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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

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Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving from a Canuck away from home. This holiday is a great reminder to look at our lives and remember God’s faithfulness. In the busyness of life, giving thanks is one of the spiritual disciplines we tend to neglect. It’s much easier to focus on what we are still yet to receive.

Last week, I was treated to an unpleasant morning. I got in to start the car and found that our car battery had died. The setback- coupled with a stomach bug the night before and the prospect of a long staff meeting planned that day- hit me harder than it should have. In that moment, I was not a witness of Christ’s glory at work in me.

The solution was thankfulness. One of my teammates got us thinking about some of the ways God had blessed us, even in light of our setback.  We could at least be thankful that we had a car.

Philippians 4 teaches us to rejoice always and to pray with thanksgiving. So I want to take some time to reflect of God’s goodness and give thanks. I won’t have a day off to celebrate with a turkey dinner (at least not until American Thanksgiving) but I have much to be grateful for

Christ: I’m most grateful for my salvation. Almost six years ago, I had my eyes opened to see the glory of God in the face of Christ. Since then, I’ve come to see in clearer detail the depth of my sin and depravity. I’ve seen how often my heart responds to God’s grace with unyielding selfishness. Each day, I see my need for salvation.

In salvation, I also see God’s hand in my sanctification. I’m not the same person I was six years ago. I’ve grown up a lot. I’ve also become a better person. I’ve become less lazy, more loving, more patient and more giving. I rejoice in God’s promise that, just as He begun the work of salvation in me, He will be faithful to complete my sanctification until the day of Christ’s coming.

Purpose: In salvation, I received purpose from God. He is showing me the good works He prepared for me before the beginning of time. Looking back I can see how He’s been very deliberate in bringing me where I am today.

Looking forward, I can be confident that He is continuing to take me on a divinely sanctioned adventure through life. In a few months, I will be making some decisions about where to go from Uganda. I have no idea what doors will open and where those doors will lead. I have me hopes and certain things I would like to be true of my future. I trust God will meet or beat these ideals.

Mentors: I takes a village to raise a child and it takes a host to faithful disciplers to build a mature believer. I am indebted to many men and women whose influence in my life challenged, encouraged, inspired and forced me to grow. I spent some time this April thanking a few by name on this blog and there are more who have and will continue to be thanked in person.

This week I shared with a student who asked how I know so much about scripture. Answering his question, I gave much credit to every pastor and mentor who chose to bring me to God’s Word whenever they taught me. It’s my prayer that I never teach or give an answer without consulting scripture because this value has been modeled for me by the men I most look up to.

Platform: In less than two weeks, I will have an opportunity to exposit scripture before my largest audience to date. Over the last year, I’ve had quite a few invitations to teach students in different contexts. This is my biggest passion and I am excited to continue grow in the craft of presenting God’s Word to God’s people.

How many people really have a platform to do what they love? How many get to make a career of what they love to do? I thank God even for you, the readers of my blog, who continue to allow me the sacred privilege of sharing with you on a (mostly) regular basis. Handling God’s Word is an honor and a huge responsibility and I thank God that He has counted me worthy to serve in this way.

Church: I love the Church. I love my church, Westside Baptist Church, who in the past year was an avenue of experiencing God’s love as well as my primary discipler through scripture. I love my parents’ church, Calvary Worship Chapel, who welcomed me to their fellowship and supported me this summer. I love my church here in Uganda, Berea Baptist Church, whose unapologetic, unyielding and undeniable commitment to scripture-based teaching has been a breath of fresh air and a taste of the familiar in a new land.

I love the global community of Christians united in adoption into the family of God and reception of the love of Christ. I love when God’s people use their differences to build each other up in godliness, stirring each other up to love and good works. I love that the gospel transcends cultural differences and language barriers. I love that Christ did not leave us orphans, but sent us the Holy Spirit to be our comfort and counselor. I love that the Holy Spirit often chooses to work through the people in whom He dwells, fills and directs.

Friends: I have amazing friends. Being separated from most of them, I’ve come to appreciate their influence in my life even more. I appreciate the jokes, the good times, the late night foolishness. I love that I get to be myself with them and experience authenticity with them. It’s a process making new friends here in Kampala but I see God’s provision even in that.

