It’s a Question of Questions

question

I’ve been learning a lesson lately. (I know I have been slow getting this). Questions are important. My grandson and I took a long walk this week and jumped in hundreds of puddles along the way. He asked a torrent of questions many of which I had no clue of the answer. I’ll have to remember to google “Why is the sky blue?” He was perfectly content to learn the extent of his grandfather’s ignorance and I managed to avoid the reply “Because I said so!”. Sometimes I diverted by turning the question around “What do you think?” or “Why do you ask?”. Together we learned a lot because we asked and listened to each other.

Jesus asks and answers many questions, in the gospels and we stand to learn a lot if we answer and listen. Questions like “Who is my neighbour?”, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” or “When did we see you hungry, naked, or in prison?” These are great questions all.

Lately I have been posing questions to myself, God and my community. “What does the next chapter of my life look like?” Do I simply wind down into retirement or do I have another active chapter yet to write? One of the folks I look to most for guidance encouraged me to ‘dream big’ and God has laid the issue of addictions on my heart. Addictions seem, to me, to be at the heart of many of the social ills that plague our community, whether crime, violence, family disfunction, homelessness, or poverty. I have often felt that efforts to alleviate the above list would be much enhanced by concentrated efforts toward ‘Recovery’.

A friend posed a few questions that cemented my thinking. He asked “When was the last time you heard of someone freezing to death in Saint John? Or Someone starving to death?” Then he pointed out that almost daily you can read obituaries of those who lost their lives to over dose or suicide because of addictions.

Bill Wilson and many others have discovered that recovery is an issue of spiritual revival. It is within the Church that the true answer for addiction lies and so we bear a special burden of responsibility on this front.

All these questions led me to the conclusion that this is too big a challenge to ignore and so I am praying about Street Hope’s response. One of the key items for prayer is the idea of having a storefront in Waterloo Village where we would concentrate our Spiritual/Recovery work and expanding our staff to include someone with specialised addictions counselling expertise.

I will be writing further on this subject, no doubt, in weeks ahead, but I invite you to join me in prayer and to consider if there are ways you might be a part of the answer to this great challenge. Asking the question is important and I pray that you might ‘hear’ a clear answer.

 

Not Consumed!

bush

I have been doing some meditating on “the burning bush” of late. It was probably just an ordinary bramble bush which is common in that climate. In its ordinariness it was highly combustible yet despite its tinder dryness the bush was not “consumed”. The flame was of God not the bush. Here we see, symbolically, the transcendence of God. The writer of Hebrews says that God is “an all-consuming fire” in his holiness. Normally a fire would make short shrift of an arid desert bramble bush. This is what any of us would expect and it would be the natural result according to all scientific explanation, but the transcendent holy God is also the God who draws near to us. Paradoxically he is both far above us in his might and holiness and at the same time as close as our thought or breath. This immanence (nearness) is a wonderful mercy!

Lent calls us again and again to the desert, where we follow Jesus in his temptations, and it is here that we become aware of our ‘fallenness’ and God’s holiness. We become keenly aware of our shortcomings and that we continually ‘miss the mark’. Like Isaiah in the temple we realize in the presence of God’s holiness that we “are undone!”

The unburning “burning bush” symbolizes our great hope. In Christ God has drawn near. While we were still at enmity with God, Christ: took on flesh, moved into our neighbourhood, and died for us. Through the radical nearness of the incarnation and the cross, we are not consumed. The God who once walked with humans in the cool of the garden, walks again with those who draw near to him. James sagely invites us to “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

In this Lenten desert we recognize our sinfulness in the stark light of his burning holiness, yet we are not bereft for God in his mercy does not abandon us to our fate but rather draws near and draws us to him.

The desert is a great place to take a Lenten sojourn, but we can be thankful that we don’t live there. Even as I make my jaunt into the desert, I know I can and will return to the lush place of still waters purchased for me through the cross and Resurrection!

