Sunday, September 21, 2008

Stumbling in the light

This morning I was feeling a little bit spiritually isolated, having recently tripped over a common stumbling block in my life. In spite of this initially muted state of mind, the service really hit home for me today. Coincidence? Maybe not. The sermon was given by my favourite English pastor, Quang Nguyen, who was speaking on Dealing with the Demonic.

The passage he was speaking on was Mark 5:1-20, where Jesus drives a legion of demons out of a man into a flock of pigs. He opened with a discussion of how these days, many people reject the idea of Satan (even some professed Christian groups). These people view Satan in the Bible as a representation of mankind's sinful nature and that believing in Satan as a living entity is grounds for absolving ourselves of blame for our wrongdoings.

Yet the demons in this story are not just an analogy for sinful nature. They had a genuine manifestation. Quang cited C.S. Lewis as describing the two most dangerous views about the demonic:
  1. That demonic powers do not exist at all (the materialist)
  2. That demonic powers do exist, and are responsible for everything (the magician)
Indeed, we must guard ourselves from seeing "demons around every corner" so to speak. But I have heard too many stories of spiritual attack from people in whom I trust to disbelieve its authenticity (usually occurring on the front lines of evangelical mission-work).

While most people have not experienced demon possession, Quang went on to outline five ways other ways that Satan attacks:
  1. Temptation
  2. Deception / Lies
  3. Accusation
  4. Disunity / Argument
  5. Physical Suffering
After the first four, I was a little bit worried that Quang was going the route that he had described in the beginning (attributing Satan solely towards attitudes and temptation), but was somewhat relieved that he did at least briefly acknowledge that such influences can at times have physical manifestations.

However, physical suffering was not the topic that I was most interested in. It was the first three attacks that really found a foothold in my heart this morning. They essentially represent a twofold attack. First, Satan tempts and deceives us. He gradually goads us into doing what we know is wrong through soothing temptation: "Who's going to know?" "You deserve this." "It's okay, everybody does it." Once we fall for the temptation, then the strategy is reversed as Satan turns to accusation: "How could you sin again?" "God doesn't care about you, you're already too far gone!" Indeed, this is a precise series of events that plays out in my life time and time again, and the very state of mind that I had walked through the doors this morning with was very similar.

Guilt of this kind is something that I have at many times in my life struggled with: the desire to live a righteous life contrasted with continual failure. Yet it is this continual failure that fuels our need for salvation, and demonstrates God's great love for us in his forgiveness. One time, at least a year ago, when I was struggling with this very problem, my brother offered a wise perspective: A relationship like God is like a relationship with a spouse. You may do something wrong, and hurt your spouse once in awhile... but your spouse does not hate you or forsake you because the general character of your relationship is one of love. In the way that marriage is more than just counting the strikes against your spouse, God's love is not invalidated by our stumbles even after we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.

Quang offered this caveat, however: "Divine sovereignty does not negate human responsibility." Just because Satan exists and tempts us does not mean we are not responsible for our actions. Indeed, we need to actively struggle. While Satan certainly has sway in this world, we have been provided with prayer as a means of combatting temptation and Satan's influence. Oftentimes, this is likely where my stumbles begin: while I recognize the error in my actions as I am pushed towards temptation, I fail to call out to God for help, and on my own, I am overcome.

The sermon's conclusion expressed two different ways we can respond to God's power over Satan: We can recognize his power and reject it out of fear, or we can accept it and be transformed. Indeed, for salvation in Christ, more is needed than merely faith that Christ (for, as the Bible states, even demons have faith in the existence of Christ) but also and acceptance of his gift of forgiveness and acceptance of his Lordship.

At the very end, Quang asked the congregation to keep our pastors in our prayers. He described how pastors often face the brunt of spiritual attack, not because they are more important than other Christians, but because they provide the most visible face of the Church. When Satan causes pastors and leaders to stumble, then the outside perception of the Church is damaged leaving others with sentiments like, "Told you so - they're all hypocrites." He provided an amusing illustration, which I have more or less duplicated below:

A pastor, on their own (top), may be able to defend against some spiritual attacks, and yet may be easily taken unawares and blindsided. Two people together (middle) praying for a pastor, may exert yet further spiritual support. But if an entire congregation (bottom) were to pray sincerely, then a leader should be well protected against attack.

At the end of the service, the worship band played the response song Jesus Paid It All. At this point, I felt pretty moved, and I had this awkward feeling of tears at the back of my eyes (which I held back, of course). But I was really touched by the words in the song of the Saviour speaking (to you, me, to his people): "Thy strength is indeed small," and the crimson stain of sin being washed white again.

Elvina M. Hall, 1865

I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small;
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.”

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

For nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim,
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.

And now complete in Him
My robe His righteousness,
Close sheltered ’neath His side,
I am divinely blest.

Lord, now indeed I find
Thy power and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone.

When from my dying bed
My ransomed soul shall rise,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
Shall rend the vaulted skies.

And when before the throne
I stand in Him complete,
I’ll lay my trophies down
All down at Jesus’ feet.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Easy to preach; difficult to practice

How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live... but live in hell.

These words are sung by Javert in Les Misèrables, a police officer who had spent much of his life on a vengeful quest to bring a criminal who had escaped him many years earlier to justice only to find too late the error of his unforgiving quest.

Judgement and anger are two negative reactions that I struggle with on a daily basis. Forgiving in the absence of apology, for me, is difficult. Forgetting is nearly impossible. One chance encounter can often ruin my entire day, and subsequent days when the encounter finds its way once again into my recollection.

Today, for instance, a friend and I walked to Queen’s Park subway station. There was a line at the turnstiles so I lined up with her. When she had just passed through the turnstiles, a man (and someone behind him) appeared to be edging their way into the vertical line diagonally. I rushed ahead and swiped my pass, hearing the man trying to bud in swear under his breath: “Ugh, that guy just budded me.”

On the way down to the subway platform, my friend and I took the stairs, and the man took the adjacent escalator. On his way past me, he slammed his hand down on the rubber escalator railing to make a loud noise. This only served to further aggravate me, since I knew it was him who was clearly trying to bud into line. So his offences included not only trying to bud in but also thinking he had the right of way and belligerently being unable to keep his anger to himself.

Now once we get to the subway platform, my friend and I take separate routes; she goes north and I go south. So sitting by myself I had plenty of time to stew. In my head I have a tendency to replay scenarios over and over imagining how things might have turned out if I had reacted to the offense (these scenarios usually tend to get more angry and outlandish as I continue to imagine) and to work myself into a state of very high tension. Still, while I am reluctant to let go of the anger, I know intrinsically that these responses are not optimal. Not only are they not good for my psychological and physical well being, but they are also contrary to God’s direction for our lives.

Love for Enemies
43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And so God calls on us to love not only those who are kind to us, but those who are not. Still this is very difficult, especially for me, as I often give into anger against thoughtless strangers quickly. Then I began to doubt: we are called to love those who offend us and who are unrepentant. Yet God, in his infinite mercy, still does not forgive those who do not believe or seek forgiveness.

Of course the answer to this came to me as quickly as the rebellious thought appeared. God has in him the authority to judge because he is just and blameless. In fact, today during lunchtime fellowship the idea was brought up that God must be just. As such, the sacrifice of Jesus’ life was required for our atonement – we as sinners could not simply be pardoned. We, as sinners, though forgiven are imperfect and unworthy. The role of judge is not ours to take upon ourselves.


7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

11"No one, sir," she said.

"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

Despite knowing these things in my head, I still lacked the will or the faith to put them into practice. The blood was still pumping through my veins. And so, I closed my eyes, and I recited the Lord’s prayer, with a bit of a revision…


9b" 'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us today our daily bread.
12Forgive us our debts,
[and help us too to forgive] our debtors.
13And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.'

And as I recited this over again and again, I felt my pulse slow down. Still, I knew that my bitterness would not be so easily tempered. So I tried to picture the stranger who had offended me, this time without feelings of anger. I tried instead to imagine how I might have responded to the situation with the opposite approach, in a gentle way that would make it difficult for the other party to remain incensed. In this way, I calmed myself by envisioning a proper Christian approach to a challenging situation.

Then in popped into my head another instance today of an offense by a stranger. Still, not to be irked after making this much progress, I again tried to approach this situation from the other cheek, imagining a gentle and loving response.

In a way, these imaginings were much like a game. It is unlikely that I would naturally think of responding in these ways given a situation like this, and even more unlikely that I would be able to put it into practice. But by playing this game, I look to change my way of thinking so that one day this may be more than a game… completely usurping my quick and fiery temper.

The question then is, who am I? Certainly, I continue to answer many situations with unrighteous responses: negativity, anger, or scorn. But through God’s love I can call upon his power to walk towards being the kind of person that I desire to be – a Christ-like kind of person… if I am truly willing. It is that kind of submission that will be most critical, and will continue to challenge me and my rebellious selfishness.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sowing for a Harvest

Worship Reflections

This weekend my church had a "Focus on Africa", with the band Krystaal leading worship. Krystaal is a group whose core is composed of men who escaped oppression in Congo and made it to Canada after a gruelling time in refugee camps in Kenya.

