Born to die.
That may not sound like a very cheery or appealing theme for a Christmas blog.
Yet that is the destiny that Jesus the Messiah embraced when he came down from heaven to earth to be born in a manger in a stable.
It is true, of course, that Jesus was born to do more than die. He learned obedience as a child growing up in a devout Jewish home. He learned a trade, like every young Jewish man. He studied the Scriptures and was a man of prayer who treasured his times alone with his Father.
After being baptized by John, He taught many, healed many, served many, forgave many, did good to many. He was praised by many but understood by few, was rejected by many and followed by a few, but in the end He was broken on a cross for them all.
When I was a child growing up we used to sing a Dutch Christmas carol with a very poignant line. ‘T kwam op de aarde en ‘t droeg al zijn kruis. He came to earth already bearing his cross.
Jesus was born in an out of the way place in an out of the way town. This was no accident. It was easy to ignore His birth, and many did just that. The shepherds and wise men had to purposely seek him out to find him.
Jesus is still making His appeal, but he still forces Himself on no-one. Though some have used force in His name, this was never Jesus’ way. The way of jihad and the way of the cross are totally opposite to one another. The way of the cross is the way of mercy. On one occasion He sharply rebuked the more fiery among his disciples when they proposed calling down fire from heaven on a town that rejected him. He made it very clear that there is a broad way and a narrow way, and that everyone has a choice.
There are usually no thunderbolts, no flashes of lightning, no earthquakes to confront those who reject or ignore Jesus and His message. There were signs, wonders and miracles aplenty in Jesus’ day and also in our day, but mostly they are recognized only by those who are humbly seeking God. Those who ignore or reject Jesus are usually blind to His signs, preferring to think that life will just go on as it always has.
Meanwhile His blood sacrifice is before the Father on their behalf, He is pleading for mercy for them, and his Father is delaying the day of judgment so that many of those who hate, ignore or despise Him may yet come to repentance.
But for those with eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to feel, the signs of the times are everywhere, and the birth pangs of the New Age are increasing. The Day of Reckoning is coming – that great and terrible Day when the heavens open and Jesus returns to wed His bride and claim His inheritance. On that Day he will come as the Lion of Judah, the conquering King, and it will be too late to change your mind about Him. But for now, He cries out for mercy for you and me, for those who love Him, those who hate Him and those who are indifferent to Him.
For now, He waits. For now. But one Day the waiting will be over.
On that Day, every choice, every action, every motive will be brought into the light and the thoughts of every heart will be revealed. On that Day, those who love the Lord and His appearing will see Him face to face. On that Day, they will come to life and reign with Him.
How I long for that Day.
Yesterday Marion and I buried her father, Blake Denyes, who passed into eternity one week ago today.
Most of the family was able to be present for the time of leave-taking. Our son Simeon made it home from Kansas City, although his wife Heather and their three beautiful little girls stayed home. Our granddaughter Maddie and our great-nephew Ethan lightened the solemnity with their childlike playfulness and the reminder that the good gift of life continues. It was good to see our four children reconnecting with their grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins. Marion’s brother Mark delivered a fine eulogy in honour of his father, and it was my privilege to conduct the funeral service, which gave me a precious opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ and the hope of salvation through His sacrifice on the cross.
My mother in law Evelyn is a remarkable woman. At age 93, although her memory is failing, she still knows how to enjoy life, and she accepted her husband’s passing with the peace of one who has confidence in the promises of God. For this I am deeply grateful.
My father in law was an admirable man in many ways, one who pursued excellence in everything he did. He was a man of singular focus, with a strong will and a strong desire to live. After suffering a heart attack at age 54, he determined to rebuild his health and lived forty more years. He was thrifty, hard-working, fair-minded, loyal, and faithful to his wife and family.
He was also a man who carried a lot of weight on his own shoulders. At the end of his life, when his strength was gone, he placed his hope in Jesus as his Redeemer, and I am very thankful that he did. But for most of his life, he seemed to live mostly by the strength of his own will. This made his life more difficult than it needed to be.
