They Came to Bury Hope

God’s greatest redemptive work is often being done right under our noses, just outside of our awareness.  Therefore, there is always a reason to live into hope, especially during days that seem hopeless.

This was the insight that jumped off the page as I prepared to preach on Mark’s account of the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16:1-8).

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. (Mark 16:1)

On that Sunday morning none of the women got up anticipating or sensing that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Their subjective lived experience was one rooted in mourning and disillusionment.  They had witnessed Jesus being tortured, crucified, killed, and then buried.  As a final act of devotion they approached his tomb in order to anoint his dead and lifeless body.

The women came to bury hope, not ignite it.  From their vantage point death had won.  Life as they knew it was going to carry on much as it always had, with death getting the final word.

But their intense mourning, acute despair, and profound hopelessness was misplaced.  By the crack of dawn Jesus had already been resurrected and had gotten on with his day! And even though New Creation had erupted within reality, had you asked any of these women a few minutes before arriving at the tomb, they would have resolutely affirmed that they were living in the age of death and hopelessness.

What they felt and experienced was entirely disconnected from the truth of what God was up to.  Everything their feelings and senses communicated to them seemed irrefutable, and yet minutes later they discovered that their perspective was mistaken and misaligned to reality. Their worldview was wrong because the world itself had changed.  Just as they would have to catch up with Jesus who had gone ahead of them, their hearts and minds would have to catch up with the truth of the resurrection that so starkly confronted their current understanding of the nature of things.

There’s a critical lesson here.  It is possible to believe you are walking in hopelessness and be completely mistaken.  It is possible to feel utterly lost and without hope, and be thoroughly wrong about that evaluation.

As the women made their way to Jesus’s tomb, they would have felt utterly lost and without hope.  But their perspective was woefully incomplete.  The tomb had already been emptied and a new and living hope had already been established.

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. (Mark 16:4–6)

We live much of our lives “in the dark” as it relates to sensing or feeling God’s power at work in our lives.  That is why it’s so important to live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).  Our perspective is limited and this limitation can tempt us into interpreting God’s silence for absence and/or powerlessness.  When that happens, if we do not feel, sense, or perceive God at work, we can all too easily bury hope.

But the resurrection account challenges us to understand that God does some of His most powerful work outside of our direct knowledge.  This may be a discouraging realization at first.  After all, who doesn’t want to sense God powerfully at work in their lives?  And yet this realization is also profoundly encouraging in its insistence that we can by faith trust that extraordinary things are in play—veiled as they may be to us—and  therefore there is always a reason for hope. A particularly important truth to remember during days when our world threatens to collapse under the weight of calamity.

And trust me when I say, one day calamity will come.  And your world will buckle.  And on that day you may not feel, sense, or perceive God’s redeeming power at work.  And as a result, on that day you may find yourself tempted to bury hope.

But when that day comes remember the women who rose to face the end of their world, only to be invited into a new one through a risen Saviour.

Remember that the tomb is empty.  Remember that Jesus has risen.  Remember that he’s gone ahead of you.  Remember that he’s powerfully at work though you may not perceive it.

And instead of burying your hope, let the Spirit of God ignite it.

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A Spirituality of Depth and Fruitfulness (Part Four)

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

It is not possible to experience depth and fruitfulness in our Christian lives without daily engagement with God through the Scriptures and prayer.  However, this does not mean that the Christian faith is just about “me and Jesus.”  Jesus’ call to abide in him was originally given to a group of his followers.  Jesus expects us to remain (collectively) in him.  How?  He tells us in verse 12: “12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

This command is a powerfully clarifying one within a society and culture that holds out many definitions of love to us.  Jesus makes it clear that he and his example are what love looks like. 

What does this command lead us into as followers of Jesus?

