Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tithe and Sabbath

I dropped off students at a Youth Workers Convention recently and then drove around for a while trying to find parking for a large van in downtown Vancouver. So by the time I arrived back at the hotel, all the morning seminars had started. I stood there wondering which direction to go and realized that my-favorite-camp-speaker-of-all-time was the seminar speaker in the room right in front of me. I walked in, took one of many empty seats and as I listened began to wish the room was full, or that Jon Imbeau had the opportunity to be the keynote convention speaker.

When I sat down he was talking about tithing. Really. At a convention where the janitors cleaning our toilets make more money than most of the paid youth workers, and where any volunteers are young and also probably not wealthy, this seemed rather audacious. But that's how Jon usually talks and why we love him so much. After he talked for quite a while, someone brought up the inevitable "ten percent in the Old Testament" question and if it applied today. Uh, uh, uh... replied Jon, and he pointed out that he had never said anything about ten percent. It was the principle of tithing that he was concerned about, not the amount or percentage given.

Then he talked about Sabbath. I think I saw some people looking wildly around to see if they were at the right convention. But really he was talking about the same principle applied to a different issue, the stewardship of time. Time and money, the two things our world chases after more than any other, that in practice most people consider of more value than any other; the things we are most bummed about if we lose them, and most stressed about if we don't have them.

As various people began to speak up, my mind wandered and I realized that the principle Jon was giving us is absolutely critical to people of ministry. Not only do I need to pass this principle on, but I need to think it through some more, and especially I need to start living by it. So here goes.

I have never been a wealthy man, according to Western standards of course. My 23 year old son starts a job in January as a junior draftsman in an engineering firm, and he will make nearly what I do, and I'm making more than I have ever made in my life. I say that not by way of complaint; long ago I took to myself the words of Agur son of Jakeh, in the book of Proverbs:
    Two things I ask of you, O Lord;
    do not refuse me before I die:

    Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.

    Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, 'Who is the Lord?'
    Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.
So that's how we live, and we always have enough to live on, though we generally walk a fine line. And we have usually been able to be generous in our giving, but not so much in the past few years. I think I have justified giving less by the fact that we walk this fine line, which doesn't seem to get any broader. In fact, it has become tighter. But I now think that our current financial difficulty is not about the small amount of money we receive; it has everything to do with the increasingly small amount of money we give.

Before I explain, with the help of my friend Jon, let's talk about time, which I wrote about in my last blog as one of my big frustrations in life. Here too, I walk a very fine line. I never seem to have enough time, and the situation if anything has become worse, not better, in the past few years. I sometimes feel that apart from the very cool time I spend with Kaleo, I don't have much time for a life for myself and my family or my community. But I now think that my current difficulty with time is not about the small amount of time I am given; it has everything to do with the increasingly small amount of time I give.

Some of you who know me will stop me here and say, "Hey Jim, don't be silly. You are always giving! You pour heart and soul into your ministry, your home is always full of people, you always take time to listen to us; everyone thinks of you and Sarah as generous." So I need now to explain Jon's principle and how my apparent current generosity misses the point.

Jon said (and I may embellish here) that God gave us things like tithing and the Sabbath to place us in a position where we would have to trust God in order to live in this world.
  • By tithing we give to God to the point where we don't have enough money to live on, so that we must trust him and allow him to provide for us.
  • By keeping the Sabbath, we give to God to the point where we do not have enough time to get everything done, so that we must trust him and allow him to do what we cannot.
Tithe and Sabbath free us from prideful or rebellious independence and allow us to rely on him alone and not on our own means. It is what the poor of this world learn naturally, and what the wealthy of this world must learn by giving to God until it hurts.

This also means that when we don't tithe and don't keep the Sabbath, we are bound to become frustrated with time and money.

Furthermore, I think it proves that the "prosperity gospel" is out to lunch, this idea that if we give enough, God will bless us with material abundance. That too misses the point entirely.

But wow, I really don't know what this will mean for me and my family personally. I know that as a leader in God's kingdom I need to live and model these two disciplines I have misunderstood and neglected. If I thought New Year's resolutions were useful, these would be mine. What I probably need is simply "long obedience in the same direction," to quote Eugene Peterson (who was quoting, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche). Your suggestions and comments, encouragements and admonishments, are most welcome. I will add to this post as I come to understand this concept better.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Preparing For Warp Speed, Capt'n

This is for all those who, like myself, are frustrated with time. Like the famous rabbit of Alice's tale, I seem to be endlessly running, always late for some very important date. If I'm not late, I am waiting for someone who is, until we are both late. There is never enough time.

Quite on my own, I came up with a theory: Not only does it feel like time is going faster, but it actually is going faster. I later found some scientific backup for my hypothesis. Edwin Hubble, who later had a telescope named after him, discovered by observing galaxies moving away from us that the universe is expanding, and since space is the measuring stick of time, time itself is accelerating. Einstein's theory of relativity included the idea that the expansion of the universe should slow down at a constant rate, though he was unable to account for some factors in his theory. Then in 1998, researchers discovered that the expansion of the universe is actually speeding up, not slowing down.

