Our World Belongs to God – Reflections

In my first two years on campus at the University of Ottawa, I held a series of conversations with students asking for their reactions to the Christian Reformed Contemporary Testimony, Our World Belongs to God.  The participants included both Christians of a variety of denominations and non-Christians who were willing to give me some honest feedback while reading the testimony with me.  I am very thankful for their time and their responses.  In response to these listening conversations I will be writing a series of reflective devotions that I will share on this blog.  Today is the first of these devotions.  To those who read them, I hope they serve their intended purpose, which is to reflect upon what it is that Christians believe.  I welcome your feedback and thoughts, not only on the devotions, but also upon the testimony of Our World Belongs to God.  Your responses can…

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Advent 3: “Home” Through the Wilderness

Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water.  When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” – Exodus 15:22-24

National-Lampoons-Vacatio-001Back in the 1980’s there was a popular movie called “Vacation” staring Chevy Chase.  It chronicled the Griswald family vacation as they journeyed across the United States to an amusement park called Wally World.  Of course a movie wouldn’t have much appeal if it was a simple A to Z sort of journey.  This story includes the wrong ugly station wagon (is there another kind?), teenagers embarrassed by their un-cool parents (is there another kind?), visits with strange cousins Catherine and Eddie, the unwanted travelling addition of Aunt Edna (who has the nerve of dying on the trip), the cruel death of a dog and when they finally arrive at Wally World, wouldn’t you know.. it’s closed.  Only a movie can make any of these things funny, in reality these events would make us cry.

The Israelite journey sometimes reminds me of the Griswald family vacations in that it often has a “if it can go wrong, it will” sort of feel to it.  But because it isn’t a movie, it isn’t that funny.  Consider the Israelite journey leading to Exodus 15:

God calls Abram out of comfort to be a nomad. – Abram and Sarah have to wait a century for children. – A re-enforced a barrenness plan is thrust upon subsequent generations. – The lying twin named Jacob with a reputation for crooked choices is the chosen one. – The family is saved from famine through Egyptian enemies. – Salvation eventually turns into slavery through an Egyptian pyramid scheme (okay I couldn’t resist sliding that in) – God listens to the cries of the people and raises up a heroic leader named Moses. – Powerful plagues give witness to God’s control over creation. – The people are freed from slavery and they walk through the Red Sea on dry ground. – The people party like it’s 1446 BC.

82Keller.qxdAnd so they begin to make their way to the Promised land.  Three days later…3 days…and they begin to grumble about a lack of food. If you consider what they’ve just witnessed it seems unbelievable.  Over the course of their wilderness journey we read in Exodus that the Israelites grumbled at least 19 times, 5 of those times in the first month after they walked through the Red Sea.  They are such a bunch of ungrateful, short sighted, egotistical, and selfish people.

complain lemonsExcept that none of us are ready to call them that are we?  For we know we are a people who can wake up in the morning to a ray of sunshine, but when our toast burns we’re already mumbling about a crummy start to our day.  We get to study in world class universities, but an 8 o’clock class has us cursing the schedule maker.  Our kids can play happily for an hour, but in the one-minute that they choose to go in the forbidden cupboard, we let out an exasperated yelp of frustration because “you kids never listen!”  And these are only the day-to-day matters.  What about when it comes to weightier matters of faith and life.  We can have freedom to come and go as we please and live a lifestyle that is by most standards around the world abundantly rich, yet when the stock market dips we feel hard done by.  We can have perfect health for fifty years and then when there is a medical hiccup we wonder why God would let this happen. Short-sightedness is not just an eye problem but a heart and soul problem, and it wasn’t a disease that only infected the ancient Israelites, it affects all of us today.  When we hear the people grumble and complain at the waters of Marah, which means bitter, the reaction we should have is not one of self-righteousness, but rather it should humble us because we are looking in a mirror.  And sometimes we need to take a good look so that we are aware of just how ugly we can be.

Jordan-wilderness-e1324397675349It’s a good thing that no one in the Israelite camp had their own GPS tracking device because if they would have plugged in the coordinates of the Promised Land they likely would have been driven crazy by the little voice that says, “re-calculating.”  God’s takes them on a path through the wilderness that is not the easy route between Egypt and the Promised Land.  This tends to frustrate not only the Israelites, but we today as well, for we all tend to want to take the path of least resistance, the one that we can makes sense of, the one that we can control.  But our way “home” through the wilderness always seems aimed at getting us to let go of personal control.

