Tag Archives: grace

Enjoying God

So, how do you feel about the title of this post?

If you’re not sure, stop.  Read the title again. Then stop again and listen to your heart.  As you consider the possibility of truly enjoying God, what is your heart telling you?

Does the idea of enjoying God strike you as selfish? Lots of people feel this way. The belief that it is somehow wrong to enjoy God is a major barrier to a truly intimate and satisfying relationship with him. I should know – I struggled with various forms of this lie for years (although, as with all the Devil’s most effective lies, I didn’t always fully recognize the enemy that was lurking in the shadows of my thought life).

In my last post I confessed my addiction to HGP. I coined HGP as an acronym for His Glorious Presence.

Interestingly, several readers took HGP as a reference to Holy Ghost Power (which simply means “the power of the Holy Spirit”). You could read my previous post and substitute either phrase for HGP – either Holy Ghost Power or His Glorious Presence.  They pretty much amount to the same thing.  Still, there is one subtle but very important difference between the two interpretations.

When we think of the phrase “the power of the Holy Spirit”, we often think of the power to do miraculous works. And of course that is important. When God pours his Holy Spirit into us, we are empowered to do things that we could not otherwise do. The mighty works that are done by the power of the Holy Spirit function as powerful signs of the coming Kingdom of God, and open many hearts to the reality that Jesus is the Risen Messiah.

But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a truly intimate relationship with God. You can learn to have a functional relationship with the Holy Spirit – by which I mean that you are able to operate in a measure of the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power – without being truly intimate with Father God. Lots of people do this. Some, in fact, operate in a significant level of miraculous power for a period of time while living in sexual immorality, although eventually it always catches up with them. Sadly, whenever this happens, it brings great discredit on the gospel of Jesus. While tragic, this shouldn’t really surprise us – Jesus warned that such things would happen (1).

There’s a good reason why those who focus primarily on power often end up shipwrecked. The power to do mighty works, although very important in displaying the victory of Jesus over the powers of darkness, is not the only reason – or even the first reason – why Father God gives his Holy Spirit to his born-again children. First of all, I believe, He pours the Holy Spirit into our hearts simply to demonstrate that He loves us – as a sort of seal of ownership (2), proving that we really do belong to Him. It’s because of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that we can call God Abba (3) – an intimate, affectionate term of endearment. Father wants us to have a close relationship with Him – so close that we can know His thoughts (4,5) and even His affections towards us. Jesus had such a close relationship with his disciple John that John leaned his head on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper (6).  Contrary to what some popular authors have written, there is absolutely no basis for the claim that either Jesus or John were gay.  John simply had a very warm, secure relationship with Jesus, and was fully confident of Jesus’ affection for him.

Let’s move from the paradigm of friendship to the paradigm of marriage. The Bible frequently uses both these analogies to describe the kind of relationship that Jesus desires to have with those who belong to him. Now, imagine a scenario in which a man married a woman only for what she could do for him. Sadly, this does happen all too often. But what kind of a marriage would it be? There can be no true intimacy when one party is using the other for selfish ends.  Jesus, on the other hand, freely laid down his life for his bride (7). In calling himself our bridegroom and calling us his bride, he is telling us that he desires a relationship of free acceptance, deep affection,  tenderness and faithfulness. The original lie that the snake planted in Eve’s mind was that God wanted to withhold something from her. Until it is unmasked, this lie – deeply embedded in the thinking of our unredeemed nature, and constantly fed by the Enemy – will always prevent us from truly enjoying God’s love. To truly enjoy God’s presence, you have to trust him enough to believe that he wants only to do you good. Only when you believe this can you truly learn to know his heart and allow him to have unrestricted access to your desires, your deepest motivations, your will and your thoughts.

One of the keys to a good marriage is learning to recognize those things that delight or grieve our partner’s heart, so that we can cultivate the former and avoid the latter. Surely one of the benefits of having the Holy Spirit living in us is so that we can easily and quickly recognize those things that please Jesus’ heart, as well as those things that grieve Him. As we cultivate intimacy with the Holy Spirit, He satisfies us with heaven’s atmosphere of joy and peace, greatly enhancing our desire and ability to please Him. This is where true purity comes from – not from rules, but from a transformed heart that is so full of gratitude to God that it delights to learn what pleases him. Rules and disciplines do have their place in guiding us to the right path, but they cannot produce life. Only the presence of the Holy Spirit living in us – God’s best gift to those who love him – can replace our thoughts and desires with his, so that we increasingly reflect the goodness of Jesus.

