Thursday, December 6, 2012

Keeping the "X" in "Xmas"

It seems at this time of year that we often hear of people getting upset at the use of the word "Xmas" in place of the word "Christmas". The concern is that by using "Xmas" instead of "Christmas" that we are blatantly taking Jesus out of the season. To be honest this argument has always made me laugh, and so I feel compelled to explain why in this blog. 

The New Testament was originally written in Greek.  In Greek the word for "Christ" is Χριστός, which begins with the Greek letter (known as chi) that is basically the same as the English letter X. So, as I understand it, the original use of Xmas was simply an abbreviation of Christmas. Really there is no conspiracy here. 

But I know that we can't deny that there is a move to secularize Christmas in our culture. This should come as no surprise to us. The reality is that we live in a culture where most people are not following Christ and therefore their understanding of Christmas will reflect this. 

But I sometimes wonder if we as Christians aren't also complicit in Jesus being removed from the season. Have we as followers of Christ allowed all the other things about the season to crowd out the Christ-story in our own lives? I recently heard someone suggest that one of the ways that we can be ensuring that Jesus remains central in our own expression and understanding of the season is to make sure that for every time we (and our family) hear a secular Christmas story (i.e. Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Elf...etc), that we should make sure that we take the time to also read, or retell, the story of the birth of Christ. In this way we would ensure that our culture's understanding of the season would not crowd out the significance of what the Bible tells us about the birth of Christ. 

I can't help but wonder if our way forward is to stop fighting the "keep Christ in Christmas" battle in the public forum, and seek to ensure that Christ is prominent in our own Christmas celebrations and then seek to live that out in tangible ways. 

Just a thought...

Also, I found this blog about St. Nicholas. Definitely worth the click! (click here)

Monday, December 3, 2012

When our escapes become all too real

I am a sports fan. I like watching sports. I like reading about sports. I like listening to sports talk shows. I even play fantasy sports. I recognize that for me that sports are an escape. When I engage the side of me that is a sports fan I am able to temporarily shut down other parts of my brain for a while - indeed listening to a sports show in the car can be a little mental getaway in between the other, truly important, things that are a part of my life.  

I say all this knowing that I am not the only one that views sports in this way. On some level we need getaways such as these. But I also know that sometimes sports as a getaway can become too big of a part of our lives and we can live in this place, forgetting what is real and meaningful and begin to believe that the entertainment is what holds substance. 

This weekend the divide between the getaway of sports and the messiness of real life has been crossed. Many of you know the story already that a football player killed his girlfriend and then killed himself, leaving a young girl orphan.  It is a truly tragic story that I believe will take a while to unpack and digest. 

This morning I find myself changing up my day-off routine of having sports on in the background of my day. My escape is no longer an escape. I am reminded that brokenness cannot be avoided no matter how I would try to. Real life includes chaos, anguish and injustice. Indeed it can look like death is winning. these places of darkness and death, we are called to point to the light of the true life. I am reminded that God is not okay with suffering, indeed God is on the side of life! As a follower of Christ, I am called to proclaim this good news to those who are without hope!

This week at youth group we looked at Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones and were challenged by the imagery that God would breathe life into bones that seemed beyond resuscitation. As one of my students pointed out, it is like the Creation story all over again! It is God's desire that we live as those animated by his divine breathe. A life that disperses darkness, confronts evil and holds a great hope.

Going back to football for a minute. A friend of mine once suggested that fantasy football has made commodities out of people. I cannot argue that this is completely untrue. The reality is that by investing ourselves in our escapes (whatever they are) that we can  forget that we are dealing with real people who are in need of God's breathe of life in their lives. May we never forget this and may we always be striving to proclaim the good news of God's hope!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Why the Trinity matters...

I have been working on a discussion topic for a group of young adults this week. The topic that was chosen by the group is on understanding the Trinity. Great. A nice easy one to explain (can you sense sarcasm in a blog?).  So after figuring out why I should never explain the Trinity using the classic water-ice-vapour analogy again, I found myself drawn towards what God's three-in-oneness teaches us about love. 

