Monday, February 27, 2012

New Man

(Click here to listen)
Mike Charko and Keith Shields
(SOCAN 2012)

(Rom. 8:19, 22;  2 Peter 2:19)

I’m a new man
a neon sign
fleeting footsteps
mark my time
Pooling money
worn out shoes
a trusting spirit
nothing to lose

Waiting for the sons of God
to be revealed
Waiting for the Son to shine
One day I’ll be free

Slaves of corruption
creation groans
they might break my
mortal bones
Fractured rhythms
I hear the shots
search and rescue
eclipse my thoughts

Waiting for the sons of God
to be revealed
Waiting for the Son to shine
One day I’ll be free

Head for the station
before it’s too late    
I need a thousand hands
to carry this weight

Waiting for the sons of God
to be revealed
Waiting for the Son to shine
One day I’ll be free

Waiting for the sons of God
to be revealed
Waiting for the Son to shine
One day I’ll be free

"We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper." - Karl Barth

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Calgary and Vancouver

I have lived in Calgary, Alberta and in Vancouver, British Columbia. Recently, a trip to Calgary caused me to reflect on the differences between the two cities. I love both cities for different reasons. I flew into Calgary on the morning after a blizzard that had left a thin layer of snow on everything and patches of ice in the turn lanes of the roads. I was quickly reminded of how many times I was rear-ended by drivers who did not leave enough stopping distance in front of them during my time in Calgary. I put on my winter-defensive-driving skills and headed for the city.

One of the first cars I pulled up behind at a red light had a bumper sticker that read, "Warning, the occupant of this vehicle may be armed." Welcome to Calgary! The other thing I noticed was how far it is between Starbucks. I had to drive several blocks before I saw one.

One thing I love about Calgary is the fact that drivers do obey the speed limits. When I lived in Calgary I did not appreciate the constant presence of photo-radar. Now coming back to the city I saw that it actually works. In Vancouver, I have often wondered why we have speed limits that are never enforced. The construction zone along Highway 1 is set at 80 km/hr within Vancouver but if you travel at less than 95 you are liable to have people honking their horns at you. In Calgary, John Laurie Boulevard is set at 70 km/hr and it could be argued that much higher speeds would be safe as well. It is two lanes of straight, unobstructed roadway and all of the drivers were travelling at 70 km/hr. It was quite refreshing. Vancouver, also has very few playground and school zones where the limits are set at 30km/hr. I had to remind myself to watch for these in Calgary.

On the whole, Calgary is quite a law-abiding city. I went the whole day in Calgary without smelling the pungent aroma of someone smoking pot.

Calgary also has very clean streets. Vancouver streets often have a layer of trash and litter that swirls around in the wind and gets soggy in the rain. Calgary, on the other hand, has very little litter. When I say clean, I mean clean except for the sand, gravel, grit, and general dust of a dry, snowy, wintry city. And that is probably the main reason why people choose living in Vancouver over Calgary. You just don't have to deal with winter.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Human History

In his book, Reason For God, Timothy Keller juxtaposes two quotes from H.G. Wells.

Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realize our boldest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, and that our children will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of achievement? What man has done, the little triumphs of his present state ... form but the prelude to the things that man has yet to do. - H. G. Wells, A Short History of the World (1937)

The cold-blooded massacres of the defenseless, the return of deliberate and organized torture, mental torment, and fear to a world from which such things had seemed well nigh banished - has come near to breaking my spirit altogether ... "Homo Sapiens," as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out. - H. G. Wells, A Mind at the End of Its Tether (1946)
Notice that Wells wrote the second statement just nine years after the first quote. One could say, "H.G. Wells was just a bit mercurial. He was a writer; those guys are always exaggerating." Or, is this about how most of us see the world as well? Perhaps at one and the same time we rejoice at the great progress of the human race and we are sickened by our propensity to violence and crime. Do we not even recognize this same condition in our own hearts knowing that each and every one of us is capable of great love and great hate? I know that my own heart has a propensity to want, and sometimes take, more than I deserve. I am jealous of what others have and therefore do not love those others as I should. If my situation were different, if these emotions of mine were cultivated by a charismatic leader for the political aspirations of a nation, a race, a religion, who knows the monstrous acts of which I might be capable.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said,

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? - The Gulag Archipelag

Solzhenitsyn is talking about a word we no longer speak in polite company: "sin." The only solutions for sin are found in God. The solutions are not political, psychological, economical, or medical. The solutions are not in religion, not in our version of God, not in our version of the God story. The solutions are found in God. Augustine said to God, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee."

