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Nuggets of Hope 14 – Not Separated

The three cuties in this pic are my granddaughters Madeleine, Sophie and Alivia. They live in Kansas City with their parents, my son Simeon and his wife Heather. This photo was taken during their last visit to us, just after Marion’s Mom passed away in December 2019. Marion and I had been planning to visit them this week, but the COVID-19 pandemic put plans for a visit on hold.

One of the impacts of COVID-19 has been to separate people. Our other children and grandchildren are much closer by, but we can’t see them in person either. With the need for social distancing to slow the spread of the virus, not only can many people not go to work, but churches and community groups can’t meet as they normally do, and family members and friends can’t see each other.

Even more painful is the separation due to death. As painful as that is in more normal times, during this pandemic some have lost loved ones due to other causes and have not been able to hold normal funeral observances due to the need for social distancing. Others have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and have not been able to be at their loved ones’ bedside when they passed because of the risk of infection. In Wuhan, Italy and Spain, where the pandemic has been more severe than what we have so far experienced in Canada, at times normal funeral observances have had to be completely bypassed. All of this only serves to accentuate the sense of loss and grief due to the separation of death.

In the midst of all this separation, pain and loss, I am so thankful for the glorious truth that nothing can separate believers from the love of Christ.  In the powerful closing section of Romans 8, Paul asks a rhetorical question :

Who shall separate us
from the love of Christ?
Shall tribulation, or distress,
or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
Romans 8:35

He goes on to answer his own question.

No, in all these things
we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us.
For I am sure that neither death nor life,
nor angels nor rulers,
nor things present nor things to come,
nor powers, 
nor height nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:37-39

This was not written by someone who was a stranger to suffering. Paul suffered many things because of his devotion to the cause of Christ. But he had no regrets because he had encountered the love and power of the risen Christ. He knew Jesus was alive and he knew he had an eternal inheritance in the Kingdom that cannot be shaken.

The Bible tells us that we were made for eternity. This is why humans hate and fear death.  When the author of Hebrews writes of those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery, he’s speaking of a universal human experience. But praise God, Jesus has conquered death on our behalf and opened for us the gates of eternal life.

One day we will inherit a renewed heaven and earth where there will be no more death. This is a glorious and blessed hope. We look forward to the Day of the Lord when this age of death will be over and a new age will dawn. But we have an advance taste of this inheritance now. I want to encourage you to practice talking to the Holy Spirit. He is the living deposit that Jesus has put into every believer. Not only can you talk to him, he can talk to you. He is eager to comfort and strengthen you with strong confidence that Jesus is alive and can guide your every step.

Although all of us – even introverts like me – find it hard to be separated from loved ones, COVID-19 is actually a great opportunity to take extra time alone with God and get to know Him better. The Bible talks about a secret place of the Most High, and says that the friendship or secret counsel of the Lord is for those who fear him. God has not left us alone, but to experience his friendship we need to practice talking to Him and listening to His voice. This is not complicated. In fact it’s surprisingly simple. Although the Holy Spirit can speak to us in many ways, the most common way is through his still small voice, a gentle nudge in our spirits. This can come when we are reading Scripture, but will also come at other times if we are paying attention. The Holy Spirit will always lead you to Jesus and show you things that are consistent with His word, so this is one way that you can be assured you are hearing from God. If you’re concerned about family members or others in need, He can also show you how to pray for them. I often ask Holy Spirit to show me how to pray for specific situations or people, and He never fails to answer.

Jesus assured us that he would not leave us alone.

The Helper, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
he will teach you all things
and bring to your remembrance
all that I have said to you
.
John 14:26

I will be thoroughly delighted when I can hug my children and grandchildren again, see my friends and go places freely. I’m sure you will too. But I have sensed the Spirit of God nudging me to make good use of this time of being “shut in” to get to know Him better. As much as circumstances allow, I want to encourage you to do the same. Even if you have busy young children, you can train them to take some quiet time so that you can do the same. Time with the Lord is your lifeline. He is waiting to speak to you.

God bless you.

 

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Protected

Protected

I was riding my bike along the Rideau River cycle path, pedaling through familiar parkland, on the last leg of my half-hour ride home from work.  The river was on my right, partly obscured by a narrow strip of wooded land. A strip of open parkland was on my left. There was the usual after-work traffic along the cycle path, but nothing to suggest that an accident was about to happen. Everything seemed perfectly normal.

I had two meetings that evening – both quite important. I was enjoying the ride, but I wanted to get home, get showered and changed, and prepare for the evening.

Then it happened. As is often the case with accidents, there was little warning. My attention was focussed on an oncoming cyclist on the other side of the pathway, and I was adjusting my position accordingly. There were also some pedestrians on or near the path, and I was conscious of needing to avoid them as well. Consequently, I wasn’t looking to my right, or I might have noticed some movement in the bushes by the river. Suddenly a mid-size dog bounded out of the bushes onto the path directly in front of me. The next thing I remember, I was on the ground, screaming in pain. I had gone down hard. All the major joints on my right side – shoulder, elbow, hip and knee – were throbbing.

