Living as Christians in a Crazy World

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world? By what you see on Facebook, in your newsfeed, on TV and social media?

I think about Afghanistan.

I think about Haiti.

I think about our Canadian Federal election and politics in general.

I think about the situation with COVID and the way it’s been politicized.

I think about how so many people are so polarized and divided and how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have sane, thoughtful conversations.

I think about how social media like Facebook, despite its limited value, has many people attached to their phones and computers and the way in which this connects to the rise of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among young people.

It can all be too much at times.

How do we as Christians process all that we’re seeing and experiencing in the news and on Facebook and all around us?

I want to suggest that whatever else is going on around us, there are three things we need to remember while as Christians we go about living in this crazy world.

First, every human being is made in the image of God, and therefore has an intrinsic worth and dignity.

Consider Genesis 1:26—27: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.

We as human beings were created and are called to make something of and to steward well the world God has given to us.  Every human is also loved by God, even those hated by us. No one is beyond hope or redemption while alive in this world.

Think of someone like former US president Trump. His very name is an immediate lightning rod for the most extreme emotions and opinions. But you know what the most basic fact about Trump is? He is infinitely loved by the God who made him and seeks to bring him into eternity.

Here’s the thing: each one of us is broken and sinful. The image of God in us has been tarnished and cracked. Sin has profoundly weakened our capacity for love and compassion. But being Christians means being conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). Apart from Christ, no one can be who God fully intends and desires them to be. God seeks to restore his image in us through Jesus. Including those we can so easily decry and mock and harbour ill feelings about;

How do we think about and talk to and treat those with whom we disagree? Do we treat them as people made in the image of God? Our desire ought to be to become more and more like Jesus. And that those we know who do not know and love him would have their hearts changed.

Second, God is sovereign over all human affairs whether we see him at work or not.

In Colossians 1:16—17 it says: For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And in Job 42:2 we read: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Our world is full of turmoil and violence and uncertainty. All we have to do is mention the names Haiti and Afghanistan as current examples to demonstrate this. So we can wonder: where is God in all of this?

But just because we can’t see God at work doesn’t mean he isn’t. And even if we can’t imagine the reasons God may have for allowing the sin and suffering of the world, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his reasons. Though it likely means our finite human minds would not be able to comprehend them.

And because God is sovereign, we should also be careful about depending too much on politics, politicians, or political parties.

Like it says in Psalm 2: Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and his Anointed One: “Let’s tear off their chains and throw their ropes off of us.” The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them.

But not only is there the world around us; there’s also the world within each of us. God’s sovereign extends to our own personal circumstances too. Romans 8:28—29: We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

This verse from Paul is often misunderstood and misapplied. What people often hear him saying is that God will use the bad stuff to bring about the good stuff. In this way, we define what is good. But when Paul talks about the good of those who love God, he doesn’t mean good on our terms. The good to which he refers is being conformed into the image of Jesus. And being conformed into the image of Jesus by necessity involves suffering and hardship. It is the pattern of life Jesus laid down for us.

Speaking of Jesus, God’s sovereignty also means looking ahead to the glorious return of Jesus. 1 Timothy 6:15—16 says: God will bring this about in his own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see, to him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

The way things are is not the way they will always be. There will be a new heavens and earth. There will be both cosmic and personal resurrection. God in his sovereignty promises and guarantees this.

Third, our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus as Lord, not to anyone or anything else in this world.

In Colossians 2:6—7 the apostle Paul says: So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.

Christians often are excited and ready to think of Jesus as Savior. But to think of him as Lord? That’s another matter. This means he is our authority. We seek to live according to his will, and not our comfort or desires. This ought to set us apart. When tempted by Satan in the wilderness to worship him in return for all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus said “It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” These words are ones we need to take to heart too.

People are built to worship. Everyone worships. But not everyone worships the Lord Jesus. People can worship money, pleasure, comfort, career, success, sex, popularity, family, and all kinds of things. These days, many seem to worship or to give their ultimate loyalty to politics. We should never be entirely comfortable with any of the leaders, institutions, systems, or ways of this world. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to think we have to give our loyalty to anyone but Jesus or that giving our loyalty to this or that political party is the only way of being loyal to Jesus.