I still want to grow in my ability to operate in the gifts, power and boldness of the Holy Spirit. But I am learning to simply enjoy the fact that God enjoys me. This is quite amazing to me, and although I have been on this journey for years, yet I can still sense barriers in my heart coming down that I did not know were there. As I continue to pursue greater intimacy with the Lord – simply because He loves me – I am quite certain that He will find less resistance in me, and a greater level of faith and expectancy, when He wants to do works of power through me. And the more my heart knows how to enjoy his love, the more I will be able to please him and reflect his goodness in the works that I do in His name.


Keeping the flow clean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It’s only money

I was meeting with my financial advisor over tea and chocolate chip cookies one afternoon a few years ago.  Jim was also a brother in Christ and a good friend, and we used to talk not only about investing but also about life.  During one conversation we talked about how to manage finances while keeping one’s heart free of worry.  I will never forget his comment :  “After all, it’s only money”.

How many financial advisors would tell you this?  Probably not many.  Yet Jim was right, and I’ve never forgotten these simple but powerful words.  Being a good steward (or manager) is a worthy undertaking, but in the end, when all is said and done, money is only money.   It is not God, and has no ultimate power over my life.

Psalm 112 is a tribute to those who have put their hope in God.

Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
for the gracious and compassionate and righteous man.
Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely,
who conducts his affairs with justice.
Surely he will never be shaken;
a righteous man will be remembered forever.
He will have no fear of bad news;
his heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD.

I determined years ago that this is the kind of man I want to be – a generous man who trusts in God’s sufficiency and is therefore free enough to be gracious to others; a man whose heart is steadfast, with no fear of bad news, trusting the Lord.

I’ve had reason to remind myself of these things over the last couple of weeks.

Two days after Marion and I returned from our thirty-fifth anniversary road trip,  our son Reuben and his bride Jess borrowed our 2002 Toyota Highlander SUV for a road trip of their own.  The Highlander, although 9 years old, seemed to be in great shape and had been a reliable, trouble-free vehicle since we bought it last fall.  We were somewhat surprised to learn that the oil was quite low when we had it changed after our trip, but since we had never had problems with the engine, and had noticed no symptoms of burning oil, we agreed that it was probably OK for Reuben and Jess to go ahead with their trip.

Trouble began to surface on their second day.  The vehicle didn’t display any symptoms of burning oil, but they had to add a litre and a half of oil every day they were on the road.  Research revealed that 2001 and 2002 Highlanders had a history of developing problems with oil gelling.  At this point Reuben and Jess were in Thunder Bay, on their way to the West Coast, and they were getting concerned about crossing the Prairies.  By the time they had reached Winnipeg, we all reluctantly agreed that instead of continuing West, they would head south to Minnesota where our son Simeon lives with his wife and family.  They made it to Bloomington and the car went to the local Toyota dealership, where we learned that it would need a new engine.  Over a week later, they are still there, waiting for the repair to be completed.   So, Marion and I are dealing with a hefty financial hit, Reuben and Jess are dealing with disrupted honeymoon plans, and Simeon and Heather are dealing with much-loved guests who arrived a lot earlier than expected and have had to stay longer than anyone had counted on!

I have gone through a range of emotions and shifting concerns as I’ve processed these events.  I was briefly concerned about whether Simeon and Heather could handle an unplanned visit, but they rose to the occasion admirably.  My next concern was for Reuben and Jess, as it became clear that they would not be able to complete their planned trip to the West Coast.  At the same time, I was very grateful that they made it safely to Simeon and Heather’s place.  It’s not the Rockies – but it’s way better than being stranded!

Once we got the garage’s diagnosis and their estimate for the repair, my concern shifted to the financial impact of this situation.  As I began talking things through with Marion, we reviewed our options.  Should we have the SUV repaired in Minnesota?  Should we ask the dealer for a trade and get them home in a different vehicle?  We soon realized that having it repaired was our only option, since a US dealer cannot take a Canadian-owned vehicle in trade.  This was what we needed to do – but the price tag was high.

