(Don’t) Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before

Pastoring wasn’t my first occupation, and certainly wasn’t my first choice of careers.  I had been working with horses at Bible camps and a guest ranch almost 10 years before a small country church in Golden Prairie, Saskatchewan took a huge leap of faith and hired me to be their new pastor.  I hadn’t really preached a sermon before beginning there so you can imagine that weekly sermon prep was a real challenge.  After we’d been there about six months my friend Greg suggested I’d been there long enough I could just start preaching the first ones over again since no one would remember what I’d said back then anyway.

I was reminded of that because sometimes I kinda feel like I’ve been preaching, not the same sermons, but undoubtedly a recurring theme.  Regardless of what book in the Bible we are studying the theme of the centrality of Jesus to every detail of life keeps coming up; the awareness of his presence, his involvement and guiding, literally living his life through me, and developing within myself an increasing desire for him that supersedes every other desire.

I’ve occasionally wondered if some may be tiring of the message and maybe wished I would move on but think about it in this perspective.  My newlywed son and daughter (in-law) stayed with us after their wedding for about three months until they left for a two year stint at a church in the Bahamas.  (I still haven’t figured out how to get a gig like that!)  Needless to say, during those three months there was a lot of smooches, and “I love you more” and other such silly goings on in our house.  The cynic would say “give it a few months.”  The cynic would be wrong.  Five years later they’re still very much silly romantics.

The truth is there’s been a lot of that stuff going on in our house for the last 30 years.  I never tire of hearing Wendy tell me she loves me or the hundreds of ways she shows it.  I love hearing the special loon call on my phone (her ring tone) that tells me she was thinking of me and has sent me a message.  And yes, I even do the silly emoticons with the hugs and kisses and nonsense.  But if I were to tire of that I would have some serious concerns for my marriage.

The same is true with Jesus.  To paraphrase of Lamentations 3:21-24, the love and mercy of God never gets old because he renews it every morning.  And I’ll never tire of telling you about it.

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“I’ll Pray For You”

“We’re keeping you in our hearts and prayers.”  Isn’t that the line you often hear when news of some catastrophe or calamity befalls a person or group of people?  Most of us are totally sincere when we say that but to my shame I know many times I have agreed to pray for an individual only to forget all about it until the next time I see them.  In order to avoid that I began the practice of pausing for prayer immediately, even if it’s only just a quick sentence or two.

But over the last while I’ve even been re-evaluating that.  Not if I should pray, but what I’m praying.  Don’t you find that most often our prayers are more or less just asking God make life work the way we expect it to?  Fix this, get them out of this, or take this away? At times God’s will may indeed be for our lives to work out in a manner that is pleasing or pleasant for us, but that’s not always the case.

In Colossians 4:3 Paul asks for prayer, not to be released from his chains, but that he would be effective in telling about the mystery of Christ for which he was in chains.  But in 2 Thessalonians Paul asked for prayer for deliverance from the persecution of evil men.  So how can we know what to pray for?

To begin with make certain that you are not simply praying your own will or desire.  Be careful not to make the assumption that making a problem go away must be God’s will.  Obviously Jesus is the prime example of this when he prayed “not my will but yours be done.”  But this brings up the next question, how do I know if I’m praying God’s will or my own?

I don’t think I’m being over simplistic when I say just ask him.  I have begun trying to develop the habit of asking God what he wants me to pray for in a particular situation . . . and then actually stopping to listen.  Often listening involves going to scripture to hear from God there.  As you practice this you will be amazed at how clearly God shows you how to pray, and how different it often is from what your initial impulse in prayer may have been.


A Healthy Obsession

My wife suggested that I should write about obsessing.  She even offered that I could use her as an example.  With discretion being the better part of valour, and wisdom telling me that even with permission I’m asking for trouble on that one, I decided to write about obsessing but use myself as the example.

Back when we lived in Saskatchewan, I was elected as school trustee for our division.  Actually, I walked into the local coffee shop at the wrong moment and someone said, “Hey, David could do it.”  During my one and only term we had to take some disciplinary action against the principal from the school in my town.  Due to concerns over liable and defamation suits, I was not permitted to explain to anyone about the reasons for the actions we were taking, and as a result I took a fair bit of criticism from the community even though to this day I know we did the right thing.