On another note: it has been gratifying to see more friends coming to our morning Study and Prayer times. There have been times in past where I was the only one and sometimes only two of us but recently others are coming or returning. It was a bit of a slog, but perseverance is paying off. I’m not terribly interested in numbers, but I am interested in people, so it is good to gather with a handful to look at the Word. Lately we’ve been studying Acts. The questions have been challenging and we are all learning a lot. Thanks for your prayers.

Consolation No More

seed

I began my ministry in remote communities in Canada’s north where the most quoted Bible verse was “Where two or three are gathered …” We used the verse to console ourselves when the numbers were not great. Later I worked as ‘Field Secretary’ (Personnel Officer) and visited our Evangelists in many remote locations and the same verse cropped up on those occasions. When I came to Saint John in 2000 to teach at Taylor College our classes sizes reminded us of this verse and we used it again to console ourselves that, at least God was with us!

Later as I began to work in the Inner-city and began Uptown Church, I had an epiphany! I thought, “What if God really means what He says? What if his power and presence are most manifest in smallness rather than in vastness?” I began to look at smallness quite differently.

God had the great mission of rescuing a lost humanity and he began with a seed in a virgin’s womb. The power is in the seed! The presence of God is magnified in the small thing!

Influenced by this world we had come to measure ministry by worldly measure. We counted only nickels and noses. Success was in largeness and busyness. The Kingdom principles instead are about stillness and smallness.

Since that epiphany I have tried to joyfully practise small group ministry, not by default but on purpose. Others may be called to ‘mega’ ministry, but I feel a vocation to ‘micro’ ministry. Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of time with small numbers intentionally. The seed that he nurtured in these few followers bore fruit that continues today.

I recall a children’s talk my friend Al Knight gave, one time. He had an apple and he asked the children, “How many seeds do you think are in this apple?” The guesses ranged in the area of 5 or 6. Al cut the apple and they counted them. He then took one seed and said, “How many apples are inside this one seed?” The answer is that there are limitless numbers of apples potentially in that seed, as it becomes a tree that produces more apples each season with more seeds in each apple. The power is not in the big red apple, as big and delicious as it might be, the power is in the relatively tiny seed!

Jesus has given us one template for ministry and the secular world has given us another very different numbers and success driven template. The question for his faithful followers is, “Which model will we adopt?”

It can be a real blow to our pride when we report the micro nature of our ministry to a mega obsessed world and the temptation is to at least want to be a bit ‘mega’, but the power of the seed is in its dying, and this temptation is to be eschewed.

So, I continue to walk with the few who gather under the Street Hope banner. It is a joy to see seeds planted take root, and over the course of time see fruit develop in my friends lives. I know that this fruit carries in it seeds that bespeak a glorious harvest in the future.

I no longer use that Bible verse to console myself because I feel like a failure but rather, I reflect on it knowing that God is powerfully present in our ‘smallness’. It may not be sexy or saleable but there is no place I’d rather be, and I highly recommend it!

When I in Awesome Wonder

whale

Like me, you have probably sung the words, “When I in awesome wonder…”, from the song “How Great Thou Art”. These times of awesome wonder are infrequent. I can recall a few: the first time I held my infant children and most recently my grandson, watching a whale dancing on its tail from my camp chair, and standing atop a mountain in Jasper National Park. I hope we have all had these occasions where we sensed the overwhelming majesty and mercy of God.

I got to see this ‘awesome wonder’ from a different vantage point this week. I heard that a young friend of ours had just got his drivers licence and I approached him, at our Drop In, to congratulate him. He was sitting shaking his head, as if in disbelief. “How can this be?” he kept repeating. He went on to tell me that two years ago he was living in a care home. He was expected to live out his life in such institutions. Now, though, he lived on his own! In the past two years he had successfully graduated from a Mechanic’s course at the Community College and now after weeks of Driver’s Training he had again succeeded by getting his drivers’ licence. He was now ready to get a job and move into a new and unexpected future.