What does that mean? The fact that the expansion of the universe is accelerating means that time itself is speeding up at a greater rate than previously thought. The problem is that our means of measuring time is also expanding. It's like trying to measure your height with a tape measure that is growing at the same rate as you - it always reads the same, though you have a strong suspicion that you are taller than you were before. Likewise, time is speeding up, and the only way we can tell is that it feels faster every year.

Whether you like my speculation or not, you likely share my frustration with time.

I have wondered what it was like for Jesus, who stepped out of eternity into the thing called Time that his Father created. He had a first breath, and a last. He experienced "waiting," and learned patience. His carpentry jobs had a deadline; he was perhaps often late for lunch. He could not be everywhere at once, nor did he have the time to do everything he wanted. His appointed time had no cars, cell phones or dishwashers; everything he did, from traveling to working, required a good deal of time. After 33 long years, Jesus could finally say, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you."

In the world that God made,
    There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,

    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,

    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,

    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,

    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.
Yet God placed in our hearts something that tells us that time is not all there is. This morning as Kristie and I prayed with a student, Kristie said something in her prayer that got me thinking about time (again) this evening. She said that our frustration with time points to the fact that we were made for timelessness.

Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3 continues, "I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end." C.S. Lewis put it this way: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

So my frustration with time is understandable, yet not excusable. Jesus entered time, yet he seemed to have all the time in the world. Though the world swirled around him, demanding signs, seeking healing, requiring answers, he seemed to march to the beat of a different Drummer. When told that everyone was looking for him, he could say, "Let's go somewhere else." As important people waited on his verdict, he could draw in the sand with his finger. I am told that by faith I can walk in this world as Jesus walked.

And there will be an end to time. Jesus said repeatedly that certain things would take place, and then the end of the age will come. Maybe sooner than science supposes: "If dark energy density rises rather than falls, the universe will eventually undergo a 'hyper speedup' that would tear apart galaxies, solar systems, planets and atomic nuclei, in that order" (Scientific American, September 23, 2008). Or as Peter pictured it,
    The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

    Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
Hang on a minute! Rewind! " you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming..." What on earth? We can speed up time? We can make the end of time arrive sooner? How? Peter tells us in this same chapter.

We can live holy and godly lives. The Jewish nation has always understood that repentance - turning from sin and turning to God in their attitudes and actions - would precede the coming of the Messiah.

We can join God in bringing people to repentance. "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." This is what he is waiting for, if it can be said that God waits.

We can anticipate and long for the Day of the Lord. One of the early prayers of the church was "Marana tha," which means, "Our Lord, come!" Jesus' model prayer for his disciples also started this way, "Your kingdom come!" There would be no reason to pray this way if it had no effect on the timing of his coming.

"So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation..." Oh, he knows patience. He knows waiting. He has experienced time, wrestled with it and won. Time is now all on his side. And one final day, we will stand with him and watch Father Time squeeze the sun like an orange.
    They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    Like clothing you will change them
    and they will be discarded.

    But you remain the same,
    and your years will never end.
May you speed his coming. Marana Tha!

Friday, November 06, 2009

My Life as a Hippie Chicken

A little while ago, I watched the Olympic torch go through our town. A young lady, poster child of the 2010 Winter Games, ran past with a huge smile and the pride of national representation. She was soon after followed by a big black truck that I later learned was the machine they would unleash in the event of a terrorist attack, a reminder that we live in a world of crazies.

Some people just don't like the Olympics. They say it's too much money spent to impress rich people, while homeless shelters go unbuilt and social programs are cut. Perhaps what really gets them is that it's a lot of hoopla for the select few who can ski fast or pay the money to watch other people ski fast. But maybe they just feel intimidated by all these young athletes who ride the edge of the impossible.

It's fascinating to watch. Even people who don't like the Olympics, who stand in the doorway of the TV room making snide comments, find themselves drawn in to watch and see which figure skater gets the most points or which rock will spin nearest to the center circle. Or hold their breath for those Super-G ski racers who finish 0.0001 seconds apart from one another. The best in the world.

Olympians push the limits of human capacity. Athletes train for the better part of their young lives to shave seconds off their best time or find their way past the defense to the goal. It wouldn't be any fun at all if someone came along who had no limits. Superman is not welcome here. It's all about recognizing human limits and seeing how close we can come to them, or maybe stretch them a tiny bit more. It's worth watching if you get the chance.

I once thought I had no limits. I pushed myself so hard, taking on the impossible because with God nothing is impossible. What a surprise it was the day I found myself in the hospital, with the doctor saying that my body was sending me a message: I had exceeded the limits of its capacity and it wasn't going to take it any more. I remember the disappointment of knowing there were things I wanted to do - badly! - and couldn't. It was like being at the dock and the lake is like glass, sun's out, the boat's in the water and no one else wants to go, and I am just too tired to ski.

The verse in the Bible that is most consistently taken out of context is found in Paul's letter to the Philippians: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Wow, we lean on that promise, expecting God to make us able to do anything and everything. Trouble is, I have seen people with tremendous faith hit the wall like they didn't know it was there. It has made me realize that we don't understand what Paul was saying to the church in Philippi.

