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 want it or expect it to?  Fix this, get them out of that, or take this issue 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 2 Thessalonians Paul asked for prayer for deliverance from the persecution of evil men.  But 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.  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.

Happy? Easter

In the same way that “Merry Christmas” is the tradition greeting at Christmas, “Happy Easter” is traditional at this time of year.  I’m not sure it’s the best expression though.

“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.

He Is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed!

In My Father’s Eyes

I want to tell you about the first fish I ever caught.  It’s a moment that has helped define the rest of my life.

During the summer I was 6 Dad was the camp speaker for a couple of weeks at a Bible camp, I think it was on Gull Lake, but I could have that wrong.  The camp permitted him to bring his family along and the seven of us stayed in one of the rustic old cabins.  In my memory it seems like it was simply an old wood granary that had been converted by adding bunk beds.

My siblings and I had a glorious time playing during that first week, but I do remember being a little jealous that Eric, who is a year older than I, got to spend the second week in a cabin as one of the campers, even though he was a year too young. I’m not sure if that was part of the motivation but while Eric was off doing camper activities Dad told me one morning that later that day just he and I were going to go fishing together.

This wasn’t the first time I had ever been fishing, our family had taken camping trips each summer I can remember, but I’d never been out with just me and Dad and I’d never caught anything before.  So I was really excited and I’m pretty sure I pestered Mom all morning long with the “how much longer” questions.

When Dad called me to go I remember proudly walking down to the lake wearing one of those old orange life jackets that came right up to my chin and was so thick that my little arms could hardly reach around to hold my rod with both hands in front of me.  We were just about to the lake when one of the camp kids came running up and said, “Hey Pastor Ron, I want to show you something can you come with me?”

Dad replied, “I’m sorry I can’t right now, I’m going fishing with my son.”

As proud as I was before, I was fairly bursting now.  My dad made me his priority.  I felt so important.  And that realization of how important I am to my father has stuck with me all my life.  But the impact didn’t stop there.  As I grew I realized that what I had seen from my human father was an expression of how God, my Heavenly Father feels about me too.

Some of you have never had the blessing of experiencing how much God values you through how much your human father values you.  The truth is all of us have, at least at times, failed at that. I know I have.  But I can testify to you that what I came to believe from my dad in that moment has been affirmed a thousand times over by my heavenly Dad.  And He thinks you are that valuable too.  So much so that Jesus died to prove it.

By the way, I ended up catching a two pound perch.

Worth The Struggle

Have you ever struggled with God? I don’t mean struggle against God, though I’m sure some have. I’m speaking more of struggling together with God to grasp what he is up to. Maybe it’s a hard teaching from the Bible you are struggling to understand. Maybe it’s an inexplicably unanswered prayer. Maybe a point of obedience that makes no sense to you. We don’t like struggle, but struggling with God through issues is actually a positive thing. If you struggle against God you’ll lose, but if you struggle with him there are tremendous blessings to be gained.

How does that work? On a basic level it can be compared to the relationship I had with my old mare. When she first came into my life she was already into her prime but hadn’t had much finishing put on her. Apparently a good part of her life to that point had been up in the bush of Northern Alberta around Conklin running with the herd belonging to folks from that community. The horses essentially ran free and when someone wanted to ride they would just ask around if anyone had seen where the herd was at.

When I began riding her you could get her to go, you could steer her if you pulled her head in the desired direction, and if you had enough space you could eventually get her to stop. She also had this rearing thing she’d do if she didn’t like what you asked her to do. But I liked the look of her eye and decided she’d be my horse. I started from scratch with her as though she’d never been ridden, and together we struggled for many hours.

But in that struggle we came to know each other, and she came to trust me. Eventually there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do and wasn’t anywhere she wouldn’t go.