This means we are called not only to believe in Jesus, but to reflect his character to those around us. This means we have to get to know Jesus and not just make assumptions about him. Who is this Jesus? How does he relate to the people he encounters? How does he live out the will of the Father? What do we learn about how to follow Jesus by watching Jesus? This means we will seek and pray for the coming of the kingdom in our everyday lives, for God’s will to be done in simple, everyday ways.

Now, here are a few simple ways to apply some of these thoughts.

First, fast from technology and social media for a morning, an evening, a day, or a weekend. Take a break from the news and Facebook. Use the time you would have wasted online to read the Bible, go for a quiet walk, write a letter to someone you miss, or start a prayer journal. Get rid of external distractions. Become more comfortable with boredom.

Second, pray for people who annoy you, with whom you disagree, or who have disappointed you. Pray a silent prayer for the waitress who brings you food, the cashier who rings your items through the checkout, or the telemarketer who calls you at supper trying to sell you something. Ask God to help you see them as people made in his image, that he loves, that he wants to see come to his Son, our Lord, Jesus. 

Third, maybe invite someone out for coffee or over for lunch. Show hospitality. Seek to bless others not only with kind deeds but with gracious, enjoyable conversation. Build relationships. Get out of your comfort zone. Pay attention to the people around you–perhaps you might notice someone who needs a friend.

We live in an increasingly crazy world. We can find ourselves overwhelmed. We have as much access to news across the globe as we do to news in our own community. And we don’t always know how to discern what to give our attention to. But maybe we don’t always need to know what’s happening in other parts of the world. Maybe sometimes it’s ok to live for Jesus right where we are, to learn to be present with the people who we live with, who we encounter day after day.

We wonder sometimes if we can really make a difference, if our lives can have a meaningful impact on others. I’ve been a pastor for nearly 20 years and I still wonder this! But if you’re a follower of Jesus, your life is a holy life. God can and does use you right where you are. You don’t need to be someone else. You don’t need to be somewhere else. I heard someone say years ago: “Bloom where you’re planted.” Live as a follower of Jesus right where you are. Even with everything else that’s going on around us, maybe that’s something of what it means–or even mostly what it means–to live as a Christian in this crazy world.

A Short Prayer to Start Your Day

Are we starting our day in the right frame of mind (and heart)? Often our minds are already crowded and busy first thing in the morning. Or mine often is. For this reason, it is good to step back for a bit to quiet your heart and open yourself up to God’s presence. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

All I might add to Lewis’ words is that our fears and anxieties can also rush at us first thing in the morning.

What we usually need is to have our attention redirected from ourselves and our circumstances to God. Not to ignore our circumstances but rather to have our perspective changed.

Sometimes the very thing I do not want to do—including slowing down rather than rushing ahead—is the most needful thing. Specifically, prayer. Paying attention to that larger, quieter voice of Jesus. Abiding and resting in him. Not always easy to do, but for that reason all the more important. Sometimes I fail to exercise such wisdom.

Here is a little prayer that can perhaps get us started:

“As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever. Amen.”

Expectations, Faith, and Why Our Experience Of God Isn’t What We’d Like It To Be

Expectations are a part of every relationship whether we are aware of them or not. I heard a story once of a pastor giving some premarital counseling to a couple. And when he asked the husband to be what his expectations were of his fiancé, his list of expectations took his spouse to be by complete surprise. An initially calm session of premarital counseling turned ugly fast. The pastor joked about having to step in between them.

For people of faith, expectations are also a part of a relationship with God. The shape of such expectations can vary with one’s Christian tradition, initial faith experiences, theological perspective, and interpretation of Scripture. Pentecostals have very different expectations of what to experience in their relationship with God than, say, Lutherans. Those in the Pentecostal tradition may very well expect a more emotional experience during worship, whereas Lutherans may not expect to have a deeply powerful emotional experience. Yet, faith, and God, can be very real for them both.

Coming as I do from a Roman Catholic upbringing, converting later to a broadly evangelical, specifically Baptist perspective, my expectations of my experience within my relationship with God probably falls somewhere in between the Pentecostal and Lutheran. My current tradition speaks often of having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” While not necessarily unbiblical, this specific phrase does not appear in Scripture. What this phrase means no doubt varies depending on who you ask. However, before unpacking the meaning of this phrase it already gives an impression as to what one can expect. Language creates expectations.