I would one day love to work of a post about what the bible has to say about friendship. I spent some time with a couple of new believers who are finding it hard to break from their past sins because of friends who constantly draw them back in. It’s my prayer that, in introducing them to communities of believers, they too can enjoy the blessing of sanctifying friendships which God has lavished bountifully on me.

Family: I have the most amazing family, and occasionally I will use this space to brag on them. I spent 611 words on this space bragging on my father in April. He continues to be a role model and a picture of godly living in a professional, church and family context. My mother is one of my closest friends, a trusted source of wisdom and encouragement. She is a gifted writer and children’s church curriculum creator on her site. I have one sister who gets my humour, constantly exposes me to aspects of pop culture I would otherwise miss, and generally makes for great company.

My family was my biggest source of support during the decision to come and preparation for ministry in Uganda. My parents affirmed my decision to serve here for a year when I told them of my decision. They celebrated with me when I got accepted and helped me think through support raising. They gave incredibly generously and mobilized others to give as well. I very likely would not be here without them and I am eternally grateful for them. I miss them.

Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

Relating With God, The World and The Church: Reflections on Hebrews 10

As many of you have come to realize, I deal often with the topics of sin and of ministry on this blog. How are we as imperfect people expected to relate to our perfect God, the world and to the church? One thing I love about scripture is that when it comes alive, it provides answers for these and other questions life throws at us.Today, I’ll be looking at a passage that’s encouraged me this past week.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

This passage follows a section discussing the completeness of Jesus’ sacrifice for our purification. Here we are introduced to the perfection of our conscience, an element of purification through Jesus that the rituals of the Old Testament law could not provide. We see Jesus functioning as both priest and sacrifice in our mediation before God. His sacrifice need not be repeated because it does the job perfectly and completely the first time. Jesus’ sacrifice brings forgiveness for sins.

It’s in this context that our portion of scripture begins. Here the author gives three commands that come as a direct response to the preceding section. Since we have the confident access by the blood and sure mediation through our great high priest, we have the ability to live out the instructions given by the author. We are not the determining factor in our ability to keep these; Christ is. This is beautiful, and becomes more so when we explore these commands.

The first is this: Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. When I first read it, I took it as two commands: one to draw near with a true heart and the other to draw near in full assurance of faith. The challenge of this is it raises the question, “what is a true heart?” True is an adjective that has a broad range of meaning depending on the noun that it is modifying. A person can have a true aim, make a true statement, be a true bastard, etc. True means something a little different in each context and we derive its meaning from its noun. The problem is the noun ‘heart’ is also similarly vague. Do I follow my heart, take care of my heart, speak from the heart, or have a change of heart

If we see it one command though, we get more clarity on the author’s intention. The true heart is given a definition in relation to the full assurance of faith. We can understand that we are command to draw near to God with our hearts fully convinced of the assurance that faith brings. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

I sin more than I should (so basically, I sin). Sometimes my sin feels particularly grievous to me, especially if I should have known better. People get hurt, trust is broken and I feel as though I’ve let God down. In repentance, I believe I am forgiven, but instinct tells me to lay low for a bit and give God some time to cool down. That’s our paradigm of relationship, given our experience with other humans.

Isn’t it amazing then, that even in that moment, He invites us to draw near to Him with a true heart in full assurance of faith? Drawing near is a relational concept, and the relationship is of a son to a father. We are invited to know, enjoy and bring our requests to God as a son would his father. This is, in part, a command to pray boldly. We are well aware of all the reasons He has to ignore our prayers, and so it’s a challenge to obey. But Jesus is our confidence. We draw near to God through Him and we pray in His name. Pray in faith, because the bible commands us to.

In addition to drawing near, we are commanded to hold fast to our confession of hope because He who promised is faithful. The idea of holding to our confession recurs often in Hebrews (3:6,14; 4:14). The book also makes reference to falling away (2:1, 3:12, 6:4), becoming hardened (3:13), and shrinking back to our destruction (10:39). The author of this book does not take it for granted that everybody who professes to be a believer will continue in faith. Some will, for some reason, willingly forfeit their confession.

