Lent & Lengthening of Days

Have you noticed the days lengthening? They are still 24 hours long but each day the sun shines more and more. Actually, the sun continues to shine year-round, but we see it and bask in it as the year progresses.

Our perspective is so important here. Physics and astronomy might say one thing but until we experience it those truths mean little to us.

I am challenged this Lenten Season, which is named to describe the lengthening of days, to check on my perspective. I can look at life through my own quite selfish lens and be unsettled and unhappy, or I can seek the omniscient God’s perspective.

My mother uses to have an expression, “Its as plain as the nose on your face!”. By this she meant that the thing she was saying was obvious. When she would say that I would try and see the nose on my face. It was not obvious to me. Others could see my nose and I could see my nose reflected in the mirror, but I could not make out the thing that was so obvious to those who had a different perspective!

Lent is a time to see things through God’s eyes, to see truth that he makes plain in his Word. This year as I began to meditate on Lent and its meaning, I was struck with the idea that God was literally giving me more time or day light and that perhaps he wanted me to “redeem the time”. As the sunlight breaks in early and departs more slowly I have opportunity now to use the time to bless God, my neighbour and myself. I bless myself by gaining a fresh perspective seeing my true nature reflected in his Word. I bless God in growing devotion, and I bless my neighbour by putting into practise the things that are plain as the nose on my face!

Lent all to often has devolved into a selfish exercise of deprivation and self-righteousness. I would rather that it be turned into a ‘blessed season’ where I gain perspective and grow in practise. Rather than “What am I giving up for Lent?” I want to ask, “How best can I redeem the extra daylight God gives me?”

Here in Lent the days get longer and longer. They will plunge into metaphorical darkness on Good Friday and end with the Sun of Righteousness breaking from the tomb which can not hold him. The Light has come. The Light is coming (more and more). The Light will one day come and there will be no need for sun or moon for he will be our light!

Much of my ministry has been forced online this past year. I do a Bible Study three days a week and lately we are doing Romans “12 Minutes With Paul”. For years I had studied Romans and I taught it at Taylor College. I had even toyed with the idea of writing a devotional book on this epistle. I discarded that idea when I realised how many others had already done that. I have avoided teaching on Romans for the past few years because I get so excited and bogged down in its dense minutia. The last weeks have been a refreshing return to this great book, which ranks second only to the Gospels in import on my life. I have tried not to bog my hearers in detail but some days we only look at one verse. I so enjoy chapter 8 after the dark chapter 7. This study seems apt as we experience this Lenten Season.

Wipe Your Feet!

On a cold winter day my mind drifts back to warm summer memories. I travel back to my childhood summers. Brown as a bean from playing outside all day, I would return home climbing the back porch stairs and entering our tiny kitchen. The screen door would slam shut behind me announcing my arrival. From somewhere in the inner regions of the house would come my mother’s voice, “Wipe your feet!”. Halfway across the newly mopped kitchen floor I would retreat to the mat and wipe my feet. This was remarkably familiar, and I smile within with fond memories of the safety and welcome of this routine.

Today as I seek to “enter His Gates” and “Come into His courts” I still hear, in my minds ear, “Wipe your feet!” Just as my mother could not and would not tolerate dirty kitchen floors God does not and will not tolerate His throne room being polluted with sin. Confession can become an under practised spiritual exercise. In liturgical churches it can easily become rote. In non liturgical churches it can be easily omitted or perfunctory. In private devotions our rush to intercede for ourselves and our world (Good and Godly desires) leads too often to neglect of confession.

Like any other good thing if our enemy can not get us to ignore it he tricks us into becoming obsessed with it. I remember a time when I had behaved badly and lost my temper. That night in prayer I went before God. “Here I am for like the billionth time! You must be so sick of me coming like this!” and then I felt God’s voice come to me. “I certainly remember this last time,” and the scene of my offense played out before me and I felt the weight of its guilt and shame “but I don’t remember any billion times.” I confessed and felt forgiven for my sin! Later I would recall that “As far as the East is from the West, so far has he cast my sin” and that He “remembers it no more against” me.

Peter resisted having his feet washed. This is a more drastic version of wiping one’s feet. After becoming convinced of the necessity of allowing Jesus to thus clean him he wanted his whole body bathed. Jesus simply chided him that all that was necessary was a good wiping of feet.

