Monthly Archives: March 2015

God Has Not Abandoned Us

Did you hear the news? The earth on a slow inexorable march towards destruction. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Extremism is on the rise around the world and terrorists are spreading fear like a plague. World governments are crippled by corruption and bureaucracy, societies are crumbling. The west is becoming more and more secular and bringing the south down with it. Division between people is growing, not shrinking.

It’s hard not to get discouraged at the state of the world. We do our little bit to make the world a better place, putting our buckets to work against the oceans of injustice and unbelief. It seems that for every student who comes to know Christ in university, many more walk away from faith. Every soul delivered from slavery reminds us how many more toil in bondage: spiritually to sin, and physically to evil men.

But rest assured: God has not abandoned us. Christ is still at work in the world, and He is the source of our hope.

Near the end of Jesus’ ministry, His disciples came to Him with a question as they often did. “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” We know at some level that You will usher in Your kingdom in Your timing, but how will we know it’s coming?

And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.  – Matthew 24:4-8

Jesus essentially replies, “Things are going to get bad, and that’s  just the beginning.” I confess I don’t read this chapter often; it’s not a feel-good read. There are many promises in scripture: some of prosperity, answered prayers, deliverance, peace, etc. This is a promise of tribulation.

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  – Matthew 24:9-13

It gets worse for Christians especially. We will suffer because we follow Christ. We may be nice, caring, and compassionate, but the odour of Christ on us will overpower all that. We will be those people: The ones who believe there is only one way to God, that our bodies aren’t ours to use as we please, that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is destined for hell. Yes, those people.

And more and more, we will become less tolerated. It’s illegal to be a Christian in many countries, and difficult to evangelize in many more. In university, a friend of mine had a poster in his room with a picture of a cross and Galatians 1:16 printed on it. The caption read: This message is illegal in 52 countries.

All this was promised by Jesus. But instead of being discouraging, this was intended as an encouragement. According to protestant theology, the coming of Jesus was preceded by 400 years of silence from God. In that time the world went through massive geo-political changes and God’s chosen people suffered without direct guidance from the Lord.

Jesus knew He was leaving His disciples soon, and it would be a long time before He returned. Because of the Holy Spirit, the church would never be left without direct guidance from God. But we would still be tempted to doubt in the face of rising evil, and so He gave us a heads up. It’s going to be hard, and this isn’t because I’ve abandoned you.

God is still working on the earth. In the midst of darkness, He is bringing light. The light of the gospel is being opposed but not destroyed. Many have predicted the death of Christianity through history, and so far it’s refused to go away.

But more than just surviving, God’s people are flourishing. Millions are coming to faith in Christ every year, including in states which- whether through persecution or growing pluralism- oppose the message of the gospel. Christ’s promise to His disciples still stands: In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

God is still sending labourers into the harvest as He promised. Men and women are responding to God’s grace in their lives by going out in radical sacrifice to draw others to Christ. Missions Conferences are packed; University graduates are taking on missions internships around the world and at home; Bibles and theological resources are being translated into more languages and exported to more ethnic groups around the world.

We are a people of hope, because we hope in Christ. When we see evil growing and the world moving further away from God, rest assured that God has not abandoned us. He is still at work.

Evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it – 2 Timothy 3:13-14

But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. – Matthew 24:13-14

Complaint or Hope: An Invitation to Fellow Christians

I remember listening to a sermon years ago about complaining. Many details of the message elude me but the focus of the message was the exodus of the Israelites recorded in Exodus and Numbers. Moral of the story? See how they complained even after God gave them so much. Don’t be like them. Guess what? I probably went home that day and grumbled about internet speed or something similarly mundane.

Negative speech is too easy. As the adage goes, ‘It’s easier to tear down than to build up ‘. As a society, much of our public discourse is dominated by tearing down the opposition. Can you believe he said this? How you vote for someone who believes x? Popular satirical show host Jon Stewart and now John Oliver have built shows around this format. Poke enough holes in anyone who stands against you and your position appears stronger.

And the church is not immune from this tendency towards negativity. Ask the average Canadian what they know about the modern evangelical and they’ll likely reference our anti-abortion, anti-gay rhetoric. Many of us know a lot about our denominations and set up caricatures of others: Paedo-Baptists believe children can inherit salvation, Calvinists believe ‘once-saved-always-saved’, and Roman Catholics worship Mary. Before my non-Credo-Arminian-protestant readers get upset with me, I’m simply relaying what we say about you behind your backs (and sometimes to your faces).  Don’t shoot the messenger.