None of us gets to live our life over again, but we do get to learn from the example of others who have gone before us. There are many positive values that I can glean from my father in law’s life, many admirable qualities that I want to emulate, with God’s help. But I also want to learn from what he had difficulty doing.
I want to live well – and to live well not by human standards but by God’s standard. God’s definition of what constitutes a life well lived is that it is all about love. I have found that as I continue the daily adventure of learning to live by faith, the burdens of life grow lighter, and my capacity to love and serve others increases as I learn to trust God and let Him teach me His ways. In the process, I find that am continually surprised by God’s amazing grace.
So my appeal to you, and my goal for my own life, is this. Work hard, give life all you’ve got, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this means doing life on your own strength. Don’t wait until your strength is gone to surrender your will to God and trust Him to direct your life. Do it now. Do it every day. It’s the only way to lasting freedom.
For the past several weeks I have been making Song of Songs a major focus of my devotional life and as part of that focus, I have just finished listening to a wonderful 12-part teaching series by Mike Bickle (of International House of Prayer) on the Song of Songs.
Although this is not my first time devoting a season of my life to the Song, this time around I found it so motivating that I wanted to encourage you all to consider giving some time to contemplating the message of the Song (which really is the message of the First Commandment, in poetic form).
Because the Song of Songs is poetry, and because it is set in a culture very different from ours, some parts of it may seem strange to us. For this reason a guide may be helpful. I have been greatly helped by Mike Bickle’s teaching on the song – as well as his testimony of how God overcame his reluctance and taught him to love the Song. So, for any who would appreciate some help, here is a link to the final teaching in the series, to give you a taste and get you started.
I debated whether to share this with you all, because I don’t want to just promote my own agenda. But I don’t think it is just my agenda. Teaching the Bride to love the Bridegroom is central to God’s purposes in the Last Days. Nor is this at odds with focusing on the Great Commission. Rather, it’s the fuel for carrying out that commission without burning out.
Often we pray in a task-oriented or results-oriented mode. We pray for this need or that need. There is nothing wrong with this – Jesus told us to bring our requests to the Father – but the highest goal of our life, and what Jesus is returning for, is to be a Bride that is fully in love with Him, so that whatever we do is fuelled by our love for Him which in turn is fuelled by His love for us.
Increasingly, this is the mandate that the Lord is bringing to the forefront of my attention – to go deeper in knowledge of His love, and then to let everything else I do be motivated, shaped and fuelled by that love. Although I fall far short of this, it is my vision and my heart’s desire, and I believe it is also the call of God, the reason He created us and the reason Jesus came to earth – that He would have a people who know the fulness of His love.
Marion and I were married in 1976. Our wedding – which we planned ourselves – was full of prophetic themes although I barely understood them at the time.
Like many church weddings, our wedding featured these well-known verses from 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.
Love never fails …
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.
As a young man, I thought I knew so much. I realize now that I understood almost nothing of the ways of God. But I did know that I wanted to follow Jesus, and I knew that his way was a way of love.
Within a few years, Marion and I were raising children while seeking to pastor a flock. Although I loved my children dearly, I was a very imperfect Dad and an equally imperfect husband. I was a broken man seeking to teach others the ways of wholeness. This paradox brought many pressures into my life. But in the midst of all these pressures, I was learning to seek the Lord.
In April 1987 I surrendered my life to Jesus and Marion and I were baptized in the Holy Spirit. Joe was five years old at the time. It was a fresh start for us. We were learning to live life with Jesus instead of following him from a distance.
One thing was established in our marriage from those early years of walking with Jesus. Marion and I always prayed for our children. We so wanted them to know that Jesus was alive and that His promises were real. We wanted them to learn and walk in the ways of God’s love.
