Category Archives: Faith and Justice

Are you ready?

Are you ready for Christmas?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard those words over the past week.

Usually people are thinking of external preparations – gifts, cooking, decorating, holiday plans.

I have nothing against any of these things in themselves.

I love many things about Christmas.

I love the beauty of Christmas lights against the darkness of a late December afternoon when I walk through the neighbourhood on my way home from the bus stop after work.

I enjoy the opportunity provided by the holidays to get together with friends and family.

I love Christmas baking and all the seasonal foods.

I love the spirit of generosity that motivates people to give at Christmas time. I am not a very creative gift giver, and have never thought of Christmas primarily as a chance to get stuff I wanted (I am grateful for having grown up in a household where this truly was not the focus of the season) but I have come to find much joy in giving gifts to my loved ones – especially when I can find something that will really bless the person to whom I am giving the gift, and not just add to the accumulation of stuff they don’t need.

I love the joy on little children’s faces – children young and unspoiled enough to truly enjoy the simple things that make the holiday special.

I love Christmas carols. In fact, it was through the words of a Dutch Christmas carol that as a young boy I first became aware that the baby Jesus came into the world to die for my sins and thus redeem me. Though it took me almost three decades to fully appropriate that revelation, I will be forever grateful.

I love that at this time of year it is still acceptable, in our increasingly pagan culture, to talk about Jesus and sing songs about Him and to Him.

But there are also things I hate about Christmas.

I hate that this holiday has become an occasion for people to put themselves into debt as they buy gifts for others way beyond their capacity.

I hate that so many missions and charities go underfunded while way too much money gets spent on gifts people don’t need or want. (And to those who say that all this buying fuels the economy I have a simple answer. So does giving to charity. It results in the purchase of goods and services for people in need).

I’m not an ascetic or an anti-materialist. I am grateful for prosperity. I’d just like to see more of its fruits directed towards the things that people really need, and the people who really need them.

I hate that so many people are lonely, grieving and ignored at Christmas time.

I hate that there is so much poverty, oppression, sickness and injustice in a world that is still very much in need of the light of Messiah.

I hate that so many people seem to have so little idea what Jesus truly represents and why He came.

So when I hear those words

Are you ready? 

I think

Ready for what?

Ready for Christmas?

Or ready for Jesus?


It’s cold out there

Coldest Night Logo (Snowflake) Color - PNGIt’s cold out there. 

The past week, temperatures in Ottawa have been below -20°C all week long. Earlier in the week they dipped below -30°C.

Yesterday I took a break from work and went out for a walk at noon. While outside, I took off my mitts to use my phone for a very brief conversation. In less than a minute, my fingers felt almost numb. It took a long time for them to get warm again. In this weather, when I walk home from the bus at the end of the day (about a ten minute walk, quite pleasant under most circumstances) my nose and cheeks are very cold by the time I arrive home. 

Imagine how hard this cold weather must be on people who are homeless.

I seldom use this blog for fund raising purposes, but today I am making an exception. When I head out on the streets on February 22 as part of the Coldest Night of the Year walk to raise funds for Jericho Road Christian Ministries, I’m asking for your support. You can support me here. If you can’t give money, I would appreciate your prayers. Jericho Road serves broken people who would otherwise be homeless due to mental illness or addictions. Broken people matter to Jesus. They were made in God’s image and their lives are precious in His sight. He died so that they could be fully restored.

Some say that those who live on the streets do so by choice. In one sense, that may be so. For some, life on the streets may the result of a string of foolish or misguided choices. Even so, those who find themselves living on the streets usually do so because they feel they have no other remaining options. When I leave my warm house to walk to the bus to go to work on a cold winter day, I am glad I am not homeless, and my heart is moved with compassion for the men and women who feel they have no other option but to live on the streets.

Some say that in Ottawa, no-one has to live on the streets because there are places where homeless people can go for shelter. I have been in those shelters. It is true that they provide a place to sleep, and I am glad they are there, but they are not home.

Jericho Road is one ministry that offers another path for men dealing with addictions or mental illness, men who would otherwise be on the street or condemned to living at a shelter. Jericho offers a genuinely homelike atmosphere with structured living, responsibilities, medication if needed, counselling, Bible study and prayer. It’s a ministry that I am glad to support. The son of a good friend of mine was set free from years of drug addiction as a result of this wonderful ministry, and today is helping others get free. 

For a number of years, Marion and I were regulars at the weekly Jericho Road coffeehouse, where we led worship once a month, and hung out with men and women from the street who came in for a warm meal, a safe place, music and conversation. This was a challenging environment in which to lead worship, but I loved it. I remember one evening when I was sitting with a friend from the street who was admiring my leather-bound Bible. It had been a gift from valued friends. I knew the Lord was telling me to give it to him. I will never know the impact the Bible had on his life, but giving it had an impact on me. It was one of many choices that God used to soften my heart and make me more available for His purposes.