She was the one I put my 2 year old son on to learn to ride, and the one I used to drag home the Christmas tree out of the bush, and then close the barbed wire gate behind us from her back. Working together at a guest ranch we climbed up and down cliffs, crossed rivers, and led trail rides for Japanese tourists who spoke no English. With the crack of a whip we’d race alongside the horse herd, gathering them for the day’s trail rides, and later I’d fire a pistol off her while we “held up” a bus of tourists. Over the years we’ve pushed cows through deep bush, open prairie and just about everything in between. We cut out calves, and then roped and dragged them to the branding irons. We even rode in the Calgary Stampede Parade.

None of this would have happened without going through a struggle together. Similarly, it’s in the struggles we go through with God that we really come to trust him; that we learn to know him. So embrace the struggle and then live the adventure.

River Fishing and True Success

What does it mean to successful in God’s eyes? Is there any difference between that and what our culture understands as success? Not just in terms of money and stuff, but in everyday life?  How do you define success and does it match God’s definition? Let me illustrate God’s definition and see how it lines up with yours.

My whole family went on a horse packing trip up the Ram River for my parent’s 25th anniversary. After getting back to base camp one afternoon I decided to do some fishing. I grabbed my rod, headed down to the river and began working my way up stream.

If you’ve never river fished before, it’s different from lake fishing where you may sit in one spot for hours. On the river you’re constantly on the move looking for little eddies, and sheltered spots along the banks where the current gently swirls upstream. Once you’ve tried a number of casts into one hole and not had any response, there’s usually no point staying so you move to the next hole.

When I’m fishing like this time doesn’t mean much and ‘till I decide I’m done I’ve usually got a long walk back. Wendy didn’t realize this process and began to get concerned after I had been gone for a couple of hours. But Dad assured her everything was fine, having done the exact thing many times himself.

Meanwhile I had found a perfect hole, but I wasn’t going to be easy. There was a lot of overhanging willows and it was a challenge to get an angle that I could cast my lure where I wanted without getting hung up in the bushes or getting myself wet. But it was worth it. On just the second cast I got a big hit on my line and I landed a beautiful rainbow trout.

When I got back to camp the pride in my dad’s eyes as I describe my adventure is something I’ll treasure my whole life. But it really had nothing to do me catching a big fish. I could have fallen in the river and come back with a broken rod and seen the same pride. The pride was in seeing his nature and character and values reflected in his son.

That’s the success that God values; when he sees himself expressed through his children. Galatians 5 calls it the fruit of the spirit. The characteristics that are expressed consistently through a person’s life that spring from the very nature of God himself.

Christmas Oranges

Well my mother was right. (And now mothers everywhere are calling to their children pointing at that sentence saying “See?! See?!”)

When we were kids Mandarin oranges, or as we called them, Christmas oranges were never available until early in November.  But even then we were never allowed to have them until the first Sunday of Advent. And then only one.

Each week as we lit the advent candles leading up to Christmas Eve we enjoyed that sweet, easy peeling goodness.  As the season moved along we were permitted the occasional Christmas orange treat on other days as well, but certainly not like we have them today.

Then on Christmas Eve, we would have a light supper and then all gather in the living room to listen to our favorite Christmas records, play games, enjoy Christmas baking and homemade poppycock, AND . . . we could eat as many Christmas oranges as we wanted!!!!! Oh we anticipated that day almost as much as opening presents on Christmas morning.

Those green paper wrappers, the smell of the peels, the special taste all just said “Christmas time.”

We would beg Mom to pick up a box of Christmas oranges as early as they were available but she always said that if we ate them too early they would quit being special for Christmas.  And she was right.

Today you can get mandarins just about any time of the year. I peeled one here the other day anticipating that old “Christmassy” taste but it just tasted like a mandarin.  There was no special association at all.

I think the true Christmas story itself is sort of like that.  We don’t talk about the birth of Jesus or at least the specifics of it a whole lot outside of December; and actually I’m ok with that.  I think that if we tried to celebrate Christmas in July too it may lose a little of the wonder.  Not that it would cease to be unique or even incomprehensible how God, the creator of all that is could actually become human, be born as one of us.  But the specialness of that once a year focus may get lost.

But do you know what can never be spoken of and celebrated too much?  That this baby grew up and suffered and died for you and for me.