Fast forward twenty-eight years to April 2015. Marion and I had lived in seven different houses in those twenty-eight years. We had served in a wide range of different types of churches, and had experimented with many different aspects of ministry, business and teaching. We had learned to know Jesus as our Beloved and our friend. Despite our very imperfect parenting, somehow our children had done well. Our family had grown up, our three sons were married and were making their way in life, and our baby girl – now almost 23 years old – was looking forward to her wedding day.
Then the unthinkable happened. Our daughter-in-law Carmen, who had brought so much joy into our son Joe’s life, and had blessed us with a beautiful granddaughter, visited the emergency room of a local hospital because she wasn’t feeling well. Little did she know that her small intestine had become pinched and was dying. She became the victim of a misdiagnosis that cost her her small intestine and almost cost her her life. You can read her story here. Suddenly, this young, healthy, happy couple with the three month old baby entered a nightmare scenario that threatened to consume them.
In the midst of all this, we were also trying to prepare for a wedding.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
We cried out to God; we were humbled; we were overwhelmed with gratitude as hundreds of people rallied to provide practical help and pray for Joe and Carmen; our own family was knit more closely together; we saw the best and the worst of Canada’s medical system; we saw the Body of Christ at work.
Today, ten weeks later, many prayers have been answered, though some still await their fulfillment. After two critical surgeries, Carmen has been back home for a month, and is doing well. Bethany and Dunovan are married and enjoying their honeymoon.
The wedding was wonderful. Simeon and Heather and their girls were able to join us from Kansas City. We had some great family times. I got to walk my daughter down the aisle, and speak words of blessing over her and her new husband. Joe, Carmen and Maddie were able to be with us and join the celebration.
We are very grateful, but also more aware than ever of our own weakness and our dependency on the Mighty One.
Our life in this age continues. Simeon and Heather are back home with their girls, and Reuben and Jess are in France. Joe and Carmen are at the cottage with Maddie, Bethany and Dunovan are honeymooning in Nova Scotia. I am back at work, and serving in the House of Prayer. But even as I enjoy each day, my children are never far from my thoughts, and most of my thoughts towards them are prayers. I am more deeply aware than ever before that our lives are in the hands of a merciful God. I am looking for a City that is to come, and I long for the day of the King’s appearing.
When you set out to raise a family, you truly have no idea what life will bring your way.
Many things were important to me when I was a young Dad all those years ago. There were so many things that I wanted to teach my children, so many things I wanted for them.
Of all those hopes, dreams and visions, some have changed, some never came about, but as the song says, One thing remains. This one thing will remain for all eternity. Without it, I have nothing of any lasting value. With it, I have everything I need.
Jesus loves me, this I know.
I recently heard the inspiring story of a boy named Sagan and his friends, a group of former slumdogs in India whose lives were changed forever when they were rescued from desperate poverty through child sponsorship in Gospel for Asia’s Bridge of Hope program.
Bridge of Hope not only fed and clothed Sagan and his friends, but also taught them the love and power of God. With the simplicity of a child they believed what they were taught and put it into practice. The amazing results are portrayed in this brief but powerful video. God answered their simple prayers of faith, and a dying boy was raised back to life and health. The impact was astounding. (Please don’t skip over the video – you won’t regret the 5 minutes it takes to watch).
The love of Jesus is stronger than the power of death.
Peace on earth.
The angelic promise of peace and good will is the theme of countless Christmas cards, carols, sermons, hopes and prayers.
Everyone says they want it. Yet the dream of world-wide peace seems as far off as ever.
Over the past few days, I’ve had occasion to reflect on the fragility and imperfection of human relationships. Most of us prefer harmony to conflict, but genuine harmony can be elusively difficult to attain.
As I lay in bed this morning pondering this mystery, I saw in my spirit a picture of Jesus approaching a fortified tower.
The tower was crumbling as its lonely, embattled inhabitant struggled to maintain the illusion of control. Jesus was approaching with far superior power, supremely confident in his victory. He had the ability to destroy the fortified tower in an instant. Yet he held in his hands an offer of peace.