The season of advent is a season in which we long for a perfect world, a beautiful place, we long for God to make all things right.  But we long for it because we very much understand that we are like the Israelites wandering in the desert.  We have days where it is so hot that you could fry an egg on our back, it’s so dusty you can taste it, our feet have blisters, our kids want to know how much further we have to go, and did we mention that it’s hot?  Our spouse doesn’t want to stop and ask for directions, the same diet of bread is getting old, the group in front of us has a nasty digestion problem, if you know what I mean, and did I mention that it’s really hot?  Yes we know what it means to walk the desert journey and we can find lots of things to complain about. smelly baby But advent is a time to remember that God’s ways and God’s timing are not ours. God’s journey…get this…includes using a baby to transform the world.  Babies cry, they need diaper changes, they sleep a lot (you hope), and they need constant care.  A baby is not a neat, clean, tidy and efficient way to redeem the world…but we know that eventually this baby shows what true life is all about…but that story takes time, it takes a lifetime.  And the baby needs to learn to walk before it can run.  And so do we.

Advent 2: To find “Home” one must “Go”

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went…”  Genesis 12:1-4a


you-are-here2It is quite something to feel one`s smallness.  Last year I accepted the challenge of beginning a campus chaplaincy at the University of Ottawa.  I remember walking the densely populated hallways and walkways during frosh week 2012 and wondering what I had gotten myself into.  I was raised in a devout Christian family where the Bible was read at every meal.  I had been Christian schooled and trained under those steeped in Abraham Kuyper`s “every square inch” theology.  On then to a Christian University, then on to work in that same Christian University, then on to seminary before taking a call to pastor a church for six years before moving to Ottawa.  Walking then in the University sea of diversity – a diversity of ethnicity, convictions, and intellectual pursuits – I found myself meaningfully experiencing what it is to be the stranger in the land.

I felt small. I felt scared. I felt out of control.  Thank God.

As easy as it is for us to cloister ourselves among people who think, act, and believe the same as we do, the Biblical message is one of going.  The book of Genesis isn’t centred on the creation narrative; it’s centred on the call of Abram.  SumerianZigguratIn Genesis 11 the post-flood people said “Come, let US build OURSELVES a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let US make a name for OURSELVES.”  It represented a self-centered desire to be autonomous, uniform and self-inflated.  God hated it.  God interrupted it.  God scattered them.  And their desires and words are contrasted with God’s words in chapter 12 to Abram when God says, “I will show you, I will bless you, I will curse those needing cursing.  You won’t make a name for yourselves; I will be the one to make your name great. And ALL peoples will be blessed through you.”

And Abram went…to be a stranger…to go to the place God would show him.

hymn_trust_obeyThe subsequent “going” as it is played out among Abram’s descendants, the nation of Israel, is filled with twists, turns, challenges and repeated returns to “Babel” status.  But God never gives up and He continuously pushes his people to “go” and take on a “stranger” status.  And it’s in the Gospel that God himself re-enacts the ultimate call to “go” and to be a “stranger” in the land.  The journey to a manger in Bethlehem is God’s way of leading his people in a way of “going” and of being “small” and being out of “control”…Thank God.

Advent 1: Longing for More Than Rockwell

God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. – Genesis 1:31

mothers day offIn 1916, the cover of the Saturday Evening Post contained the illustration on the left called “Mother’s Day Off.”  I’m sure that those who subscribed to this magazine back in the day didn’t realize that they were receiving first edition prints of one North America’s most famous 20th century artist/illustrators; Norman Rockwell.  Over the course of the next 50 years Rockwell produced numerous prints of American life, most of them depicting a clean wholesome traditional way of living.  One might describe Rockwell’s illustrations as nostalgic, capturing the emotion and heart of scenes that we long for, capturing the emotions of days gone by.  He creates a picture of home that people long for.

Norman-Rockwell-ChristmasAt Christmas time many people long for home.  And what they long for is a Norman Rockwell ideal. At Christmas we want to sigh and remember children opening presents with wrapping paper tossed aside, large turkey dinners with Grandma’s special stuffing recipe, and even singing at church with all the traditional Christmas carols.  We long for such scenes, but…but our homes include annual arguments over which family is hosting the extended gathering, uncle Norman’s one drink too many comments that makes everyone squirm and the pain of remembering people who are no longer sitting at the so-called festive table.  We may feel nostalgic for home at Christmas time, but what is it that we’re truly longing for?

