Sunday, February 7, 2010

Finding strength

Life happens all around us - work, play, love. For the last week or so, I've let exam preparation consume my life, and as it did, my emotions have spiraled out of control. Exhaustion, as my motivation dwindled down. Frustration, as my head and eyes began to ache continually. Isolation, as cabin fever left me longing for any kind of human interaction. Anger, as my printer jammed up for the third time. Fear, as I look towards tomorrow's test. (I know, it sounds like the path to the Dark Side of the Force!)

This depressing affect has left me discouraged and inwardly attention seeking. It's easy to forget, then, who it is who has brought us this far. Letting the trials and tribulations overwhelm us, we forget that he'll also see us through to the end.


13...for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

14Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.

Therefore, persevere to the end.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The source of faith

I recently had a conversation with a colleague from work who expressed to me that there is no true religion. "How can there be?" she said, "There are so many!"

From her perspective, religion is an annoying crutch on which the weak lean in times of trouble. From my perspective, times of trouble force people to pause and look beyond their own immediate surroundings, allowing religion to find room. It's not that problems cause people to seek religion, it's that religion calls people out during times of trouble.

She replied, "Well, if you already believe in something, then you're obviously going to answer all questions from that perspective." And yet, atheism is a perspective as well, one that she was obviously answering the question from.

The question of how many religions there are is irrelevant as to whether one is true or not. Truth is not bound by how difficult it is to decipher nor by how many people believe in it. Truth is truth. A believer does not subscribe to religion merely because they hope to be a "better person" or to summon "strength" but also because they believe it to be true. That is the very definition of faith, yet it is not only the faith that is important, but also the truth.

Today, while perusing through some of my high school journals, I found this lesson posed just so:

If a man has great faith in thin ice, he will still drown. If a man has little faith in solid ground, he will still live. Therefore salvation does not depend on the amount of faith, but on the basis of that faith. My faith is in the Lord, the true and only God.

As Christians, we choose to build our faith on Christ, because we believe his words to be true. Without God, without Christ, there is no Christianity.


Building on a Solid Foundation

24 “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. 25 Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. 26 But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. 27 When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The uncanny Lord God

The Resurrection
1 Saturday evening, when the Sabbath ended, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went out and purchased burial spices so they could anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on Sunday morning, just at sunrise, they went to the tomb. 3 On the way they were asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside.

5 When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The women were shocked, 6 but the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Look, this is where they laid his body. 7 Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died.”

The last couple of days, I have felt as though God has been attempting to convict me of the need to re-prioritize my relationship with him. The latest challenge came from today's Sunday sermon. After all, what better time to have one's attention drawn back to God than a weekend devoted to Jesus' death and resurrection?

Service began with a sharing by one of my former Sunday-school teachers about the passing of her mother due to illness. While the occasion was difficult, she praised that her mother was now no longer suffering and that she would see her mom again one day in paradise. But moreover, she extolled the congregation for their stalwart support of her and their unwavering prayers for her mother during the difficult period prior to her mother's death. She had truly felt taken care of, she said.

As she concluded these words, a flutter of doubt crept in through the back door of my heart. Having recently mourned the passing of my own aunt, I wondered why our active and compassionate God did not simply heal those for whom so many were praying. Perhaps, Satan tempted, God did not exist at all, as so many today would assert.

Of course, it is not by our will that a person lives or dies, but God's own will. Yet couldn't God make his hand more obvious? His authority would be easier to accept if it were more plainly laid before us. Such lures occasionally find their way into my mind, and while they do not ultimately sway my constitution, they can momentarily thrust my heart into confusion.


"In my experience, there's no such thing as luck." Obi-wan Kenobi

As if responding to my challenge, God began to weave together the tapestry he had been carefully threading through my life. The first threads had been sewn through my course visits to Alcoholics Anonymous. These visits had prompted many personal spiritual examinations.

This organization recognized the power of the Church structure and of fellowship. They proclaimed the importance of the "grace of God" and humility, and yet they neatly ducked around the actual person of God in whom they had placed their trust. Instead, they endorsed the "God of their own understanding" - be it the AA group itself or a mysterious "energy force" of which we are all a part. So close, yet so far.

At the same time, AA had capitalized on a powerful aspect of fellowship through "sponsorship" of new members, pairing a mentor and a seeker at all times. They kept sober by sharing what they had learned, and they received sobriety by learning from others. Perhaps, in all its similarities, the Church would benefit from such accountability and generosity, I thought.


It was talking to my brother about the lull in my spiritual development that the answer arrived. It was unexpected and unrecognized at the time. Everybody needs a Paul, and everybody needs a Timothy, he said.

Paul is the spiritual mentor, the one from whom we can seek advice and learning. Timothy is the spiritual receiver, the one with whom we can share and encourage. Christian growth, he argued, requires both. A Paul and a Timothy. Sponsorship is not a novel invention by Alcoholics Anonymous, it is a formalized type of discipleship, co-opted for secular purposes. Christ had prompted us to share that which we had received from the very beginning, though we often are too reserved to do so. Thus, this aspect of the AA method also seems to borrow from the Church, as Christians have been discipling one another since the apostles themselves.


Insurmountable obstacles: our pastor arrived at this point in his Sunday sermon. We are always worrying about how to roll the stone away from the grave - a seemingly impossible task. How do we overcome our propensity to sin? Yet we ought to accept God's sovereignty and his strength to help us overcome improbable odds.

"It's like those 12-Step addiction programs," he continued. "Even they emphasize the need for a higher power as one of the first steps."

"The Twelve Steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

"As Christians," the pastor continued, "we don't simply call upon a higher power, but upon the highest power."

I sat up straight in my seat. I had never heard AA mentioned in a sermon before, and certainly had never encountered the twelve steps. How unusual was it that this pastor would bring up AA just after the month I had spent becoming familiar with it. Even more so, his sentiments echoed my own disappointment at AA's inability to grasp that final revelation of utmost importance - Who is this God?

God was replying to my thoughts about my AA experiences through my brother and through my pastor. Indeed, it seems quite plausible that it was God who had seeded such reflection to begin with. Uncanny, I thought. In my mind, I was already trying to commit these revelations to memory so I could scrawl them down later. The uncanny Lord God, my brain hurriedly titled the experience.

Then it came, the description of the angel by the pastor - "He seemed to have some uncanny knowledge about God. He knew things about Jesus." Now I don't know how much you hear the word "uncanny" in everyday conversation (if you read my writing, then perhaps more often than is typical), but hearing that word come out of my pastor's mouth licking at the heels of my own thoughts was staggering.


Fear not!

At the beginning of the service, the pastor had introduced a little bit of interactivity to his sermon. "At times," he told the congregation, "I am going to say, 'Jesus is alive!' I would like you to respond with 'Hallelujah!' At other times, I am going to say, 'Christ is risen!' I would like you to respond with, 'He is risen indeed!'"

Throughout the service, I mumbled through these exchanges; but by the time we arrived at "uncanny" I was ready to jump out of my seat, pump my fist in the air, and yell, "Hallelujah!" But I didn't. Something in my heart was afraid of breaking down that wall and being undignified, of expressing the praise that was bursting out of my heart. As I pondered this with guilt, the next few words spilled out of the pastor's mouth...

"What are we afraid of?" Gotcha.


15 And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.

God was speaking to me today through a series of coincidences. He was speaking to me this month through a set of experiences. He was calling me back to him, calling me to growth, and calling me to share his love with others. I was afraid. I am still afraid.

But it is our journey and our challenge to put into practice that which we have learned, and to walk the path that God has set before us. I'm sure that with God's faithfulness and strength, he will enable me to finish that which he has begun.


To conclude his sermon, the pastor taught us a short four-line prayer.

Jesus is here.
Thank you God.
Help me God.
Help my brother or sister.

Jesus is here. Thank you God that during this season of remembrance, when we reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, we need not be filled with sorrow. Instead, we can rejoice at your triumph over death and our resultant salvation. Help us to follow you in love and obedience, and in doing so be a blessing to those around us. Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The nature of love

Today, my church conducted a poignant and deeply contemporary Good Friday service. It was the kind of hip, emotional programme that really affected me as a teenager - complete with moody lighting, heartfelt music, and dramatic art. It was incredibly well done. Interspersed between each section were short, pointed messages by each of my church's English pastors.

JOHN 3:16 (KJV)

16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

The service provided plenty of time for prayer and reflection, and sharply reminded me of God's love for us. In the final moments, our head pastor imparted four key responses: Accept God's love. Guard that love. Feed off of that love. Share that love.

This simple message struck a powerful chord with me. As school and life have swirled around me, I have predominantly allowed my walk of faith to coast upon that which I had already established. No longer did I have time for quiet times and scripture readings. I believe in God, and I accept his love, but I simply didn't have time to grow.

God's love is immense, so much so that he took on flesh and died for the forgiveness of our sins in accordance with scripture. How should we respond to this love? We should return it. Reciprocate it. Our love, like God's love, should be an active love - a growing love.

I need to return to a life of devotion and faithfulness, to rekindle the light of joy and love in my own heart. If you happen to find yourself in my shoes today, I hope you will too.


Postscript: I recognize too that after walking out of an emotionally charged event or service, it is easy for each of us to have an emotional response. The challenge for us then is to examine that response, and if it is valid, to translate it to more than just a tugging on our emotional heartstrings but a commitment by our soul.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

God of our understanding

As part of my community health course at school, I've been spending quite a bit of time attending sessions at or related to Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is a pretty unique program geared toward helping alcoholics overcome their addiction. It's laid out as a twelve-step process, supported by other alcoholics. Abstinence to AA is a lifelong and life-changing road. Recipients of the fruits of the program in turn give back what they have gained through sponsorship of other alcoholics, their time, and their commitment.