All of us make many choices daily. I want to make choices that prepare my heart to bear fruit for God. If He is moving you to support me in this walk, I’d be grateful for your support. But even if this particular endeavour is not something God is calling you to support, I want to urge you to consider your daily choices. It’s easy to condemn others for the choices they have made. But it’s far more productive to consider our own choices. Mercy, or judgment? Faith and love, or pride and fear? The presence of the Lord, or independence? Darkness, or light? 

Yes, it’s cold out there. The world is a cold, dark place, and getting colder and darker as the end of the age draws near. Even as signs of the Kingdom are increasing around the earth, and miracles, signs and wonders are being released in many places in great power, darkness is also increasing. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it and never will. I want my heart and my life to be a reflection of the warmth, light, love and glory of God’s Kingdom that is coming on the earth.

That’s why I am walking on February 22. If you want to walk with me, you can join my team here. I’d be glad of your company.

God bless you.



Of whom the world is not worthy

Asia Bibi is a forty year old mother of two. She has been in prison in Pakistan since 2009.  Her only crime was telling her coworkers about Jesus. For this she was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death. Although she remains alive up til now, one of her jailers recently tried to strangle her, and an Islamic cleric has offered a reward of $8000 to anyone who kills her. Her husband and two daughters miss her terribly. She is allowed to see them once per week for an hour. In a recent interview, Asia Bibi stated that she spends her time fasting and praying and has forgiven her accusers.

In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister of Minorities and the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, was assassinated.  Prior to his assassination, he had been working for a softening of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which mandate the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam.  The Taliban claimed responsibility for his death, stating that it was his punishment for blasphemy.

Youcef Nadarkhani is a thirty four year old father of two.  He is the leader of a network of house churches in Iran.  He was imprisoned in 2006, released for a time because of international pressure, and then imprisoned again in 2009. Raised a Muslim, originally he was charged with apostasy for renouncing Islam. As Iran’s constitution officially guarantees freedom of religion, and does not support a sentence of death for conversion, the charges against him were later changed to rape and extortion – allegations that both he and his church members strenuously deny.

On several occasions Pastor Nadarkhani has been offered release if he will recant his conversion to Christianity, or declare that Muhammad was a prophet sent by God.  He has consistently refused to make any such confession. Reportedly, Iranian government officials, who want Iran to be a monolithic Islamic republic, are quite concerned about the spread of Christianity in their country through the house church movement.

Kim Sung Min, a former propaganda officer for the North Korean Army, is now fighting for the freedom and faith of his home country. According to the Voice of the Martyrs, “once a diehard socialist, Mr. Kim became disillusioned when he saw the lack of freedom and opportunity in North Korea while serving in the military. After defecting, being arrested and escaping again, Mr. Kim began spreading a new message of hope and liberty”.  He is now part of a team that broadcasts messages of freedom in Christ into North Korea.

Recently, Al-Shabaab, an Islamic terrorist group based in Somalia, sent a letter to Christian missionary groups operating out of Kenya that were working among Somali refugees.   The letter warned missionaries to stop infecting Somalis with what it termed “the cancer of Christianity” and threatened to attack and kill them.

These are just a few of thousands of cases of Christians who have been imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for their faith.  While some of this persecution is at the hands of radical Hindus in India, or Communist governments in North Korea, Vietnam and China, by far the majority of cases of persecution are at the hands of Islamic governments or mobs. But all persecution, whether at the hands of radical Hindus, Communists, or Islamists, can be taken as a sign that the oppressors fear the spread of the gospel because it represents a power that they cannot control.

Satan is the source of the rage that fuels these attacks. He hates the spread of the gospel in totalitarian regimes because it is a sign of his impending doom. He knows that the Lord will not return until the gospel of the Kingdom has been proclaimed to every people group on earth, and the Bride of Christ is prepared for her husband.

In 2003, two Chinese house church leaders were asked what the church would be like without persecution.  They responded that it wouldn’t grow. They said they saw persecution as a gift from God to the church, to bring about the purification of our faith. So, ironically, the very persecution that Satan incites in his rage and fury is turned by God into an instrument to bring Jesus’ bride to glory.  This has been happening for a long time.  During the days of the Roman Empire (AD 197), Tertullian famously wrote in his work Apologeticus “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. But even though these periodic storms of hostility against believers are nothing new, we can expect them to become more frequent and more intense as Jesus’ return draws near.

This is not the kind of talk that tends to make Western Christians comfortable.  We like our freedom, our prosperity, and the relative peace and safety of Western societies. While it is undoubtedly true that freedom, prosperity and peace are great blessings, they can also tend to make us forget our dependency on God.

There is a wonderful chapter in the letter to the Hebrews that recounts stories of some of the martyrs and heroes of faith among the people of Israel. Towards the end of the chapter, the author describes these heroes as people of whom the world was not worthy. I feel the same way when I read stories about believers who are suffering torture, imprisonment and separation from their families for the sake of the gospel. What especially moves me is the testimony of the love that Jesus frequently deposits in the hearts of these suffering ones towards their captors. It makes me want to pray for them.  And when I pray, although I do ask God for their deliverance, I ask Him even more passionately to grant them a revelation of His glorious presence with them in their suffering. We are told in the book of Daniel that when the three young men were in the fiery furnace in ancient Babylon, the king saw a fourth man with them. I believe the fourth man was Jesus who had revealed himself at their time of need. We are told in the book of Acts that when Stephen was being stoned, he looked up and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, ready to receive him. My prayer is that those who suffer for their faith in our times will have a similar experience, and that if they have to die, their blood will be the seed of the church as Tertullian prophesied long ago.