All this to say that we do not have to flog ourselves constantly for sin. Jesus took our stripes. Once we have been adopted into the family of God we are welcome, as the writer of Hebrews says, to “Boldly approach the throne”. Yet we ought not to disrespect God and his holiness by rushing into His presence without first wiping our feet.

Many of us have mirrors by our doors to quickly check our appearance before we go out into the world. We do not want to launch out with breakfast stains on our tie or our fly unzipped. We should take a moment before our corporate or private worship to do such a spiritual check. The Psalmist invites God to search him and find any wrong, and so should we.

After wiping my feet, I was welcomed to the warmth of my family home and I could ask my mother the important questions like “When is supper?” or “Can I go over to Steve’s after supper?” But I dared not ask those questions if I had not first wiped my feet!

We are all bidden into God’s presence and family. Wipe your feet!

Heaven’s Rim Shot

Who is the shortest man in the Bible? Bildad the Shuhite! (Sound it out)

I really enjoy a good pun. I know that to some that sentence seems oxymoronic, but I do not think so. Take the play of words from Shakespeare and he becomes a forgettable hack. The best lyrical music plays with words. Puns have a distinctly high place in literature. So why is it that our first response to a good pun is a groan? Why does such a noble endeavour engender such ridicule?

I believe that a pun is like a name just on the tip of our tongue. It is just beyond our reach but once someone (in my case, my wife) supplies the word or name, we are a bit indignant. We think, “I knew that! I did not need you telling me!” The pun is amusing because it derives from our group experience. We groan because we knew that! We groan because we were not first to say it. We groan because we feel that given a bit more time we could easily have come up with a similar play on words. The thought is so common as to breed a kind of contempt.

I have learned that if one is going to share such thoughts one must develop a thick skin and indeed an awareness that the ‘groan’ is a unique form of ovation.

A restaurant would never succeed on the moon because no matter how good the food might be there would be no atmosphere!

The resistance to puns comes from an unwillingness to be reminded of our own inadequacies. This reticence plays out in people’s resistance to the Gospel. People do not like to be confronted with the truth that they are not sufficient in themselves. The initial presentation of the Gospel begins with our common need. There is an element of ‘bad news’ that accompanies the Good News, and it is against this that our evangelism first bumps. Though the experience of a need for meaning is common it lays beyond consciousness and folks resent being uncomfortably confronted, in this regard. Nevertheless, like a good punster (again nor an oxymoron) we must persist through this initial discomfort. During this stage of evangelism, the ‘sharer’ is made to feel the ‘groan’ and too often slinks off like a thin-skinned comedian. The true ‘punch line is never delivered and never received! Persisting past the ‘groan’. Past the initial discomfort and resistance to the acknowledgement of our common need. A true ‘hearing’ is regularly preceded by a rejection of some kind. A comedian learns not to take this phase personally. An evangelist learns to pass any rejection along to Jesus. Isaiah tells us that Jesus was rejected, and He is used to it! A good evangelist (certainly not an oxymoron) deflects any feeling of rejection to the One “was rejected and acquainted with grief.” The good evangelist continues faithful, over time, until the ‘punch line’ is delivered. When faithfully delivered it is amazing how effective this punch line is!

“God loves you. Stop trying to live life on your own terms as if you were the Sovereign Lord. Surrender to him and know peace and love, beyond imagination.” No better punch line exists. Listen and you can hear Heaven’s rimshot!

Beyond Talk

Have you seen all the “Let’s Talk” ads. They have come every year for the last several turns around the sun. They may provoke an “Oh yes, it is that time of year again.” response. But awareness of mental health has never been more important than now. Isolation from true human contact and burrowing deeper into virtual ‘relationships’ with only those who share our opinions, biases, and point of view, leads to ill health. It features an exaggerated sense of grievance. We feed off the gripes of the like minded and our temperatures rise beyond what is healthy or helpful.

A deceptive type of paranoia is loose in the land! Of course, the difficulty is that one of the first signs of such deception is that we are not aware of it! Such deception can hardly be battled with argument. This ‘crossing of swords’ exacerbates and heightens the temperature. It too often entrenches each ‘side’ all the further.

I dare suggest a different tack. I suggest that St. Francis  might have been right and that it is better to “understand than be understood”. Such understanding requires less reaction and more listening.

I think a mirror might be a helpful image and that as we carefully listen and gently reflect back what we hear that we all might make progress. Too often people driven by grievance slip into extremism. If we sought to gently reflect how these actions or words look and land, asking if this is what they really intend, then we invite human interaction rather than de-personalized grievance.