To say that I have a “personal relationship with Jesus” suggests, rightly or wrongly, therefore, a relationship of intimacy, a connection that is closer rather than distant, immediate rather than abstract, one that includes rather than excludes my emotions. In other words, it is analogous to having an intimate connection with another human being. Put another way, it’s like saying that I have a very conversational relationship with Jesus. People sometimes say, “The Lord said to me this morning . . .” Critics may say that this makes Jesus out to be far too “buddy-buddy.”

I say all of this because whatever our expectations are in our relationship with God, sometimes our experience of this relationship changes. The passage of time, changing circumstances, and other factors can affect how I perceive my relationship with God. Whereas once I had, say, an immediate connection that “felt” close and personal, now God seems more distant. And the significance of this, at least for the purposes of this reflection, is the fact that unless I am aware of the factors that impact my experience I can potentially draw the wrong conclusion from my experience.

In other words, I may conclude that I don’t feel as close to God in the present time because something is wrong with my relationship. As they say, “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?” Something is amiss, therefore, in my heart. In evangelical terms, the usual means of diagnosing this issue is to say that my sin—especially unconfessed sin—is creating a barrier between myself and God. If you no longer feel close to God, it means you’ve done something wrong. “You’re living outside of God’s will,” some will say. “You gotta get right with Jesus,” others will advise. Hearing such admonitions, we can be left feeling guilty and anxious.

Let me say that this might actually be true. There are times when we wander, when we stray, when our wrongdoing and hard-heartedness keeps us from fellowship with God. Sin erects a wall, separating us from our heavenly Father. But if we are followers of Jesus, we won’t necessarily need others to make us feel guilty. The Spirit of God will already be at work in our conscience. It will be a sense of contrition, Lord willing, that draws us back to Jesus.

At its worst, though, believers in this situation will end up trying to avoid anything that might result in a deeper sense of conviction. They might avoid church. They will neglect prayer. Their Bibles will gather dust. Like Adam and Eve, they will do their best to hide from the presence of God, from anything that reminds them of both their sin and of God’s will for their lives. Evangelicals typically call this backsliding.

However, believers who experience a distance from God, but for reasons other than unconfessed sin, are not trying to avoid God. Instead, they may feel as though God is the one creating the distance. They want to pray, but the words do not come as easily as they once did. Rather than a dialogue, it feels more like a monologue. As hard as they may knock on heaven’s door, so to speak, no answer seems forthcoming. No one comes to the door, much less opens it. This change of experience runs against the grain of our expectations of God and how he relates to us.

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Or so James 4:8 tells us. And I do believe this is true. In fact, I believe it is true even if it is not true in our experience. In other words, even if we draw near to God to spend time in prayer and we have not, in our estimation, felt his presence or experienced a special assurance, he is still there, present, real, loving, and faithful.

This is why the difference between faith and feelings is so important. If I make my faith in God, my relationship with him, dependent on the feelings I expect to experience in relation to him, then I will often be disappointed. I will likely end up in a state of unbelief, because our feelings are so come and go. Faith is the assurance of things not seen, and maybe, we can add, of things not felt. Feelings can follow faith, but not always. And any faith that follows feelings risks being as ephemeral as our changing moods.

At a deeper level, there are times when our experience of our relationship with God shifts or changes because God is up to something, pushing and pulling us toward a greater maturity, of trusting in him and his word. In my experience, this sort of shift can be difficult to assess precisely because of our expectations.

Speaking more personally, over the last few years things have changed for me spiritually. I am still in the midst of this. I know that life circumstances have made drawing nearer to God a greater challenge – in terms of both the time and energy I generally have to spend on prayer and reading Scripture.

In addition, I find that it is hard to focus long when I pray. I can’t remember the last time I felt moved or touched during congregational worship. Even my experience of preaching has changed over the last while. Whether in my preparation or my delivery, preaching is not what it once was. If someone were to ask me to express it more clearly, I am not even sure I could. At least not in 20 words or less.

As a pastor I have experienced what I call “the professionalization of my faith.” Being in a vocation that includes activities that would be a part of my life even if I were not a pastor, activities that pertain to the practice of faith, has meant that over time my “personal relationship with God” has been swallowed by responsibilities of pastoring. In other words, being a pastor has made it harder to be a Christian.

For some of you my saying this might sound alarming or disquieting. People usually expect pastors to be pillars of faith, men and women who are examples of Christians who have an especially close relationship with God—otherwise, where would all those sermons, Bible studies, and pastoral insights and counsel come from? If we can’t trust that our pastors are in this position, who can we trust?