Let's put this verse back in context: "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles."

The story: The church in Philippi was known for its generosity, even though they themselves were poor. Paul was in prison, where unless you had someone on the outside looking after you, starvation would kill you if hypothermia didn't do it first. Paul found himself limited by chains and damp walls, dependent on the help of people sent by churches like this one.

Somehow between world travel and jail time, Paul had learned a secret. Whatever his circumstances, he could respond the same way. Eating like a king? Cool. Finishing off what the rats didn't want? Cool. Shipwrecked? Cool. Going where the Gospel had never gone before? Cool. He was like the hippie chicken in the movie Surf's Up; whether winning a trophy or getting cooked by savage penguins, life just didn't faze or dazzle him. He had learned how to be content in it all.

The secret? What will you give me for it? Oh, you want it, don't you? The secret to happiness, the way to the lost valley of Shangri-La. Utopia. A perfect state of being. Or maybe you think I have slipped across the lines to the Buddhist monastery. Nope. Paul offers it: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."

The trouble is that you have had this secret in your hands all along, but you went and took it out of context. The secret to the contented life is this: You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength. This oft-quoted verse has nothing to do with Jesus giving you the strength to somehow overcome your latest limitation. It is all about Jesus giving you strength to be content within your limitations. Live in them. Maybe even welcome them.

I know, that cuts across the grain of many things you believe in: Taking Responsibility. Finding A Solution. Fixing Things. Paying Your Own Way. It unsettles what has become perhaps Western society's number one value: Independence. To simply "accept things" sounds almost dangerous, and taken to extremes you would find yourself in India, waiting all day for the holy cow to decide to move out of your way.

But even Olympic athletes know that they have limits. Why don't followers of Jesus know that? Rather than understand our human limitations, we believers seem to pretend we have none, because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Ever warn someone too late that the glass patio door is shut? They can walk as if it is open, but sometimes it is not, and they will get hurt. Paul didn't live that way. He encountered many shut doors, and rather than try to walk through them with Western arrogance, he tried other doors with Eastern meekness.

Paul came to the place where he celebrated his limitations. "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Delight in your weaknesses? Be glad for your limitations? The Donald Trump's of this world will laugh in your face! But you will find understanding at the Olympics. One month after the Games, hundreds of people who have really come to grips with their limitations will go to the edge of them in the Paralympic events. Maybe those are the ones to watch.

In saying all this, I hope to warn some of you whom I love and who I see thoughtlessly running toward an invisible brick wall. And maybe warn myself. Jesus loves you, but he may not intercept you from the collision course you are running. Perhaps it would be wise to stop now, take stock of your limitations and learn the secret of being content.

Jesus gives you his strength when you come to accept your weaknesses. As you recognize your limitations, he will show you the breadth of his grace. I cannot do every thing, but in Christ I can do everything.

One day you will find yourself at the very edge of your capacity, as life seeps from your body and your remaining breaths can be counted on one hand. And then... you will find yourself in a space without boundaries, in a glorious new body that knows no limitations. And you shall be like Him, for you shall see Him as He is.

Until that day, know your limits. And sometimes, as you come to the end of yourself, you will watch as God's unlimited grace takes over - a hint of the glory to come. You will rest in the knowledge that you can do all things through him who gives you strength.
    My heart is not proud, O Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
    I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.

    But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
    like a weaned child with its mother,
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

    O Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore. - Psalm 131

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Gates of Hell

A friend of mine is walking through the valley of the shadow of death. She is fine - physically - but hurting emotionally because she walks in death's shade: a grandfather who passed away last night, and just the day before, the ominous threat of cancer diagnosed in her mom...... It is an unpleasant walk, full of dark thoughts, lunging feelings, a hard place in the throat and in the pit of one's stomach.
    Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?
What? How dare he say that, when death's sting is felt by those it chooses, and perhaps more, by those who live in its shadow.
    The sting of death is sin,
    and the power of sin is the law.
    But thanks be to God!
    He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Understand this carefully: It is not a sin to feel the sting of death; the sting of death is itself sin. This ugly thing called death is the promised result of sin entering our world, of mankind breaking the primal law of God. Not one of us can cheat it or avoid it. We will all spend time in its shadow, and one day it will overtake us.

But understand this even more: There is victory. Jesus won it.

My friend tells me that yesterday afternoon, she and her mom and sister went to see her grandfather who was dying, and they told him again of Jesus, and this time he believed. In Jesus' name, they broke in and robbed the grave that her grandfather lived in all his earthly life! They stormed the prison cell that would have been his forever and broke him out! Astounding.

Jesus promised it this way: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:17-19).

I always used to picture the church in a defensive stance, fighting off the attack of hell. Look more carefully. It is the realm of the dead that is under attack, and the promise is that it will not withstand the siege of the church. He's talking about big gates, prison gates or city gates, and we will break through and rob Hades of the dead who dwell there. Not by our authority, but by the authority of the One who builds his church to be a fighting machine that cannot be overcome.

That's what happened last night. Three women, arriving in a hospital room in the name of Jesus, crashed the gates of hell and rescued one who had lived there all his life.

Thanks be to God!