This necessitates me refusing to join in either sharing or refuting and places me in the steps of Francis and of Jesus. Good sandals to stand in!

Each day we are confronted with the difficulty people with mental health issues face during the fear and isolation of covid. Our friend J. has had to be institutionalized because of her adverse reactions during this time. Because of isolation her communication has been reduced to texting friends. Texting is a poor means of communicating at the best and this mentally ill woman has managed to hurt and alienate many furthering her isolation. Every day she is contact with me sharing her hurts and always asking me what she can pray for.

V. lives in terrible anxiety and in isolation too often listens to these voices of worry and despair. She finds hope in reading her precious book of Psalms. She may go weeks without human contact.

B. lives in a care home which is rightfully extremely strict about its covid protocols. She is often locked down with other mentally ill residents and they “drive each other nuts!”

The healthiest of us battle with this isolation seeking healthy ways to connect. Let us not just talk but let us act justly. Let us not air grievance raising the temperature but be cooling agents. This is the 2021 way to be preserving salt in the world.

Shalom.

Change and Changelessness

The World longs for change.

The World turned the calendar… but like a beggar’s pocket… No Change!

The World pins its highest hope on vaccines… still no sign of change.

Thousands die… no change.

In three short weeks devout resolutions fall to dust.

Humanities best efforts to reform bring …

Wait for it…

No change!

Vanity of vanities. There is nothing new beneath the Sun.

Change like quicksilver eludes our grasp.

Hope arises only to fail, as hopes before too often have.

The outlook for reformation is gloomy.

The forecast for human evolution is dismal.

Until something changes, nothing will.

The onus falls on me and you!

Change begins with contrite hearts.

With humble spirits.

Change relies not on the dint of our labours.

It lies in repentance!

A true turning away from selfish ways

An honest turning toward the Light

An honest turning toward the Right

An honest turning to the Good

Knowing, “There is none good but God.”

From our knees  we may see the cracking of a new Dawn

Light aroused from an empty tomb

A Light that makes the darkness tremble

A Right that lifts the broken and the fallen

A Good poured out like water on a dry and weary World.

Bright Hope can be known

There may be change

Hope has a Name

Newness has a Way

The Name, the Way, is Jesus.

That’s the Truth!

Genuine Delight

I think in these dark days of ‘covid winter’ we have to take care to savour joy when it finds us. In the past I was a bit more cavalier about the good things that came my way. I thought “That was nice, there will be plenty more moments like that!” I now repent of this attitude that takes grace and mercy for granted. Like taking a small bite of dark chocolate and letting it slowly melt on my tongue, I want to deeply relish the grace-filled moments of beauty and joy. I want to genuinely enjoy them and take time to thank the giver of all good gifts. Such savouring, I think, will give us insight and perspective enabling us to live well.

Yesterday we had a wonderful visit from our grandchildren. While Linda played floor hockey with Declan in the basement, I walked the floor with little Ronan. He is just shy of two months old. He would not settle for me if I were seated, so I held him tight and paced all the time gently bouncing him up and down. I enjoyed the down like fuzz of his little head beneath my chin. I shooshed and hummed and rocked until that wonderous moment when he dropped off in a peaceful sleep in my arms. There is no feeling like this!

I carefully laid him down in the middle of our big bed and lay down beside him. There we spent the next hour together. I did nothing but enjoy those moments. I watched his little rib cage go up and down as he breathed. I admired the complex beauty of his wee hands as they twitched this way and that. I listened intently to the little inarticulate baby sounds. I inhaled that lovely ‘new baby’ smell. Mostly though I smiled and delighted in this miraculous little life. Ronan did not have to do anything or perform to bring such delight. I wondered if God does not delight in us in a similar fashion.

What if his affections are not earned by our behaviour?

What if there was nothing we need do to earn his delight?

What if there were no conditions to His love?

The answer to all these questions is that they all are true. “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” Zeph. 3:17

Just as I was enraptured with quiet joy for that hour, so I am captured by the notion that my Heavenly Father is eternally delighted in ways that I can only haltingly reflect. This is a thought to take us through the darkest that ‘covid winter’ has to offer!

The Challenge of Epiphany

It is a bit ironic that many call January 6th a dark day when Christians around celebrate the Epiphany, when “the Light to lighten the Gentiles” is celebrated.  In January, as the days slowly lengthen, we recall the dawning of the Light of the World, long foretold, the hope for both Jew and Gentile. This Epiphany was long expected from the time of God’s covenant with Abraham that “all the world would be blessed.”

