Neighbours and Neighbourliness

A rudimentary scan of scripture will soon tell us that God is interested in our neighbour. He is also vitally interested in our neighbourliness! His interests ought to be ours as well.

The latter portion of Jesus’ summary of the “Law” calls for love of neighbour. Seeking clarification, or more likely limitation, the young man asks, “Who is my neighbour?” Like so many wrongly motivated questions, Jesus does not directly answer. Instead, he goes on to give an expansive view of what it is to be a ‘neighbour’. He answers in this way because any objective reading of scripture will reveal who God considers to be our neighbour. The list is both succinct and sprawling. It is all those we meet, those created, like us, in His image. The scriptures also highlight a subset for special neighbourly attention. Time and time again we read reminders of our neighbourly responsibility to: widows, the poor, and orphans. Jesus is less concerned with again enumerating this list. Malachi reminds us that we know what God requires! Jesus seems more intent on our obedience than on a vain repetition of that which has already been made clear.

I suggest that the great challenge for Christians and the Christian Church is the challenge of neighbourliness. We cannot claim to be fulfilling the first part of the summary, that is “Love the LORD your God” if we falter at the latter portion. “Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of God, but the one that does the will of my Father.”

‘Church Growth’ has become an industry in the West. Many churches are shrinking and turn to extra biblical experts for advice. I would propose that a better use of time, treasure and talent would be to seek ways to increase in neighbourliness. If members individually and corporately concentrated on this the influence of the Gospel would grow and so would the Kingdom.

Perhaps we need to examine our priorities. Such examination might well lead to repentance. Neighbourliness is not beyond us. We have it in us. We only need to work it out. To do this effectively we will need to partner with God the Holy Spirit, asking help to see and serve our neighbour, knowing that as we serve the least of these we serve Him.

One of my personal frustrations, this past year, has been that I rarely interact with my neighbours. We isolate to protect our neighbour that we seldom see. I find I need to rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to show me how I might love my neighbour who I do not see. In prayer, recently, I was reminded that I love God though I have not seen him. This illustrates that physical sight is unnecessary for love. I can find creative and prayerful ways to bless my neighbour.

Room for You Too

Over the last year we have become very familiar with the rooms in our homes. Many have spent the entire 525,600 minutes within these familiar rooms. So long has it been that it may seem like an eternity. We grow weary of these walls and long for a more expansive land.

In times of such longing, I visit some rooms beyond my room. In my imaginings I visit the rooms that Jesus has gone before to prepare. I do not think I shall ever tire of these rooms though eternity becomes real.

I marvel in the Court Room. It is here that divine justice is meted out firmly and finally. It is here where all things are made ‘Right’. Before the majestic Judgement Seat, I stand as the gavel bangs like Thor’s hammer and the verdict rings out, “Not Guilty”. It is here in the Courtroom that I dance the dance of the ‘foul made free’. Filled with joy inexpressible and full of glory, I am eternally grateful to the one who became sin so that I might be made right with God and His Kingdom. With the hosts of Heaven, I too could sing of His love forever. The wonder of it all is too marvellous for me. I could gladly camp in this room and never venture beyond.

But God’s lavish love calls me on to other equally majestic and wonderful rooms. Love constrains me into the Family Room. I have been adopted into the very family of God! It may have seemed, to me, enough to be rescued, but God has more and more in store. He invites me to intimate familial relationship. Though I may count it a joy to be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord, he calls me his child. Now in a relationship unfettered from my selfishness and sin our relationship soars to heights beyond all that I could ask or imagine.   

There are other rooms to visit. There are depths of love yet unplumbed! Eternity may not be long enough to  explore them all.

Here and now though, I sit in my sick room. I have had a bad chest cold for almost a fortnight. For some reason (perhaps exposure to asbestos years ago) my lungs are susceptible to such cold. The last time I had such a cold it knocked me for about a month. This is one reason I have been particularly careful of covid 19. I do not think I would do well if I got it. I was pleased last week when my covid test came back negative. I knew that I would probably survive!

While I may have an extended visit in this world’s sick room I can escape to visit these other rooms knowing that one day it will not be for a social call but for ever.

There is room in his heart for you!

More Like Him

This week I had opportunity to spend time with two guys I do not see often during this pandemic. They have some interesting things in common. I am blessed to know them both and honoured to have them think of me as a friend.