Is it fair? One of the most beautiful parables in the Gospels - the beauty of the kingdom of God - is this:
    For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

    About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, "You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went.

    He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, "Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?"

    "Because no one has hired us," they answered.
    He said to them, "You also go and work in my vineyard."

    When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, "Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first."

    The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. "These men who were hired last worked only one hour," they said, "and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day."

    But he answered one of them, "Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"

    So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Grandpa gets his reward first. So cool. Though if you are thinking of following his example, I'm sure that he would warn you against tempting God. And he will thank you, my friend, for not being afraid to storm the castle and set him free.
    Even though I walk
    through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

    You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
    You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.

    Surely goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
    and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Hey Church. Your defense is admirable. You have managed to bar your doors against all appearance of evil (and many people). You are like the man who barricades himself in his cellar against an enemy who is quite content to leave him there and cause all manner of havoc outside.

Climb out of the cellar. Go on the offensive. Jesus promises you that the very gates of hell will crumble before you, that you will raid Hades itself and fleece it clean. You have been given keys to places you have never visited, in your neurotic attempt to avoid the appearance of evil (to quote a poorly understood rendition of 1 Thessalonians 5:22).

Go where no church has gone before, open doors in Jesus' name, with a prayer on your lips and the confidence of his promise ringing in your ears. Rescue those who thought rescue would never come.

What are we waiting for?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

I Kissed Dating & Got Slapped

People seem to think I'm a matchmaker. I don't know where they get that idea. Just because I tend to enjoy watching this person and that person come together doesn't mean I am involved in making it happen. Well, only occasionally. But I do enjoy watching.

People also often ask me questions about this whole guy/girl thing. I have to admit my personal experience is rather limited. The only girl that I ever got as far as holding hands with is the one I married. But because I am constantly among young adults - and because I like to watch - I guess I have done a fair bit of thinking about this topic.

Here are the questions I would like to tackle today, and I would love some feedback on my answers and my take on what God's word says about this topic. You may think I am out to lunch, and you may be right. So please let me know.
  1. Is there one person out there whom God intends for me to marry?
  2. Is there a gift of singleness / celibacy?
  3. How does God want me to break off my dating relationship?
Before getting started, I want to remind you that this is a recent phenomenon, this ability to choose your own life partner and to develop a romantic relationship with that person before getting married. Not very common prior to the 1920's in Western culture, and still not common in many cultures today. If you think arranged marriages were a bad idea and good riddance, consider that divorce has skyrocketed in just the last century, especially in Western culture.

1. Is there one person out there whom God intends for me to marry?
Even those of us who would answer this question "no" likely hold to the romantic idea that our relationship with the one we love is a match made in heaven. Well, go for it.

Certainly God knows/knew who you are/were going to marry, just like he knew you were going to read this blog post today while eating espresso flake ice cream out of the container. And if today you would like to think there is no better way to read a post than with a container of espresso flake ice cream at your elbow, don't cry to me when tomorrow you discover that sauerkraut sherbet is so much better.

Here is the problem with assuming that God has chosen one person in the world for you marry: Apart from the lack of any biblical promise that God is the personal matchmaker of anyone other than Isaac (Genesis 24), one day you are going to run into a problem. One day, after you have married someone whom you think is the most perfect person in the world, you will meet someone more perfect. It's nearly inevitable, like it is when you buy a pair of new shoes. Someone is going to walk by wearing shoes that look better than the ones you purchased. So did you make a mistake? Was there only one pair of shoes for you and you somehow missed it? Now what?

The solution for many people is to dump the old and move on to the new. Maybe it's because we think we somehow deserve the best, but maybe we share the age-old assumption with Adam and Eve that God has been holding out on us. Rather than being satisfied with the good thing that is in our hand, we reach out for the better thing that is not ours, and death enters our world.

So what am I saying? That there are many people out there who would make you a good husband or wife?

Absolutely. Choose one. Wisely and with much prayer. Be satisfied and grateful.

And when Mr/Ms More Perfect walks by, be happy for their spouse or spouse-to-be, and don't assume that they were made for you or you for them. You can only wear one pair of shoes at a time, and when it comes to marriage for most of us that means only one in a lifetime.

2. Is there a gift of singleness / celibacy?
I like easy questions. No.

Those who think otherwise need to read Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 more carefully. After Jesus' famous quote about, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder," ("asunder" is such a great word, I had to use the KJV), he says this:
    Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.
And Paul, teaching about marital faithfulness and cautioning spouses not to deprive one another, says this, "I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that."

Many assume from these two places that God gives some people a special ability to stay single. But when Jesus says, "The one who can accept this should accept it," the context shows that he is talking about marriage, not singleness. And Paul's gift is not singleness - he had to be married in order to be a Pharisee - instead, it seems that he is talking about a gift of sexual self-control.

The idea in both passages is that if you can accept God's standards for marriage, you should get married. It is a gift. Unfortunately, in our day of choice, some are not chosen and so miss out on this gift. Others are too busy seeking first his Kingdom. So God gives them something better. As the title of a book suggests, Wide My World, Narrow My Bed.

