Tag Archives: gratitude

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.

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The power of blessing

My beloved wife celebrated her 60th birthday a few days ago.

I’m not always the best at planning ahead for such events, but I have learned over the years that special days are important to Marion, and I have also learned that I do a better job at honouring her on such occasions if I give some thought to it in advance.  So, about a month before her birthday I began thinking about what I could do that would bless her, and I had an inspiration. I remembered that when I turned 50, Marion had compiled a book containing words of encouragement, appreciation and blessing from various people in my life. I realized that she could benefit from some encouragement (can’t we all?) so I decided to do something similar for her 60th birthday. I contacted a number of our mutual friends by email and Facebook and asked them to email me with messages communicating something that they appreciated about Marion or some statement of how her life had been a blessing to them.

I found this experience to be a very powerful one. It was a great benefit to my own relationship with God to read the messages that came into my inbox through the month of July.

I learned (or re-learned) several valuable lessons from this experience, and thought they would be worth sharing with others.

Firstly, I was reminded that our words really do matter. They have powerful impact on how others perceive themselves. We are told in Proverbs 18:21 that death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. As I read the words of gratitude that so many friends sent to bless Marion, I found myself appreciating our friends and family all over again, and thanking God for putting such wonderful people in our lives. Since I gave her the book on her birthday, Marion has been enjoying it as well. Even when we know that Jesus loves us and gave His life for us, it is a great encouragement to hear from other people how our simple words and actions of love – many of them long forgotten by us – have impacted their lives.

Secondly, I was amazed at the kindness of God. Many of our friends expressed gratitude for things Marion had said or done that she does not remember at all. I know this is because she has set her heart on loving God, and when you do that, kindness and encouragement flow out to those who are receptive. This to me is a powerful motivation to keep walking in the Spirit. As we set our hearts on following the way of love, others are blessed. It is so simple, but we do need to choose daily to walk this path.

Thirdly, I realized again how thankful I am for the wife God has given me. She brings me good, and not harm, all the days of her life (Proverbs 31:12). It is good to be reminded of reasons to be grateful. So, for all of you who took the time to send words of blessing on my wife’s birthday, thank you so much. You encouraged her, but you also encouraged me. Well done.

I’ve uploaded the completed Blessing Book for anyone who is interested in seeing the finished product.

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Resident aliens

When my son Simeon moved to the United States a few years ago, I was a bit surprised to learn that according to the United States Government, he was an alien. Even after getting his Green Card, which allows him to work in the USA, the correct term for his new status was not Permanent Resident or Landed Immigrant (terms that I was familiar with from Canada). According to Uncle Sam, even though Simeon has now lived and worked in the USA for several years, owns a house, has a bank account and pays taxes there, he is still an alien, and he will continue to be an alien until the day that he swears allegiance to the United States of America and becomes a United States citizen.

When we hear the word alien, for many of us the first thought that comes to mind may be of creatures from outer space.  But according to TheFreeDictionary.com, the word alien can also mean a person from another and very different family, people, or place. That’s an excellent description of what it is like to be a Christian in a hostile world. We are aliens. We belong to a different family, people and place than the children of the world. We have a different king, a different government, a different identity, a different value system and a different hope. Paul wrote that our citizenship is in heaven. We are citizens of a kingdom that will totally replace the current world system when Jesus returns to restore the earth and reign openly as king. In the meantime, we are strangers and aliens in the world system, living by the values of a kingdom that most people don’t see yet. One day the whole world will see this kingdom because it will be fully manifested on the earth. With the eyes of faith, friends of Jesus see it now, even though dimly, and we seek to live by its light.

The first Christians lived in a culture that was openly hostile to their faith, and some of them suffered greatly for it. The Apostle Peter was so aware of this that he wrote an entire letter to strengthen and encourage these embattled believers. He didn’t tell them to try hard to fit in and accommodate themselves to the culture they were in (which seems to be the strategy of much of the North American evangelical church these days). And significantly, he also didn’t tell them that their assignment was to take over the power structures and change the culture by force. The Zealots had tried that in Israel, and Jesus completely repudiated their approach, as Peter no doubt well remembered. Instead, Peter told them to be different, to live lives that were in stark contrast with the values of the world around them.

