Why the Absence?

The recent 2 month gap between posts is the result of a few factors. First, as I mention in my last post, we are moving, and the process of coming to that point, of initially being contacted by the church to formally accepting their call, has been about that long. That process has occupied our attention.

Plus we have had computer issues. Even now, we don’t have a computer per se. My wife and I each have a smartphone and very recently we got an iPad. So the technical ability and easy access to wifi has been a barrier as well.

My hope is to continue blogging, even if in a different form, once we are moved and at least beginning to settle.

I just didn’t want you to think I’d given up on blogging altogether.

Not at all.

Just a break until things are more stable.

I will be back.


Step of Faith

In Genesis 12 we’re not told how Abram felt. What we do know is that God was calling him to leave everything familiar: his country, his family, and his home. And he did. He packed up and left, knowing only that God had made promises concerning his future. Big promises. In fact, he initially didn’t even know where he was going. “Go from your country . . . to the land that I will show you.” Were it not for the trustworthy nature of God, it would all sound a bit risky.

And so it began. A journey that would encompass numerous twists and turns. Underlying all of the various points along the way were the increasingly specific promises of God, promises that also no doubt reassured Abram (eventually renamed Abraham) of God’s faithfulness. However uncertain circumstances may have sometimes seemed to Abraham (and to Sarah his wife), the challenge was always to trust that God knew what he was up to. Certainly, neither Abraham nor Sarah always managed to do this. But thankfully this didn’t stop God from keeping his promises, from being a constant presence in their lives, faithfully drawing them along, forgiving, correcting, testing.

Following what we discern to be God’s call in our lives is a joyful privilege and a step of faith into the unknown. The future, at least from our point of view, is unwritten, full of possibilities both wondrous and fearsome. Psalm 139 tells us that all of our days “were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” If we believe this to be so, then like Abraham we can take that step out of familiar and comfortable territory because we know that not only is God with us but that he goes ahead of us preparing the way.

As it happens, my family and I are in the midst of taking such a step. After nearly 9 years of pastoring at Nerepis Baptist Church, we will be moving to Nova Scotia. Another church has called me (or as I prefer to think, called us as a family) to serve. And while I definitely realize that our step of faith may not be on par with that of Abraham’s, there is something of a parallel here for us. We too are leaving familiar country, moving from one province to another. We’re also leaving our kindred, because for the last 12 years we have lived very close to my in-laws. Now the cost and time to visit them will mean seeing them much less, and since we are quite close this will be quite a change. And lastly, of course, we’re leaving our immediate community: church family, friends, and neighbours. Go from your country . . . to the land I will show you.These are words that resonate deeply with us at the moment.

Go. Trust. Take that step of faith. So we are. And we do so because we have done so before and have come to experience God’s faithfulness. Yes, we do so with a mix of excitement and fear, of anticipation and anxiety, but it’s always that way when following the call of God. The only certainty when following such a call is God himself, his presence, his promises. Indeed, this is true of all of life. You don’t have to be in vocational ministry to be called. God, through Jesus, calls each one of us to follow, to trust, to believe, and to live with his presence at the centre of our lives. Jesus says “repent and believe in the good news” and “follow me.” One invitation reinforces the other. They are two ways of saying the same thing.

With this in mind, let me simply conclude by saying that God also invites you on such a journey. It’s a journey that begins with coming to faith in Jesus and continues as we follow him, trusting that he knows where he’s leading us. Because God is faithful it means having the same assurance as Abraham, that whatever difficulties we encounter his ultimate will is to bless us and make us a blessing.


Hope

Hope. What is it? And does it make a real difference here and now? Does hope only direct us to the future or does it impinge with any power and relevance on our present lives?

Certainly hope is in part about the future. One present benefit of the Christian hope is perseverance in the face of suffering and adversity. Knowing that our eternity with God is indeed a blessed hope, one that is very real, makes it possible for us to put up with and face whatever troubling circumstances come our way.

But can hope also include hope for better circumstances in the present? Can having hope also mean God might provide us with a different present or future in this life?

N.T. Wright tells the story of a church that decided to purchase and restore an old schoolhouse, and how it became a place where the physically and mentally challenged of the community repaired furniture and learned various life skills. Rather than sitting passive all day watching TV, these people were now able to participate in and contribute to their community. The hope that life in the present could be more became a reality because the church took an active step in hope that it could make a difference.