3. How does God want me to break off my dating relationship?
Here is where I lose some friends. He doesn't want you to break off your dating relationship. Want it from the Bible? Here it is, from Malachi:
    You flood the Lord's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, "Why?" It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

    Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.

    "I hate divorce," says the Lord God of Israel.
Whoa! This is talking about marriage, not dating, right?! Well, when your dating relationship has all the trappings of a marriage relationship minus (maybe) the sex, so that when you decide to break it off it hurts you both and everyone around you and you can't be in the same room with one another afterward, is that not divorce?

What kind of relationship on earth should be like that? Is God okay with the two of you never talking to one another again? Never reconciling your differences? Never forgiving one another and being brother and sister in Christ again?

So when I say that God doesn't want you breaking off your dating relationship, what I mean is that you should never get into a relationship that requires breaking off.

Just don't let it get there, until you either decide that you should get engaged and get married (and then God's standards kick in and it is intended to be 'till death do us part), or you decide that you should stay friends and marry someone else.

I hope I'm still your friend. Let me know.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Does God Feel Like?

I often ask returning summer staff about their experience since the previous summer. Their stories are sometimes refreshing, occasionally alarming, but all too often similar in pattern. The story sounds something like this: "I went home so excited to live for Jesus and make a difference, but after a while I got so discouraged. I just couldn't feel God anymore..."

What they mean, I think, is that their experience of God at home is not what it was in the hyperbolic environment of camp. They are disappointed that the euphoria they felt when God seemed so near - when a camper put their trust in Jesus, or the worship around the fire was so pure - that this ecstasy should fade the third week of algebra class. It raises for me a question about the emotions we should expect in the presence of God.

What does God feel like?

It seems to me that when biblical characters come face to face with God, their most common emotion is utter terror. What does he (or his messengers) always say? "Fear not!" (to use the well-known phrase from the King James). Even John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, who lay back against Jesus to ask a question as they reclined at the Table, when he encounters Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation falls down at his feet as one dead. God can feel like fear.

Perhaps the greatest source of foolishness among believers is the loss of the fear of God, for "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9:10). Should we be afraid of God? The analogy you may have heard me use is about my stint as a mountain guide when I was about 19 or 20. There was this great cliff I liked to show my clients. The top of it was at about 2600 meters elevation, and the bottom was about 1000 meters below. You could drop a rock off the edge and it wouldn't hit a thing for 500 meters. Being young and foolish, I used to hang my feet over the edge like this:

But don't let the photo fool you into thinking I wasn't afraid. The adrenaline rush was amazing: it felt like I had the entire universe behind me, shoving. I didn't simply walk to the edge and sit down; I hung my toes over first; then wiggled so my feet hung down, then slowly sat up; then with my heart racing looked over the edge... Feel that? It's fear. It is one of the things we might feel in the presence of God. It is no small thing to sit at the edge of the abyss that is the wrath of God. Like the fear that keeps our hands firmly on the wheel as a semi passes us on either side, the fear of God keeps us from anything foolish enough to evoke his hatred of sin.

So it follows that guilt is another common emotion in the presence of God. Isaiah in the temple. Peter with Jesus in his fishing boat. I am an unclean man. Like a spot of mustard on a brand new t-shirt, our smallest sin is in stark contrast to his purity, his utter holiness. If we think we are experiencing the presence of God and our harboured sin does not throw us on our faces in the dirt, our exhilaration is something other than worship. As Adam and Eve discovered, God can feel like shame.

What did you expect God to feel like?

True, he is the God of all comfort, but he "comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:4). He does not comfort us in our sin or complacency or stubborn rebellion; he often removes comfort. "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world" (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain). God can feel uncomfortable.

Or he can produce in us great confidence. It's like when you are playing a board game, maybe Monopoly or Killer Bunnies, and suddenly all the odds are in your favour and you're schooling everyone. Sometimes the presence of God makes us bold, even daring; God is for us - who can be against us? We are God's masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus, doing the very thing he prepared in advance for us to do. Better not get in our way.

Perhaps your disappointment about not feeling God anymore is because you thought he only felt like one thing: joy or contentment or some other warm fuzzy. I am sure God has felt like that at some point in your experience, and maybe what you felt was a very small taste of what you will experience forever in heaven, every tear wiped away. But surely you didn't expect him to always feel like that on this side of eternity.

And what about when you don't feel him at all? Nothing, just a dull emptiness like he is a million light years away? I want to say to you that sometimes God will feel like a great void, and that he intends it. Let Psalm 42 tell you why:
    As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.

    My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

    My tears have been my food
    day and night,
    while people say to me all day long,
    "Where is your God?"

    These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
    how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
    with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

    Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
    Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

God desires that we hunger after him, thirst after him, that we seek him with all our heart. To bring us to that place, we sometimes need to rediscover the vast gulf that stands between us and him and that is bridged by his Son; that deep pit in the emptiness of our lives that can be filled only by him; that sense of utter loss that prompts a frantic search until he is found.

If that is how God feels today, anchor your drifting hope in him. This is what God feels like, today. Tomorrow is another story, and whether God will feel like terror, remorse, confidence or uninhibited joy, he is near. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Save Money, Live Better

A little while ago, I took a group of students to Wal-Mart, because that's where they wanted to go. It's not my first choice of store, and I have heard many things about their unethical practices. While I was there I bought a pair of pants, and I'm sitting here and wearing them and feeling very guilty.