The home we’re longing for is a “good” creation.  In fact, it could be argued that although we don’t know what heaven will look like, the best description is found in the creation account.  God’s good, just, beautifully ordered world is what we all long for – a place of Shalom. Shalom writes Neal Plantinga is,

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. . . . In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which the natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be . . . In a shalomic state each entity would have its own integrity or structured wholeness, and each would also possess many edifying relations to other entities.”[i]

Such Shalom is more appealing than any Norman Rockwell painting.

Dame Barbara Hepworth Creation

“Creation” – Dame Barbara Hepworth

But we’re not home now are we?  If we are all longing for what is right, if we are longing for rest and shalom, then that likely means we are all too painfully aware that our current setting is not home.  And that’s probably one of the greatest ironies of trying to reproduce Norman Rockwell Christmas scenes.  No amount of tinsel strewn around our living room is going to make cancer disappear.  One more chocolate letter and Christmas card is not going to change the bad decisions that have caused addictions in our family.  The perfectly cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce aren’t going to bring back the loved one that we’ve lost.   Buying a plastic blow up Santa Claus from Canadian Tire is not going to eradicate aids in Africa.  We may read about the perfection of the Garden of Eden, we may read about the beauty of God’s creation and we may know that it describes what home is supposed to be, but our present reality no matter how we try to dress it up at Christmas reminds us that we are not home.

This Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent.  In the Christian calendar, Advent marks the start of a New Year.  Advent is the season of anticipation which might equally be interpreted as a season of prayer, because we’re praying and waiting upon God.  The Christmas scene is far from quaint and nostalgic. The first Christmas was a tiresome journey as the result of oppressive requirements from a foreign occupied Roman rule. It was a “no more room” birth in a dirty stable.  Therefore Advent is a season in which the Christmas narrative reminds us that God, through small humble beginnings, interrupts the world’s expectations of power and begins to re-establish home. To this we sing, “O’Come, O’Come, Emmanuel.”

[i] Neal Plantinga, “Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be”

The Problem with Planning

Some years ago, Jill and I decided to ride our tandem from Western Michigan (where we were living at the time) to her childhood home in upstate New York. We didn’t have an exact route in mind. Instead, we gave the atlas a cursory glance before tossing it into our bike trailer with the rest of our gear and figured we would find our way. (This was a rather significant step forward in planning from a previous tour around Lake Michigan when we left our map sitting on the kitchen table.) “The way I figure it,” I said to Jill as we packed our bags and prepared for our departure, “if we cover sixty-five miles a day we should easily be there within a week.”

When we finally rolled into my in-laws’ driveway one week–and some seven hundred miles–later, it was quite clear that I had figured wrong.

All this is to say that I’m not much of a planner. But I also recognize that a little planning can save a lot of trouble.

I’m trying to remember that as I set out to do one of my least favorite tasks: planning my preaching schedule for the coming year. At First Denver, “planning the calendar” means deciding on an overarching theme for the church year (e.g. “God’s Peculiar People”), then settling on different sermon series for different blocks of the church year (e.g. “Peculiar Habits”) and then identifying specific text and themes for each week. In the ideal world (though not often in the real one–much to the chagrin of my worship planners!), this is all done several months ahead of time (if not more). As I’ve mentioned, it is not a job I relish–but it is one that I recognize as valuable. Among other things, planning ahead allows:

*Leaders of other church programs (from Magnify to Cadets to Adult Sunday School) to coordinate their themes with those being addressed on Sunday morning.
*Worship planners to provide special elements in the worship service (from organ preludes to dramas to sanctuary decorations to choral numbers) that compliment theme of the sermon.
*Preachers (in this case–me) to save time (and frustration!) by collecting illustrations and insights on the text/theme well before sermon writing day and by picking out the text in advance (I learned early on that a great way to waste my time is to crack open the Bible on Tuesday morning unsure of what text I hope to preach the following Sunday.)
*Worshipers to connect each Sunday with a broader theme and reflect on a certain aspect of their lives with Christ over an extended period of time.

Clearly, there are benefits to planning–and I part of me wishes that I had the brain power to plan several years in advance.

And yet–part of me continues to resist planning (at least as I currently try to do it). Admittedly, that is partially due to my personality, partially due to the fact that that there is no sermon series (and for that matter, no sermon!) as perfect as the one that has not yet been committed to paper. But I have a more serious concern, too: I wonder if my approach to planning presumes upon the text. That is to say: when I choose a text because I believe what it says fits into a series, which in turn fits into a broader theme–and do all this before taking time to immerse myself in the text and listen to what it says, I have not allowed the text to speak on its own terms.* I have short-circuited the possibility of new discovery, removed the opportunity to be surprised by the text.

In one of her books, Barbara Brown Taylor describes her sermon writing process. She writes:
“…I never know [before I study the text] what I will preach. If I did, then my sermons would be little more than lessons, expositions of things I already know that I think my listeners ought to know too…I do not want to scatter pearls of wisdom from the pulpit; I want to discover something fresh–even if I cannot quite identify it yet, even if it is still covered with twigs and mud. I want to haul it into the pulpit and show others what God has shown me, while I am still shaking with excitement and delight.
The process of discovery begins with the text. Whether I like it or not, I approach it believing that God is in it and I commence the long, careful discipline of panning for gold…”
(The Preaching Life, pg. 86)

Taylor’s words describe some of my greatest hopes–and my greatest fears–for my preaching. They also leave me wondering what to do next. What do you think?

If you spend your Sunday mornings in the pulpit:
*Are there ways to hold on to the benefits of planning while avoiding the potential perils? In other words, is there a way to plan that allows the text to remain primary? What process do you use?

If you spend your Sunday mornings in the pew:
*Do you find it helpful when a sermon is connected to a broader series? Why or why not? What makes a “good” sermon series?

If you are either a preacher or pew sitter:
*Have you had experiences (positive or negative) with the lectionary or preaching straight through books? How does this approach compare with a more “topical” approach (In other words, how might a series marching through the Gospel of Luke compare to a series on “FAQs” or “Taking God to Work”?)

* This assumes that I’m not pulling from a mental file of previously researched texts. (After nearly seven in one congregation, this is increasingly difficult– unless I preach the same texts repeatedly.)

Check Your Posture

Yelp reviewers gave the church four and a half stars. When we entered on Sunday morning we could see why: from the warm welcome we received from a volunteer named Bob (“Here’s your welcome packet–don’t forget there’s a coffee coupon inside. Now let me show you to the nursery.”), to the topnotch childcare facility (complete with playground, automated check-in services, and a separate stage with an big screen TV and a child-size drum kit so that each age group could have their own worship time), to the professional lighting and set design on the stage in the main auditorium, to the well-polished band that managed to stay perfectly in sync with each other and the Power Point (no typos on the slides here!), to the well-honed delivery of well-tanned pastor–every thing was perfect. Or at least perfect enough to merit four and half stars.

And yet, as good as it all was, I couldn’t help but wonder. Was it working? Was it working for those inside the congregation? Yes, the auditorium was full, but were these people being effectively discipled? Where all efforts of this church helping them become more like Jesus? (These are questions that haunt me about my own ministry, too!) And what about those “outside”? Almost everything about our Sunday morning experience–from the music to the childcare facility to the sermon series (Celebrate Families!) to the coffee bar in the lobby–suggested that this congregation saw reaching young families as a core part of its mission. So, were their efforts paying off?

To be sure, I can’t claim any deep knowledge of this congregation. My experience was limited to a single Sunday morning–a few hours if you count the extra time we spent on the playground. But when I looked around the packed auditorium, I was struck by the fact that the average age of those gathered appeared closer to seventy than to thirty. In fact, at least three fourths of those gathered for worship looked as though they might be taking the bus back to the local retirement home for lunch after the service. Perhaps things were different in the 8:00 or the 11:00 services–but in the service I attended the answer to my second question seemed quiet clear: No, it was not working.

It was a sobering realization. I serve a congregation that also seeks to serve and minister to young families. We have a few already–but we’d love to have a few more (especially those who do not have any meaningful connection with a church–or with the King of the Church)! When we think about how we might attract more of them, it is easy for us to think that if only we could deliver a better Sunday morning product–if we could hire a drummer and rehearse the band a little longer and find a more interesting preacher and spice up our kid’s programs–then things would take care of themselves. But here was a church that was doing all that–and doing it well (did I mention the well-deserved four and a half stars?)–and it wasn’t working. If it wasn’t working for them, is there any hope for the rest of us?!

