the verse from 1 Samuel 16:7 “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” People and things are not as they appear to be. God sees past the immediate and sees what can be under his hand. As we gather for our Friday Night Drop In, there are few less impressive crowds. The ‘world’ does not esteem us. God however sees us quite differently, both because he knows our intrinsic value to Him, but also he knows who we are in potential. He is changing us! We are being “transformed from glory to glory”.

I see the changes in my friends over the years. The folks from the Parole Office have noted the difference in people who chose to ‘hang out with us’ and those who don’t! Folks who hang with Jesus experience change.

I used to travel the Prairies preaching and teaching. Often I took people along with me to share their stories of change. One woman used to say, “ I know I am not what I ought to be, but I thank God I am not what I was.” If any of us take time to look ‘in the rear-view mirror’ we will be able to note the change. We may rightly be frustrated at the slow pace of change, at times, but God is transforming his people.

C.S. Lewis writes that if we could be transported and see what we will one day be, that the being we would encounter would be so glorious that we would be tempted to worship it. If in the space of the few years we have been meeting, first as Up Town and then as Street Hope, we have witnessed such amazing change, can you imagine what we will be after ten thousand years of basking in his glory! Hymn writer John Newton says, “When we’ve been there 10 thousand years, … we’ve no less days to sing his praise than when we’d first begun.”

There is a glorious future in store for our friend Gideon and there is an equally glorious future in store for all who give their lives to God.

Over the course of our Gideon Serial we have seen him take baby steps, and halting steps. He moves from hiding in a winepress to a sneaky obedience in the dark of night, and then to cower behind his father who confronts an angry mob. We see him testing God and growing slowly in his prayer life.

We are in the mid point of our serial and folks are so curious that they are reading ahead. They cannot wait for the next installment. I think we may have hit on a really effective means of group discipleship! I too, am enjoying it, because I love to tell a good story and the Gospel remains “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”