To such a concern, I can only say that I am, after all, human. And, yes, that means I am a sinful human being. But it also means that I am subject to the same weaknesses and limitations that any other person of faith may have. And as it happens, I am experiencing these weaknesses and limitations in a more pronounced fashion these days. I can also say that this is about my experience, not that of other pastors. While others sharing my vocation may also share my struggles, I do not mean for anyone to generalize from my personal experiences.

What about being a pastor has made this more difficult (or even more likely)? Hard to say, exactly, but I can give examples. For instance, since I spend a lot of time in Scripture during the week preparing for sermons, I have found it hard to read the Bible without seeing potential sermon outlines or ideas. Because of this I have found that I am less motivated to read the Bible. I have found it more difficult to hear what the text might be saying to me.

Though this is a good example of what I mean when I talk about the “professionalization of my faith,” I feel that it’s much deeper. It’s as though having to be in the role of pastor, which has often meant, for better or worse, setting aside my own spiritual needs, also means having to stifle aspects of myself and my own faith journey for the sake of those around me. Partly because of my own personality, I made a conscious choice to maintain a degree of professional distance from the people in my church. I did this to some extent out of fear, fear that if they knew the real me they would never want me as their pastor. On one level, there is a wisdom in this; on another, it was a mistake.

Add to this several years of ministry that have seemed less than fruitful, and no wonder my own relationship with God has taken a beating. What I mean is that—and I know that this is wrong, by the way—I have allowed myself to think at times that God values me (or not) depending on how I perform as a pastor. Like I said, I know that this is unbiblical theology. Still, knowing something is wrong doesn’t mean you won’t feel it is true. And this, by the way, adds to the difficulty. There is often a dissonance, a lack of continuity, between what I am going through internally and what I know to be true in Scripture and what I try and portray in public. There have been days when I was screaming on the inside and smiling on the outside.

So what do I expect of and from God in all of this? Or in my experience of God? Part of me wants to say, “I don’t know.” That’s probably accurate enough. Like a Hebrew wandering in the Sinai wilderness or like a lump of clay on the Potter’s wheel, what I hope and pray for is that God in his sovereign purpose will make clear sooner than later what he is up to in all of this. Either that, or that he will bring me out of this into something fresh and new, a wide-open space, a place where he makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

For Such a Time as This . . .

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book (and film) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a hobbit by the name of Frodo has volunteered to be the one to take the ring of power to Mount Doom in the land of Mordor so it can be destroyed once and for all. The journey from his home to Mordor would prove to be perilous and at one point early on in the story he says to Gandalf, a wizard and guide, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

I suspect all of us have felt like Frodo at different points in our lives. Circumstances come our way unexpectedly, and of a kind that we’d rather not have to face. The tide has turned, and plans we had made must be re-worked to accommodate new factors. What do we do when things don’t go as we’d hoped? How do we respond when life throws up roadblocks and detours? What do we do when circumstances demand sacrifices we’d sooner avoid?

Responding to Frodo’s lament, Gandalf, through eyes wise with experience, looks at him and says, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All that is left for them to decide is what to do with the time that is given to them.” I must confess, I’ve always thought that Gandalf’s words were quite profound, and that they speak truthfully to the experience that we never have as much control over our lives as we might like to have or even as much as we sometimes think we have. Instead, much of our lives consist in deciding how to handle what comes our way.

In the Old Testament book of Esther, the Jews were exiles in the land of Persia. And the king of Persia, Xerxes, was looking for a new queen. A young Hebrew woman named Hadassah was chosen—probably unwillingly—to become the new queen to King Xerxes. To hide her Hebrew identity, she used the Persian name Esther. Given that her ascendancy to the position of queen was not willing or voluntary, such a turn of events would not have been a pleasant experience. Already her life had taken a dramatically unexpected turn. But that isn’t the end of her story.

Upon discovery of a plot by one of Xerxes’ advisors to slaughter all the Jews, Esther’s cousin Mordecai pleads with her to approach the king in order to save her people. Doing so would put her own life in danger—first, because if the scheming advisor were to find out she was a Hebrew, he might very well take action against her; and second, because to approach the king without first being called could result in execution. Either way, standing up for her people meant risking her own life.