After half a minute or so, I managed to get up, and found to my relief that I could still move my shoulder. This was my first concern, as four years previously I had dislocated a shoulder in a similar accident.  I was a little dazed, and had painful scrapes and road rash all along my right side, but had no serious injuries. Several people stopped to make sure I was all right. I thanked them all and told them I would be OK.

I checked out my bike and found that it was basically intact. So, after waiting a few minutes for the pain to subside to a tolerable level, I got back on the bike and rode the short distance home – a wounded warrior seeking comfort and shelter. I have never been more happy to reach the safety and familiarity of my own back yard.

After I had showered and washed my wounds, Marion bandaged the worst one and put ointment on the others. But it wasn’t until she asked me “Is your head OK?” that I realized something remarkable. My head did not hurt at all. It was totally fine. I did have a few seconds of very mild lightheadedness, but absolutely no pain and no symptoms of concussion. Then we both realized that I ought to take a look at my helmet. I took a look at it, and saw two cracks on the right side – a little one and a big one.

When I thought about the cracks in my helmet, I realized that I had been protected from what could have been very serious harm. A bruised hip and shoulder, and scrapes along the elbow and knee, are really no big deal. Today, four days later, I am well on the way to recovery from all these minor wounds. But if I had landed hard on the pavement without a helmet, who knows what the outcome would have been?

Paul the apostle wrote many letters of advice and instruction to young churches full of new Christians living in a hostile world. He knew he needed to give them plenty of hope and encouragement. He told these new believers that they were like stars in a dark night sky. He told them that in the midst of the darkness of a corrupt and dying world, they were children of the day who could look forward to the glorious new world that God had promised. He also said that in the midst of the struggles of living in a culture that was mostly hostile to their faith and values, they could equip themselves by putting on faith and love like a breastplate, and the hope of salvation like a helmet. In this way their hearts and minds would be protected.

Marion rightly reminds me that I need to wear my bike helmet every time I go out on my bike. I confess that in the past, on occasion I have not worn it when I was going for only a short ride on a hot day in the neighbourhood. On those muggy July days, a helmet is hot and sweaty, and sometimes you don’t want to wear it. But since my recent accident, my helmet has proved its value to me, and I will wear it every time I ride my bike. There was no way I could have predicted my accident of a few days ago. I could need my helmet at any moment.

In my email inbox I receive daily bulletins detailing some of the struggles of Christ-followers in lands where being a Christian makes you a public enemy. When your home could be burned, your pastor could be jailed, your daughter could be raped or forced into a marriage she does not want simply because you and your family are Christians, you need a hope that circumstances can’t destroy. You can’t wait until persecution hits to secure yourself with this hope. The hope of salvation has to be your daily companion, because you could need it at any moment.

Sometimes, we don’t feel like turning off the TV or the laptop or the tablet or the smartphone to immerse ourselves in the Word of God. Sometimes we’d rather entertain ourselves than feed our spirits with worship. Christians in Canada have it pretty easy and our need for the hope of salvation may not seem all that pressing. But what are you going to do when your mother dies, or your father gets laid off, or your best friend is on drugs, or your marriage is falling apart, or your employer goes bankrupt, or you are facing sexual temptation, or someone in your life needs hope and you have none to give? What would you give for an intimate knowledge of God when disaster comes? If you have no real life with God – if your “faith, hope and love account” is bankrupt – what will you do when your next door neighbour or your friend at work or school is hungry for answers? What will you have to feed them if your cupboard is bare? And what will you do when persecution comes to Canada? What will you do when Jesus returns? How will you answer him?

I could take my helmet with me and strap it onto the back of my bike, and say that I have my helmet so I’m OK, but it wouldn’t do me any good. You may say you believe the Bible is the Word of God, but if you don’t read it, it does you no good. As for me, I can truthfully say that I know the Word of God quite well. But if I don’t pay attention to the Word I know, it doesn’t do me a bit of good. I can say that I know Jesus, but if I don’t listen to Him, what good is it? I know lots of worship songs, but if I don’t take time to worship the Lord with my whole being, what good are the songs?

The only way that I know of to put on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet is to do it every day. Every day I need to turn to Jesus, renew my mind with His word, turn away from distractions and pour out my heart to Him in worship. Daily I need to be quiet with Him and listen to what He wants to say to me. This is how my hope stays fresh and bright and alive. Even two or three days without setting time aside to give my full attention to Jesus, and I can tell the difference.

I can’t afford to ride my bike without a helmet. It’s foolish. My helmet is my protection. I know that now, and I will never ride without it again.

