Oh Joy, Oh Bliss?

Joy. We see that word a lot this time of year, on Christmas card, in lights or on tree ornaments, even in advertisements. When you think of joy do you think of the cross? Probably not. Our cultural understanding of joy is about happiness, life at its best and the absence of discomfort and suffering. But Hebrews 12:2 says that for the joy set before him Jesus endured the cross. It doesn’t really fit with our conception of joy.

A fellow named Skip Moen helps us understand. “Joy is an important Biblical idea but it is not about my inner state of bliss.  In the Bible, joy is a relationship word.  It begins with Exodus 33:19.  Joy is first and foremost a description of God’s relationship to us.  God says that He will be gracious.  That’s the word for “joy” in the Old Testament.  I experience joy when God is gracious.  He’s the One who initiates the experience.  Joy is the result of a relationship of favor brought about by God.”

That’s how joy is different from happiness.  Happiness is dependent on circumstances and therefore fleeting. Joy is dependent on God and therefore unwavering.  And herein lies our challenge.  Our pursuit of happiness or the things that bring momentary happiness can easily get in the way of receiving joy.

Skip comments from his own experience that joy only comes to an empty heart.  In other words when my pursuit of happiness crowds out my passion to above all else know God then there is no place for joy.  When instead I am like Jesus and crave the joy of relationship with God regardless of the cost, joy fills my life even when happiness doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I like being happy. I love all the wonderful things in life and particularly the Christmas season that bring happiness.  But my joy is not dependant on any of that stuff.  For the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross so that I can have the same joy set before me.

So I certainly wish you all a Merry, or Happy Christmas, but far more I pray you know Joy.

The Fingerprints of God

I can’t tell you who first coined the term “fingerprints of God” but the idea is a good one.  The concept is that all around us, in the ordinary, mundane of every day there is evidence of the activity of God at work in our lives if we will pay attention to it.  The problem is too often we‘re oblivious to God.

Recently I was in Red Deer to visit someone in the hospital, and then get some groceries and gas.  My original thought was that after the visit I would get both gas and groceries from Costco since gas was cheapest there, but as I left the hospital  I changed my mind and went to Superstore for groceries instead and then to Costco for gas.

When I got to Costco the parking lot was packed and any open spot already had a couple of cars waiting to get in.  I found a spot but it was about as far from the doors as you could get.  It wasn’t until I was out of the truck and on my trek to the distant doors that it occurred to me I had only come there for gas.  Even though I kicked myself for my absent mindedness I decided I go into the store anyway if for nothing else than the free food samples.

I ended up buying a snow shovel and as I got through the checkout met a friend I hadn’t seen for some time so chatted for a bit.  As we said goodbye I saw the line to get out stretched way back to the eating area.  Apparently there was someone new checking receipts and he was very slow.  I grumbled a bit in my head as the line shuffled towards the door.

On to get gas, and of course I picked the line where the guy in front of me couldn‘t get his card to work.  More grumbling under my breath till I finally reached the pump.

I was finally just seconds from getting out of town when my son texted me saying that he‘d like to connect. He lives in Red Deer and it had been a while so I suggested I take him for supper.  That‘s when it hit me.  If I hadn‘t been absent minded, or met the friend, or had a long line, or picked the wrong pump, I would have been long gone and missed the chance to connect with my son.

Some say coincidence, I see God‘s fingerprints.

Overcoming Evil

It’s amazing how often God gives me opportunity to put into practice the stuff that I preach.  Last week I was preaching from Romans 12 where it says don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  That very night someone stole my wallet out of my truck and proceeded to go on a bit of a spending spree.  Fortunately we caught it mid-morning and were able to take the necessary action.  But I have to admit that overcoming this evil with good wasn’t where my thoughts were at until God brought me up short and reminded me of the sermon.

I haven’t had the opportunity to direct this approach at the perpetrator, but the evil in my heart was definitely overcome by God’s goodness.  It got me thinking about what Paul means by overcome. Let me give you a picture that might help explain.