We are sometimes tempted to feel helpless, hopeless and fearful when we hear stories of persecution. The best antidote for such gloomy feelings is prayer. All of us who believe in Jesus can pray for our brothers and sisters in prison. We can also write simple letters of encouragement to them. Such letters and prayers may seem like weak tools, but that is because we do not think the way God thinks. Words of encouragement are powerful. Prayers are even more powerful. They have power not only to bless others but also to change us. If you want to know more about what you can do to stand with persecuted believers world-wide, the following links would be a great place to start.  God bless you.

Voice of the Martyrs Canada

Open Doors Canada

International Christian Concern


Reflections on Jack Layton’s death

Jack Layton, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, has died after a hard-fought battle with cancer.

As I observed Jack Layton over the past several election campaigns, my respect for him grew with each campaign.  He was an effective campaigner and a man who seemed to be able to connect with both English and French speaking Canadians.  He was also a man with an indomitable spirit, who demonstrated a great deal of courage and optimism in his struggle with cancer.

Tommy Douglas (the NDP’s  founding leader) was a man whose political values were grounded in Scripture.  Sadly, as the party developed it seemed to move farther away from its Biblical roots, defining justice more in ideological terms than Biblical ones.  Consequently, I found myself lamenting the party’s stand on some issues even as I was grateful for its contribution on others.  Still, since this is a time for appreciation rather than critique, let me say that even though I did not vote for the NDP in the recent federal election, I concurred with Jack’s passionate support for the concerns of  the elderly and the economically vulnerable.  I was surprised and pleased to learn a few months ago that Jack grew up in a family that had an active church involvement, and that his concern for social justice stemmed from a sense of being called by God.

When leaders or public figures die, especially when their lives seem to be cut short sooner than we expect, it raises all kinds of questions for us.  Is God good?  Why did this happen?   Where is our hope?  Am I next?

Just as Jack Layton did, all of us have hopes and dreams for our own lives and families.  We also have hopes and dreams for our community, our nation and the world.  Sometimes those hopes seem to get cut off or crushed.  I don’t know all that is going to happen to me in the months and years to come.  Neither do you.  But I do know that if my confidence is fixed on Jesus, ultimately my hope will not be cut off, because I will share in His resurrection life in a world made new.

This morning, after hearing the news of Jack’s death, I found myself re-reading these words from the Book of Psalms

I will praise the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.

When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.

Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God.

Psalm 146:2-5 NIV

In the end, our hope cannot be in any political leader.  The hope of the earth is Jesus the Messiah, who was crucified for us and raised again, and whose coming again in glory we await.  Scripture declares that He is the one who will establish justice and righteousness on the earth.

So I will thank God for everything that was good in Jack Layton’s life, leave the final assessment of his life in the hands of God, and take this event as a reminder to live my life with my hope set on Jesus, who was, and is, and is to come, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and who is sovereign over the kings of the earth (Rev 1:4-8).


Good grief

Yesterday I had the privilege of tasting grief at its best at a memorial service for Daniel Robert Hall, who died two-and-a-half weeks ago in Zambia at the age of 38.  It was an exquisitely painful yet glorious time of worship and remembrance.  For Rob’s family and close friends, yesterday’s memorial service was the third such event in two weeks, following a funeral in Zambia and another in Cambridge, yet they displayed remarkable grace, humility and honesty as they laid bare their hearts, shared their memories of Rob, spoke about the hope of eternal life and the fulfillment of all things, cried, laughed, and worshipped.

Grief is not something any of us seeks, yet it comes to all of us.  Grief is unavoidable in a world marked by the curse of death.  Yet those who belong to Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, know that death is not the final word.   And so we can grieve with hope.  The emotions of loss are just as powerful, but in the end we know there is a more powerful reality still – the reality of resurrection.

That is where our hope lies.  Not in anything we can do, but in what only God can do.  That is why we can sing songs in the face of death.  I didn’t really know Rob well, but yesterday’s service was filled with abundant testimonies  of the life of faith that he lived.  He was a man of action – a man of faith and adventure – a man of amazing energy and loyalty – a man who did much good – a man who loved many.  He was a man with the faith of Abraham – a faith that motivated him to go out, not knowing where he was going, because he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  That is why Rob was restless.  He had a vision that could not be satisfied in this life.

When I told my friends from work about Rob’s death, they all expressed deep sympathy for his wife Kate, their three children, and Rob’s parents.   Some expressed the view that his life was wasted, cut short in its prime.  It’s natural for us to feel this way because death is a robber and a usurper.  It was not God’s original intent, and it’s not our final destiny.  Yet I do not believe Rob would have said his life was wasted.  It seems he knew the secret of living well – that those who try to hold on to their lives end up dead, while only those who give up their lives for the sake of King Jesus and his coming Kingdom find the life that death cannot destroy.