As I went to the Lord with my concern, He reminded me gently of Jim’s words : “It’s only money”.   It is so good to remember this.  Yes, we got an unexpected hit.  Yes, Reuben and Jess had their plans disrupted.  But in the end, these things do not need to define our lives.  How we respond – the spirit in which we choose to respond – that is what defines our lives.  I knew that I was able to respond with faith, because God is our provider and He is faithful.  So, my peace was restored.  Everything would be OK.

So we had a way forward.  The car would be fixed and Reuben and Jess would be able to continue their trip – no longer to the Coast, but at least they’d be able to get in a week and a half of camping before heading home.  Then we discovered that due to mistakes on the part of the dealership, the repair would not be completed on schedule.  The dealership had promised that they would have the SUV ready by last Friday, a week after they had first looked at the problem.  Now it appears it will not be ready until this coming Tuesday, four days later than promised.

When I first learned that there might be a further delay, I got mad. This wasn’t right!  I had been promised that  Reuben and Jess would have the car on Friday!  I left the service manager a voicemail message that was less than gracious.

Then I remembered that God loved this man.  I began asking the Lord for His heart and His perspective on this situation.  I heard back from the service manager – not once, but several times, even on his day off – who evidently felt very badly about the cascading delays which had been caused by several errors on the part of his staff, and offered to give us a discount (although the price tag was still going to be considerable).  In the end, I decided that although I might be able to justify tearing a strip out of him over these further delays, possibly leading to a further discount, God was giving me an opportunity to show him mercy so that I could speak to him about the kindness of Jesus and how He had shown mercy on me when I was far from Him.  This is what I plan to do when I talk with him one more time on Tuesday.  Compared to the eternal value of one man’s life, the cost of the engine repair is a small thing.

I have learned that as I go through life, things will happen that I cannot prevent or control, no matter how carefully I plan.  Life is full of upheavals of one sort and another that upset my carefully laid plans, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in large ones.   In fact, events that we cannot control are one of the main tools that God uses to call our hearts back to himself.  What we can control – by the grace of God – is our response to these situations.  These events have reminded me that when I anchor my hope in God’s promises, he can establish His peace in my heart, and give me the ability to respond with grace and mercy even when things seem to be going all wrong.

We forget sometimes that God has a bigger agenda than we do.  He has made us for glory, and we’re not going to get there without being changed.  If I need to take a financial hit to grow in faith, I’ll take it.  God is well able to replace the loss – after all, it’s only money.  Every time I choose the path of faith, hope and love in the midst of unexpected troubles, I am allowing God to develop my capacity to walk in His blessing and give it away, and He promises to reward me with an inheritance that, unlike money, lasts forever and can never lose its value.  Sounds like a good deal to me.


Our Toyota Story

For some men, it would seem, life is really all about their toys.  And high on the list of toys is their muscle car.  Or their motorbike.  Or their truck.

Of course, not all men feel this way about cars.  I know guys who couldn’t care less about cars except as a practical conveyance, but who are in love with musicians’ gear – or Apple iProducts – or cameras – or other gadgets.

But lots of guys are nuts about things that go VRRROOOOM, can go really fast and leave everyone else in the dust.  It helps if the car (or bike or truck) is bright and shiny with lots of chrome, because then other men (and maybe some women) will notice them and be impressed – and of course that’s what it’s all about, right?

That’s never been my style.  I’ve always seen a vehicle as primarily a means of transportation.  When it came to buying cars, practicality, affordability and efficiency were – pardon the pun – the driving values.  Marion and I have always agreed completely on this.   When our Taurus met an untimely end in 1998, and we needed a vehicle that would transport a family of six, what did we do?  No SUV or minivan for us, even though that was what everybody was crazy about back then.  Due to life circumstances (living in the country, three drivers in the household) we needed two vehicles, and a van was beyond our budget unless it was our only vehicle, so we leased a Hyundai Accent and bought a used Ford Escort.  A little counter-intuitive for a family of six, no?  But it worked for us.