One thing I enjoy about being a full time fundraiser for missions is that I’m constantly communicating with many Christians. One observation I’ve made is that we are generally very aware of any and all public opposition to Christianity. Our mental narrative sees the world slowly, and certainly restricting our rights to worship and influence society. The media is intolerantly liberal. Politicians stand opposed to Christian values. Academic institutions reject any notion of objective morality.

When Vanderbilt and the UCLA revoked club status for Christian groups for demanding their leaders adhere to a Christian code of conduct, our ‘I-told-you-so’ antennas sprang upright. And Katherine Wynne’s new sex education curriculum only serves to further affirm this narrative. But how often do we rejoice in public victories of conservative values? The Supreme Court of Quebec ruled today in favour of a private Catholic school’s ability to teach Christianity from a Christian worldview. Where’s the party? And funny how many Christians overlook a parent’s right to opt-out of Ms. Wynne’s masterpiece.

I point out these things not to argue politics, but to point out that we spend too much energy on complaint.

But why does that matter? Does negative speech cost anything? Again I draw our attention to the Israelites in scripture. The book of Hebrews contains a stunning indictment  on the ancient contemporaries of Moses.

“Today, if you hear his voice,
 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”  – Hebrews 3:7-11

What is the rebellion on the day of testing of which the Lord speaks? The seventeenth chapter of Exodus finds Israel thirsty in the desert. Keeping with a theme running through the book, the people complain and grumble. And it gets quite serious. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” The grumbling gets so bad Moses fears for his life. He approaches God and God produces a stream from a mountain. End of story? Apparently not.

This incident left behind a legacy. The region got a new name and something changed between the people and their God. Many chapters later, God postponed His promise of a homeland into the next generation because of doubt and complaining (Numbers 14), but this moment laid the foundation. It set a precedent of sweeping complaint.

To this point, Israel had seen the magnitude of God’s power and providence. God led them out of slavery in Egypt, destroyed their enemies and provided food for them miraculously. How then could they doubt God’s provision? How could they entertain such despair at their circumstances? Moral of the story: See how they complained even after God gave them so much. Don’t be like them.

But we do the same.

How we speak matters more than we think. Our speech patterns shape us- for good or ill. When we complain, our words pulls us towards despondence. When we tear down opponents, we don’t become more right; we become haters. Negative speech doesn’t edify.

I think on the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. on civil rights in America. Reflect on the words of his famous speech

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character… This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with. (Source: US National Archives)

With these words, the Reverend demonstrates the power of positive oratory. A dream inspires. Hope and faith bring change. Here was a man fighting for the future, not against the present. As Christians, we look forward to the return of Christ, and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1-4

Because of this hope, we don’t despair at the secularization of the West. We continue to strive for righteousness and justice, to care for the widow and the orphan, to tend to the sick, and to speak up for the oppressed. We continue to offer insightful social commentary. But we cannot be defined by complaint, grumbling, or hateful rhetoric. Such is not the fruit of a people defined by hope.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. – Ephesians 4:29

Don’t Despise The Home Field

In the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, He touched a lot of lives in many ways: He healed, taught, discipled, rebuked, expelled, and restored people from death. Beyond the historicity of these events, Jesus’ interaction with individuals teaches us much about God through anecdote. John alludes to this in the introduction to his gospel. “No one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made Him known.”

A friend recently invited me to reflect on a story from the fifth chapter of Mark’s gospel. In this story, Jesus delivers a man from demon possession. The consequences of Jesus’ miracle turn out to be costly for the local economy and so the response of the townspeople isn’t celebration and revelry.

The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region.  – Mark 5:14-17

This follow a theme in Jesus’ ministry. He does something good and people get upset. He delivered a member of the community from crippling bondage to forces beyond his control. A man who was previously out of control and prone to self harm sat before the townspeople sane and civilized, but their chief concern was for the 2000 pigs whose lives had been given for the man’s freedom. The economy was in shambles and the locals, eager to cut their losses, asked Jesus to kindly leave.

And what about the man who had just gotten his life back? Imagine yourself in his place. What would be running through your mind? How would you desire to move forward in life? We go back to the story to find out.

As [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marvelled.   – Mark 5: 18-20

Recently saved, excited to go anywhere with Jesus, and Jesus says, “I need you here.” This isn’t the only follower Jesus turns away. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus turns away some potential missionaries because they are not ready (Luke 9:57-62). This isn’t the case here though. Jesus saw that this man would do more for Jesus in his hometown than on the road, and He was right. People responded to this man’s proclamations about Jesus even though they had kicked Him out. Jesus wasn’t given audience on the countryside but this man was able to go into the city and everyone marvelled.

As a missionary myself, I frequently hear self deprecating comments from friends wishing they were ‘spiritual enough’ to go overseas for missions. We extol the Jim Elliotts, the Hudson Taylors, the David Livingstones, and allow ourselves to think less of those who gave everything for God’s glory locally. Going away is more exciting, more risky; staying at home is somewhat boring.

Relevant Magazine published an article in November 2014 titled, When Risking It All For God Means Staying Where You Are. Author Kris Beckett challenges us to seek discernment, not thrill, in determining where we are called to share Christ.

What if God wants you to start a ministry where you are instead of going to one? What if it’s actually more God-honoring to deal with an uncomfortable family situation than moving away from it? What if instead of leaving this position and that location again and again to “find ourselves,” we should be staying put? What if instead of leaving church after church, we should just keep coming to the same one? What if instead of abandoning all that is ours, we should be continuing to invest ourselves, our gifts, our resources?

But there is often more to the desire to go hit the road with Jesus. If we are honest, many of us (myself included) want to separate our evangelism from our Christian living. We know our flaws and so does our social network. There is often a dissonance between our message and our lifestyle. For example, I assert that Christian community brings together people from all cultures and social strata through the cross. In my life, however, I choose to worship and socialize with Christians who look just like me. I believe God’s generosity should inspire us to give freely, but I often walk past panhandlers, hoarding my paltry treasures.

It’s easy to put forth a veneer of righteousness anywhere but home. We can fake it for a few weeks, possibly a couple of months. Even if we don’t intend to deceive, we still fall for the lie that we’ll become more spiritual once removed from our current routine and network: My mom brings out the worst in me and I would be more patient away from her or I would be more disciplined with my daily bible reading if I didn’t have to deal with my job.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery I made as a missionary in Uganda is how much my life there mirrored my life at home. I still got nervous when I had an opportunity to talk about Christ. I still struggled to develop consistency in my devotional reading of scripture. My pride and anger travelled with me to my embarrassment. I wasn’t a better evangelist in Uganda than I was in Canada.

So it’s not surprising when we go back to the text and study the ministry of the formerly demon possessed man. His message wasn’t an exposition of the doctrine of trinity, or an apologetic for objective moral truth. He told the people what Jesus had done for him. His life was the content of his ministry.

The Gospel is so much more than a set of prepositional statements to believe or a worldview to affirm. It is a sanctifying submission to the living God, purchased on the cross of Jesus. It must be lived out in order to be preached. And faithfulness, not perfection is what God requires.

God calls many people to proclaim His name in a distant land, but many are also called to live out and preach the gospel at home. Where He calls is up to His sovereign will; ours is to obey

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem [at home] and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.  – Acts 1:8

Historical Creeds and the Task of Defining a Christian

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

With these words our church fathers launched into the brief synopsis of the Christian faith commonly known as the Nicene Creed. What does it mean to be Christian? Who is God and what makes Him different from all objects of worship? Early statements of faith were crafted in response to false teachings tearing apart the church: The Nicene Creed, and Apostles Creed, and the Athanasian Creed much later. They were meant to protect lay believers and theologians alike by giving clear boundaries of belief. Those who claimed to be Christians but believed outside the line of the creeds were condemned as heretics.

Some of us cringe when we hear that. We don’t want to think of Christianity as a group that kicked people out for not believing the right things. The church today already bears the stigma of being narrow minded, contentious, and unloving.

In December, a post titled The Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell, And What it Says About the State of Modern Christianity made the rounds in the viral spotlight. In it, the author wonders why the Christian world turned so quickly on one of its rock stars for not sticking to the script. In his view, Rob Bell started asking tough questions and got eaten up by conservative sharks in the name of orthodoxy. Thousands of comments on multiple sites show that he isn’t alone in this perspective.

Another internet article caught my eye recently, this one from The Daily Beast. Writer Ann Marie Cox discusses the obstacles which- until the publication of this piece- held her back from publicly coming out as a Christian. “I’m nervous to come out as a Christian because I worry I’m not good enough of one. I’m not scared that non-believers will make me feel an outcast. I’m scared that Christians will.”Why is it that believers, especially public figures, feel the need to prove their faith before a tribunal of their peers?

How do we know who is truly one of us? Lecrae? Kendrick Lamar? Shia Labeouf? Bono? Justin Bieber? Preachers of LA? I sometimes wonder if someday I’ll have to defend my salvation to believers in the public space. I’m mostly conservative and orthodox in my beliefs, but I believe in evolution (gasp!) and have no problem with the state recognizing gay marriage (double gasp!).

Part of the problem is that Christianity is usually defined according to opposite priorities. On one hand, Western Christianity has really grabbed hold of the idea of personal salvation. Do you accept Jesus Christ into your heart as personal Lord and Saviour? Religion is viewed as an individual experience: Jesus and I. In this view we lose the right to judge anybody else’s faith (Matthew 7:1-5, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5). As much as I may question a person’s actions, I truly don’t know what’s in their heart.

But on the other hand, Christianity is a historical and concrete identity. To be Christian is not just to be saved but to become identified with the Church. We are a family and so we share a common name. The actions of its members reflect on each other. Communal correction and discipleship are commanded both by Jesus (Matthew 18:15-18) and Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Galatians 6:1-2) and other scripture writers (James 5:19-20, 1 Peter 5:1-5) . False teachers are to be identified, exposed, and excluded (Matthew 7:15-16, 2 Timothy 3:1-7, 2 Peter 2:1-3, 2 John 1:7-11), lest they lead the church astray.

So, which is it? Is it personal or corporate? Are we each responsible for ourselves or for each other? Yes. Losing sight of either aspect is dangerous for the church. I’ve ministered in contexts where the corporate element of Christianity is elevated to the exclusion of the personal. Personal responsibility for growth is relinquished and believers become dependent on their participation in the community for their salvation. ‘We are Christian’ replaces ‘I am Christian’.

But the reverse is also dangerous. Personal salvation without accountability to the universal church is also dangerous. We are left to define salvation according to our whims and what we’re left with can be far removed from the faith passed down to us from Christ through the apostles (see Ephesians 2:19-22).

So how can we know who is truly one of us? I propose we go back to the ancient creeds for a starting point. Can I affirm my belief in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit- together worshipped and glorified? Do I believe in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus for my salvation? And am I committed to one church, one baptism, and resurrection into eternal life? That the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets?

Why the creeds? One would argue that scripture should be enough- and it is. However, people of very different theological convictions claim the Bible as their source. We are argue for proper interpretation, but are we so confident in our convictions on certain issues as to excommunicate others who claim the name of Christ? We would do well to defer to church history in determining the core tenets of belief necessary for salvation. I don’t claim that any creed is infallible or capable of replacing regular meditation on God’s Word in the Bible. But those who came before us studied, convened, debated, and risked much to define essential beliefs of our faith. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The confessional structure of the Nicene and Apostles Creeds have implications for both the personal and community. ‘I believe’ is not merely a statement of intellectual agreement, but of faith. I may not be able to explain or defend, but I believe. Anselm of Canterbury is famously quoted as saying, “Credo ut intelligam”: I believe so that I may understand.

But we don’t believe alone. When I was in Uganda, I attended a church whose service included an element of group confession. Every week, we would read through a statement of faith or doctrine together. Reading aloud in the congregation was initially strange, but also very unifying. No matter what had happened during the week or what doubts I may be struggling through, every Sunday I received assurance that others were with me on the journey of faith. We affirmed not only our commitment to our faith, but also to those who believed with us.

I don’t think every problem in the church would be solved by creedal confession, but it would be a great start. For one, we would know what is being referred to when someone says, “I am a Christian.” The goal posts won’t be as shifty. Would this exclude some? Yes. But we already do that and it’s necessary to do so. Even Jesus said that not everyone who calls themselves Christian belong to Him. But instead of excluding based on preference, there would be an objective and historical standard.

I think knowing the early creeds would also help us extend grace to others. Nobody who claims the name of Christ reflects His righteousness perfectly. We all still sin and are on a journey towards perfection. But when our brother or sister falls, we have reason to trust that God is at work bringing them to repentance. I have friends accept certain things I consider sinful, and I do some things that other Christians consider sinful. Again though, I believe the Nicene Creed gives us boundaries within which we are free to differ.

Am I a bit of an idealist? Perhaps. Somewhere within the human heart is a desire to create God in our image. As Christians, we struggle to accept any conception of God that differs from ours. Much I desire to love, I will always find it difficult to worship with a Christian who sees Old Testament stories as mostly mythological or who accepts that gay relationships might be within God’s will or believes that all miraculous spiritual gifts ceased with the completion of the Bible. But I honestly believe that’s what God calls us to do.

I’m not talking about uncritical acceptance of all doctrine not covered by the Nicene or Apostles Creed. There is however a difference between a conversation among brothers about family values and battle between warring factions for the family crown. How do we know who is truly one of us? Let’s start with answers from history.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

he is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.

 Amen.

–  Apostles Creed