I want to hear more stories like this. I want tell stories like this. Most of all, I want to be a part of stories like this. These are stories that embody the hope we have in Jesus. And they also provide a picture–even if scratched and incomplete–of our ultimate hope of the full restoration God promises. Hope is transposed into the present tense and becomes real rather than remaining abstract. Stories like this make hope tangible.

Without compromising the gospel and holding to a version of the prosperity gospel, I think we can experience hope for the here and now. I think the resurrection life Jesus promises us for all eternity, even if in glimpses and pieces, can take hold of us now. And when it does, our confidence that our future in Christ is secure and certain becomes a lot more than wishful thinking; it becomes hope. And hope, as Scripture tells us, does not disappoint us.


God Speaks . . . Despite the Silence

God speaks. And when he speaks, things happen. Worlds come into existence. Hearts are changed. Lives transformed. A person’s path goes this way rather than that way. Indeed, God’s Word became flesh and blood. God spoke himself into his creation. Jesus is God speaking his salvation into our circumstances. In these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.

But sometimes God’s voice seems to dwindle to a barely audible whisper. Listen though we might, our ears seem greeted by silence. That “Sweet Hour of Prayer” becomes a monologue. We find ourselves longing for those occasions when God’s word was not only something we read but something we heard.

Such times remind us that our relationship with God, however personal and intimate, remains in some ways inscrutable mystery. God knows us perfectly; we know God only by what he has revealed. Surely, however, what God has revealed of himself is not exhaustive of his being, of what there is to know about him.

When our experience of God falls short of the expectations we have, expectations which are themselves a mix of what God has revealed, our own hopes and desires, and what the world impresses on us, it might very well be God is testing our faith. Do you trust me, believe me, follow me, even when I seem distant?

I have met people who appear to rely on emotional experiences in connection to worship and prayer, who base their security in their relationship with God upon how they feel during times of personal and corporate worship. Feelings rather than faith is their guide. Emotions becomes how they hear God’s voice. For people like this, times when God withdraws his presence, their lives fall apart. Their faith begins to quake under their feet.

Plenty of people in the Bible experienced the absence of God. I think of Job, the psalmists, Jeremiah, and even Jesus on the cross and his cry of dereliction. For those who wonder where God is sometimes, they are not alone. Indeed, taking Jesus’ experience on the cross seriously involves recognizing that God identifies with us in our feelings of forsakenness.

The truth is that God has promised never to leave or forsake us. Jesus told his disciples that he would be with them until the end of the age. So even when we experience the absence of God, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned us.

It’s possible we might never know why we experience silence on God’s part. What we can know is that even when we go through such periods God is trustworthy and, despite our immediate experience, present. Whatever other words God speaks, these words, that he is still with us and loves us, are the ones he always speaks clearly.


Practicing Lent

We are now in the midst of the Lenten season. But say this to most and you will get blank stares. “Huh? What’s Lent?” Since I was raised Roman Catholic, I can answer. It’s a season roughly six weeks prior to and leading up to Easter. It’s a 40 day season, excluding Sundays, marked by the themes of repentance, self-denial, and at its heart is a time to reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus.

While I was raised Catholic I have been Baptist since my university years. Baptists, typically, do not recognize Lent and other practices that come from the Catholic tradition. Practicing Lent, therefore, has not been a consistent practice of mine. And when I was younger my practice of Lent usually amounted to giving up candy or junk food. Maybe TV.

In more recent years I have made little effort to practice Lent. There’s always been a part of me that has thought practicing Lent ought to be a bigger part of my own spiritual life. So this year I decided to give up sweets and junk food. I really need to lose a lot of weight anyway, so it’s a good idea all round.

As it happens, I have failed in my practice of Lent. I have eaten food I decided to abstain from. I continue to try and avoid these foods much of the time.

The funny thing is, my way of trying to practice Lent is not wholly distinct from trying to follow a New Year ‘s resolution. You decide on a new pattern of behaviour and then try and live that new pattern. You decide to join a gym and then you try and maintain that initial commitment for the long term. Lent can, if we’re not careful be a spiritual variation of this.

This brings me to my point: my failure in practicing Lent, even inasmuch as it has been perhaps a shallow attempt, demonstrates the genuine meaning of the season itself.

You see, I cannot change myself. Fundamentally I am unable to alter my inner motivations. Most importantly, I cannot save myself. By my efforts I am unable to approach God. Sin prevents me from acting as my own Savior. My failure in practicing Lent mirrors my overall failure as a moral agent in God’s world.

Lent reminds me that I need to repent of self-effort, of both wrong-doing and self-righteousness. It reminds me that Jesus’ sacrifice is both necessary and sufficient in order to make me right with God. It reminds me that in the light of the cross my failures do not keep me from the life Jesus offers; indeed, my failures impress upon me my need to rely completely on Jesus’ willingness to give up not mere trifles but his very life. Reflecting on this profound mystery is what it means to practice Lent, not only but especially when my practice falls short.


Anxiety

Jesus is clear when in Matthew 6:25 he instructs his disciples, “Do not worry about your life.” He goes on to encourage his followers to trust their Heavenly Father for their earthly needs. No doubt it is for this reason he includes in his teaching on prayer the petition, “Give us each day our daily bread.” Prayer to God becomes the highest expression of confidence in the faithfulness and goodness of our Father. This is the reason Paul tells the Philippians, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Only this, according to Paul, brings peace.

Yet I’ve always thought that in teaching us not to worry, Jesus assumes we do and that we have to learn otherwise. Certainly to the extent that we often end up putting our trust in material things, anxiety arises when circumstances force us to realize that jobs, bank accounts, and other forms of material security are unreliable and unworthy of our trust.

But we continue to place our trust in these things. Why?

Well, they’re tangible. We see them. And we almost always trust what we see more than what we don’t see. Sight provides confidence. Our faith can be fragile.

Not to mention that God promises to give us our daily breath and bread, not every desire under the sun. What we need might in fact be less than what we sometimes think we need. It’s definitely less than what we likely want. Our lifestyle expectations in our culture are high. We think we deserve quite a bit, to the point where we can sometimes have a feeling of entitlement. Of course everyone in the family needs a smart phone and computer tablet. So we look to these things because we don’t want to give up our wants, despite the fact that such material things are not dependable.

Living as Jesus’ disciples means that trusting God in a consumer culture involves allowing him to transform our expectations and desires. We’re called to be content both in times of want and in times of plenty. And if we are content, then we will not be anxious — or as anxious!

The transformation we need to undergo occurs only as grow in our relationship with God. It’s never about trusting something; instead, it’s about trusting someone. Such trust is based on the character of God, on what he is like. The accumulation of experience has taught me that God is reliable. Because he’s always provided, I continue to trust that he will. He has demonstrated his goodness, faithfulness, and trustworthiness over time. Experiencing God’s character in this manner has had the effect of transforming me into someone who is less anxious about material needs and more confident that he will give me each day my daily bread. Such provision may not always arrive in the form I would prefer, but arrive it does; and for this reason I have less reason to be anxious.


Wonder

I have three children; a daughter who is 9 and twin boys who are 5. Having kids is an incredible gift, and I can’t imagine life without them. The laughter alone that they bring into our lives creates the kind of joy we can experience even when life isn’t going well. I can’t even describe how their laughter makes me feel other than to say it lightens the load of life, puts a smile on my face, and gives me a little glimpse of eternity.

Being a parent is possibly the hardest job on the planet. Maybe so. Certainly it involves frustrations, heartaches, and exhaustion. It’s a 24/7 calling, and doesn’t end, from what I hear, even once your kids have grown. The responsibility of parenting is enormous. Even the most resilient adult will have their energy, patience, priorities, and wisdom continually tested.

Yet, one of the amazing things about being a parent is the experience of wonder. By this I mean the amazement and delight of watching your kids. Watching them grow, learn, laugh, play, and, to put it simply, be kids, is one of the most profound joys I have come to know.

Children are easily ignored in our culture, often because we regard childhood as a stage on the way to adulthood. In themselves, we think, they have nothing to offer or contribute. In fact, children are very nearly sheer need. Our job is to take care of them until they are independent or, in our minds, completely human. But childhood in itself is insignificant.

If that’s true, then I hardly think I’d experience such joy when just watching my twin boys playing together. Or while playing a game with my daughter. What I love about watching them play is how utterly useless such time is — neither they nor I are accomplishing anything remotely practical. And that’s ok. Not everything we do has to be about completing a task. It can be only about that moment, a moment which is all about relationship, the deepening of intimate connections.

And when it comes to kids, at least in my experience, those moments are also about recognizing the gift of life, and that we needn’t take it all so seriously. Lord help us, we’re often too serious for our own good. That’s why I am grateful for my kids who, when they’re climbing all over me, graciously free me to enjoy them for who they are. They free me for wonder.


%d bloggers like this: