A Little Hope

T.S. Eliot penned the line “April is the cruelest month of all.” I have a different experience though. I often find May most difficult. In May I recall the birth of our son, Jamie, and I often succumb to a blue, blue funk as I miss him, and all the might have beens. I also think a lot about my mother. I am glad that she is not around for this virus. She was a very anxious person and these times might have unhinged her. As I spend time in isolation though, the thought still comes “I should call, Mom.” It is just a fleeting thought that flickers and passes but like a jet over head it leaves a vapor trail of sadness.

I have a lot of time lately to nurse these thoughts! It would be easy to let the melancholy overwhelm me. My usual tools for staving them off involve busily engaging with those who are in need, and I can’t do that as I used to. Instead the chief and only effective tool for battling despair is “hope”. I have a plentiful supply of that! The scriptures are replete with promises of God and perhaps the dearest is that He is with me in and through it all! Hope has a name, and his name is Jesus!

Hope though, is not plentiful in the world today. The things people had put their trust in are failing or have failed them. In this world things gain value primarily through their scarcity. The hope I have in abundance is in short supply. The hope you have in Jesus is in short supply! It is desperately needed by our friends and neighbours.

Peter writes “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason  for hope you have. But do so with gentleness and respect.”

In my experience people rarely explicitly ask about my reason for hoping but they are curious and open, especially in these days. People are easy to engage (even from 6 feet away) on the scary topics of today and it is natural, like never before, to share our reason for hope. This testimony to our reason for having hope can easily be accompanied by an inquiry into what our friend or neighbour hopes in or how they cope.

I often read or hear people rail against the 1% who hoard the wealth in our world, but we Christians are now the rich! We are the ones in possession of the scarce and valuable resource. We are the ones who have “been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.” Let us not be hoarders. Let us share the hope with those God brings across our path.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRQ2jHxt-JM

 

Intuition & Inspiration

In writing about ‘practising the present’ I mentioned listening as being important. Some, if not all of us, have difficulty with this, so I thought I might explore this topic a bit more.

First we believe that God reveals himself: He does so in the Scriptures, He does so in nature, He does so in our circumstances, and He does so through our intuitive inner dialogue! To access these communications, take practice and the honing of skills.

There are parts of scripture which are easily accessible at the most rudimentary level but with continued diligent study more and more is revealed. There is a correlation between how much ‘revelation’ one receives and the earnest commitment to seeking it.

The same is true in nature. There are some apparent truths that Paul in Romans says evidences God’s nature and power but a study of space or ecology or microbiology all continue the ‘revelation’ for the true student. Looking out the picture window at nature tells us something of God but standing on the mountain top in the Rockies tells us something more, as does holding our own newborn. The  depth of our ‘revelation’ depends on our immersion in life and nature.

Our circumstances point us to God and his will and ways, but experience is necessary to pick out the cues. Sometimes this can be the experience of others, but it might also be my own experience which helps me interpret the circumstances and  guide my life in God’s will and ways.

None of the above is very ‘revelatory’. We all know this stuff and are governed accordingly but, I would suggest we begin to fall down on this ‘inner dialogue’ component. It is a bit less concrete than the other means of revelation. We all have intuitions. We say to ourselves “I haven’t talked to (so and so) for a while I must give them a call.” Either we pay attention to this thought or not. If we do we might have a very consequential conversation, or we may not. We might live to regret ignoring the intuition or we might never think of it again. I believe God often speaks to me in this realm. I also believe that there is a lot of static like chatter that I need to sift through to ‘hear’ God. Jesus says ,“My sheep know my voice.” I believe He talks, and I need to practise, really practise, listening. Sometimes I will ‘hear’ wrongly, but with practise ‘seeking’ his voice amidst the noise I can and do ‘hear’.

I was reminded of one example this week as a memory popped up on Facebook of our Fandango of a few years ago. I distinctly recall the idea of throwing a party for the community popping into my head. I began to play with the idea. Several years before we had given out electric blankets to people, I recalled saying at the time “Folks live in rooms where heat and light are included but most of the heat comes in the summer!” With the idea of throwing a party in the summer I naturally thought about giving fans this time. As I pondered this idea (I had no budget for any of this) I thought I should call it a Fandango (I love a play on words). Soon we were planning a gourmet South Western meal for the entire community with electric fans for all in attendance.