I can’t honestly say that I was Rob’s friend – I didn’t know him well enough for that.  It’s his father Ken that I count as  a friend and spiritual father.  Yet I have been deeply impacted by Rob’s death, and the testimonies that followed about the compelling power of a life well lived.  At yesterday’s service I found myself moved to tears at several points.   I wept for Kate and her children who will grow up without their Dad, I wept for Ken and Lois and for the Hall and Cantelon families, I wept for Rob’s friends, but most of all I wept with love for God, gratitude towards Him, grief over wasted opportunities, and a deep, gut-wrenching conviction that I absolutely must live my life full-out for the King and the Kingdom.  I know again, more deeply than before, that I don’t ever want to live without vision.

So let’s get really practical about this.  I have discovered Equator Coffee.  This may not be news to most of you, but about twelve years ago, Rob’s brother Craig and his wife Amber started a coffee-roasting business, dealing in organically grown fairly traded coffee.  This is an expression of their desire to do what they can to see that coffee farmers get a fair return for their labour.   It’s a way that I can buy good coffee and at the same time be confident that I am bringing a blessing to the families of the workers who grow that coffee.  This is a simple act of economic justice.  It’s something I have the power to do.  I am planning to set up a buying group for friends at our church, and possibly one at work as well.

What has this got to do with the hope of resurrection?  At first glance, nothing.   In reality, everything.  If I say I am placing my hope in Jesus’ return and His coming Kingdom, then I need to live by the values of that Kingdom now.  That can take many forms – loving my wife and kids, singing love songs to Jesus, blessing the poor, praying for the sick, speaking hope to others in His name.  If I have an opportunity to do good to someone in His name, I should do it.   No such act is wasted if Jesus is on the throne.

Is my one small act going to change the world?  No.  Jesus has already changed the world.  I am simply aligning myself with the new world that He is bringing into being – a new world that will be inherited by all those who have put their hope in Him and are choosing  to live in the light of that hope here and now.

This is good grief – grief that is not wasted – grief that inspires us to live lives of faith, motivated by the hope of the Kingdom.

I believe Rob would be pleased.


In memory of Rob Hall

When I wrote in a recent post (Reality Check) that life is short and fragile, I had no idea that within a couple of weeks, Rob Hall’s untimely death would offer a graphic reminder of the truth of those words.

But there you have it.  A good man has gone to be with Jesus, leaving his wife Kate, three children, and an army of family and friends around the world who clearly miss him deeply but who just as clearly were inspired by his life.

I never got to know Rob well.  I am much better acquainted with his father Ken, who was a mentor and spiritual father to me for a couple of crucial years about a decade and a half ago when I was walking through an agonizing yet transformational period of transition.  I will always be grateful for Ken’s wisdom and unassuming yet authoritative shepherding which provided an anchor for my life at that crucial time.  Marion and I and our four children were part of Ken’s church for a season, and I got to know Rob a little bit, partly through talking with him directly, but mostly through my chats with Ken, who evidently loved his sons dearly and had fathered them well.  At that time Rob was a young man in his early twenties, and was already involved in co-operative community gardening, combining faith with practice in compelling ways.  Before long Marion and I moved to Russell to be involved in planting a DOVE church there, and I never saw Rob again.  I knew from Ken that he had been serving as an associate pastor in the Cambridge Vineyard but did not realize that he and his wife and children had left for mission work in Zambia.

News of Rob’s death earlier this week, just a  few days shy of his 39th birthday, came as a shock.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Ken and Lois, and of course Rob’s wife Kate and their three children.  The web site and Facebook page that have been created in memory of Rob have drawn my attention like a magnet, opening my eyes to some of the core passions that fuelled Rob’s life, and introducing me to a vast network of people who knew and loved him.

A few things I have learned about Daniel Robert Hall :

o He loved Jesus, his wife Kate and their three children, people, and God’s creation.
o He was an authentic servant of God, a good listener who knew how to draw out the best in others.
o He could speak truth into situations and get a hearing because he could be truthful without being arrogant, and because he really cared.
o He served with integrity and passion wherever he went.
o He had a bold, entrepreneurial approach to life.
o He had a great sense of humour.
o He loved the King and his coming Kingdom.
o He echoed the values of the Kingdom in his living here and now.
o He had counted the cost of being a disciple of Jesus, and invested his life willingly in God’s enterprises.

A few things I have learned (or been reminded of) this week about living as a servant of God :

o God places high value on integrity and humility, and loves the heart of a genuine servant.
o We often have more impact on others than we know.
o Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8).
o All of us in a fallen world are under the sentence of death; therefore pain is inevitable.
o Pain is not the worst thing that can happen. Having a deadened heart  (living without vision, purpose, or knowledge of God’s call) is far worse.
o Jesus gives life to the dead.  Those who trust Him do not need to be afraid of death.
o Hold those you love closely, treat them well, and entrust them to God fearlessly.  They don’t belong to you and you don’t know when you may be required to release them into the hands of their loving Father.
o Our hope is in the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of all things.
o Those who love Jesus are called to serve the poor in His name and do works of mercy and justice on the earth.
o Everyone needs to know that Jesus loves them.
o Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

Rob, thank you.  I am deeply grateful for your example.  Your life has had more of an impact on me than you would have guessed.  You are now one of the great cloud of witnesses, spurring me on and calling me forward to finish my race well and to live faithfully, my eyes on the King and his coming Kingdom.


No more plastic Jesus

The other day at work, one of my colleagues passed around a link to a stunning video of the power of quickly-rising floodwaters in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. The video showed a row of cars being first set afloat, then carried downstream, then being deposited in a jumbled heap as the flood passed on.  A few days earlier, Marion and I were powerfully impacted by a news report showing a distraught woman whose house had been flooded.

We can all sympathize intuitively with the victims of disasters such as the recent widespread flooding in Australia, Hurricane Katrina in 2004, or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.  Such powerful events have the ability to rivet our attention.  They threaten our sense of security.  We are shocked and disturbed as we picture what it would be like for our own lives to be overturned by such unstoppable forces.

We ask ourselves why such things happen, and various explanations are offered, none of them totally satisfying.  Some say “God is just, and such terrible events are His righteous judgments”.  Others say “God is kind and compassionate, and such terrible events are contrary to His will”.  Still others say “There is no God or else such things wouldn’t happen.  Life makes no sense”.

Evidently people in Jesus’ day wrestled with these kinds of issues too.  Luke records that on one occasion Jesus’ disciples came to him with what must have been a hot news story at the time.  Pilate, the Roman governor, had killed some Galileans while they were at worship in the Temple, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar.  When they approached Jesus for a comment on this horrific act of cruelty, He linked it to another contemporary event – the death of eighteen people who were crushed when a tower collapsed on them.  With surgical precision He sliced deftly through the arguments of all three viewpoints listed above.

To those who assumed that the victims must be especially terrible sinners, Jesus said “That’s not your call.  Instead of judging them, judge yourself”.  So if you want to claim that disasters are judgments sent by God on other people, you won’t find any support from Jesus.  He never lets us off the hook, never lets us get away with focussing on someone else’s sins.  He always turns the pointing finger back at the one doing the pointing, and says in effect “Instead of playing judge on someone else’s life, govern your own life”.

On the other hand, for those who assume that a loving God would never judge anyone, Jesus’ comments are equally disturbing.  He deftly sidestepped the question that everybody wanted Him to answer (“Were these events direct judgments from God, or not?”).  Instead, he pointed his listeners to a far more pressing issue, telling them : “The victims of these disasters were no better or worse than you – so wake up and smell the coffee!  Unless you repent, you will perish too”.   Sounds like a warning to me.

What?  Jesus gave warnings of judgment?  Didn’t he teach that God loved everyone?  Absolutely – but He also very clearly and repeatedly spoke of a coming day of reckoning.  He evidently thought his hearers needed to be warned – and if they needed a warning, don’t you think the same might apply to us? Although it may not be a popular view, the truth is that God has never suspended His right to judge.  While it may not be what we want to hear, Jesus indisputably portrayed these terrible disasters as a wakeup call from God – a reminder that none of us knows when or how our life will end or when Christ will return, and that one day we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

But didn’t Jesus come to give His life so that we could be forgiven?  Exactly!  If there won’t be any judgment anyway, why bother?  Jesus isn’t stupid – He didn’t come to sacrifice his life and die a horrible death for nothing.  He gave His life because God is both just and kind.  Because God is kind, He yearns for us as a loving father might agonize over a rebellious teenager, patiently waiting for us to come back to our senses and embrace His mercy.  Yet, because He is just, God cannot allow the sin and evil of a rebellious race to continue forever.  For those who insist on maintaining their independence, the day of reckoning must come.

Disturbing?  Well, yes – but also comforting.  If we are willing to stand in the light of His scrutiny, Jesus’ message is wonderfully good news.  No event, no circumstance is meaningless.  For those with eyes to see, every event points us to God’s coming Kingdom, which has already broken into history in the person of Jesus, and will be fully established when He returns to reign openly as King.  The day of reckoning is not the end of the story.  For those who throw themselves on His mercy – including all the innocent victims of all the injustices of history – Jesus holds out the sure hope of a restored earth and a resurrected, glorified body.  But you can only get there by dealing honestly with the One who gave His life for you, and who knows you better than you know yourself – what you have been, what you are and what you can become.

Upheavals and troublesome events of all kinds are inevitable in a wondrous, beautiful, yet messed-up world.  But the world won’t stay messed-up forever.  For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, life’s disasters serve a redemptive purpose, upsetting our neatly ordered lives so that we can see again our need to humble ourselves and turn to the One who made us, Who has given His life to save us, and Who is coming to rule.

Back in the sixties, the song Plastic Jesus took a tongue-in-cheek poke at popular religion :

I don’t care if it rains or freezes
As long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus
Sitting on the dashboard of my car

A plastic Jesus won’t save you when disaster comes.  The real Jesus, however, most certainly will – that is, if you are willing to go through the fire and the water with him, for the sake of the glory that is to come.