As Christians, we believe that 'God is love', meaning that he is the definition and source of love. We also believe that God is eternal and is unchanging in his nature. On this philosophical level, C.S. Lewis points out that the Trinity is necessary, for without it  God cannot be love. "All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that "God is love." But they seem not to notice the words 'God is love' have no real meaning unless God contains at least two persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God were a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love." (C.S. Lewis, Beyond Personality, 1948). So our Christian understanding of who God is and that he is the very source of love in the world, must include that God is three-in-one. 

On another level, the Trinity tells us something about God's relationship with us. Because God is three-in-one, God is not lonely and in need of creation, us, for his fulfilment. God is fulfilled in himself. In other words, God does not need us. Rather God chooses to create, love and redeem us because he wants to. This ought to speak powerfully to our hearts, knowing that God's love is genuine and not under any compulsion by unmet desires. 

Lastly, I was struck by how the Trinity can help us understand that we were made to be in meaningful relationships with other people. Again I will point you to a quote that I believe captures this thought rather well. "...the Bible tells us we were built for coventantial relationships. We want and need to have other persons unconditionally, unselfishly committed to us, and we to them. Christian theology tells us we were made in the image of God, and that God is a Trinity. Jesus said he never did anything, said anything, or accomplished anything without his Father. The persons of the Trinity are absolutely one - each person does everything with the others. We are meant to live like that." (Tim Keller, Indeed in our yearning to be deeply connected to other people, we are echoing the nature of the Creator who created us to be like him.

All this to say that this week has helped me to see that the understanding the Trinity can help me understand much more that my doctrinal statement, but can help me nuance my understanding of God, my relationship with him and with others. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Getting called out...

My personal reading these days is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship. This is my first time reading this classic and is really challenging me in a number of ways. This morning as I sat in my favorite coffee shop I read the words below and was moved to posted them on Facebook.

‎"Since the ascension, Christ's place on earth has been taken by his Body, the Church. The Church is the real presence of Christ. Once we have realized this truth we are well on the way to recovering an aspect of the Church's being which has been sadly neglected in the past. We should think of the Church not as an institution but as a person, though a person in a unique sense."

I am used to getting a  token amount of "likes" when I post stuff like this. But this time I got called my mother. She wrote, "OK pastor son, now speak to your people about specific ways to do this. Seldom is this fleshed out when we talk about it." 

Indeed one of the things that I appreciate about my mother is that while she has the ability to think deeply, what is important to her is that thoughts don't stay so deep that they don't ever result in action. Theology cannot stay on the mountain, it must be worked out by the people - a quote like this needs to be unpacked and reflected on if it is to truly be profound and life-changing. 

What you will find below are just a few thoughts that I have about what this quote might look like in real life. I know that my thoughts are not exhaustive in anyway, and will be limited to only a few ideas, so I invite you as the reader to add your own by leaving a comment. Let's think this through together! 

  • Recognizing that the Church is "the real presence of Christ" should wake us up to the reality that we are Christ to our whomever we have relationships with. This should move us to reject the temptation to withdraw from our society, but instead become more involved with it. And...we may need to do some reconciliation work for any sins we have committed in the past. 
  • We should be looking for opportunities to embody the love of Christ in tangible ways and looking for opportunities to invite them to know Christ for themselves. We will look to the example of Christ and realize that this is not something you can do from a distance, but will be personal, and sometimes messy. Jesus' ministry wasn't neat and tidy and neither should ours. 
  • When we realize that the Church is not an institution, we will stop thinking in terms of who is in and who is out as if we were a club.  Rather we will think in terms in terms of relationships and desire that we be helping people move closer to Christ.
  • We will realize that there is way more to the Church than meeting on a Sunday. Being a part of the Church, the Body of Christ, is a way of life that requires all of who we are. 

Late Night Reflections...