He kept answering his own question “It is God. It has to be God!” He was truly amazed at the goodness and mercy of God. His awe made me want to take off my shoes, for it was definitely ‘Holy Ground’. I had experienced my own moments of awe, but it was thrilling in a whole new way to see the wonder in my young friend’s eyes.

He has a powerful testimony and he is not at all shy about sharing it. People may find other reasons for his achievements, and he has worked exceedingly hard, but he knows and gives God the glory!

Lately I have been reading a book about “The Parables of Jesus” and I was struck again by how often Jesus corrects people who are asking the wrong question. He is asked who is my neighbour?, and after the story of The Good Samaritan, he reposes the question “Who was the neighbour to the man?” As I reread the parable, I came back to the thought that I am the neighbour and that I am to be the good neighbour to whoever I encounter. Kindness and mercy are the callings of all who would follow Jesus. If our lives are not marked by these Christlike attributes we are following Him at a distance, at best.

He is “Sinner Friendly” are you?

Many of my friends, like me, are not likely company to join the Lord Mayor for High Tea. I like to think that I am emulating Jesus who was accused of being a ‘friend of sinners’. I got a message from a person I have been walking with for several years. I met this person in the Half Way House and we slowly but surely built a relationship. This friend is very rough around the edges but has come to experience an internal change of heart!

The message read, “Wow! I know I’m not perfect but I know God is good all the time. And He loves me while on my own journey.” Most of society had written this person off but God never writes anyone off. There is always an opportunity to experience his love and forgiveness, in this life. Those in the ‘Criminal Justice System’ (oxymoron?) would not be surprised by the change in my friend, they would be shocked! A life that was marked by impulsive selfishness now exhibits kindness and consideration. This is a reason to continue in this ministry. This is a reason to get up in the morning. This overwhelming grace of God which my friend experiences is mine and can be yours, as well.

I have another, long time friend, who had disappeared for a few years. This sometimes happens, for a variety of reasons but those reasons are seldom good. I make it a practice not to chase people but to simply let them know that I am going to be around when they want to return and that there will be no condemnation if and when they return. One of the most painful things is to see people make real progress in their walk, and then see them slip away. This painful experience is unfortunately, common place. It is always a joy to see folks return. Sometimes folks who are very active with us, for a while, will suddenly disappear and we experience a ‘ministry set back’, but the pain filled experiences people have during these interludes can be very educational.

One of the challenges associated with the style of ministry that I think of as ‘micro-mission’ is that the loss, even temporarily of soul, is devastating professionally but even more important personally. Over the years I have experienced this dozens of times.

Today we rejoice that our friend is back in our company but most of all that she has placed herself firmly in the company of the Saviour who loves her and invites her continual into his fellowship.

Watch Your Step!

slippery

I was out doing ‘the penguin walk’ on the ice laden lane and sidewalk this morning as I spread salt and sand to make it safe for others. I find that I am much more careful with my footing these days than before. I have learned from painful experience that I don’t heal as fast as I used to, and that my pre-fractured jaw is no longer ‘impact resistant’ but fragile. Life has made me careful!

I wonder though whether life has had the same affect on my spiritual walk. Too often, I blithely stride through life without a thought for the hazards. I walk as if on even ground. David, the Psalmist, knew better. He knew that he trod, in the midst of ‘miry clay’. In Psalm 66 he thanks God for preserving him and keeping his foot from slipping.  I find myself expressing similar thoughts when I safely navigate the ice coated side walks and parking lots, but David’s thanks were for safety in his spiritual walk.

We live in a slippery, uneven, and land-mine filled world. When my feet touch the cold floor, I begin a spiritual as well as physical walk. There are many potential pitfalls ahead and my GPS is not to be trusted! I can only look to God for wisdom, guidance, and safety. As the ancient prayer says, “for thou only make us dwell in safety.”

I am advocating, first to myself, and then to you, that we take at least as much care to ensure sure spiritual footing, as we take on the temporal plane.