Wendy and I were in Hawaii with her folks for their 25th Anniversary.  We were sitting on a beach together and she went into the water to cool off.  She wasn’t far off shore but was about chest deep as the bottom dropped away sharply.  As she was enjoying the relaxing ebb and flow of the waves the water level dropped to her knees. Unfortunately she didn’t realise what this event preceded, nor did she catch my shouting and pointing in warning till too late.  A massive wave came out of “nowhere” and towered over her.  She panicked eyes wide with sudden terror and tried to outrun the wave.  You can imagine what happened: she was overcome by the wave.  (By the way if this happens to your wife, for the love of Pete, don’t let her see you laughing when she crawls out of the foam gasping and sputtering, hair in her face and sand everywhere!)

That’s the picture (the wave, not my poor wife) that Paul had in mind; an irresistible wave of love and mercy and grace overcoming everyone in its path.  I’ve always read that Romans verse as pointing outward, that is, overcoming evil someone does to you.  It is, but first the evil in me needs to be overcome.

The first couple of verses of 1John 5 tell us that anyone born of God overcomes the world.   Do you have some evil in your world that needs to be overcome?  Maybe it’s time you sat down with God to truly understand what it means to be “born of God.” And when you do, expect the wave to hit you first.

The “Rest” of Your Story

How well do you rest? That’s not the same as asking if you sleep well at night, though it may be part of it. But do you know how to rest? I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard in the last number of months exclaim how exhausted they are. I’m still learning, and considering the books that have been written on the subject this little article won’t be “exhaustive” (sorry couldn’t resist) but here are a few things I’ve learned about resting well.

God prescribed for us a day of rest; the Sabbath. For our purposes here I’m not concerned with a specific day of the week rather simply a day of rest. Typically I’ve seen two approaches to Sabbath. The more traditional approach has been to assume that Sabbath is intended to be a time to focus on God, so we plan and structure our day with meetings and activities, making lists of what can and cannot be done on that day.  So much so that it becomes the least restful day of the week.

The other, more recent approach to Sabbath rest is to ignore it completely and see each day as on opportunity to accomplish something.  There is a uniquely western attitude that worships productivity.  Many of us feel a sense of guilt if we are not doing something clearly productive with our time. Neither of these are God’s plan for our rest.

The key to resting well is that we need to consciously and intentionally make room for God. To do this requires taking time for solitude and stillness.  Very few of us know how to be truly still before God; to calm and quiet our minds and simply enjoy the presence of God.  And we are not able to truly be still without solitude.

For many that’s a frightening prospective. The silence is as awkward as travelling in a car with a mild acquaintance.  We feel the need to fill the time with conversation. Resist and instead learn the joy and wonder of the intimacy of silence.  If God wants to speak that’s wonderful, but let him initiate the conversation.

I’m not suggesting you need to spend an entire day in silence, though occasionally that can be a wonderful experience.  Sabbath or resting well also includes enjoying community, which is spending unstructured time with family or close friends.  Taking time for play or recreation is also important.  But the foundation of learning to rest well the way God designed is to on a regular basis create that space for him.


Shattered Dreams

The Bible says a lot of stuff that we pastors preach great sermons on but how well does it play out when life hits you in the gut? One of those things is that we should store up treasure in heaven because where our treasure is our hearts will be also. (Matthew 6:20, 21)  A valid and important understanding of what Jesus’ purpose was in giving that instruction was so that we wouldn’t become hoarders of “stuff” but instead spend what God has given and enabled us to obtain in service and ministry to others.

But I’m learning a less obvious but equally import reason for this instruction: so that when your dreams are shattered your faith need not be.

Wendy and I have just had a dream we’d been pursuing for the last six months crushed.  It’s a dream for an exciting and fulfilling ministry/career opportunity we could do together that we actually had years ago when we began in pastoral work but had relinquished to God.  About six months ago God gave a refined version of that dream back to us.  As we pursued it God affirmed and opened the doors every step along the way, sometimes in profound and emphatic ways.  We were literally one step away from seeing this dream fulfilled but due to an unexpected change in circumstances completely outside of our control and influence the opportunity has closed indefinitely.