The vision was open-ended. It was like one of those stories where you get to make up your own ending. Would the man in the tower come out from behind his crumbling defenses, lay down his useless weapons, and accept the offer of peace? Or would he continue to try to shore up his once-proud tower, maintain his brittle independence to the bitter end, and die a violent, useless, unnecessary death?
The man in the tower is every one of us.
To a world where strife is a constant, Jesus does offer peace – but that peace carries a price tag. For many, the price is more than they are willing to pay.
The price is surrender.
Surrender of our pride, our fears, our independence, our superiority, and our judgments.
Surrender to His Lordship, His mercy, His kindness, His inevitable victory.
For all who will accept the offer to lay down their weapons, there are two rewards. One is immediate, the other comes later.
The immediate reward is that we get invited into God’s training school. Life with Jesus in this age is a process of preparation, as we allow our bridegroom to woo our hearts, take us by the hand and teach us how to love. He is preparing His beloved ones for the Age to Come, when the promise of world wide peace will finally be fulfilled.
The ultimate reward is far more glorious than we can imagine. Instead of the futile little tower of independence and pride that we once left behind, we will have a place of honour in His Kingdom, in a restored world where there is no more war, pain or death.
One day, he will come in great power to establish that Kingdom openly on the earth. On that Day, there will be no more opportunity to surrender.
But today, He is waiting, calling, pleading, inviting. This is the day of salvation, of invitation, of mercy. Today, He is calling us to come out from our futile towers of independence and pride and fear. Today, He is calling us to let Him teach us the ways of His goodness and mercy and truth.
This is the peace that Bethlehem’s child offers.
Immanuel – God with us.
If you hear his voice, will you lay down your weapons? Will you let Him lead you into the way of peace?
The wolf will lie down with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them.
Being an Ottawa Senators fan can be discouraging. The best you can say is that it is an up-and-down experience.
Last night’s game was an example. The Sens started the game full of enthusiasm against the high-flying Tampa Bay Lightning. They outshot the Lightning in the first period and were leading 1-0 when the period ended. The Sens were playing like a team who believed that they could win the game. They looked as though they were in it to win it.
But then, little by little, the Lightning began to exert their superior speed and skill. First they tied the game, then they took a 2-1 lead.
Up until this point the Sens had still been competitive, but once the Lightning began pulling in front, and especially after their third goal, the Sens began to look as if they knew the game was lost. Although there was still enough time to turn things around, they were no longer playing like a team that believed in themselves. They were still exerting an effort, but you could tell they were frustrated and discouraged. Predictably, they lost.
What happened? The Lightning knew that if they didn’t get rattled, but just kept playing their game, they would win. And they did. Of the two teams, it was the Lightning who were in it to win it. The Senators wanted and needed to win, but (from my perspective at least) didn’t really expect to.
If you see it differently, I won’t argue with you, because my point isn’t really about last night’s game. It’s about the nature of hope, and how it functions in our lives to keep us motivated.
The Bible frequently depicts our life in this age as a battle with the forces of darkness. At times (like the Senators) it seems as if we are destined to lose. It seems as if the powers arrayed against us are far greater than our ability to overcome them.
This is how the Israelites felt when they faced the Philistines in the days of King Saul. The Philistines had weapons of iron, and horses and chariots – none of which Israel had. The Philistines also had a great champion, a giant of a man. His name was Goliath. Who could stand against him? The situation was hopeless. Or at least, so it seemed. Yes, God had delivered Israel from Egypt centuries before, and led them into the Promised Land. Yes, he had given them the promise that if they were obedient and faithful He would always be with them to deliver them, and that Israel would be the first of nations through whom all the earth would be blessed. But all that seemed far away now. They knew they hadn’t always been obedient and faithful – far from it – and their enemies had gotten the better of them. The situation was hopeless. They saw themselves as a beaten people.