So when Marion and I began looking for an SUV recently – after three of our four had left the nest, and long after the SUV craze of the 90’s had levelled out – we got a bit of gentle ribbing from our kids (well, a couple of of them at least).  Our motivation for this purchase, however, had nothing to do with style or image, and everything to do with real value.  Having decided to order a camping trailer in honour of our upcoming 35th anniversary (read the story here) – a decision that was prompted largely by the value we place on facilitating special family times with our children and grandchildren – we needed something with a bit more towing power than our 2005 Toyota Matrix, and we needed luggage room more than seating space.  A mid-size SUV seemed like the solution – and the Lord (yes, I do believe it was His amazingly gracious provision) led us to an excellent deal on a beautifully-maintained 2002 Toyota Highlander.  A shout-out here to the folks at our wonderful neighbourhood garage, who provided us with much valuable help in this process.   Thanks, Russ and Bruce !

The really cool thing for me, though, was what we were able to do with our Matrix, a vehicle that we had inherited from my Dad when he died in 2007.  For the past 3½ years the Matrix has been a reliable, trouble-free, economical and practical vehicle for us – the best car we’ve ever owned, hands-down.  Simeon and Heather, meanwhile, have lived with a succession of used vehicles of uncertain history and dubious quality.  Simeon had told me that Heather really liked driving our Matrix when they were visiting last summer, so when I started looking for something with a little more towing capacity for our trailer, with Marion’s agreement I decided to look into the process for exporting a vehicle to the U.S.A.  My thinking was that if possible, rather than trading in the Matrix, I’d like to be able to give it to Simeon and Heather as a gift.

The export/import process proved to be much less complicated than I had anticipated.  There were some details to work through, but it was all doable.  We received a final settlement on my mother’s estate at just the right time, allowing us to buy the Highlander without the trade-in value of the Matrix.  The details came together quite quickly in the end, leading to a flurry of fairly intense activity – the upshot being that we now have our Highlander and later this week, we will be bringing the Matrix through U.S. customs and then delivering it to its new owners in Minnesota.

I suppose in a sense you could call this our Toyota story.  After several embarrassing recalls the past couple of years, Toyota has been trying to rebuild its former image of reliability with an advertising campaign in which long-time Toyota owners tell their Toyota stories.  Marion and I have only been Toyota owners for a few years, but our experience with Toyota products has been nothing but positive.  We LOVED our Matrix, and are looking forward to many years of reliable service from our new (to us) Highlander.

In a truer sense, though, this is a God story, and my real goal with this post is not to promote Toyota but to testify to God’s amazing grace.  I have been overwhelmed with gratitude – and deeply humbled – at God’s undeserved kindness to us throughout this process.

Have cars suddenly become important to me?  No, not really – not in themselves.  They are only a means to an end.  But this particular series of events has brought me great satisfaction because, by God’s surprising and wonderful provision, Marion and I have been able to give one of our children a gift that was ideally suited to his needs, desires and circumstances.   This will be an excellent car for a young family – practical, reliable, economical – and to be able to give it to Simeon and Heather no strings attached is a great blessing.  What is even more of a delight is that they realize they are being blessed – they recognize the value of the gift.

This has prompted some reflection on the giving of gifts to our children.  Like all parents, Marion and I have had numerous opportunities to do things for our children over the years.  Years ago, when we were young parents on a very limited budget, we tried to be as equitable as possible in the gifts we gave to our children.  In this and other ways, we wanted them to see that we were treating them fairly.  Our goal was that all of our children would know themselves to be equally favoured by their parents (and, we hoped, by God).

As the years have gone by, we have not totally given up this goal, but we have also come to see that completely equal treatment is impossible to achieve, and would probably not even be a good thing.  We have continued to do our best to be good to each of our children, and to be as good to each one as we have been to the others – but I can’t truthfully say that we have treated them all exactly the same way.  Partly, no doubt, this is because we are very imperfect parents.  But even if we were perfect parents, we would not and could not treat our children in exactly the same way.  Although we love them all equally, the specific ways in which we deal with each child are different, because each one has a distinctive makeup and needs, carries a particular calling, and is walking through unique circumstances and life experiences.

Isn’t that just how God deals with His children, too?  Legal justice would mean that everyone gets treated identically.  God, however, goes beyond legal justice by showing us mercy, and then goes beyond showing mercy to pouring out grace – undeserved favour and kindness.  By design, and not by mistake, His grace takes different forms in different circumstances and for different people.  The Enemy of our souls tries hard to blind our eyes to God’s kindness, and presents to our minds multiple reasons to complain and find fault with God.   He works hard to convince us – as he did first with Eve – that God does not really have our best interests at heart, but is withholding something from us.

Satan, of course, is the original orphan, and continues to rage at God’s supposedly unjust treatment of him.  As long as we believe His assessment of God’s character, we will always be able to find reasons to feel that we were unfairly treated in some circumstance or other.   It’s true enough that in a fallen world, we can be deeply hurt by the actions of others, and can be the victims of terrible injustices.  Yet in the midst of all this, God is ready to redeem and restore every wrong, turn us from bitterness to blessing, and make us abundantly fruitful.  He has already made a way for our forgiveness and restoration through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and He has special and unique forms of grace stored up for every one of us – but His best blessings are available to us only after our eyes are opened, and we turn away from our self-preoccupation, yield control of our lives to His sovereign purposes, and begin to live like sons and daughters rather than orphans.  Then, and only then, can we truly taste and see that He is good.

So what’s all this got to do with our Toyota story?  Marion and I have always sought to teach our children that if they trusted the Lord with their lives and sought to serve Him faithfully, He would provide for them and bless them.  Simeon and Heather took a step of faith in moving to Minnesota almost three years ago without any promise of employment, believing that God had called them there.  Since then, they have sought to walk before God in faith and obedience in a community of believers on the Bethany campus.  The Lord has been faithful to them and has blessed them in many ways, but so far they have had trouble with cars.  Now the Lord has made a way for us to supply this need, and I am overwhelmed with His kindness in enabling us to give them this special gift to encourage them.  I may never give a car to any of my other children, but I am equally motivated to show them God’s kindness in ways that will encourage them to trust Him and move forward towards His vision and purpose for their lives.  My goal for each of my children is that their lives will be so strongly imprinted by God’s grace that they, too will be givers – people of faith who are full of confidence in God’s kindness, and who live their lives with open hands, testifying by their lives that God is worthy to be praised, served and worshipped, and that He is infinitely good to those who trust Him.


But why would God care about little old me?

“You say God cares and that he looks after you.  But do you think he would do that for me?  Why would He care about me?”

I will always remember the day Simon asked me that question. It was fourteen years ago, and Simon was a fairly new friend. He lived down the road and around the corner in the townhouse development that my wife and called home. Having left the relative security of ministry in the United Church, Marion and I were raising our young family on a shoestring while shepherding a tiny church that we had planted in the Blossom Park area of South Ottawa.

I first met Simon in the spring of 1995 through a strange series of events.  One spring day there was a neighbourhood garage sale and I was playing my guitar on the front step of our house.  A few days later, a woman we had never seen before knocked on our door and in heavily-accented English asked “Do you have a Bible group in your home?”.  Well, things like this don’t happen every day, and we had been praying for our neighbours, so of course Marion and I were pretty excited.  Her name was Sigrid, she was from Germany, and she told us that she had heard me singing worship songs on the front step and had decided we must be Christians.  She had known some Christ-followers in Germany who had impacted her life deeply, and we reminded her of them. We later learned that she was married to Simon (who was Canadian but of German-Jewish extraction).  Within a few months they and their three children had become part of our little church, and I began spending quite a bit of time with Simon, sharing faith and practical help with him.

Fast forward a year to spring 1996.  During the preceding twelve months, we had spent quite a bit of time mentoring Simon and Sigrid and had become friends with their young family.  We had also reluctantly concluded that our tiny church was not viable, and the leadership team had come to a collective decision to shut it down.  This was, for many reasons, a heart-rending decision – but that’s a story for another day.  I had decided that no matter what God had in store for me by way of ministry, I needed to go back to school and learn a trade, which led to my current work as a technology consultant.  During my year at business college we were living on Employment Insurance, which provided us with 56% of what had already been a poverty-line salary, so it was a very challenging period for Marion and me.  Yet during this period of soul-searching and spiritual and financial distress, we were also seeing much evidence of the grace of God at work in our lives.

Simon and Sigrid had had seen us walk through the process of having to shut down the church; our struggles were not hidden from these baby Christians. Yet in the midst of all the testing, we experienced an inexplicable peace that I can only attribute to God.  We knew He was upholding us, and of course Simon and Sigrid saw this as well.  One day Simon was telling me about his financial problems and how he needed work, and I shared with him how God had always provided for our family through several years of poverty-line living as church planters, and that even now, during my year at business college, we were experiencing God’s constant provision and His kindness to us.  I will never forget Simon’s plaintive, agonized response to my testimony: “But do you think God would do that for me?  Would he care about me?”

People reject God for all sorts of reasons, but I suspect that deep down, many of those who have created sophisticated intellectual smokescreens to explain why God doesn’t exist are really wounded souls crying out to be loved, and finding it impossible to believe that anyone could actually love them.  After all, when all is said and done, in spite of all the pop psychology that tells us how great we are, deep down we know we don’t actually deserve to be loved by God.

The thing is, although we try to hide from the truth, deep down we know that we are sinners – selfish, dishonest, unreliable, unrighteous, impure, untrustworthy, unloving, unfaithful. If you think I’m exaggerating, look in the mirror – or read Romans 3:10-18 and Romans 7:15-21– or look at human history. Yes, there is much good mixed in with the evil – but always it is flawed, and it never endures. Most of the time we succeed in convincing ourselves that this is all someone else’s fault – that it is other people who are perverse and unreasonable – that we, of course, are basically good people. But in moments of blinding honesty, when we see ourselves as we really are, each of us is forced to face the awful truth that if there is a God, and if He is good, we don’t deserve to be loved by Him because we most certainly are not righteous, pure or good.

The amazingly good news is that our own brokenness is not something from which we need to hide. Once we face ourselves as we truly are, we find that God knew about it all the time – and that He has been calling out to us, longing for us to come to our senses and see our broken condition, so that we can run into his arms and find our home in his love.

God doesn’t love you because you deserve it. You don’t have to deserve it, and you never could deserve it no matter how hard you tried. Take a look at the night sky sometime, in a place where you can get away from the city lights and you can really see the stars in all their majesty – and ask yourself whether anything you do could ever impress the maker of the Universe or make Him your debtor. He does care about you – cares with an infinite, fierce and unrelenting passion – but this is not because you deserve it.  He loves you simply and purely because He is good.

I used to be a very negative, moody and convoluted man, but God in his kindness has healed my soul and made me new.  I can truthfully say that I am no longer ashamed, no longer anxious, no longer worried about the future.  In fact I haven’t lived that way for years, but I can still remember when I did.  To clarify – I do admit that I still stumble at times, but my life is no longer characterized by these things – and when I do stumble, I know what to do about it.  It was my Father’s kindness that rescued me – pure and simple.  And I know He still has much more to do in my life.  I want to be a much better reflection of the love, kindness and power of Jesus Christ.  I want this because He is the only one who makes life worth living, and because His Kingdom will stand when all else crumbles.  And because He is good, I know that I will stand.  If you already have this same confidence, you know what I am talking about.  If you want what I am describing, but don’t have it, it’s freely available to you.  All you have to do is humble yourself, admit your need, and ask.


God’s sense of humour

In my last post I wrote about what it has been like to be without work for the first time in almost six years. Referring to my work as an Oracle technology consultant, I made the following comment :

My work in technology, while it has been interesting and rewarding, isn’t ultimately all that important to me. In fact at one time I didn’t even really want to do it. I have since come to enjoy it and have gotten quite good at it, if my clients’ comments are any indication, and I am very grateful to have had this experience. But if God now wants to close this door and open a different door that will lead me to a different form of provision, I’m fine with that. I don’t really think that’s the game plan quite yet, at least not as far as I can tell at the moment, but I have a hunch that one reason God occasionally drops one of these episodes of uncertainty into my life is to remind me of who is God and who is not.

The day after I published that post, Marion and I received an unmistakable reminder of God’s faithfulness and His Lordship. Did I get work?  No – at least, not yet. It was Marion who got work – work she had not been looking for and did not really want, yet work that – after praying it through – she reluctantly decided to accept, and now, one week in, is doing very well at.  After having served for a few years as a United Church pastor early in our marriage, and then choosing to be a stay-at-home Mom and a home educator for the past 25 years, my wonderful wife – who has a teaching certificate but has never taught in any school system outside our home school – was offered a two-thirds time teaching position at Redeemer Christian High School where our youngest daughter is a grade 12 student.