It was like having the wind knocked out of us.  And because of where the process took us our whole future has suddenly become uncertain. I have to admit that for a while after getting the news it didn’t take much to knock me into headlong into the ditch of “Why God? It all was fitting together so well, everything was falling into place. We were following your lead! If it wasn’t to be why’d you let us go so far?”

Somewhere in all that God asked me where my treasure was. I realised again that even though it may be difficult or painful, what happens in this life isn’t the end of the story.  My treasure is Jesus and nothing can separate me from his love for me.  Even if I don’t understand, even when cherished dreams are torn from my grasp, as significant as those things are they are not primarily what my life is about.  My life and all that happens in it have Jesus as its purpose and end.

If your greatest treasure, the things that you hold most dear and depend upon for purpose and stability in life are found in things or even people here and now, when those things are taken away you will be swept away by the floods of despair. Instead store up your treasure in heaven – in Jesus.

Stock Dog Theology

An old rancher who had used stock dogs his whole life once told me that he’s trained a lot of dogs but there are some that just seem to understand English.  I was reminded of that when a friend told me about taking their two border collies to a stock dog trainer.  Neither dog had ever worked sheep before.  Fresca had very strong herding instincts but she didn’t fare too well because she was too aggressive. Grace, on the other hand, had the sheep moving easily through the corals literally within minutes.

The difference was that Fresca depended on her instincts and paid little heed to the handler, whereas Grace was intent on the slightest sign from the handler who guided Grace’s natural instincts. You probably see where I’m going with this, but you may be surprised by where I see that in the Bible.

Romans 12:1&2 tells us that we will be able to recognize the will of God if we will stop conforming to the way culture works and instead be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  Let me unpack that a little.

Culture in general is self-focused.  Be true to yourself, be that master of your own destiny, find what works for you. That’s not to say the pattern of culture is necessarily selfish, but it’s certainly self-directed.

When Romans says to be transformed, that is changed through and through, by renewing our minds it’s directing us to be God focused. Vine’s Bible dictionary says of the word “renewing” that it indicates our minds are to be “under the controlling power of the indwelling Holy Spirit who directs our minds bent and energies Godward.”

How do we go about renewing our minds?  It starts with a greater hunger and passion for scripture.  How can you develop that? First ask God for it.  It sounds simple but it’s true.  Second begin reading it daily.  You’ll find that getting into it will whet your appetite for more.

The text is not saying that in being able to recognize the will of God because you’ve been transformed by the renewing of your mind that all your problems will be solved and your life will go smoothly.  What it is saying is that you will be able to be confident of being in God’s will in the middle of all the stresses, adversities, uncertainties and upheavals that life brings.

A Confession

I was appalled and horrified at what I was hearing as I listened to a brief clip of a message from a well-known pastor that has lately gone viral on social media.  Whoever had posted the particular clip I was watching had mashed it together with a clip of Bill Cosby saying “That’s the DUMBEST thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”  I have to admit it made me laugh.

But I was brought up short by a good friend of mine when I shared it with him.  His gentle response to me caused me to realize that my response to this pastor was just as wrong as the message I’d heard.  My intent in sharing with my friend had been to mock and ridicule this pastor and was not done from a heart of compassion or with the love of Jesus.

Please understand I am not saying that I agree with what was said, nor am I endorsing that particular ministry.  I strongly disagree with what the preaching in that church emphasises, and I could not recommend any of the teaching, books, or other resources that come from that ministry. But my reaction was wrong.

To personalize John 13:34 and 35, Jesus said that everyone will know that I am his because I love others the way he loved me.  If you think about it it’s easy to love those who agree with you, but the proof of Jesus in me is how I respond to those who disagree with me.

Rather than ridicule and tearing down, I need to be praying that the light, and love and truth that is personified in Jesus would be seen clearly in and through the life and ministry of that pastor and church.  And I need others to pray that for me.


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