A Breath of Fresh Air!

Often I either have my nose in a book or my face in front of a computer screen. Much of my work gets done this way. But a point always comes when my eyes and my brain need a break.

I’m also prone to forget that I need to, you know, get outside once in awhile.

So sometimes I need a change. I went for a walk yesterday with our two sons, our two dogs, and a dog we’re dog sitting, and I realized how much I needed the fresh air. It was sunny and there was a beautiful breeze. It was refreshing.

Today, all of my family and the three dogs went to one of our many local beaches. Again, it was a breath of fresh air.

It was good for my soul.

Sometimes you don’t know what you need until you make time for it.

In my case, I needed to get outside.

My wife is always telling me to take the dogs for more walks.

Truthfully, as much as God speaks to us primarily through Scripture, he likewise speaks to us in creation, the world he made and placed us in.

And when I say he speaks to us, I don’t only mean in terms of concepts, principles, and intellectual ideas.

He can—especially if we take the time to listen—speak his rest into us. He gives us permission to enjoy the world he made. To enjoy the creation means enjoying the Creator.

For me, doing so over the last couple of days has been a breath of fresh air.

A Prayer of Confession (Because We All Need One)

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and apart from your grace, there is no health in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all those who confess their faults. Restore all those who are penitent, according to your promises declared to all people in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may now live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of your holy Name. Amen.

Too Many Churches?

Is it possible for a particular area or community to have too many churches? Maybe that sounds like an odd question. The more churches there are, one might think, the more kingdom work is being done, the more effective the witness of the church is, the more the good news of Jesus is being shared.

However, I wonder whether this is true. I believe I have reason to think otherwise.

Because it often seems to me as though there’s not so much a Church but churches. Many churches. Indeed, many small, struggling churches. In part this reality is a holdover from a time when people not only didn’t travel to go to church, but often they didn’t drive at all.

So now we have a good handful of churches in our small region, but fewer people attending each one.

Moreover, when I think of the many churches in our area, unity is rarely a word that comes to mind. I am referring to the fact that our local churches so infrequently cooperate on mission together. The last year of COVID shutdowns aside, churches in my area do not regularly serve our surrounding community alongside one another. We don’t get together for fellowship. We don’t work together to share the gospel with our neighbours.

Worse, one gets the definite sense that most churches actually don’t want to do this. Whether this is because of a preoccupation with their own institutional survival or because trying to work together with other churches is too risky and too much work, our collective witness to the good news of Jesus is divided and therefore, I submit, considerably weakened. Kingdom resources, spread out as they are among several congregations attempting to maintain some kind of ministry on their own, are spread thin indeed. With each church independently striving to serve the Lord, I believe less is actually accomplished for the kingdom.

Think about it. The structure of most local congregations has to support a part time or full time pastor, maintain at least one building (more, if there’s a parsonage), and be able to recruit enough willing volunteers to serve on committees, boards, and run programs of discipleship and outreach. When struggling with attendance and aging members, a lot of local congregations are less and less able to do this, much less live effectively into the calling given them by Christ. They end up in maintenance rather than mission mode.

For this reason, I think that our institutional structures and embedded traditions often impede our good intentions. They box us into the corner of thinking that if we as a local congregation cannot manage our particular system and fulfill our mission, then we must be a failure as a church. Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy: Recovering Our Hidden Life in God, writes of churches: “Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting.” Sobering thought, that.

And the result of all this? We have weary congregations and discouraged pastors, fund-raisers for aging church edifices, the blaming of declining numbers on Sunday shopping and sports. And, most importantly, a surrounding community that sees church–and the gospel for which it ought to stand–as a relic of the past, irrelevant and unnecessary.

All because we try to go it on our own. All because of pride, stubbornness, and a refusal to let go of the past. Or a fear of losing what’s already long gone–or well on its way. Or maybe even a simple unwillingness to think outside the box.

Here’s the thing: we can’t equate the survival of our specific institution, our local congregation, with the moving of God’s kingdom mission. We can’t equate the maintaining of our structures and traditions with the gospel itself. Yet we often do so. We become spiritually myopic. We confuse the wineskins for wine, and both end up lost.