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, 'Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well'" (Matthew 5:38-40). Jesus also said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Seek the answers for humanity in a God who has dealt with the darkness of men's hearts and has provided a solution.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Legion Two

We have seen God move in mighty ways as he speaks to us as a community and not just as individuals. One evening in one of our house churches we were studying Mark 5:1-20, where Jesus delivers and heals the man called Legion. Although we share the duties of leading the study, it happened to be my turn to lead. I had prepared by reading the passage, studying some commentaries, getting the historical context, all the things that a good preacher would do. As I was leading the discussion, Daphne brought up a difficult question. Now in our group we have many divergent personalities and perspectives. Daphne is a vegetarian and she is a vegetarian because she has a very soft heart for animals. I on the other hand, am a farm boy raised in rural Alberta who respects animals but believes that they are part of God’s provision for humans. I love a good steak or a pork roast. Daphne and I have learned to appreciate each other’s perspectives and enjoy some good-natured humour at each other’s expense as we would share a meal together at church. Daphne was disturbed by the fact that Jesus allowed the evil spirits to enter the herd of pigs which led to the pigs plunging down a steep hill and drowning in the lake.

As a theologically trained person I began to wrack my brain trying to come up with a good reason for why this might have been done. None of the commentaries I had read had addressed this issue. I suspected that it had something to do with God’s judgement against the owners of the pigs and I vaguely remembered something like that from Bible college. But fortunately before I said too much I opened the question to the rest of the group. Another member said, “It makes me think of the high value that Jesus placed upon the man named Legion. Jesus loved this man so much that He was willing to allow the death of 2000 pigs to demonstrate the value of this man’s life.” We continued the conversation talking about the value that God places even on the sparrows and how this man had been cast out by his community and was driven out into the tombs where he lived among the corpses. The community did not want to have anything to do with him and treated him like garbage but Jesus showed him love and community. This made some sense to our whole group and we believed that this was the message God had for us that night.

The next day, I received a phone call informing me that a friend of mine had tried to take his own life and was in the hospital. As I went to visit him it occurred to me that this man had something in common with “Legion.” My friend (I will call him Legion Two) was very much rejected by society. He was a twice convicted high risk sex offender whose victims were children. Society at large tends to consider such people impossible to rehabilitate and chases them out of their communities. I had become part of a Circle of Support and Accountability group (a highly effective ministry of the Mennonite Central Committee) and had been holding him accountable and supporting him so that he would not reoffend for about three years.

Legion Two told me that he felt hopeless, unloved, rejected, and hated. He had tried to end the emotional pain. I shared with him what our house church had been studying the night before and told him of the value that Jesus had placed upon another person whom the world had rejected. Legion Two broke down in tears. This was a key turning point in this man’s life and his spiritual journey toward Jesus.

Our community had heard a message from God as together we grappled with a challenging passage. And God spoke to another person through our community. This was a tremendous encouragement to our body of believers. I was glad that I had not simply preached to a crowd and that we had a format that allowed God to work in this manner.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Follow-up to "Things That Can't Be Explained"

I was thinking about what Alan Lightman had said about the Osprey flying over his head as he watched from the deck of his house as I went for a run past portions of False Creek. It occurred to me that I too had had an unusual, hard-to-explain encounter with animals a while ago. The full blog can be read here but here is an excerpt from it.
As I walked along the seawall of False Creek a seal popped its head out of the water and began swimming at the pace of my walk. A second seal raised its head and swam beside it. The two swam along beside me for a while before diving below the surface and disappearing. I commented to God that it seemed like He had given me a sign to reassure me but that it was so brief that it would be hard to know. As I continued to walk, the two seals appeared and kept pace with me again before diving and disappearing below the surface. I said to God, "If I were a man like Gideon I might ask for a third time." As if on cue, the two seals appeared beside me a third time, swam beside me for a few more meters, swam out into the middle of the bay, disappeared below the waves, and did not return.
Of course there are several scientific explanations for an experience like this but it is not easy to explain the feelings that both Alan Lightman and I experienced in these situations. If we are simply products of chance and proximity to a star, why do we feel such a sense of holy awe and mystery with incidents like these?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Things That Can't Be Explained

It is refreshing to hear an atheist and physicist admit that there are some things that he can't explain. Alan Lightman, in an essay entitled "Does God Exist?", has this to say.

I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but, in the end, we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.*

Many of the "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, and the late Christopher Hitchens have been trying to convince us that they can use science to prove that God does not exist. What they are really doing is coming close to showing that it is possible to imagine a way in which the universe could exist without a need for God. This, of course, is far different than proving that God does not exist. Lightman explicitly states that some things are just not provable in the way that a physicist proves a theory. We cannot set up an experiment that could be used to once and for all prove that God does not exist. Such things are outside of the realm of science. Lightman knows this and I suspect that the new atheists also know this but will not say it because it does not serve their rhetoric and their ultimate goal of getting rid of religion.