I really did appreciate the unique style that African Americans bring to Christian worship. The gospel style of music often associated with black churches and African American Christians carries with it a vibrancy and liveliness that is extremely warm and unrestrained. Participating in worship led by Krystaal was a great experience, and they are extremely blessed with wonderful voices.

While attending St. James Anglican in Kingston I developed an appreciation for traditional worship including an organ and proper choir. The beautiful harmonies reflect the affluent culture that cultivated classical music and extraordinary technical skill. Other Christian music draws on other social cultures, such as contemporary Western culture or African culture. All can be heartfelt, and this eclecticism helps to make worship something universal that brothers and sisters in Christ can all participate in in a manner most relevant and touching to themselves.

Sermon Reflections

Today's sermon was from Mark Chapter 4. Below is the text from the ESV version:

The Parable of the Sower

4:1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

The Purpose of the Parables

And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that

“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. [1] 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold."

The pastor touched on a number of major points. Firstly, in all these cases, the seed was the same (the Word). Thus the problem is not the seed, though often people will criticize the Bible. Secondly, in all these cases, the sower is the same. Thus the problem is not the sower, though often people will criticize Christians.

The problem is the soil: our tendency to turn away from God's will. We do not know the condition of a person's heart, only God knows this. Our job is to sow, to spread the seed and trust in God for the results. We should not be worrying about the "quality of the soil", but simply spread the seed earnestly and lovingly.

So then, what are the things that I learned from this sermon? Firstly, there is the issue of the quality of the soil. I have heard many criticisms of the church because of the kinds of people that attend. Of course there are many sincere Christians, but there are also those who come for social or recreational reasons. Some people feel this is an affront - that the church is lessened by the acceptance of these kinds of attendees. However, so long as they do not cause the members of the church to stumble, this is actually a great thing. It is the church's calling to draw people into its folds. Not all people who come will be sincere and not all will be receptive, but the church should be a beacon to bring all sorts of people through its doors so that many can be exposed to the Word. Of course, not all will be "good soil" that will bear fruit, but it is not the quality of the soil is God's concern, ours is to sow.

Secondly, I learned about myself. Jesus had outlined all sorts of responses to the gospel in this parable, and while I had heard it many times, they had never stuck out to me more than "good soil" and "bad soil" i.e. "accept" or "reject." But today, hearing it again, the types of soil began to take on meaning for me.

For instance, I began to see myself in the seed that grew up in thorny soil. Obviously, as Christians we all strive to be "good soil". However, often I do feel held back out of fear (e.g. from sharing, or committing to tasks such as travelling to developing nations or short-term missions). I do get bogged down with the concerns of life, using schoolwork (or worse: TV, games, Facebook) as an excuse for not taking quiet time to study scripture or pray. I do struggle with desires such as wealth, etc. It is equally true that God has given us many and diverse gifts, and that not all are suited for every role in the church, but rather we are parts of a greater body. But this parable does demand that I (perhaps we?) reflect on whether we are acting as "good soil", doing God's work and being fruitful, or are being choked by the "thorns" and the matters of this world.

Lastly, I learned about sharing. By this time I have had experiences where friends of mine have been seeking, or have even come to accept Christ, only to turn away. I often kick myself for these experiences, shouldering blame for not being more supportive and more available. Yet we do not know the condition of people's hearts. There is seed that falls in the rocks, sprouting up quickly, and being extinguished quickly. It is God who works in the hearts of men; we sow the seed as best we can. Now obviously this is an oversimplification - we do have responsibilities for the seed we sow. We do have to be supportive, loving, available, and helpful where needed; working to cultivate the seed. But we are also only a part of God's plan which involves many parts. Thus, we share, as best we can. The Word will not always take root, but we sow for the harvest and must trust in God for the results.

Growing together

I'm starting this blog in order to better facilitate the sharing of my thoughts on spiritual matters.

I have separated out these kinds of reflections into their own space to offer more focus, and also in consideration of those who might be disaffected by the discussion of these things in the open. I realize that many of the people that visit my website are interested in my life and not my spiritual opinions, and I have thus opted to not discourage their readership of my Chronicle by spiritualizing it.

I hope that those who do share in this aspect of my life will appreciate and share in my reflections.