Maybe it’s because none of us can remember birth and the incarnation is beyond our ability to fully grasp, but suffering and death is something that we all face.  That and the fact that we are the reason it was necessary for him to go through it.

I know for myself that the wonder of being free from my sins (which I remember all too well) because Jesus willingly died for them, is something that no matter how often I think of it, never fails to evoke humble and awed gratitude and worship.

And that’s the best part of celebrating Christmas.

Choosing Your Treasure

Before you read any further stop right here and name for yourself your top 5 priorities in life.  Got ‘em? Alright now hold on to those because I want you to go through them again after you’ve read the rest of this.

In Matthew chapter 6 Jesus talks about priorities calling them your treasure. In essence he says that your heart is going to be with whatever you treasure most.  That may sound like he is stating the obvious, but it really hits hard when put together with what comes just before this.  He says, again in essence, where I put most of my time and energy and focus is where my treasure is going to be.  And wherever my treasure is, that is what I will come to care about most.

Before I get to what Jesus was primarily getting at, let me examine this as a general life principle.  Reflect on your life for a moment.  Where is the majority of your time and energy focused?  Is it in your career, or the accumulation of things?  Maybe it’s in trying to make yourself secure or happy?  Maybe it’s even religious activity? 

Remember the principle; where you put most of your time and energy is what you will come to treasure most.  Are those the things that you care about most?  Or is it relationship; your husband or wife, your children or neighbours?  Think about it.  Where are you storing your treasure at?  Wherever it is, your heart will follow.

On that note, let me explain the principal point Jesus was making.  If we store our treasure in anything here, wealth, happiness, power, status, etc. ultimately we will lose it.  If instead we pursue things of eternal nature, well, they’re eternal.  This is the same passage where he said we should seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness first, and all these other things will be added. 

What does it mean to seek first the kingdom of God? 

Very simply, make knowing Jesus your top priority, and then allow his nature and character to be expressed through your life.  If you do this all your other needs will be worked out.  That’s not saying that life will be easy, you will never suffer of struggle and that things will work out exactly how you want.  But it will work out according to God’s way and wisdom and I guarantee you that your treasure will be safe.

Now, what were those priorities?

I Want To Be Convicted

Brace yourself, I’m going to talk about conviction of sin today, or to put it another way, being convinced of sin.  Now with that introduction this next sentence is going to sound like it’s totally out of left field, but stick with me.

One of the side benefits when we first had kids was I got to play with really neat toys and watch cartoons again. Of course I also had to endure the “Barney” phase, but I did enjoy some of the others. I even confess to enjoying Winnie the Pooh. I still know all the words to the Tigger song.  But I got the biggest kick out of Eeyore. You remember the manic depressive donkey whose tail kept falling off.

I think that’s the picture many of us get when the Bible tells us “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The “oh woe is me, I guess I deserved that” kind of attitude.  But really it’s essentially saying that it’s a good thing to be aware that I need Jesus. Believe it or not, this is where conviction of sin comes in. Not sins or actions so much, but sin. In John 8:8-9 Jesus said God’s Spirit will convict the world in regards to sin. He’s not really primarily talking about specific sins but about the sin nature that each one of us is born with.

Everyone knows that lying or stealing or cheating is wrong. We may or may not feel bad about it but we know that it’s wrong.  But it takes the Holy Spirit to convince our hearts that what, by nature, I cherish most highly is my sin nature. That being self-realization; the right to set my own course. “The essence of sin is the claim to the right to myself, it goes down deeper than all the sins that were ever committed,” said Oswald Chambers. Why? Because it declares independence from God, and God made us to be dependent on him. That is going to rub some of you the wrong way but that is exactly why it takes the Holy Spirit to convict us of it.

Alright. So what? How does knowing this change my life? Stop trying to be good! God isn’t interested in making good people. He’s only interested in making saints; that is people who are absolutely and totally submitted to the Spirit of God living within them. People who have renounced any right to themselves and have Christ living his life through them. (see Galatians 2:20)

A person like that is no Eeyore. A person like that is powerful, purposeful, and complete.