All of this began with a ‘crazy’ intuition, but I have learned to pay attention. Not all my ideas are good. I need to use the other means to check my revelations. Many are discarded early. Some are total flops! But others bring joy and bring me closer to my Lord!

I encourage you today to heed your intuition and see if it might be “God breathed”. My life and minister is fuller because I occasionally get this right!

 

A New Occupation

Like many people, I have a lot of time to think and I’ve been mulling over my preoccupation with the past and the future at the expense of the present. The present is a bit boring and unattractive and I look backward at all the people and activities I am missing. I look forward to things returning to ‘normal’ (though my friend, who suffers with a whole cocktail of mental illnesses, says, “Normal is just a setting on a dryer!”) whatever the new ‘normal’ might look like.

It is natural, I guess, to spend time being nostalgic, looking back in melancholy at past activity or gazing into the foggy future imagining those activities. Past and future are vitally important to us and to the story of God in history.

In Revelation we have the reference to Jesus as Alpha, the first, and Omega, the last. These reference a past and future but the key to this reference is the “I am” part, which speaks of his eternal position in the present. When God first introduces himself to Moses he does so using the title “I am”. Jesus throughout the Gospel of John refers to himself as “I am”!

I do a disservice to myself when I live solely in the past or in the future. We are called to “occupy” (in the present) until “He comes” (the future). Today certainly does not hold the familiar opportunities but surely it holds opportunities. I have created ruts in which my life runs and when ‘normality’ is disrupted, as it surely is, then rather than bemoan the loss of the familiar I ought to creatively seek my new occupation.

How do I practise the present? I take the opportunity to “know Him”. God is eternal. God is infinite. This means that there is no end of ‘knowing him’. This week I was reminded of the Psalm where David pens “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you.” This is not just a cute way to phrase something. It describes a thirst which must be satisfied! This thirst is obviously the chief preoccupation of the psalmist. We often sing this but now in this time I have the opportunity to be occupied with slaking just this kind of thirst.

I could waste a unique opportunity by pining for the past or yearning only for a redeemed future or mindlessly entertaining myself. These would be the easy things. But can I choose the hard thing and spend a pandemic on pursuing Jesus.

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of this world will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”

There Is A Cure!

If we could only see the true infection rate, if we would only acknowledge the staggering scope of the disease, if we noted that that the mortality rate is 100%, would we mobilize!

Scripture tells us that through the one man, Adam, all became infected and that death reigned through that one man. The resulting disease and death are universal. The rich, beautiful, the poor and forgotten all succumb to this death. The toll on humanity is horrible, and complete! The carnage is beyond imagination!

The cry goes up “Who can rescue me from this body of death?” and the answer comes “Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Through the first man, Adam, came the universal infection, but through the man Jesus came the cure.

The best religion could do was try to isolate: Don’t touch. Don’t eat. Don’t associate. Touch and taste and association brought contamination.  All these efforts though were to no effect because the virus inhabited every human heart and the death that results was inevitable no matter the human effort.

Jesus alone became the host for this deadly virus and overcame it! The empty tomb speaks of this triumph. In him death has lost its iron grip on the infected populous.

We have a cure. The cure has a name. His name is Jesus.

Can you imagine having such a cure and keeping it to ourselves! If we had a cure for covid 19 we would surely shout it from the rooftops! Yet so often those of us who have experienced salvation through Jesus merely meet together and talk about it amongst ourselves! We should never neglect this meeting together but can we in good conscience do this almost exclusively?

This current pandemic, as horrible as it is, is but a pale comparison to the spiritual pandemic which though invisible takes a much greater toll. As we take extraordinary measure to protect ourselves and our loved ones from this virus, surely we ought also to be vitally concerned with this spiritual pandemic.

While we throw our energy and ingenuity at saving life on the physical plain let us purpose to pour energy and ingenuity into pointing toward the cross, the cure, to our universal need, so that others will experience the abundant and eternal life which we enjoy, through our Saviour Jesus.

 

Spiritual Personal Protective Equipment

cross

The joke goes “ They told me all I needed was a mask and gloves to go shopping. Boy was I embarrassed when everyone else had pants on as well!”

