Thursday, June 22, 2017

Life Verse

“Let’s go around the circle, and each one can share what their ‘life verse’ is…”

Honestly, up until that very moment, I hadn’t given it much thought. I wasn’t even aware that people chose — or were they given? — a “life verse”.

I knew that the Bible was full of verses that inspired, challenged, confronted, and comforted people. And depending on the situational circumstances of any given day, some verses might seem more meaningful than at other times.

So, feeling a little like I had somehow missed an important part of my spiritual journey, I waited with bated breath as others began to share their ‘live verse’. (All the while feverishly hoping that a verse would pop into my mind before it was my turn.)

There were some pretty inspiring choices around our circle.
(More than once, I thought: “Dang; I wish I could use that one. Is it okay for more than one person to have the same life verse?”)
Some examples:
  • “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)
  • “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
  • “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
  • “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
My turn was coming, and I was getting a little desperate by that point. All that kept coming to mind was a verse from John’s Gospel that seemed very tame, possibly anemic, and less “triumphant” (in my limited understanding at the time).

And suddenly it was my turn, and I heard myself blurting out:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
And the group nodded in solemn solidarity, and then moved on to the next person. I could now relax — I had successfully (it seemed) passed the Life Verse Test.

In the years since, I have often returned to John 15:5 and marveled at what an appropriate choice it was (although I still think it’s not really advisable to isolate a single verse as a guide for the entirety of anyone’s life as a Christ-follower.)
  1. Jesus is the Vine — the Source, and we, as branches, are the recipients. We are completely dependent on Him. We can (and should) be wise about how we do ministry — planning, evaluating, learning, risk-taking — but we need to do all things firmly connected, and flowing from, the Source.
  2. Jesus wants us to be fruitful — I love the wording in the Nueva Versión Internacional (Spanish) translation: we will “give” much fruit. It’s not about us becoming spiritual giants; it’s about giving fruit to bless others. And it’s a memorable phrase: mucho fruto.
  3. And what should be a warning — “apart from me you can do nothing” — I have always found strangely encouraging, perhaps because the positive outcome of doing the opposite seems pretty clear-cut.
In hindsight, my hasty choice of a ‘life verse’ has turned out to be much more significant than I realized at the time.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ambient Solitude

Ambient space. Reflective solitude. Creative atmosphere. Contemplative retreat.

We all have our favourite word or phrase to describe the treasured islands in our busy lives where we can retreat to think, reflect, decompress, and re-charge.

More often than not, solitude is an integral part built into these spaces. And it seems fitting, today, to seek some solitude to reflect on the recent death of a friend who died alone.

Let’s call her Sally.

Sally was just a few months younger than me. If we’d known each other back in high school, we’d have been in the same group photos at graduation. I don’t know Sally’s complete biography — she shared tidbits here and there, but there were a lot of gaps where it wouldn’t have been polite to pry into — but suffice it to say that our lives post-high school were probably quite different.

But through a local non-profit service agency, I had the recurring privilege of leading a small team of volunteers who helped clean Sally’s modest dwelling. Years of substance abuse had robbed Sally of much of her mobility, and she really appreciated our visits to help her out with the things she couldn’t do for herself any longer.

Despite her growing infirmity, Sally always greeted us with a mischievous smile and her signature response when I’d ask how she was doing — “I’m still walking, and I’m still talking!”

Just a few weeks ago, while we were cleaning her place, she put on some classic rock from the 1960s — LOUD — and cajoled some of the high school volunteers to join her in a shuffling dance party in the middle of her living room.
I’ll never forget the look of joy and serenity on her face as the volunteers held hands with her and joined her in a circle of celebration. “Who you are, is a gift,” she admonished each of them, wagging a stern finger. “Don’t let anybody steal that away from you.”
As she hugged her dance-mates farewell, Sally was beaming like a home-coming queen on prom night.

During our next visit, I couldn’t help but notice she seemed much weaker, and her mind kept wandering as she couldn’t keep her mental focus.
“How are you doing, Sally?” I asked, concerned.