It is late. I am tired...but a little wired at the same time. This could be due to the rather large "medium" coffee I drank earlier this evening or the copious amount of sweets that I ate at our young adult gathering sometime after the coffee. Either way, I am awake when ordinarily I should be sleeping. 

But this "awake" time is allowing me to rehash some of what has happened over the past week. Indeed as I sit here I am acutely aware of the fact that I have seen God at work this week in some cool ways, and even cooler, I feel as though I have been allowed to participate in some of what God is doing in some real ways. That being said, I am not sure that this forum is the venue that I want to go into detail sharing what is all going on - let's face it, these are stories best shared over a cup of coffee. 

So what am I saying? I guess I am saying that these moments have me excited and are propelling me with a new energy to move forward. I want to continue to see God's hand at work...and I desire to participate in what he is doing. I am also wanting to encourage my readers (whoever you are) to be looking out for the ways that you see God at work wherever you are. May these be stories that inspire you to draw closer to Jesus and energized you to be involved in his mission. 

Good night!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cracked Pots and Flourishing Flowers

My wife and I try to make a habit of going for walks. During our walk last night she enthusiastically shared with me a story that she had heard on a podcast during her commute. As she shared we both found ourselves reflecting on the profoundness of this short story. It is simple, and yet very deep.

Back in the days when pots and pans could talk, which indeed they still do, there lived a man. And in order to have water, every day he had to walk down the hill and fill two pots and walk them home. One day, it was discovered one of the pots had a crack, and as time went on, the crack widened. Finally, the pot turned to the man and said, "You know, every day you take me to the river, and by the time you get home, half of the water's leaked out. Please replace me with a better pot." And the man said, "You don't understand. As you spill, you water the wild flowers by the side of the path." And sure enough, on the side of the path where the cracked pot was carried, beautiful flowers grew, while other side was barren. "I think I'll keep you," said the man.
~ By Kevin Kling (accessed on September 14, 2012 from On Being with Krista Tippett

For me this story has illustrated a recent reality that I have found myself living - that my brokenness can be used to bring life to others. Indeed, as I share myself, being honest about fear, hurt and my questions, I find myself with opportunities to be with people in similar situations and to also share with them my experience of God in these times. In fact I wonder...well maybe I know... that if I had it all together (or pretended to be flawless), that some of these opportunities for life to spring up may not happen. 

But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
~ 2 Corinthians 12:9

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Speaking from Experience...

It has been a while since I last wrote on here, so I am going to ease back into things with this reflection from my quiet-time this morning...

I was reading the story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man (see Luke 8:26-39) and was struck by the last few verses. Jesus has just totally changed this man's life and it seems logical to me that the man would want to go with Jesus...I would! But instead of taking the man with him, Jesus instructs the man to go home and "tell how much God has done for you." 

As I have been thinking about this I am impressed by the reality that the healing of this man was not just for this man. Sure Jesus has great compassion on this oppressed and afflicted individual, but I can't help but think that this miracle is also for the sake of the others who are in the area. Jesus intentionally leaves this man behind to be a lasting reminder that the old ways of spiritual oppression were being dismantled, that God is doing something new. Just by his presence in town, this man was to be a testimony to the power and compassion of Christ. In addition, this man was charged with the task to speak about what God had done for him. To simply share what has happened and who is responsible for his radical transformation.

I can't help but think that this story has a lot in it for those of us who call ourselves Christians today. Sometimes after big God-experiences we are tempted to pull ourselves out of our culture, we can hide in Christian bubbles, we can disengage from relationships, we can function in our society just enough to get by but really have no vested interest in it. But I think that this story points out that pulling away is not necessarily why we have been "saved". Indeed what God has done in our lives should be there for others to see too. We need to be present and active. We need to find ways to live out our faith in vibrant, and culturally appropriate, ways that point people to Jesus. Not only this, but I believe we too are charged to be able to speak to the very real difference that God has made in our lives. Remember, this man is not asked to spout knowledge about God, he is not asked to learn a specific evangelistic methodology, he is asked to share from his experience of God. 