Sticks and Stones

Have you ever been hurt by someone?  I mean hurt as in offended by someone you trusted, a friend or even just an acquaintance?  Someone has let you down, or betrayed your trust, or by their actions in some way seemed to suggest that your relationship with them is not as valued as you had thought?  It’s a rhetorical question because at some point and to some degree we all have been offended and we all have been the offender, intentionally or not.  And the injury can be devastating.

Would it surprise you to know that you don’t have to be hurt by these offences, at least not in the same old way?  Our natural response is self-focused; to protect ourselves either by attacking or retreating from the offender.  Neither response is Christ-like.  Oswald Chambers had a fascinating observation about Jesus in how he related to those around him.  He noted that, “Our Lord never put His trust in any person. Yet He was never suspicious, never bitter, and never lost hope for anyone, because He put His trust in God first. He trusted absolutely in what God’s grace could do for others.”

The key is that Jesus was focused on God as he related to others.  Therefore even when his closest friends abandoned, rejected and even betrayed him he was able to respond with their best interests at heart because his driving concern was what God was doing in them, not what they were doing to him.

But there is even more for us.  In Romans 15 Paul is talking about getting along with one another saying that we need to be more concerned for the wellbeing of others than for protecting ourselves.  Then in verse 3, Paul applies Psalm 69:9 prophetically to Jesus: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”  In other words, Jesus took the wounds of the offences that have been directed at us on himself.  Therefore, even though we may feel sorrow, or grief, or even pain, the otherwise devastating wounds have already been borne by Jesus and by his strength we are enabled to respond and relate in the best interests of others.  This doesn’t equate to being walked all over, but rather is a picture of compassionate strength and courage.

Again, the key is being focused on Jesus.  When we are intimately connected and identified with him we will see others in the same way he does.  Even wounds we have carried a lifetime will be transformed by his grace at work in our lives.  Isaiah 53:5, by his wounds we are healed.

3 Rules of Effective Communication

Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is one’s glory to overlook an offense.  Proverbs  19:11

There are three rules of effective communication that my Dad taught me when I started pastoring.  He gave me these in the context of a pre-marital preparation, but these are tools that are valuable for any relationship and any time you are engaging in the art of communication.

Rule 1: I can’t read your mind. (And visa-versa)

This may seem obvious but accepting this rule is foundational to applying the next two rules.  None of us consciously believes that someone else can see inside of me and know exactly what my thought processes are and how I am feeling, but we sometimes respond as though we do.

Any time I make a judgement or an assumption about another person’s motives in what they have communicated to me I am breaking rule 1.  So when I am offended at something someone else says to me I need to remember that I cannot read that person’s mind.

And that leads to the next step.

Rule 2: If I am offended I will choose to believe that I misunderstood what that person was trying to communicate.

Following this rule allows the gates of effective communication to stay open.  As soon as I break rules 1 and 2 effective communication is derailed and begins a downward spiral into a fight where each person feels the need to defend themselves. . . UNLESS one of us breaks the cycle and applies the rules.

When I apply Rule 2 I give the other person the benefit of the doubt  and open the way to continue effectively communicating.  So I say something like, “I’m sorry, I’m not understanding what you’re trying to say in that.  This is what I’m hearing you say and I don’t think that’s what you intended.”  This gives the other person the opportunity to clarify. And even if there was a hint of intending to offend it gently gives them the chance to reconsider so that effective communication can move forward.

Rule 3: If the other person is offended at what I say I will take responsibility for not communicating effectively.

This means that I remove the phrase “you don’t understand what I’m saying” from my vocabulary and replace it with “I’m sorry; I’m clearly not communicating effectively, let me try again.”  It’s so easy to get offended at the other person getting offended.  But when I choose to take responsibility for offending the other it can get effective communication back on the rails and restore a relationship that was beginning to break down.

One caveat to these rules: some people are just spoiling for a fight and even after you’ve applied these rules still will push you.  That’s when there’s another proverb that needs to be applied: Proverbs 23:9 “Don’t waste your breath on fools, for they will despise the wisest advice.”

Just walk away.