These were his words :

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.

Basically, he was warning Christ followers not to adopt the standards, values, goals or desires of the people of this age, because this would dilute their witness and had the potential to destroy their relationship with him.

My personal circumstances have given me plenty of cause to think about these things in recent weeks. For fifteen years now, I have made my living as an IT sub-contractor. Some people think that consultants make a lot of money, but that’s not always the case. Marion and I home-schooled for most of those years, so my income was the only income for the family. As a fairly junior programmer, in my first few years my income was barely enough to meet our expenses. It was always enough, but there was never a lot extra. Gradually this began to change, and in the past few years our life became somewhat more comfortable. In an earlier phase of our life together, Marion and I had lived below the poverty line as church planters for years, and our personal tastes are quite simple, so we can quite easily be content on a limited income. However, I had been given a promise several years ago that the Lord intended to prosper us both financially and spiritually so that Marion and I could be a financial and spiritual blessing to many, and this had been repeated a couple of years ago by a prophetic minister who knew nothing of our circumstances, goals or visions, but told me that I would be a storehouse like Joseph.

With these promises in mind, when my last contract came to an end almost nine months ago, I was full of confidence in the Lord’s provision. Interruptions in work are commonplace for people in my line of work, but we had a financial buffer that was more than adequate for three months. My longest layoff ever had lasted three and a half months, so I was confident that I would soon have work again. Not only that, I had numerous indications that with my fifteen years of experience, my knowledge and skills were in demand and my prospects looked quite good. There were several possibilities on the horizon. I had been journalling and seeking the Lord, and had asked him whether He wanted me to continue in the IT field or step out into ministry on a faith basis. I sensed that He was saying I should expect to stay in the IT field for a few years longer. So, based on everything that I sensed God had been showing me, and the prophetic words I had received about being a storehouse, I confidently expected that my layoff from work would be brief, and that my new contract would be financially lucrative, providing additional seed for the storehouse that the Lord had spoken of. I even had sufficient confidence to turn down a couple of contracts in the early stages of what proved to be a nine-month waiting period, because I sensed that the Lord had assured me he had something better for me.

Since then I have gone after fifteen different contract opportunities, some of them very attractive, financially and in other ways. I was well qualified for many of them. I had so many near misses that I can no longer write them off as coincidences or “the luck of the draw” (not that I really believe in these concepts anyway : for one who belongs to Jesus, nothing happens purely by chance). The Word of God tells us that it is God who promotes one and brings down another. These matters are in his hands. I can only conclude that the Lord was making me wait for a reason.

Along the way, I did a lot of journalling, bike riding and prayer walking. I prayed alone and with Marion. I fasted. I worshipped. I wrote songs. I studied the Word and listened to many excellent Bible teachings which have had a profound impact on my relationship with God. I read through the Book of Psalms over and over again. I knew that God was doing something new in my life, preparing Marion and me for a new season. I found the extra time with God extremely beneficial, even though I found the waiting (without a defined end date in sight) to be a significant trial to my faith. In my times of seeking the Lord, I cried out to God; I argued with Him; I asked Him questions; I humbled myself and surrendered time and again. Many times I would ask him the same questions over and over again. “Have I been hearing you correctly? Is there anything I am missing? Is there anything else you want to say to me? When will the provision come?” And as I journalled and prayed, over and over again I received the Lord’s assurance that His provision would come at the right time, and that when it came, it would be just right.