My heart goes out, on days like this to my friend V. who suffers terribly with anxiety. One of the things that sets her off is winter weather. She obsessively watches the Weather Channel and worries about snow removal and slippery walks. Lately she has found a measure of help in reading the Psalms in place of weather news, and she now regularly calls to talk to Linda or me. She talks and we listen and then we pray together. It is heartening to see progress, but the mental obsession does not go away. We can help but we cannot heal. This anxiety is likely life long, but my friend is learning to trust in the faithful care of God.

We went this Sunday to hear my son preach, at his church. While there we got to spend time with our friend G. and her family. She has long been a member of the rag tag bunch who identify with Street Hope. In our early days G., who suffers from a variety of mental illnesses, prayed pleading simply and powerfully that her family would come to faith. Over the years, one by one, they have come! Recently her dad was baptised! It was a joy to see them all together on Sunday and to know that the faithful prayers and witness of this young woman who struggles through life, have been so wonderfully answered.

As we strive to stay safe in a slippery world, let’s also remember to ‘lift one another up’. We have such a faithful Father.

Gaps in the Foundation

I have gaps in my foundation! The storms came last week and these foundational issues became all too apparent. Climate change has made the ‘once in a decade’ storm a yearly event. Melting snow, sleet and buckets of pelting rain fell on unreceptive soil and the roiling mess sought out the gaps in my foundation. Fortunately I have experience (though I wouldn’t have called it fortunate when I had the experiences) and I knew where the gaps were. In one spot where a ‘well’ exists I was able to install a sump pump but the other place where the basement floor is broken is less accessible. For this area the answer is a wet vac. The 2 X 2 well filled every half hour both Sunday and Thursday nights last week and I stayed up to empty it safely. My back ached (it still does) and my mind was fogged with sleep deprivation. There was no way I could write a coherent blog last week.

I was reminded of scriptural teaching about the importance of foundations and ‘building on the rock’. Others on my street do not have the same gaps that I have but they experienced flooding. Their foundations leaked despite the fact that there was no obvious flaw and they suffered considerable damage.

I have now caught up on my sleep and am enjoying an undamaged home because: I knew there was a storm coming, and I knew my weaknesses. Spiritually speaking, there is but one who has a perfect foundation, Christ alone! Storms are inevitable in life. The winds will assail, and the tempests come. There is no avoiding them. Firm foundations are a must, lest we become musty! Yet our best foundations are cracked.

A combination of, sad experience and wisdom from God, are necessary to deal with these cracks. Where are our foundations weak. Let us not dissemble, trying to fool ourselves or God but to admit our weakness. This calls for a ruthless introspection. In AA this is called a fearless moral inventory. If my foundation remains unexamined then it is apt to be exposed at great cost.

I remember learning in Vacation Bible School that we must build our life on Jesus Christ in order to have our life built upon the Rock. Like many VBS truths, this is really only a partial truth. The fuller truth that the foundation is based on living out the teachings and example of Jesus. Merely knowing Jesus does not insure I hold sure in the storm, it is my bedrock belief in Him a Saviour and as Lord, that enables me to weather the weather.

The religious tradition that I grew up in emphasizes the importance of introspection, and definite seasons are set aside for this. These times are not for ‘self-flagellation’ but are instead times to examine and repair our foundation. Sometimes repair may elude us and instead we ought to be keenly aware of our ‘cracks’ so that we can bail when the deluge comes.

While I am grateful for the tradition that nurtured me, I am fearful for her foundations.

On another note, I’m very excited that we will be starting a new AA group “The Solution Group” out of the Out Flow building (formerly Fitzpatrick’s Funeral Home). The goal is to provide a healthy atmosphere and offer a spiritual solution to those struggling with addiction. The first meeting is Feb. 7th. Please pray.

You ain’t seen nothing yet!

Folks flocked out to see him, a seeming wild man, with grasshoppers caught in his teeth, his uncut and unkempt beard flying as he railed against injustice and Herod. He was a “can’t miss” spectacle in the wilderness, a magnetic attraction. After years of prophetic silence God seemed to be thundering once again through an Elijah-like voice.