C. suffered a life altering brain injury when he was a child. His father beat him so badly that his brain was damaged leaving him quite simple. He has suffered a lifetime of rejection and ridicule but somehow has managed to be a loving and caring human. He has been in lots of trouble in his life, mostly because he is easily led into activities he would not naturally choose. A few years ago, when his dad had a stroke he moved in with him and fed and cared for him, while other family members did not. He loves God and says that it is God’s love that helps him.

He called me because he was distressed that someone had been particularly cruel to him. He knew that his “peace” was shattered, and he wanted me to pray with him that he would forgive and move forward in the “peace of Jesus”. We chatted for a while and we prayed over the phone. By the time he said “Amen” his voice and demeanor changed. That quickly he was restored to his usual attitude of simple benevolence for all those around him.

I want to be more like him!

Another fellow had suffered a life changing brain injury through a traffic accident when he was a toddler. Besides his cognition problems he has some physical issues including speech difficulties. Conversations with him are painful both for him and his listener. I often have to ask him to repeat what he says. As soon as our province allowed coffee shops to reopen the phone rang and I knew who it was. We met and had a grand time together! My friend is one of the ‘essential workers’ everyone appreciates with words of praise. He holds two jobs cleaning so people in his apartment building are safe and so university students can return to safe classrooms. Outside the generic praise for ‘essential workers’ as a group, there is little tangible appreciation for my friend. He is more likely to be ridiculed than encouraged. He too loves Jesus and looks to him for ‘peace’.

I want to be more like him!

Our society too often has upside down values. We fail to recognize the wonderful and rich virtues of these simple and heroic gentle men. Jesus was “despised and rejected by men”. We continue this poor track record!

On another note, I had an unique opportunity this week. I was invited to preach to a congregation in Edmonton. Since last March I have only preached once (at my own baptism) and so this was a treat. I recorded a message and sent it off. A year ago I would never have thought of doing such a thing nor would I have the tools or ability to do so. God is good!

Growing in a Pandemic

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

I was in conversation with someone recently about the topic we all chat about, the pandemic. My friend said something that caught my attention. “I think the Church will survive this.” I was a bit taken aback because the Word of God tells us that very “gates of hell will not prevail” against the Church. The end, for us, is not in question but the means certainly are. Rather than bemoan the changes that have been forced on the church, and impatiently waiting for things to get back to normal, we would do well to ask, “What are the lessons we can learn?”, and “How can we apply new learning to our future?”

There are certainly things we miss, during these times. We are not able to physically gather and so miss many of the best experiences of corporate worship. I too look forward to the time we are together to practise our faith corporately in these familiar and biblical ways, but I do want to suggest that we can learn and grow thrivingly during these times!

The western church often seems rife with consumerism. People hop from church to church looking for the brand that will best ‘feed their souls’. Often I have heard people exit a church with the phrase “I was not being fed.” This tells much about our mindset and the mindset of many ‘attraction modeled’ churches.

As a lay person, I want to say that a pastor who is the sole source of spiritual nutrition does that church a disservice and individuals who rely only on pastoral teaching are bound to be anemic.  Amy Grant used to sing about “Fat Baby” Christians. These Christians drank only the milk fed to them and never fed themselves.

Psalm 1 describes a flourishing Christian as a tree planted by the water. The tree is placed in a location that makes growth possible and all but inevitable. The tree only has to sink its roots! Sometimes a horticulturist ‘forces’ the plant by drastically changing the environment. I believe we are in a time where God is forcing us to sink our roots.

Sinking roots is an individual exercise to which corporate worship is a complement. Jesus calls us and we respond personally, and this is how we grow. It is an individual sport!

During this time of Covid we have the supreme opportunity to sink our roots. When we do so we will be richer and better able to encourage one another when we can resume corporate meetings.

There are many ways of sinking our roots, but I want to suggest three.

Reading scripture meditatively.

Praying conversationally.

Obeying consistently.

These practises do not need a lot of explanation. Part of feeding yourself may be in figuring this out for yourself. I do want to emphasize obeying though! If we read God’s Word and converse with him but do not incarnate what we have come to know and experience, we remain ‘fat baby Christians’. When we intentionally sink our roots in this way we can count on God to do His work. If we work on the roots He will take care of the fruits.