Wal-Mart's new logo and theme right now, found in all of its advertising, is this:

Ouch. What they are really saying is, live better by making other people live worse. Or, let's make the gap between the rich and poor even greater. My guilt is not simply about my decision to support a bad, bad company. It is on a much broader scale, and it is likely that you share my sin:
    Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. - James 5
Wal-Mart's new logo flaunts the sin of our two nations. We save money so that we can live in greater luxury and self-indulgence. How do we do that? By finding ways of producing goods more cheaply. How do Wal-Mart and many other retailers manage that? The cost of materials doesn't usually go down, so they reduce the cost of making the products. That is, the workers make less money. They live worse so we can live better.

Here's how it works: Wal-Mart finds vendors willing to negotiate a lower price to produce their brand. But their "clear policy" is that the price must decrease year after year, so the vendor has to find ways of producing it cheaper every year, or Wal-Mart drops them like a hot potato. That usually first means moving production to a third world country, where labour is less expensive. But then it means finding workers willing to earn less and less, in worse and worse conditions. It is like what Pharoah did to the Israelites when he forced them to produce the same number of bricks without supplying any more straw. In Canada, Wal-Mart has actually closed stores whose workers tried to unionize for fairer pay and more reasonable working conditions.

We're fattening ourselves for a day of slaughter.

Think of that next time you see a price roll-back.

So, what am I saying?

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul provides some basic financial principles that cut across the grain of Western capitalism. He wants the church to understand the importance of giving to the fund he is collecting to help the church in Judea through a famine. His principles are the kind of thing that would make a socialist smile and the typical American nervous:
    Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little."
Would he say the same thing to us? Maybe, but I know for sure that Wal-Mart's new logo would make him puke. His principle is pretty clear: Work toward economic equality and fairness.

It is sad that the church seems so far behind in the practice of fair trade (like we were with recycling, conservation and respect for copyright). Fair Trade should have been our campaign, because it is surely a vehicle for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Stores like Mountain Equipment Co-op - which is as secular as you can get - have been doing this for thirty years, while many Jesus-followers still have never considered why the deals are so good at their favorite stores.

The tough thing is knowing what to do about inequality and injustice in our world. It is so huge, and though perhaps some of you may one day do something huge in response to the problem, what the average individual might do can seem so insignificant. Kinda like voting in a federal (or provincial) election. Who is there to vote for? What difference will it make? Our difficulty is that none of the parties are so very bad, or so very good, to motivate us to vote. But what if there were just two parties, one clearly corrupt, and one just and fair. Would that motivate us to vote?

Every time we shop, we vote.

Every time we shop with a company that has corrupt principles, we "vote" for corrupt practices. Really, we probably could pay a little more and shop with a company that demonstrates greater integrity and fairness, and it would not take that much extra effort. By doing so, we would "vote" for fairer trade and support movements toward equality.

I am such a newbie when it comes to knowing where to shop ethically, and thus where to vote. I welcome all suggestions - provided that you can back up your claim with credible (not Wikipedia) references. And as always, I welcome your comments and helpful criticism.

What do you think about spending more money and letting someone else live better?

PS - For an interesting take on this issue, check out The Story of Stuff With Annie Leonard.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Leaving and Following

Is there a difference between being a Christian and being a disciple of Jesus? I suppose it depends on who is using those terms. If a Christian is a word used to describe a person, or an organization, church, book, song or bobblehead, then I think there is a very great difference between a Christian and a disciple of Jesus. I have seen many such people and objects who describe themselves as Christian, what they do and what they stand for, and to me the evidence confirms that they have never been disciples of Jesus.

I have discussed before this curious word "Christian," first coined by the citizens of Antioch to give a name to these disciples of Jesus the Christ: "The suffix ('ianos' in Greek) was widely used as the termination of the name of a person belonging as a slave to the household of that name." Whether the crowds meant it kindly or not, neither Paul nor Jesus' own half-brother James were ashamed to call themselves slaves of the household of Christ. If that is what "Christian" means, the term is much closer to what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

A disciple, to put it most plainly, is a follower. The message of Jesus' Gospel was all about this: "Come, follow me."

Jesus' teaching about discipleship always contains two sides of a coin: On the one side, leave everything; on the other, come follow. You can't get away from it. "The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" Repenting has that same two-sided coin - you leave one path and take another, you sell all and follow, you leave everyone and pursue God. Even the concept of believing demands a change of loyalties, a change of thinking; in order to believe in Jesus there are many things in which you must stop believing. You cannot grasp the one without letting go of the other.

Perhaps that is why people who become followers of Jesus do so at their own pace. In Paul's story, it seems instantaneous: one moment he is killing believers and the next he is one. Others seem to take longer, as God patiently pries their fingers off the things that are killing them and fulfills their longings with the stuff of heaven.