Inevitably he was questioned “Are you the promised Messiah?” and he has a most startling reply, “If you think I am wild and radical, you haven’t seen anything yet! There is one coming that I do not compare to! I baptize with ordinary old water, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” (I think he always talked with exclamation points) It was moment like the one where David danced before the Lord and his first ex-wife Michael complained that he was embarrassing her, and he replied “If you are embarrassed by this wait until you see what I will yet do! I will be more undignified than this!”

I remember movies of the life and ministry of Jesus. John was always portrayed as a wild undomesticated prophet boldly proclaiming the imminent activity of God. Jesus in comparison was much more acceptable a character. He was tamer somehow. He was ‘Jesus meek and mild’, but John himself knew better than these film directors. He knew that Jesus, like Aslan, is no tame lion. Here at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry he is introduced in comparison to John.

One of the books I revisit often is “Mere Discipleship” by Lee Camp. It reminds me of the radical person that Jesus is and the radical person he is calling me to be. It seems to me that I so often ‘domesticate’ my Christianity, so as to tame the Lion of Judah. Jesus becomes so identified with me and my concerns that his wild nature gets lost in the process. My concentration on me and mine, by which I blend seamlessly with my culture, prevents me from a wild radical life like unto his.

Even evil men love those who love them, but Jesus calls me to love my enemy. He calls me not to love riches but rather love the unlovely. He calls me out of a life of ‘self-protection’ into one of radical self-giving.

John was a wild man, a man of exclamation points, but Jesus makes John’s wildness pale by comparison and I am absolutely blanched! I much more identify with Peter outside the judgement hall, denying that I even know him. This is why it so important that this wild radical Saviour baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Without this co-equally untame Spirit I can but despair of my natural meekness. There is an ancient prayer that says “as much as without Thee we are unable to please Thee”. I need the immediate presence of God in order to attempt the radical life of discipleship but as James reminds me “You have not because you ask not”.

Daily dependence and  everyday commitment to God’s will and God’s way are necessary if I am to be freed from the restraints of conformity to this world and experience the transformation necessary to walk with my wild  Redeemer.

 

In Good Company

On Sunday I was reminded that 52 years ago on the day of Epiphany I was confirmed by an Anglican bishop. At the time our rector (pastor) asked the bishop to also pray for me setting me aside for ministry in the Church. It was this moment, more than the confirmation itself, that I remember. While I was not a stellar student in school, I excelled in Sunday School! I seemed to have an aptitude for it and Bible knowledge stuck like Velcro to my mind. I remember frustrating others in my classes. The teacher would have what he called “Sword Drill”. He would name a Scripture reference and students would race to be the first to find it and quote it out loud. Without even cracking my book I would spout out the desired text. An assistant minister gave me a copy of “Principles of Theology” when I was 12 and I devoured it.

It was apparent then to my home church that God was calling me. We all assumed that this calling would be to ordained ministry, but such was not the case. The route to my commissioning as an Evangelist was a long and winding one. Many of my fellow Evangelists have wrestled with the question of ordination but for me it has been a long-settled question. There is no doubt in my mind that I would be an unhappy priest and that I would lead an equally unhappy congregation. I delight rather in the mission field as an Evangelist.

I am grateful for the mentoring I received from Threshold Ministries (then called Church Army) and for the companionship of my fellow Evangelists. The word companion holds the image of ‘eating bread together along the way’ and so is a fitting word for this company of Evangelists.

I was reminded of the wonderful nature of this ‘company’ as I called some of our Evangelists this week. I am helping with the Threshold Prayer Calendar and have been speaking to our folks to catch up on their lives and ministries.

It was a joy to hear of the ‘Back Pack Ministry’ Erin is involved with as she leads the Inner-city Youth Ministry in Saint John. The idea is that each week the ministry will fill a back pack for over 30 families in the South End of the city. Each pack will contain reading for parents and children to share as well as ingredients, a recipe for a simple nutritious home cooked meal, and some tasty healthy snacks. She is also planning to take children to Christian Camp this summer.