So today I am pondering what this all means in practical terms. How can I best live out, and testify to, my experience with Jesus that help others see him in real ways too. Thoughts? 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jesus Wept...

Jesus wept (John 11:35). This verse is the shortest verse in the English Bible. Two words. But these words represent so much. Bible scholars tell us that these words in this story are not just referring to  the tears that fell down Jesus' face, but of much deeper emotions. Outrage. Heartache. Anger. Uncontrollable grief. What is described is Jesus' total outrage at death. He is overwhelmed with emotion. He is angry at the brokenness of his world. He is grieved by the loss of a friend and for those who are mourning. What is described here is God personally standing with those who are mourning and fully entering into the range of emotions that comes with the human experience.

At the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing where 168 people died is this statue of Jesus. His back is to the site of the destruction. He is facing, with his head in his hands, the memorial of those who died. I think that it reminds that God is not absent in such horrific events. He might not answer the "why" questions in a way that satisfies our souls, but he is present. He is heartbroken at the brokenness of life - he can't stand death and pain. He is standing with those who mourn. Weeping. Indeed our God is not remote. He does not stand back and leave us to feel the sting of grief and loss on our own. He is with us. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Discovering God's Will For Our Lives

Ever found yourself wrestling with what God might want from you or for you? What is God’s will for your life? Well this week in my church’s young adults group we grappled with this topic. This is some of what we talked about…and then a bonus video that we didn’t have time to look at.

Usually when someone is wrestling what God’s “will” might be, they are trying to make a decision. They want to get a sense of what God might have in store for them and maybe find clarity of purpose or direction. In this sense we can understand God’s will as being two-fold. There is God’s “universal will” and God’s “specific/individual will”.

When I refer to God’s “universal will”, I am referring to what God desires for all people, everywhere, regardless of personality type, culture, geographic location and other variables. It is through scripture that we realize that God’s will for all people is to be in relationship with him through Christ (1 Timothy 2:3-4), that he wants us to yield to Christ and be transformed (Romans 12:-12), to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:5-17), and to invite others to follow Jesus as well (Matthew 28:19-20).

Of course there are other aspects of this will of God for us such as putting God and his priorities above our own, loving others, doing good to our enemies, hanging out with other believers, representing Jesus to our neighbours, and seeking justice and mercy. These are just a few other aspects of what God would desire for all people. In fact, one of the most basic tests of whether what we are doing/considering/pondering/desiring would be acceptable to God for us, or his will for us, would be to check with scripture. In this way we are to ensure that we are in line with God’s desires for us. The reality is that it is possible to honor God, to be acting in his will, doing any number of things

However, there are times when God seems to want to fine tune his desires for us to something more pointed. These will always been in line with God has revealed in his universal will but are specific to an individual in a unique circumstance. So how might we discover what God might have in store for us? I would suggest that the following are four parts of the conversation that God has with us as he reveals himself and his desires.
  1. God will reveal himself and his desires to us as we are in the habit of reading scripture. It is here that we learn God’s heart and he shapes ours. It is here that we have our priorities reshaped and our dreams recast in light of who God is and what he asks of his children. It is here that his Spirit moves within us. 
  2. God reveals himself and his desires to us as we are in the habit of spending time in prayer. As we spend time in prayer, we allow room for God to speak to our hearts. As we give him our burdens we realize his ability to carry us and things find new perspective. As we sit and listen the Holy Spirit transforms us and whispers movements and visions.  
  3. God reveals himself and his desires as we include the godly counsel of those whom we trust. These are the people who see things differently than we do. With wisdom, perspective and experience they can ask questions, reflect our thoughts back to us so we can see them for what they are, and pray on our behalf.
  4. God reveals himself and his desires through the circumstances of life. God uses the circumstances of our lives to shape us into the people he would have us be. He has given us passions, abilities and places in locations and situations that can guide us to find our place. These may not always be fun or what we might wish for in our “ideal” setting. But all circumstances can be used for God’s good. 