In just the same way, I can’t afford to travel the pathways of life without wearing the helmet of the hope of salvation. I need to anchor myself in Jesus every day. He is ready to protect me, empower me and fill me with hope so that I’m ready for every circumstance – but it’s up to me to put on my helmet.

 

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Give me oil in my lamp

One of the delights of life for Marion and me is our weekly Skype chat with Simeon, Heather and Sophie.  We love talking with our children, but our almost-two-year-old granddaughter is a special treasure.

Two of the things I enjoy most about Sophie are her zest for life and her zany sense of humour.  Both are seen in this photo, taken last August while Simeon and Heather were in Ottawa for a wedding.  It shows Sophie going into gales of laughter over a silly game with a water bottle.

Last Sunday, while we were Skyping with Simeon, he pointed the webcam towards Heather and Sophie who were playing a game on the living room floor.  The game consisted of Sophie lying on her back on the floor, Heather putting her foot on Sophie’s tummy, and Sophie screaming with laughter and begging her mother to do it again and again.  This went on for several minutes and I soon found myself laughing along with them.  It was impossible not to be infected with the crazy laughter virus.

As I was watching Sophie delight in her mother’s playful touch, I realized that I was seeing a demonstration of a key aspect of how God relates to those who belong to Him.  I was seeing a picture of God’s delight in his beloved children, and their delight in Him.  Even though as heirs of Adam’s rebellion we are fully deserving of God’s wrath and rejection, those who have put their trust in Jesus receive grace and mercy instead of judgment.  Instead of being rejected we are treated as His beloved children and heirs of His Kingdom.  Like the son who messed up his life, came to his senses and returned home, we receive a royal welcome when we turn to God in humility.  Our Father is delighted when we humble ourselves and receive His offer of mercy and acceptance.  He’s so pleased that he invites us into His house and throws a party for us.

Sadly, some of those who belong to Jesus seem to go through life convinced that God is not very happy with this deal – that he barely tolerates us, like some unwilling stepfather who has had a family of unwanted children foisted on him against his better judgment, treating us as his children in a legal sense, but interacting with us as little as possible except to pounce like a hawk on our misdeeds.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  God is no disinterested, distant pseudo-Dad.  Rather, he delights in us as a treasured possession, rejoices over our fumbling efforts to walk with him and talk to Him, patiently feeds us and cares for us, frequently overlooks our childish weaknesses, and loves to see us grow up into maturity so that we can come into our inheritance.

Watching Simeon and Heather play with their daughter, it is easy to see how much they care for her.  They don’t have to pretend – their love is absolutely genuine, and she knows it.  Although they do sometimes have to correct her, she is completely secure in their affection.

Jesus told a parable about ten virgins who were waiting for the bridegroom to appear so the wedding festivities could begin.  Five of the ten prepared themselves in advance by buying extra oil for their lamps; the other five did not.  They had to wait a long time for the bridegroom’s appearing, and in the end only the ones who had provided extra oil for themselves were able to go in to the wedding banquet.

This is a sobering message that points to a crucial reality.  A life of sustained intimacy with God — represented by the virgins who had provided extra oil for themselves — has the power to keep us going for the long haul, even when things get dark, so that in the end we inherit the Kingdom.  But like the five virgins who ran out of oil and missed the wedding banquet, none of us can buy the result of someone else’s life of intimacy.  We all need to cultivate an intimate relationship with Him for ourselves.  The wonderfully good news is that if we make the choice to set our hearts on Him, Jesus delights in us and welcomes every attempt we make to cultivate an intimate life of worship, prayer and loving obedience.  If we try to succeed as disciples by relying on our own strength and ability to do the works of the Kingdom, and do not take the time to delight in the seeming foolishness of just loving God, we will undoubtedly fail.  On the other hand, if we pay attention to what He longs to give us, and take time to cultivate a life of intimate prayer, love and worship based on His delight in us, He will faithfully draw us close, sustain us through the dark times, and bring us into His wedding banquet.

I remember being overcome by the joy of the Lord on several occasions during the early years of the outpouring that began in 1994.  The Holy Spirit overcame my reservations and ushered me into an experience of refreshing unlike anything I had ever known before.  Those times of resting in the assurance of Father’s love had a powerful impact on my emotional life, providing an experiential knowledge of Father’s affection for me as His beloved son.  At moments when we are tempted to get discouraged, it’s good to remember the moments when the Holy One has showered His kindness and goodness on us.   Like Heather playing with Sophie, He delights in our joy in Him, and does not tire of showing us His goodness.  Yes, there is a time to get up off the floor, stop playing games, and get on with what we usually think of as “normal life”.  But it’s important to return frequently to the place of refreshing with God, whatever form that refreshing takes, so that our lamps do not run dry, and our life of service is characterized by the joy, vitality and assurance which are the fruit of intimacy with Him.   In the words of the old gospel song,

Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Keep me burning til the break of day

The Bridegroom is coming for those who have set their hearts on him, and our inheritance is waiting.

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