The upshot of all this is that Esther wasn’t sure she wanted to do this. She was afraid for her own life. She was a young woman thrust into circumstances beyond her control. Her life had gone in a direction she’d never imagined or wanted. But when she let Mordecai know this, his response, I think, demonstrates a wisdom much like Gandalf’s. He says to her, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Centuries later, Tolkien would echo this same thought. So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All that is left for them to decide is what to do with the time that is given to them.

Mordecai’s words suggest that perhaps if our circumstances are beyond our control, that they’re not altogether beyond control. He’s saying to Esther, “Maybe this is the reason why you’ve become queen, so you’d be in the position to help your people.” He’s saying to her, “Even if you wish none of this had happened, all that is left for you to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” Without ever mentioning God overtly, Mordecai is telling her that though this is not the life she imagined, that there could be divine purpose at work here.

Whatever comes our way, our choices matter. Even if we can’t control everything around us and we’re faced with choices we’d rather not have to make in the first place, maybe that’s part of the point. As a person of faith, the first and most important choice for me is in trusting that not only is there a God but a God who, according to the Christian tradition, has a purpose for each of us.

Frodo was willing to risk his own life for others, to see that the ring of power was destroyed. Esther, in the end, was willing to risk her life to save her people. Both are examples of the kind of sacrifice we ultimately see in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Christian tradition, it is believed that God himself—in the person of Jesus—was willing to suffer and die for the sake of the whole world. Those who follow him are called to do likewise. Such a life is one lived for the sake of the other, using the time that is given to you not for yourself but for your neighbour. Therein lies the life-purpose that is before each of us. Trusting that this is so means that whatever unexpected circumstances fall upon us, we can trust that perhaps we are where we are for just such a time as this.

 

Community is Messy

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There really wasn’t anything we could do to help. And certainly by the time I got there it was pretty much all over.  But there we were—neighbours, friends, family—standing shoulder to shoulder with another neighbour, friend, and family member who had just seen the work-shed behind his house burn down. Thirty years of tools, equipment, projects and puttering all gone in a matter of hours, reduced to rubble and ash. The local volunteer fire department was doing their job with precision and care, making certain the area was safe. The rest of us simply stood around, offering more presence than words.

Community can be defined in a number of ways: as a municipality, a district, a neighbourhood, or a population centre. None of these definitions, however, manages to capture the experience of community. These definitions only bring to mind demographics and statistics, by-laws and infrastructure; and so they leave us cold (though who doesn’t enjoy a scintillating conversation about what the statistics are on how the breaking of by-laws affects the infrastructure of our community?).

But there are better words: kinship, unity, support, cooperation. Being in community is the difference between facing life in isolation, cut off from relationships of intimacy, and living life surrounded by those who rejoice when you rejoice and mourn when you mourn. Community is more than living in a neighbourhood; it means knowing the names of your neighbours. It’s sharing our lives with others.

Living as a community, though, comes with its challenges. My wife and I have three children: a daughter who is 8 and twin sons who are 4. As a result our home life is not only busy and often noisy, but usually messy. Toys get left on hallway floors, only to be stepped on the way to the bathroom in the dark of night. Laundry sometimes forms formidable piles. On top of this, family life is not always cheerful. We can step on each other’s toes and feelings. Voices can get raised as much in irritation as in laughter. Relationships are intrinsically messy. As much as I’m something of a neat freak, I accept this because it’s part of being a parent, a part of being in a family: accepting that we all make a mess once in awhile in part because each of us can be a mess!

Community life’s no different. It’s messy. And the more people in the community, the messier it’ll be! Whatever form our community takes, whether it’s in the Moms and Tots group, a string of neighbours along a particular street, the local church, or some extended family, we can be sure that there’ll be nothing neat and tidy about it. Open ourselves to connecting with people around us, make ourselves vulnerable, and we take the risk—yes, the risk—of getting hurt, of hearing harsh words spoken in our direction, of experiencing rejection.

And yet in those moments when we need someone to talk to over a cup of coffee, to have someone simply be present in times of discouragement, disappointment, or even despair, there’s no greater comfort than in having someone willing to do exactly this. Proverbs 17:17 tells us, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” We all need people who are with us through thick and thin. We all need people standing alongside us when our hopes and dreams end up a pile of rubble and ash. When we find such people, that’s when we’ve truly found community.