Following isn't natural to most of us. The person ahead of you seldom goes exactly where you want to go. The driver simply will take that right-hand turn while you in the back seat know it should have been a left. This is a struggle for the human heart, which wants control. To follow means letting go of the indignant objection, the "but just a moment, I...," the deep-rooted desire to have our own way.

To follow Jesus requires faith. You don't know where he will take you, if it will be easy or hard or warm or cold or pleasant or painful. No guarantees on those quarters. As Mr Beaver said, "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe, but he's good. He's the King, I tell you." To follow Jesus requires faith in him; not in what he might do, but in he himself. In his person, his character, his holiness, righteousness, purity, his love.

So you start to let go of your personal values - the list of things that are very important to you - and take up his. Wealth becomes meaningless; stewardship everything. Some, who love their family above all, have to leave their family to follow him; others must let go of their selfish ambitions and be restored to their family. Changing your values can be very disruptive, very confusing to those who knew you before. "They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you." Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So you find you no longer believe in the principles by which you once made every decision, and you put your full weight on his. Love your enemies, and do good to those who spitefully use you. Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. What God has joined together, let no one separate.

So you begin to give up trying to provide for yourself and you let him provide for you on this journey of following him. Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.

So you change inside so that you love what he loves, and hate what he hates. You feel his compassion, his anger, his indignation. You see your sin the way he sees it, not dressed up and Photoshopped the way the world does it. You think his thoughts after him. You simply let go of all that stuff that once mattered to you and chase after what matters to him, come what may. It is reckless abandon.

And somehow, in all that, you don't lose who you are. You maybe lose who you want to be, or what others want you to be, but not who you really, really are. If I leave all and fully follow Jesus, I become more me than I have ever been in all my fifty years, unique as a snowflake yet so much like the One I am following that I get embarrassingly mistaken for him. Which I am not, but I will be like him. Someday. Someday.

So I guess the question is whether "Christian" is something by which the world describes you, or if you are someone who describes who "Christ" is to the world. Seems to me that this is what it means to be his disciple.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Old Men Mess Up

There is a downside to spending most of my days with people who are half (or a third) my age: they often remind me that I am old. I'm not really. My grandmother lived 49 years longer than I have. That's pretty old. Methuselah lived 919 years longer than I have. That's ridiculous. I'm only starting to - maybe - get a little older.

I'm reading through the English Standard Version of the Bible, and now that I am getting used to its sometimes awkward word choices I'm starting to enjoy it. I have been wading through Jewish history for some time now, and a troubling observation has come to my attention:

Old men mess up.

There are some old men who messed up from the beginning and just conveniently continued to do so to the grave. But there are some real heroes in these stories, people we were told to emulate in Sunday school, who also messed up big time in their latter years. Some examples:
  • Noah - There's guy who makes me feel young. Noah was 500 years old when he had his kids (what was he doing all that time?), 600 when the flood came and 601 when the doors were opened and he stepped out on dry land. First thing he does is plant a vineyard, make wine and get drunk, stretched out naked in his tent. Maybe not too serious, but there's something weird with this picture.
  • Abraham - Man of faith, father of God's chosen people. Did some wonderful things, and then developed this habit of straight-out lies to cover his own butt. How Sarah put up with being passed off as his sister - twice - I don't know.
  • David - God called him "a man after my own heart." And perhaps his best quality was the way he came clean with God as soon as he realized how badly he had messed up. But really: adultery and murder all in one shot. Bringing a plague on his people for disobediently counting his army. Big league sin.
  • Solomon - The wisest, the richest, the most powerful king of Israel. How in his wisdom did he think it was okay to take on 700 wives and 300 concubines, mostly from the nations around him? "As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been." Not the best choice for the guy who had everything.
  • Hezekiah - You have to feel sorry for this guy: he tried so hard to be a good king. Today, Sunday school teachers use his name to trick their students during sword drills ("Hezekiah!" and everyone furiously leafs through the Minor Prophets to no avail - he has no book named after him). He finishes off his career by showing his treasury to the officials of Babylon, kinda like counting all your $20 bills on a street corner in Harlem. Whew.
So I'm not putting these guys down for their mess-up's, major and minor. It's just that I saw a pattern here that nags at me. The band Thrice has a song about guys messing up, with the chorus, "Lord, don't I know... I'm just digging my own grave? Can't someone else please save myself from me?" You would think that having reached a ripe old age, we should be allowed to simply coast on our successes to a happy ending. But coasting seems to have a much different result.

Surely our enemy knows this, prowling around like a cougar, seeking whom to take his head in his jaws. Sure, he goes after the young guy to detract him from all he could become. But how much richer a prize is the old guy whom all the young guys look up to. His demise shakes up a whole broad territory of young leadership, destroys the work of a lifetime. Rich game.

Please pray for old men.

Old men, please don't coast. When success becomes effortless, get the heck out of there. If you find yourself drifting where you never went before, jump and swim for all your worth. When someone under you questions your decision, stop and listen instead of arrogantly moving ahead. If you become so full of yourself that there is no need for God, remember that all the king's horses and all the king's men may not be able to put you together again. You are about to fall. Big.

Please pray for old men.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I Hate Waiting

The most-quoted-by-Christians movie ever has to be "The Princess Bride." We seem to have claimed that one as our own: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Great stuff. Of course, half of what Inigo says is hard to understand because of his thick Spanish accent. So it took me a little while to figure out how he responded to the Man in Black who, as he struggled up the Cliffs of Insanity, said, "I'm afraid you'll just have to wait."

Inigo mutters, "I hate waiting."

A man after my own heart. It's not mere impatience. I just don't know what to do with myself in those moments I'm standing in line, waiting for someone to arrive or sitting in traffic. Maybe I am just a bit too intense, but I always seem to waiting for someone because I find myself a mile ahead of them, whether in space or time. Is it possible for people to move so slow? Do they think I have all day? Nothing else to do?

Actually, if I had something else to do - something worthwhile - I wouldn't so much mind waiting. Maybe I should get an iPhone, because my intern Jordan always seems to have something to do on his, and he can take it anywhere. If I could so fill up those empty spaces with something that I was always doing, maybe I would be okay. Maybe I would never again feel like I had to wait.

Check this out:

Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

I say to myself, "The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him."

The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.

Hmmmmm... bad news. God wants me to wait.

I know a guy right now who is waiting on everything. That right job. That right girl. That right life. Everything around him seems so much "Not yet" that it should be enough to throw him into despair, and occasionally it does. But most days I admire his attitude and his ability to not be passive in his waiting. In fact, I think the things he has been waiting for so long are taking a back seat to the opportunities God keeps placing right in front of him, which will make him neither rich nor married nor famous. He feeds the homeless, he helps with a youth group, he is loyal to his friends. I'm pretty proud of him, and not just because he's my son.

But why does God make him wait? What is there about waiting that makes it a "good" thing? Why does God like it when we are in the position of "Not yet"? What is waiting all about?

Here comes the analogy, and once again my dog Keeah is the teacher. When we got her as a puppy, we saw that her brothers and sisters were all bigger than her, so I guess she was always at the back of the food line. Whenever we went to feed her, she became frantic in her efforts to reach the food, often knocking it out of our hands as we gave it to her. Right from the start we began teaching her to not touch her food until we told her to "Take it." Before long, if we forgot to tell her, she would just sit there, hopeful tail wagging and drool dripping on the floor. But she would wait.

Every morning when I feed her, there is that moment when her food is in her bowl and I haven't yet given the word, and she looks up and fixes her eyes on me, all expectation and anticipation. At that moment, there is nothing else in the world to that dog. I have her undivided attention. A bunny could run by and she wouldn't notice. And I am reminded again of what it means to wait for God.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.

Waiting for God is a good thing because we develop the certainty that he has what we need, and that at the right moment he will say, "Take it."

This is how I need to fill up my times of waiting: Eyes fixed on God, full attention, full anticipation, expecting that at any moment he will say, "Here it is; take it." Knowing that whatever he puts in my bowl is the right thing; that he can be trusted, that every good and perfect gift is from above.

Put the iPhone down. Fix your eyes on him, and wait.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Do Less, Better

Our dog is old. At twelve and a half, Keeah is among the few Labradors to reach this ripe old age, the equivalent of about 75 in human years. She is remarkably healthy, not to mention mostly blind and rather lopsided due to a large fat lump, and she is challenging the adage that you can't teach old dogs new tricks. For example in the past year or so, she has learned to open almost any door that isn't locked, putting loaves of bread and anything resembling chocolate at great risk. I most admire her when she is sprawled across a sunny spot on the rug as if nothing matters in the world, which she does for the better part of most days.

At 50, I too am learning new tricks. When I gathered last summer's CIT's for an hour or so during the recent staff retreat, I asked them to once again write a letter - from God to them - to help them hear what he was saying to them at that time. I like doing this myself, though I write such letters only when I am asking a group of students to do the same. The time I gave these CIT's was short, and so my letter from God to me was also very short. But it could have been just three words and that would have been enough.

Among other things, I found myself writing this: "Do less, better." I had no idea what that meant, and so have found myself thinking about it a great deal since then. A story from Luke's gospel comes to mind:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

How I want to learn to choose what is better! Or even best! Here's how it is going: I've made this deal with God that I would stop chasing after what I think I should do, who I should talk with, where I should be. Instead, I would pay closer attention to the things and people and situations God places in front of me or directs me to - the stuff that is right in front of my nose that I have often missed or neglected due to my preoccupation with what isn't there.

It has been amazing. Not only do I find that there is plenty enough to manage right in front of my nose, but I have been so much more effective and satisfied with my conversations, opportunities for prayer, my daily activity and ministry.

I like doing less, and doing it better! Paul put it this way in his prayer for the church of Philippi: "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God."

I need a brainy love, one that not only wants what is best for people but knows what is the best, one that has the depth of insight to choose what is best.

The thing with quality is that you have to sacrifice quantity. And I think that is what God wants. As if he needs me to pump out high production, like a child in a sweat shop! Being as I am in the business of shaping young lives, surely I cannot afford hurry, or to be easily distracted or preoccupied. This construction requires gold, silver and precious stones, not the wood, hay and stubble of surface conversation, half-listening, and time-filling activity.

May this old dog never stop learning.