She laughed much like her usual self, flashing her mischievous grin. “I'm still walking and still talking, Robby!”
She didn’t invite the volunteers to dance that day, but she hugged each of them as they left, thanking them for their help. As each student embraced her, Sally’s face lit up with a smile.

We never saw her again. Her body was discovered on Mother’s Day. The paramedics said she’d been dead for several days. Her fragile, worn-out body just couldn’t go on any longer.
She died alone.
To me, the saddest part of Sally’s story is how it ended. Alone. The child-like joy on her face when the students danced with her, just a couple of weeks previous, seems especially poignant now.

I recall an old, old Randy Stonehill lyric:
The sound of our motor would frighten the starlings,
and they’d rise from the fields to fly,
And I couldn’t help feeling sad and inspired
by their desperate ballet in the sky,
Say a prayer for the starlings.
It’s tragic that Sally died alone. Yet, I’m glad that, just before the end, she had the opportunity for one last dance with people who cared about her.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Different Kind of Faith Journey

The longer your journey unfolds, the more people you cross paths with. There are many seasons where your story overlaps with theirs, and their journey impacts you, even long after your separate trajectories have carried each of you to different places.

Mary Lynne was (and is) a friend to Wendy & I ever since we crossed paths over 30 years and 4100 kilometers ago.

As newlyweds, Wendy & I were volunteer leaders with the incomparable George Mercado, and that’s where we first met Mary Lynne. We all have some great memories of everything God did in the youth ministry that George led, and it's always been a treat to stay connected — intervening years and distance notwithstanding — with many of the former members of that youth group.

Mary Lynne's journey hasn't gone exactly as any of us would have anticipated. Cancer has become a familiar and repeated companion. I won't go into details, because Mary Lynne tells the story much better than I could ever hope to. Her blog, Not Quite Dead Yet, is titled with her typical tongue-in-cheek cheekiness, and is a moving chronicle of her struggle.

Please visit (and bookmark) Not Quite Dead Yet -- you will be encouraged, challenged, and moved.

And while you're there, I know Mary Lynne would appreciate any prayers you could offer on her behalf.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Wisdom in the Prism

It’s always been a head-scratcher for me — this obsession that some people seem to have with pitting various viewpoints on the Atonement against each other, as if they are mutually exclusively (and therefore bitter enemies).

I’ve always seen them more as the differing sides of a finely-cut jewel. The essence of the jewel is the same — Jesus Christ’s saving work on the Cross — but as you rotate the gemstone, you see and appreciate different angles, refractions, and you marvel at its simple, yet complex, beauty.

Plus, you can’t ignore that each viewpoint — regardless of how well articulated — has its own fair share of Scriptural support. To use just one viewpoint as an example, you can’t escape the ‘substitutionary’ language of the Bible without having to pretend certain verses don’t exist (or engage in dubious mental and hermeneutical contortions in an attempt to make them go away).

Just the other day, while researching for a new book that I’m hoping to write, I came across a collection of videos at “Three Minute Theology”. Instead of my metaphor of a jewel, the creators of these videos chose a Prism, which I like even better.

Three Minute Theology does not pretend that it’s possible to exhaust all the nuances of the topic in bite-sized morsels, but these videos provide a fantastic overview of the various sides of the jewel, or — in this case — the different hues found in the Prism of Atonement.
Complementary views, not competing.
These short hor d’oeuvres will whet your appetite. Enjoy!

The various colours in the Prism of Atonement:

Penal Substitution

Christus Victor


Moral Influence

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Weight

“Do you know why retired pastors always sit at the back of the church?” he asked, with a knowing wink.

I smile back, shaking my head. “I have absolutely no idea. Why?”

His grin broadened even more, and he leaned back in his chair with a hearty laugh.

“Because we can!”