I began to have these conversations in my head with my various critics in which I would prove to them the justness of our actions.  Really what was happening was that I was beginning, and continued for some weeks, to obsess over the situation.

Obsessing is another word for worrying or being anxious which, when you break it right down, simply means I’m not trusting God and I want to fix it myself.  This is a very powerful drive within all of us.  In my situation it got to the point where I was, well, obsessed by it.

The Bible tells us to be anxious or obsess about nothing, but with prayers and pleadings, we are to make our requests known to God (Philippians 4:6).  Even doing that our tendency is to simply continue to obsess while we pray.  What he is really getting at is that we need to change our focus.  Instead of obsessing on what we wish to overcome, obsess about Jesus and our relationship with him, and the overcoming will happen.  As long as our focus is on overcoming we will obsess about the issue.  When we obsess on Jesus, the consequence will be that the issue is overcome.

In my situation God led me to develop my relationship with Jesus through interceding on behalf of this principal and her family.  I purposefully asked God to bless this person and bring success to her endeavors.  It worked.  I overcame my obsession.  More accurately, as I began obsessing more on Jesus my other obsession was overcome.


I Do. . .Do You?

A number of years ago I had the privilege of officiating at my cousin’s wedding.  Up to that point when describing the role I had as pastor in joining a couple in marriage I had used the phrase, “I’m going to marry so and so,” but it sounded a little too red-neck to say that I was going to marry my cousin.  So that was when I started using the term “officiating.”

Marriage, in part, is intended to be a picture of the love relationship between Jesus and us, both individually and as a whole; what the Bible calls his church or more literally his gathering.  I heard an author express what Jesus does in this relationship like this: Jesus chooses you, pursues you, and woos you.  One aspect of this is expressed in the last phrase of 1 Thessalonians 2:12, “. . . God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory.”

Did you realize that God has called you, and continues to call you into His kingdom and glory?  We often talk about people making a decision for Jesus, like that old gospel song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” To a point that is valid, but we usually put all the emphasis on our decision and completely miss or at best mostly neglect that God initiated this. That’s what verses like John 3:16, or Romans 5:8 are all about; that while we were still separated from God by our sin, Jesus died for us.

Not only did God initiate this, but he continues to initiate relationship.  God continuously calls you into His kingdom and glory.  I’m no language expert, but I’m told the way that verse in Thessalonians is phrased is in the present continuous tense.  That means this wasn’t some invitation given thousands of years ago and now God is sitting back waiting to see if anybody will show up.  God has called and unceasingly calls to you to invite you into his kingdom, into his glory, into relationship with him through faith in Jesus Christ who died to make that possible.

And this call to his kingdom and glory doesn’t end when we respond.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God invites, even urges us to go higher and further into his kingdom, and to experience more of his glory.  Do you hear God calling to you?  If not maybe you need to stop and listen.


The Truth About Jesus

In preparation for Easter I’d like to give you a paraphrase of Isaiah 53. That passage, in my opinion, is the most complete, concise and profound description of who Jesus is, what he endured, what God’s plan was and what was accomplished:

Who has believed what we’ve been saying? Who of you recognizes the power of God’s salvation given to us in Jesus?  He grew up before God as a tender young plant without any special advantage or preferential treatment. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance. There wasn’t anything special about the way he looked that drew us to him. In fact He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We refused to acknowledge who he really was and even looked down our noses at him.

Yet he suffered the things we should have suffered. He took on himself the pain that should have been ours. We assumed that his suffering was a sentence from God, punishment for his own sins!  But he was wounded and pierced for our rebellion. He was bruised and crushed because we had sinned and done what was evil. The punishment that bought us peace was put on him. Because of His wounds we are healed.  He was oppressed and treated brutally, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.

All of us are like sheep; we have wandered away from God.  Every one of us has rebelled and gone our own way.  And the Lord has placed on him the wickedness of us all.