New Years Eve reflections

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth
You have set Your glory above the heavens
From the lips of children and infants You have ordained praise
To silence the foe and the avenger
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers
The moon and the stars which You have set in place
What is man that you are mindful of Him?

This awe-inspiring psalm came to mind as I stood on the beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic on New Years Eve under a starlit sky on a windy but warm  night.

To a Northerner like me, it was an amazing experience to be able to walk on the beach in shorts on New Years Eve in what ought to be the middle of winter.  Here in the Dominican Republic, although still in the Northern Hemisphere, we are close enough to the equator that there is little difference between summer and winter.

This has been a week of amazing grace.  My mission for this week was to see my son Reuben (the third of my four children, but the second to marry) wedded to Jessica Cole, the love of his life.  Not only that, but I had the privilege of helping to officiate at the wedding.  The Lord provided for our whole family to share in the wedding festivities and have a week-long tropical vacation – a first for all of us on the Hartgerink side of the wedding.

All of this was in the back of my mind as I stood on the beach on New Years Eve.  A few hundred feet away, a band played Latino music and champagne and other beverages flowed freely as a noisy crowd of people celebrated the New Year under stars and palm trees in the open-air hotel lobby and adjoining patio.  It is good to celebrate, but I needed to get away and clear my head.  The week had been full of impressions and swirling thoughts.  Earlier that day several of us had gone on a day-long tour of the Dominican countryside, including a sugar-cane plantation, rum-making, cigar-making, a coffee and cacao plantation.  We had seen much poverty – not absolute destitution, but poverty all the same – as hard-working people strive to improve their living conditions. Yet these same people are friendly, cheerful and seemingly happy for the most part. On the way back from the tour I had the opportunity to share my hope in Jesus with our tour guide, and leave him what I hoped was a generous tip to encourage him.  It was a small gesture, but I couldn’t get away from the realization that even though the tourist trade has brought newfound prosperity to the Dominican Republic, we the tourists are still greatly privileged as compared to those who live on the island and serve us while we are here.  I know that the Lord directed Marion and me to bring our family here for this wedding feast, and help Reuben and Jess fulfil their dream.  This is an amazing privilege and a very practical example of God’s totally unmerited favour.  At the same time, I also know that with privilege comes responsibility.  I see that tourism does bring great benefit to many on this island. But still my heart cries out with questions.  Why such inequity?  How much can I do about it?  When will everything be made right?

I’ve been reading the Bible and following the Lord’s ways long enough to know His answers to these questions.   The inequity is a result of man’s sin.  I cannot do everything about it, but I can do something.  Everything will be made right when Jesus returns to establish His Kingdom.  In the meantime, as one of his followers I am called to do whatever is in my power to practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.

I know the answers – but still my heart cries out in protest at the inequities.  My walk on the beach helped to put everything in perspective for me.  The God who made the seas that pound these sandy shores also made every nation on the earth, and the starry heavens that fill my heart with awe and wonder.  He keeps faith forever and He is not slow in keeping his promise.  He is waiting for many to come to repentance, but the day of the Lord will come, and on that day every secret deed will be brought into judgment, the motives of every heart will be laid bare, and all things will be set right.

This thought causes me to tremble, both with the fear of the Lord and also with holy anticipation.  This is my heart’s  cry — for Reuben and Jess as they begin their marriage;for myself, Marion and our children and their families;for the Cole family, for all those our lives touch, and indeed for all those who walk on the earth : that we will live our lives in the light of His coming – for this is our only true and lasting hope, for 2011 and all the years and ages to come.

Come Lord Jesus.


Caring for ex-offenders

This morning Marion and I were privileged to be part of a seminar on caring for ex-offenders, sponsored by a coalition of ministries in the National Capital Region.

For several months now – ever since becoming part of the All Nations church family – we have been waiting for an assignment.  We are loving the relationships in our life group and the bracing atmosphere of a church family that is hungry for the manifest presence of God.  We are also being challenged and stretched by some excellent teaching from our elders and visiting apostolic ministers, complemented by another body of equally probing online teaching coming out of International House of Prayer.  All this is good – we have been receiving much, for which we are grateful – but we are not satisfied just to receive, so we have been waiting for the Lord to show us where he wants us to use our gifts and the lessons we have learned and are still learning.  Since this morning’s seminar, I have been wondering whether we may have found our fit.  It’s too soon to say yet, but I am sensing that God may be preparing us for something.

Working with ex-offenders wouldn’t be an entirely new thing for either of us.  During my years at Queen’s, I served as a volunteer in the chaplaincy program at Collins Bay Penitentiary.  Marion and I were at Queen’s together for several years, and she sometimes came with me to the prison chapel.  I also wrote a Master’s thesis on prison ministry at that time.  That was over thirty years ago, but over the past few years I’ve had a couple of other involvements with men who have been on the wrong side of the law.  In our house church in Russell, Marion and I worked for a time with a young man who had been in the Regional Detention Centre several times for drug-related offences, and was trying to decide whether he was serious about following Jesus and getting off drugs.  More recently, we’ve done some prayer ministry and some informal mentoring with an older man who has spent most of his adult life in prison, gave his life to Jesus while in prison, and is now learning – with some ups and downs – to live as a free man on the outside.