Back in the Centennial Year, in a ‘Coronation Church’ (founded in the year Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne) on the Day of Epiphany, I was first commissioned for ministry. It was my Confirmation, which is an Anglican rite wherein the candidate takes the promises of infant baptism as their own. Afterward the minister asked the presiding Bishop to pray a ‘special’ blessing on me and the call to ministry the entire congregation affirmed. The Bishop lay hands on me a second time and prayed as requested. I mark that day as having particular influence and one that ‘launched’ me into the place I find myself so many years later.

My heart has consistently been moved to encourage people to experience their own Epiphany. Though the Light has shone in the darkness He has not been universally received. The promise to those who receive him is the “power to become children of God.” This epiphany is vital!

It is a shame and a stain to see people purporting to be Christian acting out in violence and lawlessness. Darkness and Light cannot co-exist. We, as children of Epiphany, are called to “walk in the light even as He is in the light.” When we do not, we must repent! We can all make mistakes, but we ought not to persist in them.

Epiphany calls us to live in the light, to walk in the light, to spread the light of Christ.  Epiphany calls me, calls us, to tell of his light and to (imperfectly to be sure) live in His light that the world may see us and “Glorify your Father in Heaven.”

Epiphany remains a challenge and a reminder to me. I no longer belong to the church of my childhood, but I am who I am because of her and for that I remain eternally grateful.

It is also a joy to see the ‘light’ coming on for friends who are taking Alpha with us. It is a wonderful thing to see people come in pain and confusion and find answers and find Jesus. It is a simple thing to pray for our friends and invite them to join in a inquiry into the faith and it is a glorious thing to see God at work in lives!

Occupying in a Fallow Time

I have been wondering what the ancient farmer did while the land lay fallow during a sabbatical year. God had ordained that the land was to ‘rest’. The benefits of this are obvious for the land. It had a year to replenish nutrients used up in the six previous years of crop production. It took preparation during those years for the farmer to be able to continue to eat during this time, but what, I wonder, did the farmer do during that year?

The land may have been at rest as far as crop growing was concerned but it was engaged in replenishing itself in order to be at its best in the years to follow.

Surely this was the work of the farmer during those years. He was not idle! (I have never met an idle farmer) He must have been engaged in equipment repair and infrastructure replacement. He was engaged in home repair and personal study in how to grow better crops next year. He thought more and deeper than when his every moment was consumed in the business of agriculture.

The land was better after the sabbatical and so was the farmer!

Few farmers ever actually practised this in the biblical way, though land is sometimes left fallow and crops are rotated. In recent times fertilizers have seemingly replaced the need for sabbatical.

I believe the same is true for us. As a culture we fail to observe sabbaths. In our busyness we miss the benefits of replenishment that are intended for us in God’s design. We continue to “work harder not smarter” no matter what we think.

2020 has been a time of forced fallowness. It is not as if we should laze during this time, though the therapeutic benefits of naps have become clearer. We are still called to “occupy” until he comes. But this is a time for tending our ‘supporting infrastructure’ to repair our lives and relationships in preparation for a fruitful time ahead.

I wonder if many of us are not squandering a crisis. We have busied ourselves in finding creative ways to continue in our old paths when we have a glorious opportunity to walk an entirely different path for this time, so that we can be all the more prepared for the seasons to come.

Now when we are making resolutions can I suggest that we resolve to find the fullness of God’s blessing during these strange days. Let us not let a good crisis go to waste!

The Incarnation as an Example of Creativity

Even in difficult times, and perhaps especially in difficult times it is important to find ways to incarnate the Good News of God’s love. This is our challenge. In the manger God demonstrated the lengths to which He is willing to go. No one could have predicted His demonstration. It was the ultimate in creative solutions. When we creatively address questions of how to incarnate this message during covid, we are imitating Him!

From its founding Church Army, called Threshold Ministries in Canada, has been focussed on ministry to the marginalised. I have tried to walk in this tradition. In 20 20 ministry took an unexpected turn. My ministry became marginalised by covid 19! The year began with grand plans. We were going to continue our Drop In and Bible Study ministry in the inner-city and expand to the creation of a Christian Community designed to disciple recovered men to become ‘Bringers of Hope’ to the wider community.