  1. It leads us into a commitment to a local church. While it’s a popular option to make faith nothing more than a personal matter, a Christian cannot follow Jesus alone. Jesus calls us to love other members of his body.  The local church is the arena of learning with and from each other how to love each other well.  It’s not without its headaches and hardships, but we cannot jettison meaningful commitment to a local group of Christians while also expecting depth and fruitfulness in our Christian walk.
  2. It leads us into greater spiritual maturity. This process of learning to love one another in the same self-giving, sacrificial, courageous, and generous way Jesus modeled takes time. We’ll have to learn patience.  We’ll have to learn to forgive others and bear each other’s immaturities and fault lines.  We’ll have to be prepared to be hurt as we enter into relationships that require vulnerability.  Perhaps most challenging of all, we’ll need to abandon a transactional view of relationships (i.e. “what’s in this for me?”) and adopt a covenantal expression of love (“how can I give and serve without strings attached?”).  Being meaningfully engaged in a local church isn’t easy, but it’s critical for any Christian.  As we obey this command Jesus will honour our commitment and bless us with depth of character and spiritual maturity that can be cultivated in no other way.
  3. It will lead us back into communion with Christ. To love others as Jesus loves us, we’ll need to return to the gospels again and again and discover how to love like Jesus. But more so, we’ll have to return to Jesus in prayer again and again as we come to see all of the ways we fail to love each other well.  We will learn very quickly that one cannot build genuine Christian community without building intimacy with Jesus.

 

Note: This reflection first appeared in the January 26th edition of the Nelson Star News.

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A Spirituality of Depth and Fruitfulness (Part Three)

In John 15 Jesus says,

7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

There is a mysterious, but powerful relationship between reading the Bible and prayer.  Jesus draws attention to the fact that if his words remain in us, our prayers have a power that lead to God’s glory and our lives being fruitfulness for Him.

The Bible is spiritual food.  In Deuteronomy 8:3, God reminds his people that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  We need to feed on God’s word in order to avoid being spiritually malnourished.  In a similar way, prayer is oxygen to the Christian’s soul.  It is the process of learning to turn theology into experience, and develop a personal relationship with Christ himself.

But how do we do both in a way that is meaningful?  Many Christians want to read their Bible and pray, but many struggle.  I believe this is because we are often told what we should do, but are not instructed in how to do it.

If you are looking for a daily devotional structure that help you engage God through the Bible and prayer, try the following for the next few weeks:

  1. Pick one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John). Head over to www.biblegateway.com if you don’t have a Bible.
  2. Read one chapter a day. Read the chapter slowly at least twice, but ideally 3 times, each time taking notes of what stands out to you.
  3. But instead of trying to figure out what to say, let the Bible teach you to pray.  Turn each verse (the little numbers at the start of some sentences) into a prayer.  Example: 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples can used to pray, “God, help my life to bear fruit that brings you glory. Help me to live in such a way that it is clear to others that I am a genuine disciple of Jesus.”  By turning each verse into a prayer, you’ll combat the three biggest obstacles most people encounter when they pray: a wandering mind, repetitive prayers, and boredom.

Reading the Bible and praying is the central way in which we abide in Christ.  This ritual, when done with a surrendered, obedient heart, leads to untold riches in our Christian walk.

 

Note: This reflection first appeared in the January 19th edition of the Nelson Star News.

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A Spirituality of Depth and Fruitfulness (Part Two)

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit” John 15:5

Practically speaking, how do we abide (i.e. remain) in Christ?  In their book Resilient Ministry, authors Burns, Guthrie, and Chapman identity five characteristics that help pastors build and maintain a spirituality of depth and fruitfulness.  Although their research focused specifically on pastors, I believe all Christians can learn from their findings.

  1. They build rituals. Rituals are highly intentional habits. Instead of relying on sheer willpower to grow, wise Christians will strategically build rituals into their days, weeks, and months that keep them connected to Jesus. 
  1. They practice spiritual disciplines. To abide in Christ requires us to not simply form rituals, but rituals that strengthen us in the Lord and in his calling for our lives. From engaging the Bible, prayer, serving, fasting, giving, etc., the Bible holds our specific habits that will deepen our walk with Christ when done with a surrendered heart and a view to love God and serve one’s neighbour.  Integration of these spiritual disciplines takes time, so patience is required.  Like toddlers learning to walk, we should expect the process of learning to walk with God to be clunky, awkward, and full of missteps.  But over time, slowly and steadily, practicing core spiritual disciplines will create spiritual momentum. 
  1. They maintain accountability. Learning to abide in Christ is an individual and communal calling. Those who are sustain depth and fruitfulness in their Christian walk regularly invest in Christian community where they are supported, encouraged, challenged, and held accountable in their desire to combat spiritual drift.
  1. They grow through hardships. To remain in Christ and connected to him, we need to learn to suffer well. Pain, suffering, and hardship often present a spiritual crossroads.  Will I allow my suffering to harden me towards God and others?  Or will I seek to glorify God by learning to suffer well?  Those who choose the second path are those who remain in Christ and allow the pruning of God to be a process of refinement and not hardening.
  1. They establish all activity in the gospel of grace. You cannot learn to abide in Christ through clench-fisted striving. Successfully and fruitfully abiding in Jesus often comes from a foundation of grace-filled surrender.  The gospel is not “if you religiously perform, God will love and accept you.”  The gospel is “you are loved and accepted in Christ.  From that place of security and grace, learn to walk in a way that honours God and loves others well.”  The gospel of Jesus frees you from the anxiety that a transactional/karmic conception of religious obedience creates.  Those growing in depth and fruitfulness will live from a place of gospel grace and security.