She is teaching English and Bible, which is perfect for her. I had been sensing for quite some time that God had something more for her, and had wanted her to have an opportunity to use her gifts in a bigger field, so this is a wonderful answer to prayers that had not even been consciously uttered. Marion is a really good teacher and is great at understanding and communicating with teens, having raised four of her own. She is also, however, someone who is passionate about order – yet she was asked to take over the work of a teacher who had left for health reasons and had left many loose ends. So it’s not just a teaching job – it’s an opportunity to learn to flourish in the midst of what feels to her like chaos, dropped in the lap of someone who intensely hates all forms of disorder. God does have a sense of humour!

Ironic, isn’t it? I was the one who was looking for work – Marion was comfortable at home – yet she was the one who got the work! I was the one who said to her “Go for it honey, you’ll be great at this – God has opened a door of opportunity for you”.  She was the one who was saying “I don’t know if I can do this”. Go figure. Is God in charge, or not? So for the past week I have been learning to live at a slower pace, learning to manage the household and support my wife and daughter, doing all the things Marion usually does so efficiently and well.  Meanwhile, Marion is adjusting to being a working girl, and learning that she can do new things – things she had said for years she could not do. Our Father, who loves His kids and knows better than we do what is good for us, is probably quite amused as He watches us both struggling to adapt.

This reminds me of what God says about salvation coming to the Gentiles : that he was found by a people who did not seek Him, and that  a people who did not pursue righteousness received it by grace when they responded to the preaching of the gospel of the crucified Jewish Messiah, while Israel – who had been pursuing righteousness, but by works and not by grace – did not receive the salvation they had hoped for.  Without pushing the analogy too far, I believe God is giving Marion and me an object lesson in His sovereign grace, and teaching us both more about the type of response that He desires to work in us.  For the past week Marion has been given a crash course in re-entering the workforce and has been learning to receive thankfully what God provides, and to see the blessing in having her faith stretched — just as the Gentiles, having received a salvation they had not sought, were required by that salvation to let their old nature be crucified. As for me, I am being taught all over again to wait on God for what I believe He desires to give me — learning to receive by grace, in a sense, what I cannot bring about by works — even though to receive it, I must do the works (take the steps of faith and obedience) that God clearly lays out for me.

Oh, and the financial provision is welcome also. But what I am really excited about is this visible demonstration that God is at work in our lives – that He knows better than we do what He wants to work in and through us.  After all, if we are on track with His purposes, the provision always follows.


The Shack

For our anniversary this year, my beloved gave me a copy of The Shack by William P. Young.  Some of you may be thinking “What, a book for an anniversary present?”  But after 33 years she knows me pretty well, and for me it was a very well-chosen gift.  I finished reading it a couple of days ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I understand from reading online reviews that this book has become very popular.   It was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months and is still sitting at #2 in the Paperback Trade Fiction category.  It has also been featured on CBC News on several occasions, which gives some indication of the attention it has received.   Apparently lots of people could identify with its main theme.

I also noted from online reviews that Young’s book has garnered lots of criticism from Christians who are concerned that its theology is suspect.  So I read it with a watchful eye – because good theology is important to me – but I also endeavoured to keep an open heart and listen to the Holy Spirit along the way.

My own take?  I loved The Shack.  Through it God spoke to me at a deep level about his goodness and redemptive power.  Although in one sense it contains nothing new, it presented the kindness, generosity and creativity of God in the form of a story that has the power to get past many people’s defenses.

If you are concerned about careful theology you may find this assessment surprising.  However, as I began to read, I soon realized that what I was reading was not a theological treatise but an extended parable of God’s grace and mercy.

Not one of Jesus’ parables gives a complete or balanced presentation of all the truths of the Christian faith.  That’s not their purpose.   They are flashes of insight with a very specific focus, and their purpose is to both reveal and conceal truth.  To those whose hearts are receptive to the Kingdom, parables reveal more of the nature of God and his ways, but to those whose hearts are hardened they may seem either nonsensical or downright offensive.   The Pharisees had problems with Jesus’ parables because his powerful insights messed with their tightly-constructed systems, but those who were hungry for God’s mercy were delighted.

I believe the Shack functions in a similar way.   It’s not a book of balanced theology, but rather a brilliant attempt to convey in story form how the mercy of God is able to penetrate past our defenses, healing hearts that have been wounded by life’s pain and restoring minds that have been blinded by the Enemy’s deceptions.