I’m not afraid of, or repulsed by, ex-offenders because I really do believe that fundamentally, every one of these guys is just like me.  Like them, I am an ex-offender.  True, I have never committed any criminal offence according to the laws of Canada, and I have never spent any time in jail except as a chaplaincy volunteer.  Even so, like them, I have rebelled against a holy and righteous God who desires only my good.  Like them – and you – and every son of Adam and daughter of Eve – I deserved God’s wrath, not his mercy.  I have been a recipient of His  mercy, for which I am very grateful, but what I deserved was his wrath.  This is not a popular truth, but it is true nonetheless.  The Scriptures are very clear on this point.  This is why the Son of God spent much of his time with people whom society rejected as ungodly, unclean sinners – because they, at least, recognized their need for mercy.

I am like the ex-offender in another way as well.  I have a tendency to deceive myself and others, and to hide from the light.  True, in my case this tendency has been largely eradicated by years of living as a disciple of Jesus, but I’m not naive enough to think that I no longer need help.  I still need all the help I can get, and I am committed to continuing to walk in the light so that my heart can be fully restored and I can learn to live as a free son of God.  This is exactly what my ex-offending brothers and sisters also need.

I’m convinced that if damaged human hearts are to be restored, voluntary, intentional accountability in a mentoring or discipleship relationship is essential.  This conviction was reinforced by my past attempts at working with ex-offenders.  Because I believe this so strongly, the aspect of this morning’s seminar that especially “clicked” for me was the presentation on mentoring an ex-offender.  This approach is designed for ex-offenders who want to become part of a local church after being released from prison.  Marion and I have worked with discipling relationships for years, and also done a lot of personal prayer ministry – a form of Biblically-based, Spirit-led therapy that assists people to move towards healthier patterns in their emotions, their thought life and their relationships.  We know the power of intentional mentoring to change lives, including our own.  Ex-offenders are no different.  Their problems may be a little more deeply-rooted, but they are basically the same as anyone else’s problems.  They are the problems of the human heart.  They are not problems that are too big for Jesus to solve.  He has been restoring damaged human hearts for years.  What it takes is a willingness to walk in the light, which is impossible outside of committed covenant relationships, because none of us can see our own heart clearly without the help of others.  The Apostle James teaches that we are to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another in order to be healed.  I find this simple remedy to be powerfully effective.

Does this mean that I am soft on crime, or inclined to excuse ex-offenders because “they couldn’t help it”?  Not at all.  It is true enough that many offenders have been the victims of childhood sexual or physical abuse, or other wrongs perpetrated by others, but they have also been perpetrators of wrongs that are just as serious.  This is simply the outworking of the truth expressed in God’s word.  The sins of the fathers are visited on the children, generation after generation, until the cycle is broken by the redemptive power of the blood of Jesus and the word of God.  No matter how badly our hearts have been wounded by the sins of others, we are always responsible for our own actions and their consequences.  Until we accept responsibility we can never be set free. This is one of the key lessons that can only be learned as we walk in the light with others.  However, since our God delights in showing mercy, as disciples of Jesus we should be looking for opportunities to restore the one who has fallen.

Did I say that I wasn’t sure yet about getting involved in this ex-offender ministry?  Hmmm – it seems I may have talked myself into something.  But before I get ahead of myself, I’d better talk to my wife – and Ben, who encouraged Marion and me to attend this seminar – and a couple of our elders.  Lord, thank you for your amazing mercy and goodness.  If this ministry with ex-offenders is something you want Marion and me to be involved in, would you make it clear?  We only want to walk where You lead.


Fixing the world : who holds the key ?

Last weekend I spent a day at the family cottage with my brother Jan and my brother-in-law Jamie, replacing a rotten sill before winter.  It was very much an improvised solution, as our cottage repairs often tend to be.  Although my contributions to this task were relatively minor, I did learn a lot and also enjoyed their company on a cool but pleasant late fall afternoon.

The lunchtime conversation was wide-ranging, as is usually the case in gatherings with my side of the family.  I come from a line of people who hold strong views on many subjects and are seldom shy about expressing them.  This can lead to some animated discussions, especially when it comes to issues of politics and social policy.  In less than an hour we had touched on federal immigration policy, pesticides and organic farming, crime and punishment, war and peace, municipal politics, recycling, and more – in addition to discussing the activities of our various offspring and the future of our family cottage.

My brother and sisters and their spouses, good liberal humanists all, tend to lean to the left when it comes to politics and social policy.  As an evangelical Christian, my views on such matters are often quite different than theirs.   However, I am very grateful for the lively sense of social concern that was imparted to all of us by my parents, and I recognize that this sense of social concern is an expression of values that come from our common Biblical heritage.