But in the midst of that time of despair, God raised up a champion in the person of the young boy David, the youngest son of Jesse. Against all odds, David defeated Goliath in what has become a classic metaphor of the underdog stealing victory from the jaws of defeat.
Why was David successful? Because he knew his God, and he expected God to give him the victory.
We, of course, have a far greater champion than David. We have Yeshua (Jesus), Israel’s Messiah and the Redeemer of the whole earth. Like his ancestor David, against all odds He faced death on behalf of his people – and won. But the victory he purchased was not just for that time alone. It was for all people of all places and times.
Yesterday Marion and I, along with hundreds of others, were richly blessed as we shared in the memorial service for Teresa Narraway, a wonderful woman of God who left this life earlier than most. She died of cancer at age 58. But although she succumbed to death at an earlier age than her family would have hoped, she lived like one who expected to win the race of life. In fact she knew she had already won. All she had to do was stay in the battle, and keep her eyes on Jesus. Marion and I weren’t close friends with Bob and Teresa – our paths parted after only a couple of years in the same church family – but as I followed the saga of Teresa’s final few months on Facebook, and then heard story after story at yesterday’s memorial service, I was deeply moved at the testimony of a life well lived.
It wasn’t that Bob and Teresa never made any mistakes. But from the time they met Jesus, His life became their life, and His victory their victory. There were still ups and downs, but they knew the victory was theirs in Christ, and they followed wholeheartedly wherever He led. Throughout their lives they have served Christ through serving others, and they have done so with all their heart.
That is why Teresa’s memorial service was such a celebration. Yes, there were tears, but there were also many hugs, much laughter, singing, dancing and many wonderful stories. Why? Because she lived her life like the winner that she was.
That’s how I want to live my life too. Thanks, Bob and Teresa, for being such a wonderful model to so many. The story is not over. Your legacy – and your reward – will be greater than you know.
The Book of Revelation is punctuated by a series of powerful images of the heavenly world and the Age to Come. In one of my favourite episodes from this amazing hope-filled book, the apostle John is given a preview of the Throne Room of the Great King after the Great Tribulation. He sees a crowd of worshippers from every nation, tribe, people and language, giving praise to the Lamb who has redeemed them.
Last night Marion and I, along with about a hundred other worshippers, were given a small but rich and delightful foretaste of this wonderful heavenly reality. We were treated to a cross-cultural worship experience at Eglise le Sentier, a French-language Baptist church in Gatineau.
The evening was sponsored by CASE2, a diverse team of Christian musicians from the Ottawa/Gatineau area. Of the nine musicians who comprise this group, four are active participants in All Nations Ottawa, our home church. We had attended a previous concert by CASE2 – a fund-raiser for a 2011 mission trip to Burundi – so we knew we were in for a treat.
The performance was energetic and passionate. The band was clearly well-rehearsed but their musical presentation was spontaneous and fresh. The songs – all original – represented a variety of musical styles. The lyrics were strong, addressing a wide range of human experience and always leading the worshippers to Jesus.
As the child of immigrant parents, having grown up with three languages, I understand and appreciate cultural diversity. I also find myself increasingly aware of the wide variety of languages, cultures and theological flavours represented within the Body of Christ, not only world-wide, but in the National Capital region. Last night’s concert was a microcosm of some of this richness. The nine current members of CASE2 are active participants in a variety of churches in Ottawa/Gatineau, ranging from Evangelical Baptist to non-denominational charismatic. Two of the nine are French-Canadians while seven are immigrants to this country – six from Africa and one from Belgium. They represent at least three continents and several native languages.
None of the musicians have English as a first language, yet they had intentionally crafted a bilingual repertoire, with some songs in English and some in French. Even the testimonies and song introductions were presented in both languages.