In the end, I took a contract that was financially less lucrative than any of the other fifteen that I had pursued or been offered at one time or another over the past nine months. I am now going to be compensated at a level lower than I have been at for seven years. Some of my colleagues tell me they have not had a contract at these rates since the late 1990s. In fact, many of them would refuse to work for these rates, and some have implied that I should not take this contract because I am selling out. Yet, I have the Lord’s assurance that this is His blessing and provision for me. Along the way I have seen promises broken and colleagues blessed with positions that I can legitimately say I should have had. When I have prayed about this, the Lord has reminded me that these people don’t have the blessing of a relationship with Him, so I now have an opportunity to pray for them to see God’s goodness in their circumstances and turn to Him. I also will have the opportunity to work in an environment where I have worked before, with at least two people (a manager and a team leader) who are potentially open to the gospel but have not yet received the Lord. This too is an answer to prayer, but I can only be a blessing to them if my own heart is in a place of gratitude and contentment. So the Lord has given me an exquisitely designed test. No-one is able to design more elegant tests than the Holy Spirit.

Suffice it to say, this has been a time of humbling for me. I realize now, with the 20-20 vision that hindsight sometimes affords, that when the Lord told me the provision was going to be just right, he wasn’t primarily thinking of finances. Marion and I know how to budget, and the financial provision will be more than enough. It always is. And since finances are not my primary goal anyway, it really doesn’t matter. We’ll have less excess to give away – at least from employment income – but that’s up to God, not me. If He wants me to be a storehouse, he’s not limited to employment as a way of getting me there. Joseph didn’t get raised up to be the second most powerful man in Egypt through his own efforts. It was entirely through God’s grace and mercy. But he did have to go through a significant period of humbling, and he had to be faithful. In the end it was his faithfulness, integrity, and spiritual perceptiveness that drew the attention of the king.

This chain of events has served to remind me that as a Christ follower I live by a different value system than the world around me. I knew this of course, but when you work for years with the children of this world, it can affect you without you even realizing it. The nine-month layoff provided sufficient time for the gestation of a new ministry vision. It allowed me the opportunity to take my hands off some things that I had looked to for security, which the Lord told me to sell to provide for our needs while waiting for work. It provided a time for me to refocus and get my eyes onto Jesus again. I didn’t think I had taken my eyes off of him, but I have seen that I had become more dull and compromised than I had realized, and the Lord wanted to sharpen me, humble me, make me tremble again in His presence. There are things He wants me to do in the years to come, and to fulfil his purposes for the remainder of my earthly journey, I need to be a sharp instrument in His hands.

Like my son, who is a Canadian citizen living in the United States, people who belong to Jesus are citizens of a different kingdom. We are in a war with our own fallen nature, the world system and the Prince of Darkness, and that war will continue until the Lord Jesus returns to claim his Bride and rule the earth openly.

In the meantime His people look for his kingdom as from a distance, and live by its light in the shadows of a mostly dark world. That’s what it means to be a city on a hill. We are called to be different, not motivated by earthly power or the world’s approval but motivated by the smile of Jesus, the crucified one, our lover, our friend and our king, who is coming to reign.

The experiences of the past nine months have shown me again that I am an alien and a stranger in this age. I am looking for a heavenly kingdom that is coming to earth, and I belong to a king who is a passionate lover of my soul, and who will tolerate no rivals for my affections. A financial loss – which He is well able to replace – is a small price to pay to have my vision refocussed, my heart reawakened and my priorities clarified again. Thank you Jesus.

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Was blind but now I see

Yesterday I met a man who prayed for my salvation over thirty-five years ago, when we were both students at the same college.

Until yesterday I had not known that he had been praying for me, and he had not realized that his prayer had been answered.

Back in the 1970s, I was a spiritually hungry but very confused young man. I was studying theology at Queen’s Theological College in Kingston, Ontario, which only served to increase my state of confusion. Most of the faculty and students did not really know what they believed. However, they were quick to mock anyone who claimed to be born again, or who articulated a simple faith in the Lordship of Jesus and the Bible as the Word of God, or who said they had been “saved”. Sadly, I joined in the general chorus of mockery. How foolish and arrogant we were in our presumed wisdom.