Eyes To See

Today the Christian Church looks to the cross. The world gazes on and wonders.https://www.livescience.com/63645-optical-illusion-young-old-woman.html

I am reminded of Elisha’s prayer for his servant “Open his eyes!” The world it seems have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. Like Elisha we should pray “Lord, please open their eyes” By a miracle of grace my eyes were opened, and I see the awful beauty of the cross. The hymn writer pens “Did ever such love and sorrow meet?”

I am reminded of a variety of op art pieces. There is a surface image, but the mysterious other image is not discernible to us. We stare and stare but until our eyes ‘are opened’ we do not see beyond our initial view. Then suddenly and mysteriously our eyes are opened, and we see through the mystery which is hidden in plain sight. After seeing it we wonder how we or anyone else could miss it. Now that we see it we can never look at the image the same again. We glance away and the glance back and the once hidden image is clearly apprehended.

To the world the cross is but jewellery or a foolish instrument of death akin a gallows or electric chair. But to those whose eyes have been opened the cross holds so much more. When our eyes are opened it resembles clicking on an icon on our desktop. We find so much more behind the icon when our eyes are opened.

We see the place where life begins for us. We ‘click’ on the cross and we understand scripture itself. We find life and health and healing. All this waits beyond the icon that is the cross and we need eyes to see.

The opening of eyes is a specialty of the Lord. In fact, only He can. On this Good Friday and going forward let us pray this simple prayer that God would open the eyes of those we love. Let us pray with thanksgiving because he and he alone, has opened our eyes to the marvellous beauty of the cross!

“How Do They ‘Hear’ Without Someone to Proclaim?”

Can I impress you that guilt is the poorest of motivators for people to seek the help and healing Jesus offers? Too often this is the message that those ‘outside’ the four walls of our church building ‘hear’. It may not even be what the church is communicating or trying to communicate but it is what is ‘heard’.

Jesus says he does not come to condemn but to save (John 3:17). The Adversary is the one who condemns, and he needs no help! The Gospel is the good news of God’s love and invitation to a lost and hurting humanity. It is this love and invitation that marks a fruitful presentation of the Gospel.

I see people who draw near because of their pain. They are all too aware of the wreckage that has become their life. They often hesitate from true repentance because they fear facing this wreckage and reliving the pain! They cannot bear to look at it one more time. Life has become an exercise in avoiding or numbing these events and feelings.

If we have not communicated by word and deed, the love of God, our friends will not feel safe enough. The idea of bringing all that hides in the darkness into the light is beyond daunting if there is no hope of acceptance and forgiveness.

Such ‘word and deed communication’ is vital if we are to succeed in fruitful Christian life. We spend too little time examining what we are communicating. I think we need to pause often and ask, “What are we saying to the world around?” Perhaps we could even ask folks outside our church family what they are ‘hearing’ from us.

Is our energy geared toward this declaration and demonstration of God’s love, in Christ? Do our services and programs tell the good news and equip people to live it out?

Too often I see people come with all their painful baggage. It is hidden away in darkness. They come looking for relief, but the proper groundwork has not yet been done. Like the hard packed soil in Jesus’ parable, they are resistant from real hope and change. Much work needs to be done to prepare this ‘soil’. This is not the work of the desperate person in pain. It is the groundbreaking work of the Church as it demonstrates tangibly the love of God in Christ.

I think I know, a bit, what Jesus felt as he saw the rich young ruler walk away. I see people come only to go. They go back to the darkness rather than bring those actions and feeling into the light. They do not yet feel safe enough to revisit that vile past. Who could blame them? Until we effectively demonstrate God’s inviting love, only the bravest will come.

I do not think we can be satisfied with that ‘harvest’. I believe that the world is still ‘white unto harvest’ if together we can share and show the love of God in Christ to the world. This may require considerable repentance but we of the Church can safely do so because we have received the love of God through faith in Jesus.

My $0.02 worth!