Philosophy, theology, art, and poetry are not science. Such disciplines often defy description by science and are in fact legitimate means of exploring the questions of ultimate meaning and reality. We cannot allow proponents of a rationalistic science to convince us that the only tools we are allowed to use are those on the scientists tool-belt. Despite statements to the contrary, philosophy is not dead; and neither are theology, art, and poetry.

Lightman has a marvelous story within the essay of how he and his wife had spent several years watching osprey nest near their summer home. They studied the birds in their spare time and made notes about their behaviour. They knew much about the birds from a scientific perspective. But one day something "other" happened. He describes it this way.

. . . one August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within 20 feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I cannot explain what happened in that half-second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.#

*Lightman, Alan. "Does God Exist?" October 2, 2011. (accessed February 9, 2012). The whole essay is worth reading.
#(Lightman 2011)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Community and Care

It is important to tell good news stories of people finding care and community in the church. The following story is an example of how this can and has happened in the life of one church. The names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

The Siparia family had been part of a house church gathering for nearly two years and in that time they had seen a number of challenges. They had been loved and supported through the death of the grandfather of the family and then they struggled with poor health of their grandma. Connections Christian Church in Calgary became a surrogate family for these immigrants from Trinidad.

Grandma Renata developed a serious infection in her foot that reduced circulation and threatened her life. The doctors suggested that the foot would need to be amputated. The church community began to pray that God might save the foot, and for a while it looked like God had answered that prayer. The doctors felt that with a little more antibiotic treatment and hydrotherapy they could prevent an amputation. The church rejoiced. However, a few days later the doctors determined that the therapy was not making enough of a difference and that the amputation would need to be performed to save Renata’s life.

This challenged the faith of all in the group, but our daughter, a 15-year-old at the time, expressed it best when she said, "It feels like God is teasing us!" "It looked like God was going to answer our prayer for healing and then He didn't." Renata, a woman of great faith, taught my daughter, me, and indeed our entire community a great deal when she said, "If we look at the Bible we see that many people had trials and tribulations. Why would we not expect the same? I have already said good-bye to this foot. I will have a new one in heaven."

The Sunday evening after Renata returned home from the hospital her family still wanted us to have church in their home. Her bed was in one corner of the living room to allow her to function on the main level of the house. As she sat up and told us her story of faith and what God had been teaching her through these experiences, she was surrounded by 30 attentive people who wanted to hear a message from God. Children, teens, young adults, and middle-aged adults listened intently. The Holy Spirit spoke through the Bible and through the life of this committed believer that evening. She gave us hope for a good future in the midst of the temporary struggles of this life.

Because Renata was in the process of immigrating to Canada, she did not yet have medical coverage for the hospital bills which added up to more than $40,000. Renata’s house church family (and some from the broader house church network) gave more than $13,000 to a trust fund to help with these medical expenses. After the initial payments were made the group continued to walk with the family as they worked through the immigration process and made payments on the remaining bills.

Why do I say that it is important to tell stories like this? I meet many people who tell me that they are Christians and follow Jesus but they have quit attending any form of church. They think that they can be Christians on their own. But stories like this show the importance of being together in community. It is possible that God might have met the needs of this family if they did not attend a church; but, because they were a part of a Christian community many people were able to think through significant issues and learn how to follow God in good times and in bad. God worked through this committed group of believers and showed the power of love and community.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Working Together for Good

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. - Romans 8:28.

I used to understand this passage something like this: "God looks after His people and nothing will go wrong for us." Now that is a rather simplistic understanding of this passage and it is one that does not help us much when we fail or when disease comes or when someone hurts us.

If we read this verse in its broader context: Romans 8:27-29 (New Living Translation), it reads.
And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
God has been teaching me a few things through this passage and through circumstances in my life. If we look at the passage in the broader context we realize a different emphasis. The emphasis is not on how everything is going to work out well for me. Or to put it more simply, it is not all about me.

Verse 27 makes it clear that one emphasis of this section is God's will - what He wants for the world. Verse 29 makes it clear that another emphasis is making us become more like Jesus. If I look more deeply at this I realize I need to have a different understanding of this passage. I realize that it is even more helpful than I thought in seasons of failure or success.

God is in the business of making me the kind of person He wants me to be. He is working on making me more like His Son, Jesus. In good times and bad times, the goal is the same. God wants me to daily become a bit more like Jesus. And He wants me to become more like Jesus so that together we can accomplish His will here on earth.

So God is teaching me that whether I succeed or fail, my comfort is not the primary goal. I need to look beyond myself to what God chooses to accomplish through my life. How might God's will be accomplished through the things that are happening to me? How are these circumstances making me more like Jesus so that I might serve others better? With this broader perspective, I can truly say, "God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose."