Do We Want God?

Sometimes, I confess, I find myself asking the question: Where is God?

Where is God?

Now, you might ask, what do I mean? Perhaps you think, “You’re a pastor and you’re asking where God is?”

Here’s the thing: it’s one thing to know something and it’s another to experience something.

For example, I know God can do mighty things. I know he can act in spectacular ways. With the Lord, the miraculous is possible.

Yet so many of our churches and ministries are struggling. And sometimes—despite the theology I have in my head—I just don’t know what to make of it all. I mean, I can have some grasp of the cultural and historical forces that have led us to this moment we’re in. But God is infinitely bigger than and sovereign over all of this.

That’s why I ask: Where is God?

Or perhaps I should put it this way: What should or can we expect of God here and now? What should our experience of God be?

Over the last couple of years our world—and therefore our churches—have been pummelled by the realities of COVID. We’re all exhausted by the whole thing, one way or another.

Yet, I think it’s fair to ask: What do we want to see happen in our churches? What do we want from God?

But maybe that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it all. Maybe those questions are still “keeping-God-at-arms-length” questions. Maybe we need to be more willing to dig deeper. Be more self-aware.

God, after all, isn’t here to make stuff happen for us or to give us stuff we want. That’s a consumer Christianity God.

Our God—the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is a living and active God, one who doesn’t fit into our boxes, traditions, and preferences. He moves. He acts. He reveals. He brings light into darkness. He does as he chooses.

Thanks be to God that he chooses to act in love!

Maybe we need to ask God for eyes to see and ears to hear. Maybe we need to be open to his presence in ways that are painful and uncomfortable at first but ultimately healing and renewing. Maybe we need to wait and listen and be still rather than rush to human solutions and strategies.

And maybe even as churches we need to confess, to repent, to admit our own complacency and own our complicity in the situation we find ourselves in.

Our God also calls and invites. He beckons and woos. He seeks to convict and change us. He seeks to make something new of us. He wants to pour his transforming love and grace in us to overflowing, so that we become vessels of his good news. But do we want this?

We ask: Where is God? Isn’t it possible that God is right here? Isn’t it possible that he is waiting for his people to approach him, to beseech him, to fall on their knees before him, to acknowledge their desperate need for him?

Yes, we can ask: Where is God?

Maybe the better question is: Do we want God? Do we really want to enter the presence of this God? Are we prepared to let this God undo us and our ways? Especially if this is indeed the route to life, wholeness, and peace?

I conclude as I began. I confess that I don’t always want God. But I want to want God—more than I sometimes do. I have moments when I want God more, and moments when I want God less. My desire for God ebbs and flows. It can be a trickle one day, and a roaring waterfall the next.

Maybe once we as Christians and as churches begin wanting God more than what we want from God, our eyes and ears will begin to open. Perhaps then not only will we begin to experience answers to our prayers, but will find that our very prayers are changed because we find ourselves desiring God more than what he can give us.

Baptism

Today I stood, clothes soaking wet, taking a look around at the sizeable crowd that had gathered for the occasion.

And I was grateful and full of joy.

Across the Causeway, at Northeast Point people were mingling, chatting, some hugging others who were similarly dampened by the cold water of the Atlantic.

No matter the time of year, it’s always cold. Only the temperature of the air changes. And today it was beautiful, sunny, and warm. Perfect for what we were doing.

We represented a handful of local churches joining together to celebrate as seven people entered their baptismal waters.

For my part, I had the privilege of baptizing a young woman from our church and my twin 12 year old sons. What a gift to be able to do so. It was an honour to baptize them.

Two other pastors led four more into the water to confess their faith in and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.

It was beautiful. It was brilliant. It was glorious, absolutely glorious.

You see, it’s on days like this I’m reminded what it means to be a pastor. Because as I watched all of the people there, from a bunch of different churches, talking, mingling, laughing, and, in the case of the kids, playing, I realized just how big and wondrous God and his kingdom and his story of grace are.

What God is up to is so much bigger than me.

But here’s the crazy thing. I get to participate in what he’s doing. So do you.

When I baptize someone, I get to play one small part in their story, in their walk with God. I may baptize someone, but they belong to Christ. And what Christ is doing in their life is not under my control but his.

I felt the same way as I watched all of these people, believers I know from different churches, talking together.

A friend of our sons, who is more or less the same age and had already been baptized, gave each of them a beautiful handwritten letter, congratulating them on their baptism. They have known her since they were five years old. She and her family used to attend our church, but even though they no longer do, they are still friends.

What God is up to is also bigger than any one church.

We can’t control what God does. How he chooses to work in someone else’s life, and in this or that church, is entirely up to him. He is sovereign and he is mighty and he is gracious.

And he is at work—in your life and in the lives of people around you, pursuing, extending grace, inviting each of us to trust in him and to rest in his presence and promises revealed in the good news of Jesus.

Today was a good day. Today I was a witness to how God has drawn people—young and old—to place their faith in him. I was a witness to the ongoing power of God’s grace in our world. Baptism tells the story of God’s grace. It’s a story I never tire of hearing.

Conflict, Forgiveness, and Speaking the Truth in Love

Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right.

And sometimes I want others to know that I think I am right.

And sometimes it doesn’t matter whether I am wrong or right.

Because when it comes to a disagreement or conflict, there’s more at stake than whether one is wrong or right. There is also the relationship between the people who disagree. There is the effect their disagreement has on others. Conflict between two parties can often have a powerful gravitational pull that draws others into its orbit.

That, and conflicts consist of a great deal more than reasons and arguments and opinions. Being the whole creatures that we are, emotions play a huge role in disagreements too. While someone once said, and I think it’s true, that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” the opposite is also true in personal conflict. Feelings also don’t care about your facts. It’s not always what we say but how we say it. And even whether we choose to say it now or later or at all. Maybe some things don’t need to be said.

But even when something has to be said, we need to take much more into consideration than our reasons for believing we’re right and the other person is wrong. How will our words land when we say them? Are we saying them just to prove a point? And if we’re all worked up over the issue, are we speaking simply to vent and express our emotions?

Ephesians 4:15 tells us that followers of Jesus ought to be people who practice speaking the truth in love. Practice, indeed. Because I can do neither of these things perfectly. I don’t have exclusive rights to the truth. Others have their perspective on the issue causing conflict. Nor am I capable of speaking anything true in a 100% loving way. Pride and self-centredness infiltrate every word I try to speak in love.

Paul’s words, though, at the very least make one thing clear. Always avoiding conflict to preserve relationships and to keep the peace isn’t the answer either. I grew up with that idea, however. I know what it’s like to be in an environment where people swept hard feelings under the living room rug. It could make for an uncomfortable situation where I was made to feel like I was in the wrong simply for disagreeing or being critical. I learned to avoid conflict, to push emotions away, and even as an adult I can find it very hard to have difficult conversations. Confrontations are not my favourite thing. On the flight or fight spectrum, I am on the far end of the flight side. That’s not always a good thing.

Yet I also understand. I get why people don’t want to face conflict. Words can wound. Even when that’s not our intention. We don’t always mean to say hurtful things. Funny that as kids we were taught to say “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, let’s call that what it is: a lie.

Even Scripture knows this is a lie. In James 3:5–6 it says How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. Later in verses 9–10 it says this of the tongue: With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. James is speaking to Christians here, not non-Christians. Believers do this sometimes.

Conflicts and disagreements are not centrally about issues but about people. And people–you and me–are messy. Sometimes we want our way. Sometimes we argue out of spite or out of a sense of self-righteousness. We want to be right, believe ourselves to be right, and we want the other person to accept that we’re right. And sometimes when someone speaks hard words to us–even if we know those words are true–we don’t want to admit it. We dig in our heels. Our defenses go up. Maybe we say things we regret. In the worst of conflicts, bridges are burned and relationships rent asunder. When this happens, who cares if we’re right? Not if we end up hurting and being hurt. Not if homes end up broken and churches end up split. No one wins when this happens.

What answers do I have? Can I pass on 3 easy steps to prevent disagreements and confrontations? You know, to make sure we never get ourselves into such a mess?

Unfortunately, no. I think we will often get these things at least a little wrong. Indeed, sometimes we handle them very poorly.

And when this happens, as it inevitably will, what will we do? Paul, in Colossians 3:13 says that disciples of Jesus ought to make a habit of forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. True, we could spend hours talking about forgiveness, what it means, and how to practice it in the church and in our lives.

But in the context of conflict, I think it can mean that even if we’re right, we might have to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness for how we handled a conversation. Forgiveness for the way we tried to get our point across. Forgiveness for ignoring how someone else feels.

We all need to give and receive forgiveness for how we use our words and for how we misunderstand the words of others.

If we’re Christians, we don’t really have a choice. We forgive because we’ve been forgiven–not just by other sinful people, but by God himself. To live into the forgiveness we have received through our Lord, we need to become forgiving people.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12), Jesus teaches us to pray these words:

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Is Jesus making our forgiveness conditional on our forgiving others? Perhaps see it this way. If we refuse to forgive, do we really understand what it means that Jesus forgives us of our sins? If we have received forgiveness from Jesus, won’t we become the sort of people who are willing to extend forgiveness to others who hurt us? Didn’t we hurt Jesus with our sin profoundly more than anyone has ever hurt us?

How good is Jesus to give us such words to pray? Don’t we all need them as a regular reminder?

Sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right. But whichever is the case, a conflict is not primarily about winning the argument but winning the relationship. When we speak the truth, we ought to do so in love. And when we or someone else fails to do one or the other, forgiveness ought to follow close behind.

Lord, have mercy.

The Embodied Church

Today we had the first get together in person, face to face prayer meeting at our church in almost two months. While in lockdown in May and June, some of us would meet on Zoom to pray together. Having such technology available has certainly been a blessing over the last year and a half. Without Zoom and the ability to livestream, we would have had to have gone weeks at a time not being able to connect, hear each other’s voices, and see one another’s faces. Granted, the online option doesn’t work for everyone. Being the pastor of a church where some members don’t even have a computer at home means there are some who get left out of this online participation. But at least there was something. Though, honestly, I am much less enamored of such technological possibilities now than I was a year or more ago when the whole lockdown thing began. I am grateful for them but not satisfied by them.

I heard somewhere that there were statistics showing that in some places only 60% of people would return to church in person after COVID. The remaining 40% are those who have found the online option preferable because it is more convenient. After all, who wouldn’t rather watch church on their TV or laptop screen in their PJs with a hot cup of coffee? Any parent, knowing what it’s like having to wrangle kids into clean clothes and into the minivan to make the trek to church, might be tempted by staying with this option. So such a statistic, if its bears any resemblance to reality, is certainly worth unpacking.

However, as convenient or helpful as being able to go online has been, I can’t imagine it ever being a substitute for actually gathering together in person. I will show my bias by stating it simply: online church isn’t really church.

Why? My reason is simple. We have bodies. And our bodies are not simply transportation devices for our heads. Our bodies matter. Who we are as physical creatures, as flesh and blood human beings, matters. We are embodied souls created by God to live in relationship with other embodied souls. That we can gather in one place with other people, smile at one another, shake hands, hug, and even just hear one another’s voices and see one another’s faces, matters. Profoundly.

Whatever else we say about church, it has to be embodied to fully be church. People attend worship services not only–and probably not even primarily–to hear sermons and sing songs. Sermons are available by the millions online. No pastor should be under the illusion that their preaching is indispensable. You can stream music at home or in your car, lifting your voice along with your preferred worship songs and hymns. You don’t need to go to a designated building to hear good teaching or music.

But church–that is, genuine Christian community–is much, much more than sermons and songs.

You see, you can’t embrace or be embraced at a distance. You can’t mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice only by texting. You can’t shake hands or offer someone a shoulder to cry on while on Zoom. A kind, loving tone of voice doesn’t translate well in an email. Genuine, long-term Christian community requires physical presence. It means being with others. It’s virtually impossible to obey any of the New Testament’s “one anothering” passages unless people are actually together.

Staying online for worship and other forms of spiritual nourishment also has the potential effect of feeding our already bloated consumerist approach to church life and Christianity. I find what I like. I stream what I prefer. My favourite preacher. My favourite music. My favourite liturgy. And if we’re watching an online service and the speaker or preacher says something that doesn’t conform to our preconceived ideas, we can turn it off. We move onto something else. Our own preferences and comfort zones become the arbiter of truth and value. We can safely become theological islands. Our Christian faith becomes a buffet of biblical interpretation and practical application–all based on our own appetites.

And when “going” to church from the comfort of our living rooms, we can sidestep the awkwardness of actual relationships, of people who don’t like us (hard to imagine) or who rub us the wrong way (perhaps easier to imagine), the person who smells funny or doesn’t quite understand common social cues, not to mention the potential disagreements and conflicts that cause many to leave congregations in the first place.

No wonder some people avoid church and opt for watching their favourite mega-church pastor on YouTube or Facebook instead.

But doesn’t all of this messiness provide the very conditions within which God seeks to conform us spiritually into the image of his Son–our Lord–Jesus? Doesn’t growing into spiritual maturity involve much more than increasing the amount of biblical information in our brains? Indeed, isn’t wisdom not only the accumulation of scriptural knowledge but living that knowledge out around other people, in actual relationships, in specific circumstances?

Learning to live patiently with people who annoy us, even if they are brothers and sisters in Christ, is most definitely not the same as intellectually understanding the concept of patience. Bearing one another’s burdens is not the same as recognizing the importance of compassion and sending an etransfer to a worthwhile charitable organization. No, to become patient people, thankful people, humble people, faithful people, merciful, forgiving, and loving Jesus-like people, we need to be smack dab in the middle of Christian community, of a family of faith through which God by His Spirit cultivates these qualities in us by placing us with people who test them.

Besides, isn’t our faith an incarnational one? After all, God did not remain afar off, but came near–indeed, became one of us. The entire arc of the core biblical narrative is God dwelling with humanity in a reconciled, whole, flourishing relationship. That’s the whole point of creation and redemption. That’s why the second Person of the Trinity became a human being, entered our world, went to the cross, and was raised again. It’s why we need forgiveness and repentance. It’s what our sin wrecks. It’s why, ultimately, Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead. In the end, it’s all to bring together heaven and earth, to reconcile all things.

Being the church means learning to live into this reality even now, becoming over time a living display of what God intends and will bring about for all of creation in the new heavens and new earth. As hard, as messy, and as inconvenient as church seen in this light might therefore be, it can only happen in the way God fully intends when it’s embodied, with people actually gathering together, learning to forgive and love one another as Christ in the flesh has done with us.