Clowning Around

It was the 150th year of the Diocese and each church was to host the ‘Sesquicentennial Cross’. The church we belonged to, at that time, had the cross on a Sunday which meant we got an Archbishop thrown in with the deal. These were the waning days of the ‘March for Jesus’ movement and so we sang and marched the cross around the block all the while singing Graham Kendrick songs. Along the way I engaged in conversation with a guy who was obviously curious about our activities. I told him and invited him to finish the rest of the walk with us and join our festive service. Surprisingly, he joined us! Early in the service, as the Archbishop plunked on his mitre, he whispered to me, “This church is so cool, you even have clowns!”

This incident is on my mind as I contemplate yet another procession with a cross. Our church is planning to walk with a cross this Good Friday. The plan is to walk by the mall across the street and around the block. I always feel a bit foolish on these ventures. I feel like there are many other ways I might be more effective in witnessing to Christ, and perhaps there are! This though is one way and I have decided to join the throng. I can be involved in other methods of evangelism every other day, but this is a unique opportunity to feel foolish which I cannot pass up.

Fools and clowns are my heroes. In olden times they were the truth tellers. Fools could say in jest the things that others dared not voice. Paul describes himself as “A Fool for Christ”. We misunderstand this because our knowledge of fools and foolishness is quite different than previously.

One of my favourite Saints is Francis who saw himself as “God’s Troubadour” very much in the image of a fool. His namesake the Bishop of Rome has just returned from a Francis-like trip to the Middle East. Like the original he sued for peace and understanding. Such calls for peace in this bellicose world seem foolish and destined to little success, yet the world has seen an example of “a more excellent way”. This is no failure!

On Good Friday, I predict, I will feel foolish. I will wonder about the potential of these efforts to nudge a single heart or mind. I will know though that my fellow sojourners and I will have the opportunity to be fools. Perhaps the great cloud of witnesses will look at us and say, “This church is so cool, you even have clowns!”

The truth is that the cross is always foolishness to the world and Jesus says that if like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, he is lifted up, that he will draw men and women, boys, and girls! I cannot give up an opportunity to be a part of that and I cannot let the chance to be a fool pass me by.  

Diet of Devotions

Our family has been sharing devotions at breakfast time since the very beginning. Our children were raised on a steady diet of bible and prayers alongside their Cheerios. Linda and I continue this blessed tradition. The particular ‘Devotional’ we are currently using has been focussed, the last few days, on the issue of assurance (that is knowing that we know that we are Children of God).

We chatted afterwards about the fact that this has not been a pressing issue for either of us for as far back as we could remember. That we do not struggle with this idea of assurance is based on two things: experience and memory. These two things are emphasized again and again through Scripture. The great deeds of God , in history, the actual experiences of the People of God are recounted and memorialized for future remembrance. The Passover and the Lord’s Supper are apt examples.

It is the same in our lives. We have all faced challenges in life. God has seen us through them. When we recall his faithfulness, we are strengthened to face the next challenge. This week I heard a preacher tell of a member of his congregation who faced a painful death due to brain cancer. He spoke of the man’s faith and dignity. He spoke of the fellow’s gratitude to God in the midst of the pain. The man recalled God’s faithfulness and so faced even painful death with a calm assurance.

It is a tragedy to waste our painful experiences. Let us recall them, even the bitter ones, and know that God has and is seeing us through.

Remembering past pain can be a delicate thing! As someone who for many years suffered with PTSD I know that painful reliving of the past is much different than recollection which brings assurance. I am tremendously grateful that I no longer live ‘there’ and that I can recall, and recount God’s presence help and comfort.

The greatest moment in history to recall is the Resurrection of Jesus. As the Gaither’s have long told us, we “can face uncertain days, because He lives!”

Pain and sorrow, and yes even death, are inevitable. We might wish it were not so, but facts are stubborn things. Blessed are those who can weather life’s storms knowing that God who brought you this far will not fail. It is just not in his nature!

I highly recommend a scheduled daily devotional. There are many wonderful books and guides for every age and stage. We spend the last moments of our devotional time praying together for the upcoming events of our day, our nuclear and extended family, and our neighbours. These prayers help set up our day for ‘the living’. These times correct the course mistakes of yesterday and put us on track to spending a good day with God and one another. This is a long habit and a fruitful one.

IN THE REAR-VIEW

I was ‘looking in the rear-view mirror’ this week, as I recalled days travelling all over the Diocese of Brandon with my friends Bishop Malcolm Harding and Agnes Flam. We were trekking to each church in this sprawling area as a part of Malcolm’s farewell tour. He wanted to have an evangelistic event in every local during his last year of episcopacy.