Skye Jethani writes in his book The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity, “the only thing of value the church has to offer is the gospel.” But is that what we’re offering? Is that what we’re seeking to offer? Is it the good news of Christ that drives us, that instills us with passion, that gets us out of bed in the morning? Or are we instead too preoccupied with our own little kingdoms to be bothered with God’s kingdom?

Consider the possibility of some local congregations, perhaps even of different denominations, working together to provide a Vacation Bible School. Maybe because none of them can do it alone or even because it’s a powerful witness to the good news to do it together.

Perhaps a few churches might even have the collective vision to become one congregation, and therefore pursue God’s mission for their community rather than be content with or feel powerless about their continuing decline. What’s better, a few churches recognizing the possibility of joining forces and increasing the work of the kingdom in their neighbourhood with a sense of renewed purpose or resigning themselves to eventual closure and losing their witness to Christ altogether?

None of this would fit into our preconceived church structures. Indeed, our current ways of doing church intrinsically prevent us from taking these steps.

Do I think moving in this direction is easy? Not in the slightest. It requires vision. It requires humility. It requires courage. It requires people of sufficient spiritual maturity. And it certainly requires hearts more passionate about the good news of Jesus than the survival of our individual corners of his kingdom.

Change is painful, and this certainly applies to churches. But I recall a speaker once saying that all churches will experience painful change. There’s the painful change of gradual decline, of losing whatever gospel witness you once had out of a refusal to honor the past by moving into the future. And then there’s the painful change of moving on from what is familiar and comfortable into the future to live out and share the hard work of kingdom mission together. The above-mentioned speaker also said, “You have to choose your pain.” Sadly, the kind of pain most churches opt for is evident all around us.

But it doesn’t–and shouldn’t–be this way. Jesus himself–our Lord and Savior–prayed for unity among his followers. Consider these words of Jesus in John 17:21: May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. Jesus connects our witness with our unity.

Now, I get it. There are sometimes deeper reasons for churches not associating together. Deep theological differences, and strongly held but differing views on current social and ethical issues, may sometimes be a barrier to working together.

But when this isn’t the case–and it often isn’t–then what’s stopping us from taking our Lord’s words more seriously?

Perhaps we should all be more open and willing to follow the call of the gospel, wherever it leads, and whoever it leads us to work with to proclaim it, instead of letting our possibly outdated structures and ways of thinking have priority. If we trust God for our salvation, can we not also trust him with our churches, with his church, and what he wants to do in and through it? Even if that means losing what we’ve always known? After all, wasn’t it Jesus who said that whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it? Maybe these words of his apply to churches too.

Not an “Instantaneous” God

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back with a powerful east wind all that night and turned the sea into dry land. So the waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with the waters like a wall to them on their right and their left.

Exodus 15:21–22

This is not what really happened. At least not according to Cecil B. DeMille’s famous 1956 movie The Ten Commandments starring the late Charlton Heston as Moses. In that film, the parting of the waters happens quickly and spectacularly.

But in the actual biblical account, it takes all night. Commenting on this story, Heather Thompson Day says: “What God could have done in a moment, he chooses to do in a process. We’re concerned with the product, God is always concerned with our process.”

We live in a culture that expects results immediately. Information is at our fingertips whenever we want it. So is all manner of distraction and entertainment. Thanks to smartphones the world is in our pockets, easily accessible with the swipe of a finger. Sometimes a blessing, but perhaps more often a curse.

And we know from all kinds of studies and statistics that smartphones, social media, and the internet have not done our attention spans any favours. Spending an inordinate amount of time on screens actually has the effect of rewiring our brains. We lack patience and are increasingly becoming a society largely ill-equipped to spend serious time in quiet reflection.

And in prayer. Especially insofar as prayer means–indeed, requires–waiting on God. Thinking that prayer is all about the answers rather than the actual communion with God that prayer is, even many who follow Jesus are impatient with God himself. We’re virtually unable to spend more than a few minutes or moments quietly in his presence, seeking him rather than simply seeking what we want from him.