Somewhere around the preacher’s third point, my mind wandered to a chapter I had read the previous day in Hugh Halter’s book The Tangible Kingdom. (What can I say, I’m not very good at listening to sermons. I guess I am out of practice.) In the book, Halter argues that highly polished programs and five-star religious products within the church are not the key to attracting people to the good news. Instead, it is our body-language–our posture–when we are outside the church that matters most. If we want people to be drawn to Jesus (and into the fellowship of those who love Jesus), they must see us stooped in service with him, washing the feet of a hurting world. They must see us leaning into the kingdom of justice and mercy and wholeness. They must see us bending over, shouldering our crosses and following him.

That doesn’t sound easy. But it does sound like something that just might work. And by the grace of God, it does sound like there just might be some hope for the rest of us.

*What do you think?
*Who has made the Kingdom-Life attractive to you?
*How can (or does) your church community reflect the beauty of Jesus’ death and resurrection in tangible ways?
*How is your posture?

Without Shame

And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. – Genesis 2:25


Lifebuoy adOne of my favourite radio programs is the CBC’s “Under The influence” (formerly “The Age of Persuasion”) hosted by Terry O’Reilly .  O’Reilly gives both an exposition of the tricks of the trade in the world of advertising and an exposition of human gullibility.  More often than not I am stunned at how we are subtly (and not so subtly) shaped by commercial means.  One of the shows that recently caught my attention was an episode entitled “Shame: The Secret Tool of Marketing.”  He says,

“The strategy of “shame” is one of the most powerful marketing tools in modern times. Fear of being judged by our peers has led to billions of dollars of products being sold.  Social embarrassment isn’t just a mix of humiliation, mortification and distress, it’s also a heady cocktail of marketing, strategy and product solutions. And the marketing industry has a vested interest in keeping shame alive and well.”

listerine ad %22how's you breath today-%22For example O’Reilly traces is the use of deodorant.  Before the 20th century deodorant wasn’t something used by your average person.  Through the use of advertising the suggestion was planted that people around you are judging you based on your smell.  Almost overnight people began to buy deodorant because body smell was something to be ashamed of.  Or how about mouth wash.  Listerine was originally used as a floor cleanser but it was discovered that it could kill oral germs.  The only problem was that no one was worried about bad breath.  Listerine created advertising about the problem of “halitosis” and a new market for mouth wash was created.  Before 1960 people didn’t worry about dandruff, but advertising taught us that it is something to be ashamed of and Head Shoulders was there to solve our “problems.”  It took Wisk almost 10 years to convince us that “ring around the collar” was an embarrassment, but they got there.  The list goes on.

What is most shameful appears to be the ease in which we sink into and hold onto shame.

At the end of Genesis 2, the end of the narrative of scripture which is traditionally labeled as “Creation” (a good and perfect creation) the statement is made that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) At the pinnacle of beauty, relationship and order this incredible statement describes a world without shame.  We then read in the next chapter that when humanity felt the need to be all knowing, to be like God, the first consequence was…shame – “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Genesis 3:7)

And so began life with shame.  But it is not something to accept.  Salmon Rushdie once wrote, “Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.” (“Shame”)  We accept so many of the lies culture tells us, everything from believing that our children will grow up undeveloped if we don’t put them in umpteen activities to the belief that your front lawn isn’t good enough if it sprouting dandelions or that being sweet 16 and never kissed as being a bad thing (and we’re not talking about mom and dad’s loving pecks on the cheek).   These lies are based in the shame of not being good enough.  So many of us have learned to live with shame and it is to the detriment of the goodness of creation and the glory of God.

0609forgiveness2The apostle Paul writes to the Philippian church, “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Philippians 3:18-21)

Without getting into a full exposition of this passage, the line that jumps out for me is the comment of “their god is their belly and their glory is in their shame.”  Where do we find our glory?  Are we content to bow to shame?  Too often we seem to settle into the very things we have been sold as worthwhile and important.  We wake up in the morning more worried about body odor, bad breath and grey hair than enjoying the fruit of the creation and the freedom to walk with God…as he made us, beautiful, original, and in his image.  Our lives and our identities are not defined by shame and the judgment of others but by a generous God who is constantly transforming us by his spirit.  If we understand heaven correctly as not just a place of clouds and harps, but a restored creational order, then we live the future in the present, we strive for more of heaven on earth, we work towards “the man and his wife [being] both naked, and…not ashamed.”