Tag Archives: discipleship

Coldest Night of the Year

I remember when I first heard about Jericho Road Ministries from its founder, my friend Ray Desmarais. A compassionate man with a big heart for the hurting and homeless, Ray wanted to do something practical to help. Over the years, his relentless drive and passion led to the birthing of a ministry that has demonstrated the love of Jesus to hundreds of broken people in Ottawa’s core. While appreciating the need for shelters such as Shepherds of Good Hope and the Ottawa Mission, Jericho Road has chosen to offer smaller-scale, discipleship-based group homes with the aim of helping mentally ill or addicted men and women get off the street and learn practical life skills in an atmosphere of structured Christian community.

For several years my wife Marion and I were among the regular performers at a weekly coffee house offered by Jericho Road. We loved it! At the time, we lived in the rural community of Russell, and the coffee house gave us an opportunity to serve and rub shoulders with people that we wouldn’t normally have any contact with. Now that we live in the historic neighbourhood of Vanier, so close to downtown, I have a whole new appreciation for the work done by ministries such as Jericho Road.

I no longer sing at the Jericho Road coffee house, as there are now plenty of musicians to fill the roster, but on February 20, I’ll be joining a team led by Jericho Road director Hope Versluis in a walk in support of this great ministry, along with dozens of other Ottawans. The event is known as The Coldest Night of the Year, and takes place in cities across the nation in support of various charities that serve the hurting and homeless. In Ottawa, your donations will go to support Jericho Road. I’d be grateful if you would consider supporting me with a donation.

If you would like to donate, or would consider joining the walk yourself, you can do so by going to my personal home page. All donations are tax-deductible.

God bless you.


Tragedy in Boston

By now almost everyone has heard of the terrible tragedy that took place at the Boston Marathon yesterday, in which two bombs killed three people and injured many others. Among the dead was an eight-year-old boy who had been waiting for his father to finish the race.

Words fail to describe the horror of such a scene. One of the more common responses to tragedies such as this is anguish. Many ask, How could anyone do this?

Most of us are deeply disturbed by such acts and can never imagine ourselves doing something so terrible. But what we don’t usually see is that left to ourselves, while we may not be given to evil, all of us are given to preserving our own life. While we could not imagine ourselves doing such a terrible act of violence, our decision to live for ourselves – our primary commitment to preserving our own life – means that in the face of darkness fear takes over, and the best we can do is to try to protect ourselves and those we love. This is how evil wins.

I have been reading through the gospels lately, and I have been struck all over again by some of the radical things Jesus said. He called his followers to be willing to die for him, and he wasn’t talking about terrorism – or Crusades either. He was talking about radical, sacrificial obedience to the way of the cross. He was talking about being willing to suffer for the sake of love.

This seems strange to most of us. It’s certainly contrary to our normal human desire to preserve our own life. I mean, who really wants to suffer and die?

The apostle Paul had been a terrorist before he met the risen Christ. He had made it his business to seek out, terrorize and persecute Jews who had come to believe that Yeshua (Jesus) was risen from the dead and was Israel’s Messiah. Like today’s Islamic terrorists, or the medieval Crusaders, he was completely sincere – he believed he was doing the will of God. Yet even in his sincerity, he was a violent and wicked man – as he himself later admitted after his life was turned around when the risen Jesus encountered him. For the rest of his life he would serve the One whose people he had hitherto persecuted. The same thing has happened to some of today’s Islamic terrorists, notably Walid Shoebat and others.

This morning I was reading some of Paul’s words and they really got my attention.  He says that he always carried the death of Jesus in his body. This seems like a strange and even morbid thing to say. But then he goes on to say that because he carried the death of Jesus in his body, he was able to manifest the life of the risen Jesus in his life.

Consider for a moment. Even if you don’t get killed by a terrorist, you are going to die anyway. You can’t avoid it. But Jesus didn’t even try to avoid his death. In fact, he freely embraced it for the sake of others, and now He is alive forever, the first of many who have entrusted their lives to Him and who will share His glory when he returns to rule the earth openly. Could this be what it means to carry his death in my body – to embrace the fact that I am going to die one way or another, and to crucify my own ambitions, hopes and fears so that Jesus can live his life in and through me?

If I am truly given to Jesus, if I have died to my own goals and ambitions, I believe it is possible to face horror unafraid. Not only unafraid, but able to give life to others without becoming bitter, hardened or discouraged – because it is his life I am giving, not my own. This is the testimony of the first apostles and many of those who have followed him since then.

Have I already attained this? Far from it. But that’s how I want to respond to this tragedy. For me, while sobering, it is a salutary reminder that I am a broken man who needs – and has found – a Saviour, that my life now belongs to Him, and that the life that is truly life is found only in living as a servant, friend and lover of the One who gave his life for me.


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.


Reflections from Minnesota – Day 5

Today we went to the Mall of America to shop.  It is the second-largest mall in the world, surpassed in size only by the West Edmonton Mall.  You can get pretty much anything here.  The whole point of the mall is consumption – buying, selling, getting, spending.  So we did our bit to stimulate the economy.

I don’t seem to to be able to go through life without reflecting on my experiences.  It’s just the way I’m wired.  I’ve heard it said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  I believe that if we are truly disciples of Jesus, every aspect of life should be under His Lordship.  So today I was reflecting on the experience of shopping, and whether our shopping choices are significant to God.

This may seem like  a weird question.  Does God care if you buy a particular shirt or pair of shoes or electronic gadget or tasty treat?  Aren’t those trivial matters – not that important?

Actually, it’s the stuff of everyday living that reveals to what extent Jesus is really Lord of our lives.   Going to the mall of America may be a real spiritual test for someone who is inclined to be self-indulgent.  The Holy Spirit may be giving you an opportunity to recognize and resist temptation.  If you were to listen to that inner voice before buying, you might get a gentle nudge to say “No” to your most recent whim – both to lead you into the freedom of self-control, and so that you have more left to give to others.

On the other hand, if you are someone who feels guilty about spending, there could be a different kind of challenge.  The Holy Spirit may want to teach you something about God’s desire to bless you.  Or He may want you set you free to give a generous gift to someone you love.

One thing is for sure – from reading the Gospels it is very clear to me that if we want to live as Kingdom people, every detail of our lives matters.  How we handle finances is a reflection of the condition of our hearts, and that matters a great deal to God.

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

Marion and I have also been spending quite a bit of time this week at fairly close quarters with our son Simeon and daughter-in-law Heather and their new baby, who have graciously opened up their apartment to us for the week.  Add in our daughter Bethany and son Joe (who came with us), plus various members of Heather’s family who live next door and are frequently in and out of their apartment, and you are looking at a fairly constant stream of family interactions.

As wonderful as family is, living at close quarters like this can be a strain at times, especially for new parents like Simeon and Heather who are dealing with an adorable but sometimes-fussy baby, and new grandparents like Marion and myself who are still learning how to operate with grace in our new role.  So we have had to work a few things out over the past couple of days.  This is not always easy, and our human weaknesses – mine, anyway – sometimes come to the surface.  This is humbling, but also good for us.   Little conflicts give us an opportunity to grow in grace.  I’m learning that the secret to healthy and redemptive relationships is not avoiding all conflict, but handling it with grace.  The effort to understand one another is well worth the cost.  I am so grateful for the Lord’s mercy and grace.  God, teach me to place my heart and my tongue under your control daily.


Reflections from Minnesota – Day 2

Who does your life belong to?

Yesterday Simeon and Heather dedicated their new baby daughter to God.   Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family friends were there to witness the event and to pray for her.   Of course we prayed for her to be blessed.  But what does it really mean to be blessed?

Babies have very little control over their own life.   They are almost totally dependent on someone else to look after them.   Babies and young children also find it easy to trust.   I’m being reminded of both these facts as Marion and I interact with our baby granddaughter.

This morning Marion and I took Sophie for a ride in her stroller.  Eventually she became distressed and began to cry.   As soon as I picked her up and cuddled her and began to speak to her gently, she relaxed into my arms with a sigh and let herself be cared for – even though she barely knows me.  Jesus said that anyone who does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall never enter it.   I think he was onto something …

We tend to think that we are blessed when things go our way, but Jesus said that if we try to save our own life we will end up losing it.  He said the only way to find true life – the life that is worth living, the life that cannot be destroyed by death or “bad fortune” – is to give up control  of our own life and live for His Kingdom.   Little children instinctively understand the trust and dependency part of that equation.  But babies are also very self-focussed, totally absorbed with their own needs and desires.

Life with God – the only life that is worth living – requires us in a sense to be like little children, and in another sense to be mature in our choice-making.   It requires us to relax into God’s arms – but also to make the daily decision to leave behind our self-preoccupation and walk with God into the tasks and challenges that He calls us to take on as His representatives on earth.  It takes an adult to walk out the daily choice of surrendering the will to God and actively pursuing the life of a disciple.

That’s the kind of life I want for Sophie – and for myself.  Not necessarily the easiest life in the world, but the most rewarding – a life with eternity in view.   It starts when I realize that my life doesn’t belong to myself, but to the One who died for me so that I might live for Him and in Him.


What is the #1 goal of small groups?

Why do we do small groups in church?   There are many reasons, but most often people will say that small groups are important to meet the need for fellowship.

I both agree and disagree with this statement.

I agree because it is so obviously important to focus on building strong relational connections.  I love the weekly Sunday service at my church, with its dynamic worship, powerful and relevant preaching, and top-quality children’s ministry.   But over the years too many people have attended for a few weeks or even a number of years, and then drifted away.  While people leave churches for many reasons, I am convinced that most will only stay if they form strong relational connections with at least a few people.   Besides, didn’t Jesus command us to love one another?  It’s hard to love people that you barely know!   It’s no accident that most of the churches in the New Testament met primarily in homes.   As small group life spreads, and we place more emphasis on building loving relationships, our church is gradually becoming a little more like the church of the New Testament, which was a household of faith, not just a collection of people who met in a building once a week to sing songs and listen to a message.

But in spite of all these compelling arguments for the importance of building relational connections, I can’t really agree that fellowship is the primary purpose of small groups.  I believe that the healhiest small groups will be those that focus on making disciples – in other words, helping one another follow Jesus.  Small groups that focus on fellowship as their highest goal are likely to end up being self-centred and shallow.  Groups that focus on  making disciples have the potential to be exciting, dynamic and always challenging as well as supportive.

The biggest single weakness of the North American church is that there are many attenders but very few disciples.  Disciples are people who are learning to trust and obey God in their daily lives, people who are choosing – as best they are able, with God’s help – to pattern their lives after Jesus.  We all need help with this, and a small group that sees its goal as making disciples is a great place to get support.  There you will be loved and accepted but also challenged to grow into the image of Christ.

A small group that is focussed on making disciples will also reach out to others to bring them into God’s family – because that’s what disciples do!  It will engage with the Word and apply the Word to daily life – because that’s what disciples do!  It will spend time in prayer and worship – because that’s what disciples do!   It will focus on serving – because that’s what disciples do!  It will help its members discover their spiritual gifts and apply them – because that’s what disciples do!

A group with this kind of atmosphere is lots of fun and leads to awesome fellowship.   In a healthy small group, people feel included, they feel they belong, they feel they have something to contribute and that they are making a difference, they feel that they are growing in their faith – because they are!  Great fellowship is like the matrix – the atmosphere in which disciples can be made.  You can’t become like Christ on your own.  It’ s not possible, because the Christian life is meant to be lived in community.  But if you make fellowship the primary goal, your group will be shallow.  If you aim at helping one another in the journey of discipleship, you get everything else as a bonus.  In small group life as well as finances, it really is true that if we seek God’s kingdom first, we get everything else thrown in!