For years, there have been numerous unwritten rules that govern the lives of pastors (and, by extension, their families):
  1. When you retire from the position, you must leave that particular church.
    • (At the very least, it made things easier for the new pastor.)
  2. Ideally, you should leave town, too.
    • (Same rationale as #1. Pragmatic, but a little heartless.)
  3. While you still have the position, you must be seated in the front row.
    • (And in most cases, that meant your family should as well. And your children had better behave angelically.)
Little wonder that retired pastors (and their grateful spouses) revel in the freedom to sit at the back of the church for a change. Or anywhere they like.
Because they can.
They are free of the expectations of the parishioners. Free of the subculture that declares: ‘this is what pastors must do’. Free of the weight of responsibility for leading. (I’ll bet Moses was the happiest retiree of his generation, after forty years in the wilderness with the merry band of cutthroats he’d been given to lead.)

But aside from congregational expectations, I suspect there is a much deeper reason for their new-found appreciation of the back row in the sanctuary.

Even in the healthiest, most team-based leading environments, there is a very real weight that pastors carry. A burden of responsibility that few can fully appreciate or relate to. As St. Paul put it:
“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).
To not have this sense of concern — or responsibility — would make the pastor a “hired gun”; just filling a position, putting in time doing a job, callously earning a paycheque.

Jesus is THE Shepherd of His flock, the Church (John 10:1-16). Nobody is suggesting otherwise. But pastors do carry a weight of responsibility for the people they are leading. If they don’t, they’re not pastors. They could be any one of several other options — entertainer, charlatan, snake-oil salesman, or to use Jesus’ phrase, a “hired hand”.

But not pastor. Pastors care, and deeply.

Sitting in the back row after retiring may mean much, much more than simply being free of the ‘traditional’ seating arrangement expected by church-goers. It could easily also be a sign of the release of the responsibility that comes with the position — a time to rest from hard, but hopefully rewarding, labour in the Body of Christ.

If, perchance, you know any back-row pastors, take a moment the next time you see one, and thank them for their years of service. Maybe share an encouraging word. Perhaps you could even pray together, just for a moment.

Make the back row a seat of honour.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Challenge

Before reading any further, take a moment to soak in the statement captured in the image above. In some ways, that picture+insight could simply exist as a blog post on its own, without any need for elaboration.

But writers just can’t resist.

My own trajectory as a writer — and specifically, an author whose writings should reflect a growing Christ-likeness — traces back to my college days at Providence, and a series of articles I had written in our local college paper.
(Yes, I began writing much earlier, in junior high, when I created some forgettable examples of science-fiction. And yes, I had also studied journalism at a local community college in Sarnia ON. But it was at Providence that I first began writing to address Christian issues, from a Christian perspective and for a Christian audience.)
My articles for the college newspaper could be described as “passionate”. In the parlance of greater blogdom, circa the turn of the 21st century, one could also categorize them as “rants”. (Ranting online was considered a mark of being “authentic” back in those days.)

But it was a letter to the editor, after I’d written five or six of my passionate, ranting, un-nuanced and generally caustic opinion pieces, that (choose one):
  1. Rang my bell.
  2. Left me gob-smacked.
  3. Slapped me up-side the head.
  4. Or, in general, got my attention and made me stop and reconsider my approach.
The letter to the editor (which was published for everyone at Prov to see and ponder) was direct and well-crafted — the writer would later enjoy a successful career in broadcast journalism, so it was no surprise that his short screed would be an excellent example of concise communication.

In short, he had no problem with the content of my articles. However, he nailed my hide to the wall over my attitude and tone of writing. As well he should have. I still have copies of those articles in a box somewhere, and my “passionate” writings sure sound like a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1), in the sober and objective clarity that hindsight provides.

The sharp rebuttal that I had instinctively begun to craft in my mind, when I first read the letter to the editor, fortunately died a quick and merciful death. I was forced to confront the “why” behind my writing — and realized that my sarcastic, ranting approach was the complete and total antithesis of what I really wanted to accomplish.

I am still passionate about what I write. I have zero desire to publish Christian books just for the sake of writing more Christian books. I hope I will always write from a place of passion and zeal.
And therein lies my greatest challenge: to write graciously of things that I am passionate about.
The Younger & the Elder (and their supporting cast of characters in The Genesis Café), as well as the fictitious members of ‘Charismatics Anonymous’ in Post-Charismatic, have been a great help to me in this regard. Creating characters who interact respectfully with each other is a powerful tool in meeting the challenge.

Salvation has always included the assumption of ongoing discipleship. And discipleship has always included the assumption that all areas of our lives will come increasingly under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Personal morality, business ethics and practices, our approach to justice issues — everything is (and should be) impacted by the simple yet profound statement: “Jesus is Lord”.

Including not just what we write about, but how we write it.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Of Pearls, Swine, & Strawmen

The Elder watched, eyebrows raised, as his young friend aggressively stirred the usual “fixings” into his americano.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen the Younger so agitated. His own hands were cupped around his mug of coffee — “black, the way God drinks it” — and he waited in silence.

The Younger replaced his spoon on the table with an exasperated sigh, the sound of the metal utensil evoking a sharp protest on the wooden surface. The Younger paused for a moment, suddenly self-aware of his agitation.

“Sorry about that,” he admitted to his life-long friend. “I’m just… really frustrated with how things went the other night.”

“I’m all ears,” the Elder replied, nodding to acknowledge the other’s apology. “How did the topic come up, if you don’t mind my asking? And what was it about your friends’ comments that impacted you so negatively?”

The Younger picked up his spoon once more, tapping it on the table, spinning it around in his fingers, and tapping the table again with the opposite end. The Elder chose not to point out the unconscious action of his friend.

“Well, you know me and my friends — we love talking about our faith, life, and how the two interact. It’s usually a lot like the conversations that you and I have, at least most of the time. But last night…”

He flattened the spoon under his hand, and looked up to meet the Elder’s concerned gaze. “You’ve heard of the notorious ‘straw man argument’, I’m sure. It’s become its own meme, almost to the point of being a caricature of itself.”

The Elder nodded in sympathy, a rueful smile quirking at one corner of his mouth. “I’ve had a few run-ins with it, yes. I take it that a straw man was introduced into your conversation with your friends last night?”

The Younger shook his head, taking a hearty swig of his americano. “We were talking about substitutionary atonement…”

The Elder whistled, his eyebrows arching higher. “The Atonement? You and your friends could never be accused of having shallow theological discussions,” he observed.

The Younger shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah, we like the heavy topics, I guess. But as soon as I started talking about my understanding of the Atonement, I got shut down instantly. They said that anyone who believes in substitutionary atonement believes that God is a ‘cosmic child-abuser’, and nobody with any intelligence would worship a ‘monster’ like that..."

The Elder sighed, leaning forward as he, too, swallowed some of his coffee before it cooled off too much. “Let me guess — the vengeful Old Testament God taking out His wrath on His unsuspecting and defenseless Son?”

The Elder continued as his young friend nodded wordlessly. “Well, it wouldn’t be any exaggeration at all to call that kind of terminology the most glaring and manipulative straw man fallacy that I’ve come across.”

He took a longer gulp of his coffee, and set his mug down firmly. “To be blunt…” The Elder leaned forward to emphasize his next words.
”Using the phrase ‘cosmic child abuse’ is, at best, infantile. And at worst, it reveals an arrogant refusal to engage in the honest, intelligent exchange of ideas.”
The Younger finished his drink quietly, listening to his mentor/friend with rapt attention.

“Think about it this way,” suggested the Elder, keeping his voice down despite the obvious passion he had for the subject at hand. “The most fruitful discussions — or dialogues, or debate — are characterized by both respectful dialogue and listening to each other’s viewpoints, and thoughtful interaction with the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing views. Iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17).”

The Elder paused for a moment, adjusting his spectacles. “Such an obvious and calculated straw man as ‘cosmic child abuse’ circumvents any meaningful conversation. It’s actually a very anti-intellectual approach, which has but one goal in mind: to shut down discussion. To prevent thinking.”

“And here I just thought it was a bullying tactic,” joked the Younger, his lop-sided grin not very heart-felt.