I do remember, though, that there were a few students at QTC who were different from the rest. Ken was one of the ones who stood out. He had a confident faith which he expressed with respect but without apology. I wouldn’t have said so at the time, but looking back I realize that Ken scared me. It wasn’t that he himself was a scary guy. He was intelligent, polite, and well-spoken. It was his confident, well-grounded faith that scared me, because it challenged the core assumptions of my life. In particular, Ken challenged my prideful assumption that I did not need anyone to save me. I thought I knew so much and had so many answers, but in reality I had no answers at all, and knew nothing about the things that really mattered. I wanted spiritual truth, but I wanted it on my own terms. I was not yet ready to surrender my will to anyone. Still, I remember being hungry for the peace and assurance that I saw in people like Ken, even though at the time I would not have had the words to say so.

I was part of the graduating class of 1977 at QTC, although I hung around for a couple more years and did further studies while my wife finished her degree. Ken likewise graduated, and having been refused for ordination in the United Church because he was unwilling to compromise his convictions on baptism, he was ordained as a Free Methodist pastor. We had not been close while at college, and I never expected to see him again.

Fast forward ten years to 1987.  By this point I was married with two children, and trying to be a pastor, all the while still trying to convince myself that I had answers. The truth was that I had no answers at all. Any fragments of truth or wisdom that I did understand were of no real value to me or anyone else, because I lacked the One who holds all things together. But God had prepared salvation for me. Through the loving ministry of the Anglican pastor in our village, a faithful and intelligent man of God, I finally surrendered my pride and accepted Jesus as Lord of my life.

Fast forward another twenty-five years to 2012.  Through a mutual friend I discovered that a fellow by the name of Ken Roth was pastoring a Free Methodist church in Stittsville. I remembered his name from college and decided to contact him.

It must have been the Holy Spirit that prompted me to get in touch with Ken, because when we finally got together for coffee and a chat at the One Way Ministries office, both of us were encouraged, humbled and amazed at the goodness of God.

Ken told me that back in his days at Queen’s he used to go into the chapel almost every day to pray for the other students and faculty at the college. As one of the only students at QTC who honoured the integrity and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he must have been incredibly lonely. Life at Queen’s must have been a huge battle for him. Yet he didn’t give in to the temptation to become bitter or arrogant. He remained gentle, humble and truthful in his dealings with his fellow students and faculty, and (as I learned yesterday) he remained faithful to the hidden ministry of intercession.

As one who has been waking up to the realization that intercessory prayer is one of God’s major callings on this season of my life, I found this tremendously moving and motivating. I was humbled and amazed to realize how faithful Ken had been in praying for all of us so many years ago, and even more so, how faithful God had been. I had the amazing privilege of telling Ken that at least in my life, the prayers he had prayed more than thirty-five years previously had found an answer.

I believe he was encouraged. I know I was.

 

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Keeping the flow clean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overwhelmed by love

I am overwhelmed by love,
Overtaken by your mercy,
Lord, your goodness without end
Will be the house in which I dwell.

Brian Doerksen, When You Shepherd Me  (based on Psalm 23)

Late last Sunday evening, as I sat down to write a blog post, two very contrasting story lines vied for my attention.  On the one hand there was the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and all the fuss over Florida pastor Terry Jones’ misguided plan to burn copies of the Qu’ran.  On the other hand, there was the free spaghetti dinner that All Nations Church had hosted for students at University of Ottawa the previous evening.

It’s pretty easy to tell which of these is more worthy of attention, isn’t it?  I mean, who cares about a spaghetti dinner, compared to an event that captured the attention of the world media and on which even Barack Obama and Sarah Palin found common ground?

And yet … when I tried to blog about the Qu’ran-burning episode, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t let me.  That’s the only way I can describe it.  He didn’t exactly forbid me, or stop me directly – but the words just didn’t flow, and I found myself without anything to write. 