To AA, recovery is a spiritual process requiring a "psychic change" or radical shift in the way an alcoholic perceives the world (a Christian might call their initial state a "hardened heart"). It requires that they accept that they alone are not in control of their addiction and require a power outside themselves. The often controversial third step of the twelve step program is as follows...

[We made] a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

The words "as we understood him" are key to modern AA practice. While AA claims to be a spiritual organization, it does not purport to be a religious one. Today, the "God of our understanding" signifies a power beyond ourselves. Some people understand this to be the God of a particular religion, others a general energy force guiding the universe, and still others attribute this to be the power of the group itself.

This raises a number of interesting issues. Firstly, despite its non-religious underpinnings, AA feels familiarly church-like. Meetings generally begin with a prayer (the Serenity Prayer) and key doctrinal readings to AA (the Twelve Traditions and Twelve Steps). These are followed by announcements and then by a speaker. The meeting welcomes newcomers and then closes with a prayer (often the Lord's Prayer).


God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Despite the recognizable structure (akin to opening prayer, scripture reading, announcements, sermon, welcome and introductions, and closing prayer) and even the recital of Jesus' own prayer, AA is a non-religious entity and will remain so.

Speaking to a fellow believer about the church-like feel of AA meetings, they commented, "It feels kind of incomplete to be approaching so close to the truth, yet to shy away from it."

I understood the sentiment. Alcoholics Anonymous had formed under the auspices of the Christian faith, recognizing the effectiveness of that faith yet with the laser-like focus of attacking alcoholism. But the purpose of AA is to treat alcoholism, not to proselytize for Christ or any particular religion. If faith in one particular God is a barrier to helping others overcome alcoholism, then it cannot be integral to AA. It is our job as the church to spread the good news of Christ.


19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

An interesting dialogue arose during the sharing of an alcoholic at one of the AA sessions I attended. The alcoholic in question was of the impression that God did indeed exist, and he made the following statement:

Religion is man-made.
Spirituality is God-given.

I found this to be an understandable statement, though I disagreed with it. Religion as an institution is man-made, yet the foundation of religion are claims of truth brought to man through revelation. If spirituality is God-given, that is if God exists to share of himself and his nature with us, then it makes sense that God would reveal to us things spiritual. That is what religion is: knowledge about God, and life, and goodness revealed to man through a spiritual interaction with God himself.


12 "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Perplexing, though, was that the same man then followed up with this anecdote:

One day we were going over the third step, and my sponsor said, "Oh, you think I'm going to give my life over to just any God? No, I don't think so. I'm going to write the job description for God. And my God is going to be better than any of your gods. He's going to be omnipotent, omniscient, he's going to have a sense of humour..."

And I thought to myself, that's a great idea. So I took that God as my God. Then I added the most important characteristic of my God: That he loves me and wants nothing bad for me.

Two reactions hit me at the same time. Firstly, this description of the ideal God fit the God of Christianity to a tee. He is omnipotent, omniscient, creative... and he is love!

1 JOHN 4 (NLT)

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Secondly, by setting out the job description for God, you are setting limits on a being that you already believe exists. That is man-made. If God exists and is empowering you, then imagining your own set of characters for God to possess if futile. God is who God is. I am reminded of the song Who? by the Newsboys:

How we gonna work this out?
To fabricate a God like this no doubt
We'd end up worshipping a Christ of our own design
But Jesus doesn't fit that profile
His ways aren't mine

I'm not following a God that's imagined
Can't invent This deity
That's why Jesus is the final answer
To who I want my God to be
He's who I want my God to be

Get your own playlist at!

God is beyond our understanding or our imagination. Were it not so, how could he be God?


20 Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. 21 Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

I'd like to share one last anecdote. When asked what kind of experiences led him to believe in God, the speaker shared a story of how he had been drunkenly driving one night, speeding toward a motel to get laid. Losing control of the car, he swerved into the opposing lane. If there had been any traffic in the other lane he would have been dead on impact, but luckily he had caught the opposing lane on a red light. This was not the only instance where such an incident occurred. He expressed an inability to explain these blessings without a greater power looking after him.

During the break, when the speaker had exited the room, two of my colleagues began discussing the experience. One began:

Red light? He had a 50/50 chance. What about that 50% that didn't survive to tell the story. God? Come on!

I found this attitude somewhat disconcerting. Sure, there were certain odds at work. (The fact that this had occurred on more than one occasion probably means the he beat the odds by quite a bit!) Certainly, survival does not and cannot prove the hand of God. True, people die everyday. But what this man believed - that he had survived by the grace of God and that he had been in that positive 50% because of the hand of God - true or not, is not ridiculous. It is not impossible. It is not absurd.


28And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

God exists. He is unchanging and beyond our capacity for invention. He calls to you and to I. He loves us, and desires to do good to us and through us.