We are not given the reasons why a person might make such a decision. Other passages in Hebrews bring up the role of persistent sin (3:12, 10:26), immature meditation on the Word (2:1, 5:11-6:4, lack of perspective (10:34, 12:2-4) among other possible reasons. But those things that we might choose instead of God are not the concern of the author in this passage; the character of God is. Over the reality of temptation, persecution, and unanswered questions, we are called to trust in God’s character. His faithfulness is the anchor for our faith.

Why does this matter? Because there are a lot of rewards the world has to offer, and a lot of difficulty to be found in a life of faith. We will all question whether being a committed believer is worth the sacrifices. The more we engage with the world, the more we will see its joys. But instead of retreating from the world, we are called to cling tighter to the promises of God as aliens in the world.

Here’s what scripture promises to all believers: We will know God (Jon 17:3) and in that we will find true life. We will grow in character and become more good (Philippians 1:6). We will do the good works we were created to do (Ephesians 2:10). We will receive guidance to walk through life (Psalm 23). We will never be alone (Joshua 1:5,9). We will have meaningful impact in the cosmic war between good and evil in our prayer and evangelism. We will spend eternity with our creator, worshipping Him and enjoying Him forever.

The challenge is that living out our faith doesn’t always feel glorious. About 30 minutes after landing in Uganda, I was convinced I was in the wrong place. I was quickly reminded how much I don’t fit in here. I don’t think I know another African that feels as out of place on his native continent. What ministry could I do here that I wouldn’t be able to do more effectively in Canada?

What began to calm my doubts was not a change in the situation. Going out into the city with my team only made me feel more like an outsider. I can still only pick out every other word in the local accent. I’m struggling a little with being dependent on friends to get around, though appreciative of the good people God is surrounding us with. What’s changed for me is remembering that it is God who called me here. He provided the opportunity, confirmed His will and provided the funds. He began preparing me for this even when I was trying to run from Him. He’s even using the quirks and personalities of my teammates to prove to me that He knows what He’s doing. Every moment I doubt, His faithfulness is what will bring me peace, no matter how long it takes for me to remember it. Once again, it’s all about Him and not about me.

Finally, we are instructed to consider how to stir each other up to love and good works. The message here is that we are responsible to our brothers and sisters in Christ because of the cross and the priesthood of Jesus. I often think to the role of community in the Christian life in terms of receiving grace and support from the body of Christ. Here, we see our responsibility to the body. We are not to forsake gathering together, but to actively participate in encouraging the church.

The sixth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a great picture of this. In the first five verses, we are introduced to the concept of individual accountability and mutual responsibility. We are responsible for our conduct, so that when we fall, we cannot blame the church. Yet even in bearing our burdens, we are instructed to bear the burdens of our fellow believers. In doing so, we fulfill the law of Christ. We have that responsibility to each other.

What does this look like? It’s a bit easier to visualize this responsibility when you are given a position of leadership. The job description is clearly laid out: serve people by fulfilling this assignment. But what are we to do in not in any spiritual leadership roles? Or if we see our brother struggling outside our assigned jurisdiction?

Scripture, as it often does, gives some great suggestions for this. We can encourage (Hebrews 10:25). Encouragement goes a long way in building people up in the mission God called them to. Look at the role of Barnabas (the son of encouragement) in empowering John Mark in the book of Acts (Acts 12:12-25, 15:37-41, 2 Timothy 4:11).

We can teach each other (Colossians 3:16). This gives an incentive to spend time in God’s Word. The authority from which we teach is scripture. It is God’s truth and can correct our wrong views on reality and inspire life change. We are responsible to the community of believers for the time we spend in the Word.

Finally we can love our brothers and sisters. The second great commandment is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 23:39). Love covers a multitude of sins. We are responsible to love the body of Christ is word and deed. It is by this love that the world will know we are disciples of Jesus.

All these things we do because of all that God has done for us. We cannot boldly approach God’s throne or hold fast to our confession of hope or stir anyone to love and good works unless we truly believe we have access to God and that Christ Himself functions as our high priest interceding for us. His death on the cross was complete for the purifying of our souls. In this we rejoice and through this we obey.

All things for Him, from Him and through Him.

Amen