Lastly, in my own search to understand how God speaks to me, I have found the following guidelines helpful.
  • Leadings from God are consistent with the Bible.
  • Leadings from God are usually consistent with the person he has made you to be.
  • Leadings from God usually involve servant-hood (in contrast with fame and fortune).
  • If a leading requires you to make a major, life-changing decision in a very short period of time, question it.
  • If a leading requires you to go deeply in debt or place someone else in a position of awkwardness, compromise or danger, question it.
  • If a leading requires you to shatter family relationships or important friendships, question it.
  • If a leading creates unrest in the spirit of a mature Christian friend or counsellor as your share it with them, question it.

My experience tells me that discernment does not happen as quickly as I might like, but that the timing is always bang on. May your experience be similar as God shapes you and leads you into the person that he desires you to be. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Responding to Issues of Injustice

Last Tuesday/Wednesday I witnessed something amazing. I watched my Facebook newsfeed blow-up with people becoming aware of an injustice in our world and passing the word along. As a person who works with teenagers and young adults, and would like to consider themselves looking for ways to address injustice in our world, I found everything surrounding the Kony 2012 campaign very intriguing. I watched the video, read blogs and articles, posted thoughts and responded to questions from students and friends. I am not sure what will happen next with this…nor am I entirely sure what I think should happen next. But in my processing this event around the issue of Joseph Kony and the LRA, I have found myself reflecting on a number of things. This blog entry is me attempting to organize my thoughts. It is not my intent to directly address the Kony 2012 campaign by Invisible Children. Rather, I am sharing where my brain has been over the past few days in hopes that through sorting out my own thinking that others may be encouraged to think about issues such as this in different ways than they did before. I am not someone with all the answers, just someone trying to sort some things out as he goes. ~ Josh

·         The power of social media is absolutely incredible!

The response to the Kony 2012 video re-enforces for me that there is a generation of people out there who care about injustice and are willing to get excited about a cause if they can only become aware of it and be given practical ways to engage in a solution.

I can be swayed by a well put together video with a cute kid in it. *sigh*

I appreciate simplicity and directness in how a cause is advocated for. This makes it easy for people to grab onto and for them to understand what they can do. However, I am realizing more and more just how complex our world is and that to reduce issues of injustice to simply being “black” or “white” is not fair, nor does it lead to actually addressing the issue. More often than not the issues that we are reacting to are symptoms of something deeper and more systemic.

For every good, or well-intentioned, idea there will be feedback and criticism. It is wise to listen and evaluate all voices in the conversation. Who knows, maybe these other voices can provide some missing perspective.

I need to get into the habit of researching the organizations that I give money to. This is not pointed at any one organization, it is just wise stewardship.

I think that for “awareness” to be more than simply an emotive response to new information we need to be willing to learn more on our own.  There is always more to the story. In addition, I think that for “awareness” to be genuine, that it needs to move us to some sort of action. Being an advocate cannot simply be passing along a video that is going viral and changing a profile picture. It should change us.

I think I often delude myself into thinking that writing a letter to my MP or donating funds makes me somehow an advocate for the weak and working to end injustice. While these are good things, these are often acts to appease my conscious so I can feel good about focusing again on myself. I am thinking that being “aware” is a way of life that probably begins with an examination of my own priorities and how things like my coffee purchases effect (and possibly oppress) others.

I feel uncomfortable with responses to injustice that remind me of colonialism (i.e. western domination, the west solving the world’s problems for them, etc.). We haven’t exactly had a great track record with this. Rather I am drawn in by organizations that seek to partner with indigenous peoples and empower them to implement solutions.

I like the idea of mobilizing the public to advocate to their government officials to stand against an injustice and be a champion for the weak. I am uncomfortable with mobilizing the public to demand something from their governments that may in the end look like military force.

I am encouraged when I hear stories of forgiveness and reconciliation amidst a situation that seems to not be conducive to such movements of grace.  

I  feel like however we (I am speaking specifically to Christians here) respond to issues of injustice that we need to be devoting ourselves to praying for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven (see Matthew 6:10).  It is through prayer that we can discern how God would have us participate in his kingdom-mission against injustice and through prayer that we will see God do what seems impossible to us.  

Well, those are my thoughts for now…

Monday, February 6, 2012

Reflections on Counterfeit Gods

I have just finished Tim Keller’s Counterfeit God’s and found it to be very thought provoking and challenging in many ways. It is about idolatry. But if you are like me you don’t exactly have little statues of pagan deities set up around your home. However, what Keller writes about is so much more. He defines an idol as being “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” (pg xx).  With a definition like this, we realize that perhaps we have more idols in our lives than we would like to admit and Keller spends considerable time looking at things like money, success and even love. The concern is that God commands, and has designed, us to live with Him in the top priority place in our lives. Anything else is idolatry and will result in us not being all that God designed us to be relationally or spiritually.
In the epilogue (pages 165-177), Keller lays out four thoughts/questions that are designed to help the reader, discern the idols in our own lives. I am still pondering what it means for me, but wanted to share it with my readers in case it might be helpful for you as well.

The first way that Keller suggests that we identify idols in our lives us to look at our imagination. He writes, “The true God of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention.”  And he asks, “…what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?”

The second thing that Keller suggests is to ask about how you spend your money. He writes, “Your money flows most effortlessly toward your heart’s greatest love. In fact, the mark of an idol is that you spend too much money on it, and you must try to exercise self-control constantly.” I think that it is important to note how Keller phrases what he writes. I don’t think he is simply talking about where the majority of your income goes to (i.e. rent, hydro, groceries), although I suppose it could. Rather he is suggesting that we look to where our money seems to disappear to and where we struggle to rein in our spending.

The third identifier that Keller suggests is for those who would profess faith in God. He asks, “… what is your real, daily functional salvation? What are you really living for…?” Indeed many of us struggle with placing our trust in things that are not God and relying on those things in order to give us happiness, satisfaction and security. “A good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes.” When we are faced with unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes, where do we go? What do we lean on? How do we react? Perhaps here is an idol that we have given the place of God in our lives.

The final test that Keller lays out looks at our uncontrollable emotions. Keller writes, “…look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong.”

I know that I am working through these questions, and will hopefully do so for the rest of my life, but I would hate to end this post like this. Idolatry is putting something in our lives in the place that God should be. But Keller is careful to note that if we uproot an idol and fail to replace it with Christ, then the idol will grow back. Indeed this is where spiritual disciplines are important. Because they focus our hearts on the love of Christ and are an instrument of the Holy Spirit to reshape the deepest aspects of who we are and what we rely on.

Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope 

Monday, January 30, 2012

standing at the back of the room, afraid to look silly...

Yesterday I was helping out with our children's program at church. As the group was singing together, I found myself critiquing the song for coolness (completely forgetting that it was for the kids not for me) and I was resistant to doing the actions because I thought I would look silly. But then I made eye-contact with two little boys.  They were new and we had bonded when they came into my class. I realized that they were looking at me to know what was okay and what they were supposed to do. And so I started singing and doing the actions to the song and then they started singing and doing the actions too.

Afterwards I reflected on this event and realized that it illustrates the importance of positive role models. These boys were looking for the one person they knew to show them that it was okay to participate in what was going on. What would have happened if I just sat back and crossed my arms? Would they have engaged in the group activity? I think that my leaving my comfort zone meant that these two boys were more engaged in what was happening, and maybe more open to the lesson than they would have been other wise.

I think that perhaps there is a lesson here beyond just how to lead children. That we need to realize the importance of positive role modelling and the impact that we can have on people's perceptions of Jesus. I believe that people are looking for examples of what it means to follow Jesus in real and tangible ways. They want to see that Jesus matters in everyday life. Can we do this? Can we testify to this? Or are we standing at the back of the room afraid to look silly?

~ Josh