This, of course, poses a problem for a writer.  I suppose I could have come up with something on my own, but that’s not what God has called me to do with this blog.  I don’t just want to write words originating in my own human wisdom.  So I asked Him what was going on, and He spoke to me very clearly.  (For those who wonder what I mean by statements like “God spoke to me” :  No, I didn’t hear Him with my physical ears, but a very clear thought suddenly “popped up” into my awareness – a thought that I immediately recognized as coming not from my own mind but from the Holy One). 

As He often does, the Spirit answered me with a question. 

What do you want to focus on – darkness or light?

As I considered this question, it shed a great deal of light on why I had not been able to blog about the Qu’ran burning episode.  I saw that although this sad tale appeared to be significant, and had indeed captured much attention, if I focussed on it in my blog, I would be giving attention to a distraction, something that originated from the Prince of Darkness.  I would be in danger of giving glory to the Enemy and his works rather than to the Lord of glory and His works.

On the other hand, if I focussed on the spaghetti dinner, simple and mundane though it might seem to be — why then, I would be writing about an event that was truly noteworthy — an act of positive spiritual warfare that carries the potential to permanently change the lives of hundreds of people, and influence the whole direction of our society for the better.

Hang on, you say.  Isn’t that a pretty big claim to make for a simple spaghetti dinner?  How can it be that important?  And how can it be an act of spiritual warfare?

As I attempt to answer that question, let me begin by explaining why I found my involvement in the spaghetti dinner to be so profoundly moving. 

It wasn’t because of anything that I did.  I didn’t really do that much, and all of it was simple stuff.  I grew some tomatoes that Marion made into a crock pot full of spaghetti sauce. I helped set up tables and chairs, sliced cucumbers, served spaghetti noodles and gave out cookies.  Marion served in the kitchen for several hours, putting veggie trays together, and helping to cook more pasta and make more spaghetti sauce when we began to run out.   None of this is especially complicated or noteworthy by itself.  What got my attention wasn’t what we did, but what everyone did.  There were so many volunteers – at least fifty, according to our leading elder Steve Wilkins.   Numerous volunteers gave out several thousand invitations on campus during the week prior to the dinner.  Others, like us, cooked spaghetti sauce.  Throughout the event itself, a small army of volunteers were cooking pasta, slicing vegetables, serving food, setting tables, decorating the room so it looked attractive, setting up a sound system, providing literature, greeting students with smiles and words of encouragement. There were even volunteers who handed out cookies and buns to students who had to wait in line for a long time because there were so many who came to the dinner – more than 600, representing a 50% increase from the previous year.  Some of the volunteers did amounts of work that were truly prodigious – like Janie and her 1200 home made chocolate chip cookies.  All of them served willingly, with a smile and with genuine enthusiasm.  And the students loved it!  In addition to a free meal, they were provided with information about Church on Campus (a student ministry of our church), as well as a new Student Alpha ministry that will be starting shortly on the UOttawa campus.   They also saw people working together to show kindness in Jesus’ name.  Many of the young adults who were volunteering did a great job at showing a genuine interest in the concerns and needs of the students who came to the dinner.  None of this was spectacular – there were no fireworks – but I believe it was very significant in the eyes of the Lord. 

It was significant, first of all, as a practical demonstration of God’s love.  God loves students, as he loves all people.  We know this to be true in theory, but God values faith that is put into action.  Last Saturday I saw genuine love being put into practice, and I was deeply moved.

I was moved not only by the dinner itself, but by what it represents.  This was not just a one-off event, but an expression of a genuine and ongoing commitment to reaching out to students with the good news of Jesus Christ.  The next morning, as Marion and I stood in line for a hamburger at an after-service BBQ, we chatted with a young woman who was a first year student.  She hadn’t even been at the dinner, but she had learned of our church through the outreach activities that had taken place the previous week on campus.  That evening, at the first meeting of Church on Campus (a student outreach ministry), over 70 were in attendance.  A number were young adults who are already a part of All Nations, but quite a few were students, and some were new to the church and possibly new to the Kingdom.