One of my roles was to gather everyone in a great circle to listen to each other. I asked the gathering to gaze into their own rear-view mirror and identify the one person without whom they would not be who they are. Sometimes it is difficult to get people to share in such gatherings, but this was a topic that folks found easy. People spoke about parents, teachers, grandparents, pastors, and friends.

Afterwards I would sum up the conversation, pointing out that quite ordinary people had been used in extraordinary ways to touch our lives and affect our eternal trajectory. I would ask people to aspire to do the same. I would invite people to pray for God’s strength and guidance for a ministry of influence on children, grandchildren, neighbours, and friends. It would often be a late night before we were through praying with people about their personal ministry of evangelism. Those were memorable days!

As I look in my rear-view, I see Miss Crump (yes that was her real name). To my young eyes she was incredibly old, though I do not know how old she really was. She was wheelchair bound in the late 50’s and early 60’s, long before mobility rights were a thing. Each Sunday as we stomped our way down the stairs to Sunday School, she was magically already there. I do not recall a word she said but as I gaze through my mirror into the distant recesses of my life, I know that but for her I would not be who I am today. It could not have been easy to descend into the basement of that church and wrangle a boisterous bunch of boys (Sunday Schools were full in those ancient days!). She had a host of legitimate excuses and yet for the love of God and children she persevered. Though she had great personal wealth she humbly served! I did not know at the time the impact she was having, and she likely did not either. Perhaps she knows now. I hope so.

I think this is a valuable exercise for each of us. It stirs us to thanksgiving for those God placed in our lives and it can inspire us to emulate them. Sometimes the challenge of being like Christ is so daunting we despair but we can certainly aspire to be like those frail humans that we find looming so large in our rear-view mirror.

I never got to tell Miss Crump of the difference she made but I thank God at every remembrance of her. Perhaps the one you see in the rear-view mirror is still alive, if so please tell them. You can make a difference in their life as they made in yours. Best of all, though, pas it on! You have it in you to be such an evangelist. Your creator put it in you, and He is calling it out of you. Evangelism is really not the daunting task you have imagined it. Pray that one day someone you meet today will recall you in their own rear-view.

The Clunker: A Parable

Young Christian had a clunker. It was filthy and grime covered. It barely ran at the best of times. The driver’s door would not open and he was forced to enter by the wrong door and struggle into the driver’s seat. All too often the clunker refused to start and needed to be gently coaxed into running. When it did run it shuddered and shook at any speed over 50 km/hr. Billows of inky, oily smoke plumed behind. Several times people had written “Wash me!’ in the dirt. Young Christian decided he needed to do just that! He coaxed the clunker out of his driveway and shuddered and shook down the street to “Salvatore’s Car Wash”. He left it with the manager owner Salvatore with the promise that it would be “like new” when he returned.

Young Christian could hardly believe his eyes when he saw his ‘clunker’. It gleamed in the sunlight! It looked like new, better than new! It had never looked so good. “There is no charge.”, said Salvatore, for he loved to transform old clunkers.

Young Christian continued to get in the passenger door and keep the ‘clunker’ below 50, though the engine hummed as never before. There was no trailing plume behind him, yet he maintained the same habits he had developed to cope with the old clunker.

One day Salvatore waved him down and asked why he continued driving in this old way. Did not Christian know that Salvatore had done more than just wash the clunker he had made “all things new.” Young Christian decided he must break the habits he had learned during his ‘clunker days’ and learn the habits suited to the newness of his vehicle.

With great patience Salvatore offered, “I left an exhaustive manual in the glove box. Refer to it often. It will help you transition from your dirty clunker”  to life with a new one.”

Too often I forget that the Saviour does not just wash me from my sin, but he makes all things new. I struggle with the habits formed to cope with my old life. He has given me ‘instructions’ in the Bible and encourages me to check it often. In doing so I can practically realize that I am made new, that I am free and forgiven, that I do not have to live according to my old nature but with His help I can live a new life.

One day I will shed the last vestiges of this old clunker. I do not know what my new model will look like but I know it will be beautiful in its perfection for it will be made after the fashion of the Saviour!