Although I am an evangelical Christian, I am far less inclined than some evangelicals to automatically support conservative policies on all issues.  I see aspects of Biblical truth reflected in the concerns of conservatives, liberals, socialists and greens, and I am disturbed by the tendency of politicians of all stripes to act as though their party is the only champion of truth and justice, while their opponents are demonized as the epitome of all evil and the cause of all the country’s problems.   Whatever happened to constructive political discourse?

The truth is that no human government holds the key to solving all the world’s problems.  In the democracies of the West, as the Christian heritage that originally motivated leaders to be servants of the people is less and less understood and valued, the people become more and more apathetic and cynical about politics.  Simplistic, hastily-conceived solutions – whether proposed by the left, the right or the middle – often seem to be devised more to score political points than to address the nation’s real problems.  Such an approach seldom yields good and lasting fruit.  History shows that when things decay past a certain point, the door is left open either for a takeover by a hostile power, or the ascent of a self-appointed savior of the nation.  Whichever way it goes (savior or invader), the new leader more often than not ends up proving to be a brutal dictator, and whether the official ideology of the so-called savior is leftist or conservative, the end result is brutal oppression, corruption and injustice. The twentieth century alone gave us Franco, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, and Robert Mugabe – to name only a few of the worst.

Why is this?  At the risk of oversimplifying, let me go out on a limb and suggest a one-word answer : PRIDE.  The wisdom of God teaches us that humility goes before honour, and that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Pride, on the other hand, inevitably leads to self-deception and becomes our downfall.  Unfortunately, leaders who are professed Christians are not immune from this disease, and so we have the sorry spectacle of priests and bishops who have done terrible damage to young lives through sexual abuse, evangelical leaders who have fallen into sexual sin and marital infidelity, and professed Christians in politics who sometimes prove to be as corrupt as the godless leaders they replace.

Because none of us is immune from either moral failure or simple mistakes, because none of us possesses all the wisdom of God and all the abilities needed to lead effectively, and because none of us is capable of being anyone’s savior, I am profoundly grateful to be part of a church family in which our leaders understand the value of team leadership, mutual accountability and submission to one another.  Leaders desperately need people who care enough about them to hold them accountable and speak truth into their lives even when that truth is not what the leader wants to hear.  Leaders also need to be humble enough to surround themselves with people who have strengths that balance their own.  Above all, leaders need to recognize that their authority to lead comes from God, that they are not authorities unto themselves, and that their leadership can only attract God’s blessing as they surrender their pride to Him and learn to be servants to those they lead.

King David of Israel was far from a perfect leader, yet the Bible describes him as a man after God’s own heart.  This was not because he was perfect, but because he was submissive.  He recognized the limits of his power, and listened to the prophets of God when they brought him words of guidance or correction.  It was only when he temporarily forgot this that David, blinded by lust, plotted to have Uriah killed so that he could marry Bathsheba – an error that had a disastrous impact on his kingdom, his family and the nation.  Yet even when confronted by this terrible failure, David responded like the man of God that he was.  He repented openly and threw himself on God’s mercy.  The fact that the Bible records not only David’s successes but also his times of weakness and failure shows us what an honest and trustworthy book it is.

I believe David’s example is highly relevant to our day.  David was not a good king because he was able to solve all the world’s problems or even all Israel’s problems.  He was a good king because — and to the extent that — he put his hope in the Lord, recognized the limits of his power, acknowledged that he was a servant to his people, and looked for the day when God would openly rule the whole earth through the coming Messiah.  He was a good king precisely because he did not look to himself to be a good king, but looked to the One who alone is good and is the source of all goodness and all legitimate rulership.  Because he acknowledged this, he was able to govern righteously and his kingship was a blessing to Israel.

The answer to my question is simple.  Who holds the key to fixing the world?  No-one.   That is, no-one except Yeshua (Jesus), the crucified and risen One, the Jewish Messiah who has demonstrated his faithfulness, has paid the price for sin and made a way for us to be reconciled to God, and has been appointed by God as ruler over the whole earth.

Does that mean we do nothing about the world’s problems, and simply wait for Him to return?   To that question – really two questions – I would answer No, and Yes.  No, it does not mean that we do nothing about the world’s problems.  But Yes, it does mean that we wait for Him to return.  Ultimately, Christ alone is qualified to rule, and it is only when He rules openly in the Messianic kingdom that we will see perfect justice and peace on earth.  The best human governments can only approximate this to a greater or lesser degree.  But the Bible tells us that a day will come when the glory of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters cover (or fill) the sea, and we can hasten this day as we proclaim Jesus’ coming Kingdom, and use whatever authority we possess to represent the heart, character and priorities of the coming King in our sphere of influence.  Everyone who is made in God’s image (in other words, every human being) is intended to represent God’s benevolent rulership over the earth by carrying a measure of His authority in our sphere of influence.  As we humble ourselves and look to Him, we are changed into a reflection of His glory and goodness, so that our exercise of whatever authority He has granted to us becomes a blessing to those whose lives we touch.  As we do this, we are empowered to act righteously and to represent the Messiah’s coming reign on the earth, until the day when He returns in power to judge evil and put it under his feet, and to govern a restored earth.