Am I worried that some people might be confused about God’s true nature because the Shack portrays the Father as a black female?  Well – first of all, I wouldn’t use this book as a tool for basic discipling of a new believer.  That’s not its purpose.  I’d probably recommend it for people who have been turned off by religion or who have been so damaged by life’s pain that the idea of a loving God is hard for them to grasp.  But in Young’s defense, I’d say he makes it pretty clear that Papa reveals himself (herself?) to Mack as a maternal figure because that would be the best way to get past his defenses.  Later on, Papa shows up as a man.  As Papa himself states, God is literally neither male nor female, nor is he literally human.  Like all analogies, this one breaks down if you try to make it carry a weight that it wasn’t designed to bear, but if you understand its purpose and accept its limitations, it is very effective.

I did have some concerns about balance in a few other areas, but had to remind myself that this is a story, not a treatise.  And it’s a story that is not trying to say everything there is to be said about God or the Christian faith (can anyone do that anyway) but rather is trying to say a few things, in a way that will enable many to open up to God’s love whereas previously they might have rejected it.

My main concern with the Shack is actually not with the critics – any good work will get its share of criticism anyway – but with those who are so totally in love with it that they think it’s the last word.    So if you do read it, remember it’s only a story.  It contains some powerful and refreshing insights – but I’m still reading my Bible and listening to sermons and … you get the picture.

So – I’d be interested in comments from anyone who has read this book.  And if you haven’t read it – consider giving it a try.


True freedom

In our church we’ve heard powerful messages recently about the grace of God that is available to us through Jesus.

Basically what we have been hearing is the same message that the Apostle Paul preached two thousand years ago and that was rediscovered by Martin Luther, John Wesley and others.   It is good news that is always fresh and never grows old – the good news that we don’t have to work hard to earn God’s favour, that we have his acceptance as a free gift, purchased for us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

This is great news for people who have been beating themselves up and always feeling like failures because they can’t seem to “do well enough” as Christ-followers.   It is wonderfully liberating to realize that Jesus has taken the burden of failure from our shoulders and paid the price for every sin we have ever committed or will ever commit.  Because of this amazing fact, we can come into our Father’s presence without fear, confident of His love and acceptance.

I love this emphasis, but I do have a concern.   There were two contrasting errors that plagued the New Testament church.  One error was the tendency to set aside the good news of acceptance by God as a free gift, and go back to Jewish religious rules.  The other error was the tendency to set aside all restraints on behaviour, based on a mistaken understanding of the truth that in Christ we are totally free.   If you read the letters that the New Testament apostles wrote to young churches, you see them having to deal with both problems.

My concern is that in a well-meaning attempt to emphasize the amazing liberty that Jesus has made available for us, we can end up giving the impression that the moment we start to emphasize guidelines for righteous behaviour, we are going back to “law” and that this will automatically put us into bondage.   But that’s not what Paul himself said.   He did warn the Galatians (Gal. 5:2-6) against going back to the religious requirements of Judaism, and told them to hold on to the freedom that Christ had won for them.  But he also took issue with the thinking and behaviour of the Corinthians – a group of Christians coming from a city known for its immorality.  They didn’t seem to realize that although God loves us, he is not pleased when his children indulge themselves in incest, gluttony, drunkenness, and other forms of immorality.  Paul warned them that such behaviour dishonours Christ and then told them “I myself am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law” (1 Cor. 9:21).

So – is there a place for law in the life of grace?  We can’t be saved by law – we can’t be saved by trying to make a list of all God’s requirements and keeping them to the best of our ability.   That is an attempt doomed to failure, and totally ignores the saving work of Christ on the Cross.  But if we have accepted the free gift of Christ, there is a new kind of law – not a written legal code, but the over-ruling power of the Spirit – that draws us to holy living, not as a way to be saved, but as an outcome of our salvation.  And because it takes time for new believers to learn the ways of God, sometimes we still need someone to point out to us that certain types of behaviour do not fit in with our Christian identity.   This isn’t bondage – in fact it is a key to walking in liberty.  True freedom isn’t doing whatever you please, but learning that in Christ you are free to do what pleases God – and that in the end this will make you happier than anything else.


Reflections from Minnesota – Heading home again

Today we head home after a good week.  It has been a real joy to be here.

Transitions are important.  Lord, give us grace to be steady and focussed – not to let changing circumstances dictate our moods or our mental state.  Give us grace to leave a blessing behind us, then go forward with faith and enthusiasm into the next season.


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.

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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.