Several of the musicians had contributed songs to the repertoire, and many of the songs were prefaced with a brief comment by the composer. This gave the band members an opportunity to tell their story. They spoke of how faith in Jesus had changed their lives, and gave strong encouragement to those present to trust the Lord and walk closely with Him. Several of the musicians have had the experience of being refugees from a war-torn nation. At least one has been a missionary in a foreign continent and has been shot at by terrorists. Many of them have lost a great deal, but every one of them testifies that in Christ they have found even greater riches.
Towards the end of the evening I found myself reflecting on what I was experiencing. My faith was being encouraged by new friends from a wide variety of backgrounds. They had bridged several cultural divides – the divide between French- and English-speaking Canadians, the divide between evangelicals and charismatics, the divide between African immigrants and white North Americans. They were not only singing songs, they were sharing their life experience. The audience, too, was diverse. It was probably about half white and half African. English-speakers were definitely in the minority, but Marion and I were far from the only ones, and not for a moment did we feel unwelcome on “the other side”. And that is as it should be. After all, we were among friends – we were among God’s people. But it has not always been that way among those who name Jesus Christ as Lord.
This experience has left me grateful for the many excellent friends that God has given me. I have been blessed with friends from many nations, tribes and languages – friends who have known what it is like to suffer great injustice, yet who live a life of gratitude without a trace of bitterness – friends who are true servants, who encourage my faith, who challenge me by their testimony, who enrich the Body of Christ by sharing their gifts and their love so freely. I will be sharing eternity with these friends. God has called us to live and work in partnership as one family. I am grateful that He is giving me an opportunity to get to know, love and appreciate some of them on this side of eternity.
In recent weeks the social media have been full of reports of the horrific brutalities committed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, genital mutilation – these are only some of the atrocities committed by ISIS against those they consider infidels, including many Christian believers. The capital of Kurdistan in Iraq is now full of refugees and surrounded by bloodthirsty jihadist armies. The only thing holding the jihadis at bay is the threat of American airstrikes should they proceed to march on the Kurdish capital.
As one who is called to intercede for God’s people, I have found that I can only take these reports in limited doses. I do need to be aware of the strategies and schemes of the evil one, but if I allow my attention to be riveted by the works of darkness, my soul can easily fall into the grip of lethargy and my prayers become negative and faithless – if I pray them at all.
This is not the lethargy of one who does not care. It is the lethargy of one who cares, but feels small and hopeless in the face of the seemingly overwhelming power of evil. Perhaps you are familiar with these sorts of thoughts and feelings.
Today I rediscovered God’s antidote for this sort of lethargy. While going through my mail pile I came across a number of missionary newsletters containing testimonies of the hardships, sufferings and needs faced by Christian workers in Cuba, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Iran and elsewhere. But these newsletters were not full of despair. On the contrary they were full of hope. To borrow a phrase from one of the newsletters, despite these difficulties, there are many good news stories to celebrate.
There are always good news stories to celebrate. Even in Syria and Iraq, as Christians are being slaughtered, others are turning to Jesus as Muslims search for a better answer. As darkness seems to be increasing all over the earth, we need to remind ourselves that the Spirit of God is also at work all over the earth, revealing the glory of Jesus in increasing measure to hungry, seeking hearts. John the apostle reminds us that in the hour of Satan’s rage, when he makes furious war on the people of God because he knows his time is short, God’s people overcome the enemy by a powerful but simple three-part recipe – the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and the willingness to die for their faith if need be, knowing that the Lamb has already conquered death on their behalf.
The title of this post is taken from a great new worship song by Amanda Cook of Bethel Music. I love this song because it calls my attention to the power and goodness of God, and causes faith and courage to rise up in my heart.
I don’t want to escape the hard realities of life. I want to face them with hope, in the knowledge that the Lamb of God is victorious. So I turn to the Lord to receive anew the assurance of His great love and His keeping power. In that strong confidence, I find that I am empowered once again to pray prayers full of renewed faith and courage for those who are facing an uncertain future in this life, but who have placed their hope in the risen One and his coming Kingdom.