All of this has been placed, with a thud, on the shelf. God though has had a plan. This pandemic did not take him by surprise. I have had to learn how to serve Him from the margins. In laughable ways I have sought to use digital means to do my Bible Study. My phone has become my means of contact and counsel. These are instruments I do not particularly care for. I have learned to dive deeper in the word of God. I have become more disciplined in prayer. I have learned to use creativity where the old ways are impossible.

Each year our small inner-city house church gathers for a Christmas Feast. This year we were on “Orange” and could not meet. I arranged delivery of a Swiss Chalet Festive Dinner to each of us and we celebrated together while apart. The feedback has been wonderful. My friends loved the ‘gravy’ (dipping sauce), and none had ever tasted quality chocolates like the Lindt ones that arrived. It was not the same, but it was wonderful in very real sense.

Street Hope has started a tradition of holding a Christmas Banquet. This too was endangered by covid. I began to think about having a ‘Take Out’ banquet, but health questions made this a difficult needle to thread. I approached my wife’s genius brother-in-law Russel Dobbelsteyn of the Chefs Table with the idea of a Banquet in a Box. He created a savory charcuterie feast.

Marketing the Banquet in a Box was the next challenge. Church bulletins, church bulletin Boards, and Church announcements were not as readily available. Personal appeal opportunities were limited. Again, I took to Social Media. Slowly we began to sell boxes. I took a chance and ordered 100 from Chef Rus not knowing if I could reach that number. Soon people began to ask if they could buy one and donate it to someone who needed it more. My usual sources are not readily available to me, so this took more prayer and creativity than in years past. I called a friend from church to inquire about how many people attended the weekly Community Dinner that local churches sponsor on the East Side of Saint John. He informed me that during covid the numbers had doubled from 20 to 40 people coming each Saturday. Again, in faith I agreed that we would supply a box for each individual that came the day of our Banquet. I am happy to report that Chef Rus created a delicious box and Linda’s sister Betty decorated each box beautifully. We had enough boxes donated to give one to each individual that came to the Community (take out supper).The folks from our church were serving that day and they relayed how blessed people were by this gift. I had some wonderful conversations in the parking lot of Threshold House, as I delivered boxes to car doors. The feedback has been extraordinary!

Communication & Invitation

My daughter came home from school. It was a day like any other. I asked how her day had gone and she went on to describe it. They had had an assembly that day with a motivational speaker. Afterwards the speaker’s representative stopped my daughter in the hall and asked if she would like to meet that day’s presenter. She was busy with those concerns that consume teenage girls (still a mystery to me) and relied “No thank you.” and hurried on. I prodded a bit and discovered that the speaker was “some guy named Paul Henderson.” I was aghast!

There are certain “Where were you?” moments in our lives. Where were you when you heard John Kennedy had been assassinated? Where were you when the planes crashed into the towers? These moments are few and far between. They are memorable markers we carry throughout our lives. Such a moment for many Canadians of the Boomer generation is “the goal” scored by Paul Henderson. Canada and Russia had engaged in the ultimate contest for world supremacy and Canada looked very much like it was coming up short when an unlikely hero stepped onto the stage of history. In 1972 Paul Henderson who had a decent but hardly stellar NHL career popped in winner after winner in this high-stake contest. In the final seconds of the final match, he scored the tying and winning goals. Canada’s superiority remained intact. This was a moment of national pride such that we had never had before or since. It was much more than a game! Our identity itself hinged on the outcome and Paul Henderson saved the day.

It was this Canadian icon that my daughter blithely brushed off that day! I had no words. She had passed on an opportunity that most red-blooded Canadian Boomers would have leapt at! There was something wrong here! I realized that it was my fault. I had not communicated the extraordinary impact of that goal and that series. How was she to know the opportunity presented to her if I had never told her. I remained chagrinned at the epic parental communications failure which was on exhibit that day.

We laugh about this today, but communications failure has a tremendous impact still today. At this Christmas Season people are invited to come and meet the Christ Child. The invitation is everywhere and cannot be missed but too many brush it off because they have no sense of who it is they are being invited to meet. It is not their fault anymore than it was my daughter’s fault that she did not know Paul Henderson. We need to be better at communicating the story. We need to be better at communicating how important Jesus is to us. Otherwise, the invitation inherent in Christmas is wasted. What a shame that will be. It does not take particular skill to communicate those things with which we are passionate. Let us take opportunity to share the impact that first Christmas has had on us and our lives so others will have some sense of who they are invited to meet.