Eden shared about the folks he serves in Moncton. He opines that up to 80% of those getting out of prison are suffering from mental health issues and or addictions. These are the areas that he and Carolyn are vitally concerned with.

Darren celebrates 30 years of ministry with undiminished joy. He loves to see people come to faith. He shared a concerned for those who leave the correctional setting, in poor health. He spoke passionately about a few examples. It was great to share with him and to hear his infectious laugh.

Winnie is praying over some new opportunities that have been recently presented to her. The conversation was full of scripture references, the chief one being Psalm 32:8 “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.” It was great to chat with someone who was so trusting and open to God’s leadership.

Rob is preparing to begin a new ministry at St. Margaret’s in Fredericton. It was good to hear his confident faith as he looks forward to all God has for him and this parish in the days ahead.

It is humbling to be in such company! It is a joy! I thought that taking on this extra responsibility might be taxing (I really don’t usually enjoy talking on the phone), but it has been an energizing and inspiring task. I look for to sharing more on this adventure in future blogs.

The Passing of Missionary and Mentor

I first heard of Kathy at our Thursday Night Fellowship meetings. Each week we would pray for missionaries and she was always prominent on the list. When she returned to Canada while on furlough from her mission in Pakistan, she visited us, a group of impressionable students. It was thrilling to get to know someone who lived out the Gospel in the most difficult of all mission fields. She inspired me then, but little did I know the impact she would have in my little orbit.

We were living in the little prairie community of Elkhorn Manitoba, when Kathy came to stay with us for a few days at our Conference and Retreat Centre. It was during that time that I experienced her keen sense of humour and true humility. She saw me as a fellow missionary. Years later when I created the ‘tag line’ “Forming Missionaries for the 21st Century” for Taylor College, I did so with Kathy’s influence very much in mind.

She was to have another moment of real influence on me and Threshold Ministry. For years the Church Army International had been discussing the idea of a name change. The International body hired a consulting firm to come up with a new name. After much travel and discussion, they proposed a Swahili word meaning “Good News” (I cannot remember now what that word was). Each National Society would need to ratify the change. You have probably already guessed that this proposal met no such approval.

At that time many in Church Army were seeking a new name with the idea of keeping the same initials so we could keep the iconic CA. One day the Director of CA in UK and titular head of CA International, asked me what I thought we should be called. I blurted out “Threshold”. I quite liked the imagery of a liminal space, a threshold, in which people made decisions. I also felt it was a welcoming relational word.

Later the Church Army in Canada was impressed with a sense of necessity to change our name. We worked long and hard to find a name. At first, we almost settled on “Street Hope” the name of a flag ship ministry begun in Victoria but finally felt it did not encompass the wider range of Church Army activities. After many tries, we arrived at what we thought was a ‘winner’. We arranged to meet with our Board of Directors, who were by this time warm to the idea of a name change. We proposed to them the name “Martyreo” which is the biblical Greek word for “Witness”.

As I was proposing this, before I even got warmed to the subject, Kathy piped up “That makes me think of suicide bombers!”. Such ‘martyrs’ were common in her home area, in Pakistan. The air went out of the room and we knew the idea was dead on arrival. Those of us who were felt strongly that an update to our name was going to be a key for our long-term viability, were devastated!

The chairman recognized that “Martyreo” was not going to work and asked if we had any other suggestion. Like I had several years before I blurted out “I have always liked Threshold”. After a brief discussion the new name was proposed and passed. Kathy had played a vital role.

Over the years I would get little notes of encouragement from Kathy. I had long ago learned to trust her judgement and so I always took her encouragement very seriously. I have friends who always ‘gush’ encouragement and it is my habit to slough it off, but I always paid attention to Kathy.

This week my friend passed away. I have wonderful memories and look forward to sharing them with her again.