Students matter to God.  Of course, all people matter to God – all have equal value in His sight.  At the same time, reaching university campuses represents a strategic act of spiritual warfare.  The university campuses of the historically-Christian Western nations have become increasingly hostile to the gospel in the past few generations.  But that’s not the whole story.  Universities have also been the scene of some of the greatest revivals in North America’s history.  Reaching out to students has the potential to change the course of a generation and a nation.

Any successful presentation of the gospel requires a combination of truth and love.  People who have been blinded by the Enemy’s lies desperately need to hear the truth about who God is and who they are.  But they not only need to hear the truth, they also need to see the power and love of God being demonstrated by people who have fallen in love with Jesus.  As I contemplated the spaghetti dinner, I was overwhelmed by the love of God, and deeply moved because of how I saw His love being displayed by His people.  I realized again that I am still, and will forever be, a student of the ways of God.  I am humbled and deeply challenged by the grace displayed by so many of my brothers and sisters, and I am so thankful to be part of a fellowship that has such a lively sense of mission and in which we can all learn together to walk in God’s love and then give it away. 

More, Lord!

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In everything give thanks

Here in Canada this is Thanksgiving weekend.  Early settlers and explorers gave thanks for a safe journey across the Atlantic; later settlers gave thanks for a good harvest; Loyalists coming to Canada from the United States after the American Revolution brought their customs with them.  What many Canadians don’t realize is that our current Thanksgiving celebration is mandated by Canada’s Parliament which in 1957 proclaimed “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed  … to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”

Although the celebration has Christian roots, at this time of year even pagans and those who profess no faith recognize the value of gratitude.  But what are we thankful for?  How deep does our Thanksgiving go?  In spite of the current economic turmoil, all Canadians – pagan, agnostic, atheist and believer – can agree that we in Canada have been richly blessed with prosperity, abundant food, peace, safety, freedom, and stable government.  As a believer in Jesus Christ, I freely and gladly confess that these blessings come to us from the hand of a good God.  But as a believer in Jesus, I also need to take my Thanksgiving celebration a little bit deeper.

What if I lived in the Philippines today, in the wake of the two recent typhoons?  What if I were a Vietnamese believer, knowing that my pastor was suffering in prison at the hands of the Communist regime?  What if I were a Christ-follower in one of the many African nations where AIDS is rampant, or in Orissa State in India, where Christians are currently undergoing severe persecution at the hands of Hindu radicals?  Could I still give thanks?

Recently I was struck by the words of the Apostle Paul when writing to his infant congregation in Thessalonica.  These were people who had come to faith in Christ only a few years previously, and had undergone many trials since.   From the time they had first heard the message of Christ, they had faced severe opposition.   Paul himself had only stayed in the community for a few weeks after first preaching the gospel, soon moving on to other parts, but he sent Timothy to find out how they were doing.  Later he wrote a letter to encourage and instruct the young church.  Listen to his words in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4 :

We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow-worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no-one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them.  In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.

He didn’t lament over the fact that they were suffering persecution, he told them it was part of their destiny.  He didn’t tell them he felt sorry for them, he told them this was what they should have expected.  He didn’t pray for the persecution to end, he prayed for them to stand firm.  He said this because he knew that for those who stood the test, beyond the pain lay a glorious, eternal destiny in a renewed creation where Jesus would reign openly as Lord.  And so later on in the same letter, he spoke these memorable words – which are far more powerful when we realize they were spoken to a suffering church undergoing persecution :  Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

We in the comfortable Western church complain so easily.  We are so easily discontent.  We so easily think we have it hard.  We need to examine ourselves to see if we are really in the faith.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying material blessings, peace and freedom, but when we think that these are the most important reasons for thanksgiving, we show that we do not really understand the good news.  Our preoccupation with physical comfort has blinded our eyes to our own poverty and our desperate need for the mercy and power of God.   We need to ask the Spirit of God to open our eyes so that we can see again how blessed we are, and change our hearts so that true gratitude overflows into willing service, using whatever gifts God has entrusted to us to advance His Kingdom.  Lord, have mercy upon us.