PPE (personal protective equipment) is much on our minds and in the news these days when we need more than pants to go out shopping. In Ephesians 6 Paul lays out our spiritual PPE. I am coming to the conclusion that it is as vital as the physical type, and that too many of us ‘streak’ through life without it in all, or part.

This time of the virus reminds us that what we touch can contaminate us and indeed if we have the virus, what we touch becomes contaminated. In his earthly walk Jesus demonstrated that “He alone could fix this.” His touch of the most contaminated brought wholeness. Rather than having a touch that brought profane contamination, his brought holiness and healing. “One man said no to God and put many people in the wrong; one man (Jesus) said yes to God and put many in the right.” (Romans 5:17 the Message)

At the cross Jesus like the snake in the wilderness was raised up high and through that cross draws men and women, boys and girls back into a relationship with God.

He did not count the cure as being worse than the disease. Indeed, he counted it a joy to be poured out for us. Through his sacrifice we have not just been inoculated against the ravages of sin we have been given new life.

It is this new life we are to treasure and protect and the Armour of Ephesians 6 is the spiritual PPE we require in this mortal life.

Let’s give thanks for the cure that flows from the cross to those who will receive it and as grateful people let us guard and protect ourselves by consciously putting on our full personal protective equipment, in order that we might stand and even stand out in these times.

ppe

As people of hope we have the opportunity to be a distinctive people. Arise! Stand in the full Armour of God, and keep prayerful.

2 Questions for a Challenging Time

question mark

I have two questions I like to ask myself each day: What is important? And What is next?

These two questions help me order my day. One is a question that looks at the ‘big picture’ and the other identifies the next step toward that. As an example, I might answer that  helping people find Jesus and the abundant life He promises is important. This drives the desire to open Threshold House as means of loosing empathetic evangelists in our addiction riddled community. The next step might be making a phone call or writing an email or setting up a meeting. The next step is a ‘bite sized’ action that moves me toward that important goal. Daily life, then, is made up of a series of small steps toward that important thing and involves ‘keeping one’s eyes on the prize’. This is the life I am used to living. This is my ‘purpose driven’ life!

My current challenge is that so much of that agenda is ‘on pause’ and has taken a back seat to other more immediately important subjects. The question remains “What is important?”, and  my old answers are no longer totally adequate. This has required much reflection, but I certainly have time for that, and so I pray and seek God. These are my answers so far to the ‘big picture question’

  • I am to love God. I have an abundance of time to act on this “first and great commandment”. This means time in prayer, but not just with my ‘shopping list’ but in a quiet listening time. It includes a conversational relationship and the cultivation of a truly thankful heart. I am such a blessed man! I read the Bible and I study the Bible. Loving God is important.
  • I am to love my neighbour. This second and great commandment is challenging in a time of ‘physical distancing’. It involves praying for people I can’t touch. It means intentionally calling to check up on people. It means sending encouraging notes. It means not ‘panic buying’. I love my neighbour by staying in! I have the opportunity to save lives by simply staying home! I get to use my superpower of introversion to guilt free excess! I do it by washing hands and avoiding contact. I do it by putting a Teddy Bear in my window for tots and their parents to spy on their ‘Bear Hunt’ walks in our neighbourhood. I do it by trying to mourn with those experiencing grief and loss when our rituals around loss are impossible. I do it by trying to celebrate with those who have joyous news but cannot celebrate in normal ways. Loving my neighbour is important.
  • I am to take care of myself. The second and great commandment assumes self-care. I need to wash my hands and isolate for myself as well. God is not finished with me yet! When we emerge in our own ‘rebirth’ Easter experience I will have important things to do and I want to be prepared. I want to be prepared physically. I cannot get to the gym, but I can walk (thank God) and I can sleep, and I can eat well. I want to prepare spiritually. It would be a shame if I emerged from this cocoon still a caterpillar. This is the ‘lentiest’ Lent I will likely ever experience, and God doesn’t want me to waste this critical time. John the Baptist’ advice is good for me today “He must increase, and I must decrease.” I want to prepare emotionally. I need to be aware of the early onset of any depression and take immediate remedial action. This is important if I am to emerge prepared at the end of this. Loving myself is important.

 

Isolation need not result in atrophy, but it can if we are not careful. I encourage us to ask the big picture question and then take the next small step and the one after that! Occupying the time until our long, long, Lent ends in a glorious and inevitable Easter!

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?

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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.