If we were in Moses’ sandals, would we have the patience and willingness and trust to wait all night for the parting of the waters? What about days, months, or years of seemingly unanswered prayers? Or instead do we wait for the answers to our prayers like we wait for a text? Perhaps we want God and his answers to our prayers to operate like an app, with notifications letting us know when he’s received our request and alerting us to his response?

But God certainly doesn’t act according to our timetable. Because it’s not always or only about the end, but about how we get there. Who are we becoming while waiting for God to act? What happens to our souls when we pay as much attention to the process of waiting on God in prayer as we do on what we hope to get from the process? Could it be that God seeks to teach us to want him more than what we pray for?

Our God is not an “instantaneous” deity, ready to respond to our hastily cobbled together and impatient prayers with the convenience to which we have become accustomed thanks to our ubiquitous WiFi culture. No, he means to form us, to shape us, and often this process is decidedly inconvenient. And it takes time, especially given how profoundly our habits have been moulded by our technology. Prayer, seeking God, and growing in spiritual wisdom and maturity require different habits other than those we acquire through hours on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The question perhaps is not whether our God is still a God who answers prayers and acts miraculously, but whether we are patient enough with the process of prayerful waiting to have the eyes to see it.

From Father to Son

You might not guess by looking at me, but I’m not someone who relishes physical labour.

So this week when it became unmistakenly clear that I could no longer avoid mowing my lawn, I knew what I had to do. I would have to get rid of several van loads of bagged redeemable bottles and cans that were in my backyard shed. The connection? Well, there were a lot of bags of bottles and cans, and the lawn mower was at the back of the shed.

In other words, mowing the lawn meant having to clean out the shed.

Yay. Like I said, not always a fan of such tasks.

But then something occurred to me, something which should have been obvious to me but at first wasn’t. I would ask one of my twin 12 year old sons to help me. I could have asked both for help, but one was working on school stuff. So I asked my son Eli if he would help me take several van loads of bagged bottles and cans to a local redemption centre and a couple of other donation spots.

And he did. Not only that, but he was enthusiastic about it. It took us nearly two hours but eventually our shed was free of bottles and cans. Then the next day, Eli also helped me to clean the rest of the shed. And today he helped me mow part of the lawn for the first time. I supervised closely.

Having sons is a pretty good deal for a Dad.

With Eli’s help, all of this yardwork not only took considerably less time but was a much more pleasant experience. I got stuff done and spent time with one of my boys.

As I was supervising his lawn mowing, it occurred to me that I had never had a father show me how to do these things. I never had a Dad to teach me how to use a lawn mower. Or to teach me anything and to spend time with me. But now I get to do that with my sons. Tomorrow I’m going to show my other son, Henry, how to use the lawn mower.

Makes me think: what is it like for them to have a father do these sorts of things with them? I mean, Eli actually enjoyed mowing the lawn. He takes pride in a job well done. He likes learning to do new things. What I do as a father is what, in part, shapes him into a young man. And now that he’s 12 years old, it’s clear that he is edging more and more towards young man and away from the little boy of the last, well, several years. It’s actually kind of amazing to see.

And I find myelf asking: what else are my sons learning from me that I’m not even aware of? What signals am I sending them about what it means to be a father and a husband? What am I teaching them about manhood? Truth is, I’m not exactly a typical guy’s guy, the sort that’s good with cars, tools, and repair jobs. If something is wrong with our plumbing, I don’t grab a wrench. I call a plumber. Incidentally, my wife would be more inclined to grab the wrench.

Being a father means passing things on to your children. But it’s more than passing on the skills of manual labour. What kind of men do I want my sons to become? Not only would it great for them to be handy around the house, but it’s more important for them to become honest, hardworking, and compassionate. I’m more interested in teaching them how to have healthy relationships. It’s about passing on character. It’s about spiritual formation. Someday they will be out in the world, working, making their way, interacting with neighbours and friends–and will perhaps start families of their own. I want them to be men worthy of respect, men of integrity who love the Lord and who seek to love those around them.

I hope and pray that somehow I am passing this on already.

In the meantime, I’m glad they can help mow the lawn.

Now, on the lighter side, here’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that loosely relates to this post.