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Lessons from Physiotherapy

Almost two weeks ago I began a process of physiotherapy to reestablish function in my left shoulder.  This became necessary as a result of  a cycling accident a few weeks ago which resulted in a dislocated shoulder, a badly sprained hand and wrist, and some nasty lacerations and bruises.   The lacerations and bruises are now mostly healed and the wrist and hand are coming along (although it is slower than I would like : I still can’t play my guitar, for example).   The shoulder has been the slowest to respond.   Physiotherapy has been making a difference, and I see progress, but it is taking longer than I would like.

My goal is simply to get the arm and shoulder back to a state in which they can do all the things they used to do.   Sounds simple enough, but having been immobilized for over a week following the initial injury, the joint has stiffened and now resists doing the things it was designed to do.   Some of the stretching and pulling movements that are part of the therapy feel uncomfortable, and it’s easier not to do them.  If I didn’t have a memory of what my shoulder could do before the accident, and a strong desire to regain these abilities, I would probably conclude that I was never supposed to be able to do these things, and give up trying.

Last week while praying and worshipping with some friends it suddenly dawned on me that this process of rehabilitating my shoulder offers some valuable insights into the sometimes painful process of spiritual growth and character development.   When we surrender control of our lives to Jesus Christ, we don’t always realize that this is just the beginning of a lifelong process, the purpose of which is to form us in His image – to prepare us to be a suitable bride for Him, one who loves what He loves and does what He does.

Sometimes this process involves stretching us into a new shape – a shape we were intended for, but which we have never experienced because we have never fully known life as it was meant to be lived.  True, we have been granted glimpses, occasional foretastes, of this new reality, but we have no consistent memory of being as free and full of life as Jesus Christ, even though it is how we were designed to be.  So when he tells us “you can handle this challenge”, in our flesh (fallen nature) we say “no I can’t, that hurts, it can’t be God’s will”.  Take the disciples in the boat during the storm.  To them, it was terrifying; to Jesus it was no big deal, it was all part of the process of learning to trust and persevere.    So we need to get our vision of what we are capable of from what God’s word says about us, not from what we have experienced so far.   I have a memory of having a fully functioning shoulder in the context of life on earth, but I don’t have any memory of what it means to be alive according to the full measure of Jesus Christ.  That’s what I’m destined for, but I’ll need to keep my eyes on the prize, and be willing to expend some effort and withstand some stretching and pulling to get there.  Even though my restoration is by the grace of God, I only get there if I believe that it’s possible, and act on that belief.

Another lesson I am learning from physiotherapy,  along with perseverance through pain and discomfort, is the lesson of humility.   I am getting help from all kinds of people, and I am having to depend on others for things that I used to be able to do for myself.  I can resent this or I can use it as an opportunity to cultivate gratitude … hmmm, which would be the better choice ?  You decide 🙂

Abba Father, thank you for stretching me and calling me to do things that I don’t think I can do.  Thank you for the lessons of perseverance and humility and gratitude.  And thank you also for the complete healing and restoration which I believe Jesus made available to me by the blood of the cross and which I confidently expect to receive in full in your perfect timing.

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Reflections from Minnesota – Day 3

For those who live in a northern climate, the coming of spring is a reason to celebrate.   This has been a week of wonderful weather here in Bloomington, Minnesota.  Snow is melting, water is running, birds are chirping and the air smells fresh and moist.  From the balcony outside Simeon and Heather’s apartment on the Bethany college campus, I can see fat buds on the surrounding trees.  What a blessing Spring is!