The Elder leaned back, finishing off his coffee with one prolonged swallow. “It certainly is that, no doubt. But even more so: it shows a profound level of hubris — arrogance — to ignore the theological giants of the faith who have wrestled long and hard to put language to our beliefs, by using such a simplistic and offensive caricature.”

He sighed, returning his friend’s grin with one of his own. “I could make a comment about ‘pearls before swine’ (Matthew 5:6), but I think there’s a more redemptive approach that we should take.”
”Ask your friends: what Scriptures led them to their current position on the Atonement? We all understand that there is a certain level of… oh, I guess I would call it wrestling that every theologian has to embrace. See if your friends would be willing to put aside their caricatures and invest some time in wrestling through the Scriptures together, as a group, and re-learn the lost art of respectful dialogue.”
The Younger held his empty mug aloft in a salute. “Having a respectful conversation? Wrestling through the Scriptures together? I’m all for it. I don’t even care if we all agree on everything, once we’re done. I’d just like to have a real, honest, strawman-free discussion about it!”

The Elder laughed quietly, looking somewhat sheepish. “Just don’t tell them I called them ‘infantile’, okay? I really must learn to be more cautious in my choice of words…”

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Non-Confessional Movement

"Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Timothy 4:16)

Some people don't like doctrinal statements, viewing them as a tool of oppression and exclusion. They would much rather be "non-confessional" (meaning: doctrinal agreement is optional, as long as people play nice).

Unfortunately, non-confessional movements usually end up looking like the picture at left.

What makes a doctrinal statement useful is its objectivity. It serves as an impartial standard, a measuring stick by which all parties can evaluate their own doctrinal health.

Throughout church history, statements like the Apostles' Creed, and the Nicene Creed (among others), have served in similar ways, providing a much-needed litmus test so that movements could obey the Scriptural admonition to safeguard the church from doctrinal "alternative facts".

For example, St. Paul's warnings and instructions:
  • "I know that after I leave [Ephesus], savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them." (Acts 20:29-30)
  • "As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer." (1 Timothy 1:3)
  • "For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:3)

A "Statement of Faith" is vital for straining out doctrinal error, and the New Testament is replete with admonitions to be on guard against false teachings. St. Paul was not the only one to sound the alarm. Similar warnings were voiced by St. John (1 John 4:1), St. Peter (2 Peter 2:1-3), and also Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:10-11).

When a movement eschews a statement of faith, preferring instead to be non-confessional, they create an ethos where no teaching can be objectively evaluated, and where "alternative (doctrinal) facts" cannot be challenged.

However, something far more insidious results from a non-confessional approach, which inspired my choice of picture at the top of this post:
A non-confessional movement will always be controlled by the biggest bullies. It is inherently power-based and political in nature.
Without the objective standard of a Statement of Faith, the direction of such a movement will rest in the hands of those with the most political power. Appeals to Scripture or the history of Christian orthodoxy will fall on deaf ears. "Alternative (doctrinal) facts" can now flourish freely.

Anyone holding to a confessional approach can then be effectively ridiculed and silenced, usually by caricatures, shout-downs, and zinger-ology (I've written about these tactics before). Doctrinal questions and debates are settled by whomever can generate the loudest echo chamber, bolstered by the largest number of "likes" and retweets.

No, thanks. I'll take the (confessional) antidote St. Paul gave to Timothy:
"In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction." (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Words Words Words

Fake news.
Yellow journalism.
Agenda-driven "alternative facts".
(Anti-)Social Media.

I know the end of January is an odd time to settle on a "New Year's Resolution", but as the shrill rhetoric from all sides continues to escalate -- showing no signs of letting up anywhere in the near future -- I want to contemplate and emulate the following:

Sin is not ended by multiplying words,
but the prudent hold their tongues.
- Prov. 10:19
The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
- Prov. 12:18
The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint,
and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.
- Prov. 17:27
Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious,
but fools are consumed by their own lips.
- Eccl. 10:12
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,
so that you may know how to answer everyone.
- Col. 4:6