Category Archives: Brokenness and Wholeness

Letting Jesus shine through the cracks

I grew up in a Dutch immigrant family.  When I was born, my family had been in Canada for only two years, and during the early years of my childhood, the Dutch identity was quite strong.  I grew up speaking Dutch, though by the time I went to school, English had become predominant in our home.  But the differences went deeper than language.  Not that I realized this at the time – young children don’t reflect on how their family operates, they just accept it as the way the world is – but looking back, I realize that even though we were light-skinned like all our neighbours, in many ways we were quite different from the other families around us.

One of the times of year when the differences were most evident was in the way we celebrated Advent and Christmas.  Although my family was not particularly devout, during December we had regular times of singing Christmas carols, using an Advent calendar as a worship centre.  The Advent calendar in our home had nothing to do with chocolate.  It was made of coloured cardboard (bristolboard) with a wax paper backing, and consisted of a Bethlehem scene, showing the shepherds on a hillside overlooking the town, with a dark blue sky full of stars.  The stars were cutouts, so that at the beginning of Advent there were no stars in the sky, and then on each day of Advent another cutout piece would be removed and another star would appear.  There were larger stars for the four Sundays of Advent, and the largest one of all – situated right over the stable in the Bethlehem scene – was reserved for Christmas Eve.  In the evenings, the family would gather around the Advent calendar, the youngest child would remove another star from the sky, an older child would light a candle behind the calendar, we would turn out most of the lights, and the light from the candle would shine through the wax paper backing in the places where the cutout stars had been removed.  We would then sing a few Christmas carols by candlelight.   We did this most evenings during Advent, culminating in a special family Christmas Eve service of readings and carols.

As a young child, I didn’t fully understand why we were doing this, but I used to find it tremendously exciting.  The beauty of this observance awakened a sense of wonder in me, and a simple understanding of the gospel message was planted in my heart through the Christmas carols – some in Dutch and some in English.  Of all the Christmas customs that I grew up with, this is one that I have been able to pass on to my children.  Marion and I have had an Advent calendar in our home for years, and when our children were growing up our family, too, used it as a focus for family worship every December.

This morning, the Advent calendar is in place in our home, ready for the annual ritual.  There are no stars showing yet in the night sky, and the cardboard scene is stiff and stands up easily.  As the cutout stars are removed day by day, one of the side effects is that the whole structure becomes more flexible because it is full of holes.  The star-shaped holes are what make it beautiful – they allow the light to shine through – but they also mean that the calendar has to be handled with care and a gentle touch.   At the beginning of the annual ritual, the whole structure is fairly strong and stable.  It can stand by itself with no problem.  By the time Christmas comes, and all the cutout stars have been removed, it is full of holes and therefore much weaker and more flexible.  But if the candles are lit and the light is allowed to shine through the cracks and holes, it is also far more beautiful than in its original state.

This morning it occurred to me that my life is like that Advent calendar.   If I want the light of Christ to shine through, I have to be willing to let the cracks and holes in my life be uncovered.  We all like to present the image of ourselves as strong, self-assured, in control, with our weaknesses well covered up.  But Jesus exalts those who humble themselves.  If I succeed in convincing those around me that I am capable, knowledgeable and in control, they may be impressed.  But if I humble myself and allow my cracks and weaknesses to show, without pretending to be more than I am, then the light of Christ can shine through my life in increasing measure, bringing glory to Jesus and hope to those around me who also have lots of cracks in their lives.

For Christ’s sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

 

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Jesus and the pain of Jamie Hubley

A little over a week ago, Ottawa was rocked by the suicide of fifteen-year-old Jamie Hubley, a gifted, outgoing, but also troubled teenager who had battled depression for years.

By all accounts, Jamie was a compassionate, sensitive, caring young man.  He had often helped his father (Allan Hubley,  who represents Kanata on City Council) in various community service projects.  He was also a talented figure skater and theatrical performer.  His death was a shock to the entire community.

A few years earlier, when he was in grade seven, Jamie had suffered rejection and taunts for his choice of figure skating over hockey. Whether because he didn’t fit the typical macho image of masculinity, or for other reasons, at some point Jamie had adopted a homosexual identity, and had gone public with this choice. Judging by his blog, both his depression and suicide were influenced by the rejection he suffered at school for being openly gay.

One of the most common responses to Jamie’s death has been an appeal for greater tolerance and acceptance towards those who choose a gay identity and lifestyle. At first glance, this is an understandable response. But as a follower of Jesus, I can only go part way down this road.

Let me be completely clear. The pain that led Jamie Hubley to end his life is something I do not want to trivialize. As a young man I went through an episode of depression, and am familiar with the dark thoughts that can result. Nor do I have any sympathy for bullying or taunting. I was myself a shy, sensitive child, and suffered from bullying for a time as a young schoolboy. It was an experience I would not wish on anybody.

Early in my walk with the Lord, one of the verses of Scripture that leaped off the page at me and became embedded in my consciousness was this nugget: Do not envy the oppressor, and choose none of his ways (Proverbs 3: 31). As a believer in Jesus, I am called to honour all people, who are made in God’s image and of high value to Him. When I think of Jamie Hubley’s decision to take his own life, I feel nothing but sadness for him and his family and loved ones.

And yet.  As a believer in Jesus, I do not and cannot believe that the “gospel of tolerance” is an adequate response to the tragedy of Jamie Hubley’s death.

People make many choices and draw many conclusions in response to the pain of life. Not all those choices are in line with what God intends for their lives.  I do not believe it was God’s will for Jamie to commit suicide, even though he was fully convinced that it was what he had to do. In the same way, I do not believe it was God’s will for him to adopt a homosexual identity, no matter how profoundly he believed that this was his true identity.

Time for a bit of personal history here. When I was a young United Church minister in the 1980s, I had a number of colleagues who were living a homosexual lifestyle but had not yet gone public with this choice. At the time, the United Church had not yet approved the ordination of openly-gay clergy, though this was under discussion. I used to meet with a support group of six clergy, of whom one (I’ll call him Gord) was gay. We were all in scattered rural parishes, and our meetings involved long drives.  On one of these drives I had listened to Gord talk at length about his life and its struggles, including his adoption of a gay identity.  There were other gay clergy in our wider regional caucus, and I knew something of their stories as well.

I myself was struggling, not with my sexual identity, but with my spiritual identity.  At that time, I moved in very liberal theological circles.  I had not yet surrendered my will to God, received the gift of the Holy Spirit, or truly understood the gospel that I was attempting to preach. Even so, I took my Bible seriously, believed that it was authoritative, and found the teaching of Jesus extremely compelling. I was sympathetic to the struggles of my gay friends, but found myself unable to accept all their conclusions.  In particular, I found myself unable to accept their reinterpretations of Scripture, nor their conclusion that homosexuality was God’s intent for their lives. Still, I listened respectfully and rarely differed openly with their positions, preferring to express my reservations privately, and only to a few people. Even then, 25 years ago, to openly question the validity of pro-gay ideology in that environment would have been a very difficult and costly choice – a choice that I was not yet prepared to make.

The support group of six clergy with which I met regularly was supposed to be a non-judgmental, accepting environment. There came a point, however, where I experienced the limits of this acceptance.  I had been undergoing some profound changes since the pastor of the Anglican church in our town had reached out to me and offered the gift of friendship. He was a highly intelligent, thoughtful, caring and well-spoken man who was a great listener. He was also solidly anchored in Scripture and filled with the Holy Spirit. Under his influence, my struggle to surrender to Jesus was being resolved. One Sunday evening, I responded to an altar call on the last night of a three-day mission in the church he pastored. A few months later, I was filled with the Holy Spirit. I was discovering a new hope and confidence that Jesus really was alive and held the keys to life. But my liberal United Church clergy friends were less than enthusiastic about the changes that they were observing in my life and ministry. I distinctly remember that when they questioned me about these changes, the tone of their questions was quite hostile. Gord, my gay colleague, became extremely angry with me and accused me of judging and rejecting him, although I had said nothing at all to indicate this.

So what’s my point? Simply this. I was not rejecting Gord. All I was doing was attempting to express my newfound conviction that Jesus truly is alive, that He is able to heal and restore the lives of those who turn to Him, and that He is the living Word of God who has legitimate authority to determine how our lives are to be lived. If anything, I cared about Gord more than ever, but my newfound confidence in Jesus was offensive to him because it challenged his belief that his homosexual identity was a gift from God.

Since then, my convictions on this issue have not changed. If anything, they have become clearer, and have been confirmed by experience. Jesus is Lord, and He is able to transform all areas of our life, including our sexual identity. He will do this for anyone who surrenders to Him. Because his transforming work is completely a gift, and because I myself am very much still a work in progress, I am in no position to condemn anyone who is broken, no matter what choices they are making. Still, for those who insist that their current way of life is completely valid and needs no change, Jesus’ message will not seem like good news. He doesn’t offer blanket acceptance of every lifestyle – and as His follower, neither can I.  He does offer mercy, compassion and restoration to all who turn to Him in humility – and as His follower, so must I.

That’s why I say that the ideology of tolerance is not good enough. Tolerance may prevent some bullying, but it has no power to set people free. Jamie did need acceptance, but not the kind of acceptance that says everything is OK.  Like all people, he needed to surrender his life to the only One who could restore him and set him free.  How different his life might have been if he had been introduced to the Jesus that I have come to know.

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Keeping the flow clean

Recently when I was reading the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, I was struck by these simple yet profound comments about the human heart.

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. (Matthew 15:19-20)

Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad.  For a tree is known by its fruit.  (Matthew 12:33)

In Hebrew language and culture, the word heart refers to far more than just your feelings. It also refers to your will, your mind, your thoughts, your motivations – everything that is at the core of your being and makes you who you are.  It’s worth noting that when Jesus listed things that come out of the heart and have the power to make us unclean, the first item on his list was evil thoughts.  Thoughts give rise to actions.  As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.  As a woman thinks in her heart, so is she. (Prov. 23:7)

But lest we become discouraged, let’s also note that Jesus said it is possible to make the tree good, and then its fruit will be good.  When he said this, he was talking about our hearts.  The tree is an analogy for the human heart, and the fruit is an analogy for our words and actions – the things that flow from our lives and affect others.  Jesus is saying that training yourself to behave better isn’t enough.  It is the heart that needs to be transformed.

So how do we go about this? How do we train our hearts?

No doubt someone will want to remind me that only Jesus can create a new heart in any of us.  I completely agree that it’s impossible for us to convert our hearts by our own efforts.  Only the blood of Jesus and the waters of baptism have the power to cleanse our guilty consciences, put our old identity to death and make new creatures of us.  Still, I found that even after I had surrendered control of my life to Jesus, and received His offer of forgiveness and new life, the transformation of my thought life and my emotional life was not instantaneous or automatic.  I knew that I was accepted and forgiven, and I desired to produce fruit that was pleasing to God, but I still had to engage in a process of renewing or retraining my mind and heart.  I know I’m not alone in this.  Mark Virkler, who has studied this area for years, has estimated that up to 80-90% of the thought life of the average evangelical Christian is negative.   Sometimes it can seem like a constant battle to bring our unruly thoughts and emotions into alignment with the will of God as we see it embodied in Jesus.

I’d like to suggest that sometimes one of our biggest problems is that we try too hard.  In this battle to retrain our hearts and minds, the victory belongs to the Lord – and He has already won that victory on the cross.  In light of this powerful and liberating truth, I have found that one of the most effective weapons at my disposal is the simple decision to stop trying to change myself, and just begin to give thanks.

James (3:6) says that the tongue has power to influence the whole course of our lives. Although evil thoughts, evil words  and evil actions arise from polluted hearts, the reverse is also true. Good words – specifically, words of thanksgiving – have the power to cleanse and renew our minds and hearts, change our thinking, create faith in us (remember, faith comes by hearing) and cause genuine gratitude to well up within us until we begin to think like grateful people. And once our hearts begin to be ruled by gratitude instead of complaints, worries, guilt and self-pity, we are on the road to victory.

Did you know that in the Greek language (in which the New Testament was written) the word for giving thanks is related to the word for grace?  No doubt that’s why the practice of praying before meals is sometimes referred to as “saying grace”.  This link between thanksgiving and grace reflects something that all disciples of Jesus have experienced.  If you want to have a constant experience of the overflowing grace of God in your life, give thanks !

I’ve heard many people say that it is hypocritical and insincere to say things you don’t mean or don’t feel.  Of course I agree that if your words of gratitude are a total sham, an outright lie, then you are just deceiving yourself and others.  But what if you recognize that you ought to be thankful, even though at the moment you don’t feel very thankful, and so you choose to give thanks to God (or to the people around you) because you know it is the right thing to do?  The wonderful truth about the way God has made us is that if we train our tongues to express gratitude, we are actually changing the way we think.  Before long we begin to see all kinds of reasons to praise God, and the whole atmosphere of our life becomes more positive.

The other day, during our weekly Skype conversation with our son Simeon, Marion and I watched him training his little girl Sophie to say “Thank you”.  Most parents want their children to be polite.  Yet somehow, as adults in our culture we seem to have forgotten the habit of giving thanks.  Maybe this is a habit we need to re-learn. Hearts that have been trained to be thankful to God for His amazing goodness will experience His power and love in rich measure, and will also naturally overflow in gratitude to the people around us.

When Simeon was a little boy, on his third birthday Marion and I gave him a new housecoat.  He was so pleased with that housecoat, he was thanking us for it for days afterwards.  We were on a tight budget at the time, and I was touched at his simple but heartfelt expression of gratitude.  And of course, my heart was wide open to him as a result. My joy at hearing my child thank me is a reflection of the father heart of God.  He is always willing to bless His children, but if our hearts are cold and hard, we will be distant from Him and unable to receive most of what He longs to give us.  Did you know that when you thank God, you are also blessing Him and bringing Him joy? Not only does thanksgiving have power to transform our hearts, it also touches the heart of God, and has power to bring us near to Him so that we can easily receive His blessings.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit in me.  (Psalm 51:10)

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Surprising answers to prayer

I am continually amazed at the variety of ways in which God answers prayer.

For some time now, as our life group has been talking about reaching out to others with the hope of salvation, Marion and I have been praying for openings to share Jesus in our neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago, God broke into our lives in a totally unexpected way, showing us that our cry had been heard.

We had reluctantly concluded that our four-year-old mattress needed to be replaced.  It was a TempurPedic, made of high-quality foam and still in excellent shape.  We had bought it because of our ageing backs, and I found it really comfortable, but Marion had been experiencing severe back and leg pain, and had been told by both her chiropractor and her physiotherapist that she probably needed a firmer mattress.  So, after prayer and reflection we decided to take their advice and replace the mattress.  This was not in our budget but our budget had already been blown sky-high by other unforeseen events (you can read about one of these events in It’s Only Money), and we sensed the Lord saying “Just trust me”, so we asked Him for a good deal on an affordable mattress that would actually help Marion’s back, and went shopping.

We also asked the Lord for guidance about where to go to buy the mattress.  You may think that’s a bit extreme, but it turned out to be very important.   We hit Sleep Country on a quiet Monday evening and found a very sympathetic salesman with time to listen.  Not only did he help us pick a good mattress, he also listened to our tale of woe about our TempurPedic, and encouraged us to try to sell it.   He said that the season between July and September was prime time for selling mattresses and that a TempurPedic would probably fetch a good price – maybe even enough to pay for the mattress we were buying.

Just before leaving the store, another customer entered.   We heard her asking the salesman about TempurPedic mattresses.  I was a bit surprised because she looked like a street person.  I thought to myself, “I wonder if she has any idea how much those things cost?”.

By the time we were ready to leave the parking lot, the woman (I’ll call her Meg – not her real name) came racing out of the store and knocked on the window of our Highlander.  She wanted to know if we had a TempurPedic for sale.  She gave us her name and contact info, and we agreed to find a way to get the mattress to her.

At first, to be honest, the only answer to prayer that I saw in this event was our prayer for someone who would buy our mattress.  Then I realized that Meg couldn’t afford to pay the price we had established – at least, not all at once – and that God had led us to someone in need, to whom we could show kindness in Jesus’ name.  My heart was touched as I heard her say that most of her bones had been broken due to childhood abuse, and that she had been suffering chronic back pain and living on disability benefits for years.  As we continued to listen to Meg’s story, I realized that this was about more than the mattress, and that her need was far more than physical.  God was answering our prayer for openings to share Jesus’ love with our neighbours.

To make a long story short, Meg now has our TempurPedic, and is able to sleep through the night which she has not been able to do for years.   Through the partnership of Ben, Orlando and Rafael from our life group, we were able to deliver the mattress to her.  She wanted to pay for it, which is a help to us and probably important for her, but we have been able to arrange a plan that she can afford.  While Rafael and Orlando brought the mattress to her apartment, Ben shared the good news of Jesus with Meg, and Ben and I prayed with her.  Afterwards she told us she had not felt so loved in years.  She has not yet been physically healed, but I believe that day is coming.

I’ve been back to see Meg since then.  She is open and eager to hear more about Jesus, and wants to come to the home Alpha group that Marion and I are planning to host this fall.   I sense that in time God may use her to reach out to others in her subsidized housing project.

Does God answer the prayer of faith?  Yes – sometimes in surprising ways.  One of the keys is to listen with an expectant heart.  Another is to be open to whatever and whomever He sends.

I can now honestly say that I’m thankful for having to buy a new mattress.  I’m thankful that the Lord led us to Meg.  I am thankful that He is preparing her heart to receive Jesus, and preparing the hearts of others in our neighbourhood as well.

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