In our daily routine, it is easy to get caught up with the busy-ness of everyday living and lose sight of the amazing gift of life that we have been given.  Holding my little granddaughter has given me another impetus to reflect on the value of life.  I am thoroughly enjoying this chance to have a few days off to appreciate the simple joys that are all around me.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price.  Everyday life is a gift, but it’s possible to enjoy the outward blessings – the beautiful spring days, the wonder of a new life, the joy of new discoveries, the thrill of a new job or a new relationship – and miss the point of it all.  Especially when life is easy and we are enjoying life’s pleasures, it is easy to enjoy the gifts and forget the Giver.  I want to be one who recognizes the goodness of the Giver reflected in the gift.

True, we live in a world that has been flawed by sin, but for those who have eyes to see, the Creation – even in its flawed state – reflects the glory and creativity of an amazingly powerful and benevolent Creator.  And when I think about the price that was paid to set me free from the curse of a futile and empty life, and the price that believers under persecution still pay for their choice to belong to Jesus, I realize again that I don’t ever want to take God’s goodness for granted.  I want to live life for all it’s worth – to be involved in calling forth the image of God in those who are hungry for Him – to look for every opportunity to give glory to God with my life.

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Reflections from Minnesota – Day 1

Today was our first full day in Minnesota.   We arrived at about 5:30 pm local time yesterday – bleary-eyed, stiff and tired, but very thankful to have arrived safely.  The drive was long but in its own way a good bonding time.  I’m really glad that we took the Northern Route again (crossing into the USA at Sault Ste Marie – not Sarnia or Detroit).  Quieter, less traffic, and far more interesting than driving on freeways the whole way.  And we avoid Chicago!

We discovered a great little country diner along US Route 2 in Upper Michigan when we made this trip last year, and visited it again this year for breakfast after a night of driving.  Good coffee, great hash browns, tasty bacon and sausage, home made bread, even home-made strawberry jam!   Can’t beat it.  I think it will become a family tradition, since it seems likely we’ll be making this trip again.

Church this morning was powerful.  The worship was deep and intimate, hunger for God was evident, the message was probing and challenging.  Lately I have been sensing a real stirring of desire for God to do a fresh work in me – I felt it again today.  I want to see revival!  I love many things about my home church, but sometimes it seems to me that we have gotten to a point where we take God’s mercy for granted.  Sometimes we are so casual about God.  This morning was anything but casual.  Yes, God is kind, but He is also holy.  Yes, He draws us into His presence and is full of mercy, but He is also far above us.  This morning I was stirred up again to seek God with all my heart, and to live for His Kingdom.  I want to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.

Sophie was dedicated to the Lord today!  Afterwards we had a great brunch, courtesy of the Youngdale family (Heather’s parents, who live next door, and their children – 5 of the 8 still live with them).  Marion and I are so grateful that our son married a woman who comes from a godly family.   They are also a very hospitable family – very gracious and welcoming.

It is great to see Simeon serving the Lord with his gift of music, and growing both in technical skills and in faith as he serves at Bethany House of Prayer.   Although we don’t get to see Simeon, Heather and Sophie as often as we would like, we know they are where  God has called them to be, and it is exciting to see how God is stretching their faith as they face and meet new challenges.   Marion and I will have to find ways of grandparenting that suit the situation.  Probably we’ll find a place somewhere in Upper Michigan or Northern Ontario where we can have an annual Hartgerink family camping reunion.

It was a privilege to hold and pray for my granddaughter today.  It is good to see Marion holding and cuddling Sophie, and Bethany and Joe getting to know their niece – a new experience for them.  It is wonderful to see Sophie surrounded by the circle of love as her Youngdale aunts and uncles, and Grandma and Grandpa, take turns taking care of her.

It is also a great joy to be able to do things for my children.  My parents were incredibly kind to Marion and me when our children were small, and now we have the awesome privilege of blessing our son and daughter-in-law, and their children, in whatever ways God opens up to us.   We are so blessed.  Thank you, God – you are good.

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