He was arrested, sentenced to death and taken away. And did anyone really know what was happening? He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of all people; for my sin and yours.  He had done no wrong, never said one word that wasn’t true, but he was buried like a criminal in a borrowed grave.

The Lord says “It was my plan to crush him and cause him to suffer.  I made his life a guilt offering to pay for sin.  But he will see all who are brought into the family of God because of him.  In fact, he will live with them forever.  My plan will be brought about through him.  When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will know it was enough and will be fully satisfied.  And because of his experience, my righteous one will make it possible for many others to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.”


Me A Preacher!?

Being a pastor was never what you’d call a dream of mine.  Preaching was the thing that intimidated me most.  It wasn’t getting up in front of people, I’d been doing that my whole life, it was the thought of having something worthwhile to say every week for the next six months and beyond.  But I’ve discovered that if I depend on God he is always faithful in providing.  So you’d think that after years of preaching I’d have this figured out, but from time to time I have to learn that lesson all over again.

A while back I’d been preaching through the book of Isaiah and we had come to chapter 54 which is very allegorical.  I read and re-read and cross referenced and all the stuff I normally do but was really struggling to understand what God was saying, both in the big picture and in application to us.  So what are we all taught to do when we come up against a problem?  Try harder!  So I worked and chewed on it till I had squeezed out a lesson and what that meant for us.  But honestly, it felt forced.  It was Biblically sound, but it had no life in it.

Then Sunday morning as part of my everyday focus time with God I read this in My Utmost For His Highest by Oswald Chambers: “Do we really know anything about the indwelling of the risen life of Jesus? The evidence that we do is that His Word is becoming understandable to us . . . (but) our own unyielding and headstrong opinions will effectively prevent God from revealing anything to us.”  In other words God’s spirit, who is literally living in everyone who is a Jesus follower, will guide us through the Bible, teaching us both to understand what is written and how it applies to our individual and collective situations.  The problem is our own “unyielding and headstrong opinions” get in the way.

When I finally acknowledged and confessed that I`d been trying to understand this chapter through my own understanding and wisdom, the passage just opened up and so much insight came I wasn’t sure how I could fit it all in one sermon.

Now listen.  This is not just for pastors.  This relationship with God is offered to anyone who will simply admit their need of it and ask for it.  It is still a process, because it takes time to break that habit of self-reliance and you probably don`t even realize how deep those habits run. But God is faithful and will provide for you step by step as you grow in dependence on his Spirit.


Happiness Is…

“I just want to be happy” may well be the most commonly expressed desire of North Americans. What few people tell us though is that grasping for happiness is like one of our boys as an infant trying to grab the stream of water from the tap during his bath. He’d get wet but obviously never got a hold of it.

We try everything we can to make ourselves happy, and while the effect of some things lasts a little longer than others, ultimately we’re disappointed.

It reminds me of the story I heard of a father’s potty training experience with his two year old daughter. She had been doing quite well but this particular afternoon while she was supposed to be napping he detected a foul smell. After tracking the smell to her bedroom he opened the door to find what had been a full diaper on the bed and what had been the contents spread in streaks on the bedding and the walls and the dresser. There were tiny brown footprints wandering around the carpet but no girl in sight.

Then he heard a whimpering, and hiding behind the door was his darling little girl, smudged and smeared and matted and tears making streaks down her face. His heart melted at the look of shame on her face. She had tried to clean it up but every move just made more of a mess. Her daddy picked her up and took her to the bath and cleaned her and then wrapped her in a fluffy towel and held her close, quieting her and assuring her he loved her and that he would clean up the mess. “I love you honey, it’s all right,” he said to her over and over as he rocked her in his arms.

The more we make happiness our goal in life, the more of a mess we are going to make of it. God never promised our lives would be happy but he did promise joy, and a peaceful heart and purpose in life regardless of what circumstances come. Had Jesus’ goal been happiness he never would have died for us. But his goal was to do the will of the Father and so he laid down his life. Counter intuitively, much of what we were hoping happiness would bring us we find when we give up our desperate grasping for happiness and instead make Jesus our focus and primary desire.