 

Note: This reflection first appeared in the January 12th edition of the Nelson Star News.

 

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“Excommunicate me from the church of Social Justice”

This article, published by CBC Radio, is probably the saddest thing I read last week.

The contemporary “Social Justice” movement is a thinly disguised self-salvation project. Rooted in noble (but naive) intentions, it’s been co-opted by an ideology that cannot be sustained without demonizing “the other” and viewing all of life as an oppression matrix.

Worst of all, the ideology of Social Justice offers no propitiation for sin, and no mechanism for atonement and/or cleansing. It offers a strict, suffocating moralism that grinds people down through shame and guilt, and seeks to control them through the pursuit of ideological purity to the cause.

I believe that only justice initiatives grounded in the gospel of Jesus can save us from the exhaustion, joylessness, and shame that comes from seeking the fruit of the kingdom of God without surrender to the King and cooperating with him–on his terms.

Without Jesus’ gospel, even our highest moral ambitions can quickly become idolatrous. And as Andy Crouch wisely observes, every idol follows the same pattern: it demands more and more while giving less and less. Until the idol demands human sacrifices be made.

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A Spirituality of Depth and Fruitfulness (Part One)

 

“I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.”  John 15:5

For those who humbly embrace him as Saviour and Lord, Jesus offers a life-transforming spirituality characterized by two things: depth of intimacy and fruitfulness.  However, many people find the experience of both to be out of reach.  As a result some resolve to try harder, but quickly arrive at spiritual burn-out.  Others simply give up, believing themselves to be insufficiently spiritual to “take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).  Then there are those whose hearts grow cold having believed the lie that the abundant life Jesus offers was never meant for them.

Sometimes the root of this disconnect lies in the fact that people expect the fruit without being connected to the Vine.  Many who call themselves Christians have never personally surrendered their lives to Jesus.  They understand Christianity as civic religion, a moral framework, or perhaps even as short-hand for “Western values.”  They attend church, serve the poor, and are genuinely good people.  Jesus, however, makes it clear that the term Christian (i.e. “little Christ”) is only for those in him through faith.

In John 15 Jesus talks a lot about abiding (i.e. remaining) in him, and the fruitfulness that comes as a result.  However, the first condition of remaining in Christ is to place yourself in Him.  No one is automatically “in Christ.”  Jesus refers to himself as the true vine (John 15:1), and we are branches that have been cut off from God due to sin’s power.  However, through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus opened up a way by which we could be saved out of this separation from God and into a unique relationship with God.  Like branches that are grafted into a strong and life-giving vine, by placing our trust in Christ we are reconnected to the source of life, hope, love, and truth.  Then Jesus’ life begins to flow through ours in surprising and powerful ways.

A person is not a Christian if they are not connected to the Vine.  And a person cannot experience the promises Jesus declares for those in him, while they choose to remain outside of his redeeming love.

Do you long to experience a spirituality of depth and fruitfulness that touches every dimension of your life in joyous, restorative, hopeful, and redeeming ways?  Place yourself in Christ first, and then learn to abide in him.

Note: This reflection first appeared in Nelson Star News on January 5th, 2018.

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Learn to Write. Write to Learn.

“Why am I writing this paper?”
“You’re writing in order to learn to think.”

I wish someone would have impressed this perspective on me decades ago.

From a young age I was rewarded for good grades. The result was that I learned how to game the system and secure grades without securing an education. I fell into the trap of seeing assignments as little more than “to-do’s” on the way to course completion. I prided myself on being able to figure out the most efficient way to complete a written assignment in exchange for an acceptable grade. As a result, I squandered a lot of opportunities to grow and learn. And at 40 I’m having to double-back on coursework and ideas that I insufficiently grappled with during my years of formal study.

TL;DR: Learn to write. Write to learn.

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Nailed It: Understanding the Significance of the Reformation

What was the Protestant Reformation? 

Who was Martin Luther and what did he believe? 

How does this man and this event offer hope and help to me 500 years later?

Great questions!  Allow SPEAK LIFE to lead you into the important answers as they cleverly unpack the five “solas” of the Reformation.

1. “Christ Alone”

2. “Grace Alone”

3. “Faith Alone”

4. “Scripture Alone”

5. “God’s Glory Alone”

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An Unlikely Kingdom Role Model

Mark 12:41-44
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. 43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

In Jesus’ day, if you had asked people, “Who do you look to for spiritual leadership?  Who are your spiritual role models?”, people would have likely named prominent, religious “experts” like the Pharisees or perhaps the Scribes.  These men were the cultural influencers and thought leaders.  They were the ancient equivalent of New York Times best-selling authors; prominent and popular religious celebrities that were believed to be the authorities that sincere, devout believers should seek to follow and emulate.

Jesus rewrites the script dramatically.

“Guys, come over here.  Did you see that poor, widowed woman?  She just gave more to God than everyone else, because although her amount was small compared to everyone else’s, they were giving out of their wealth.  She, from a place of poverty, gave her whole life.”

Notice that Jesus not only rejects the religious leaders/experts as spiritual role models (he actually condemns their leadership and “expertise” in Mark 12:38-40), he points to someone who by every conventional metric has the least to offer in terms of spiritual authority, influence and expertise: A poor, widowed woman.

Jesus wants the disciples to learn from a woman...who is poor…and widowed?  Why?  How?  In the context of the first-century this woman is second-class, impoverished, and lacking any meaningful social capital or cultural influence.

What kind of kingdom is Jesus inviting us into, that a poor, widowed woman is a role model for faithful discipleship?!

There’s an important lesson here.  Those that the world dismisses as irrelevant, unworthy, insufficient, damaged, and useless are often the very people through whom God’s kingdom breaks into this world.

This is precisely the reason Paul encourages the early church in Rome to “be willing to associate with people of low position” (Romans 12:16).  And its a truth that is reinforced by Paul in his first letter to the early church in Corinth:

1 Corinthians 1:26–29
26
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

The kingdom that Jesus is building is built through “lost causes” and “nobodies.”  That’s an essential part of the gospel (i.e. good news).  We are all lost causes spiritually speaking.  We can’t rescue or save ourselves from the power of sin.  But Jesus comes to deal with our sin issue by dying for us, in our place.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Jesus is resurrected and enthroned as King and Lord over all things, so that those who turn their lives over to him can be saved into a new kind of life.  A life God begins using within His mission to mend the world and overcome evil.

Weak, insignificant nobodies–in the hands of Jesus–become strong, significant somebodies.  No expertise required.

Is there better news than that?

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The Path to Greatness

On Sunday I preached on Mark 10:32-45.  The passage is a series of conversations through which Jesus reveals the path to greatness.

James and John approach Jesus and petition him: ““Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (v. 37).  They believe Jesus is destined for great things.  Power. Glory. Fame.  When Jesus establishes his kingdom rule, they want places of prominence within the coming government.  They are hungry for power and the attending privileges that come with it.

Jesus uses their request to subvert their entire worldview.

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

Jesus offers a contrasting vision of authority, power, greatness, and glory.  James and John, who desire power OVER others, must learn that those who follow Jesus are to use power FOR others.  Power and authority are gifts that must be stewarded for the benefit of those under the power and authority.

Jesus makes it clear that authority and greatness in God’s kingdom is defined by one’s ability to use their power to serve others.  Tightening the screws on this upside-down paradigm, Jesus even insists that “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

The path to greatness Jesus holds out looks very different in a world that values power over others.  He calls his followers to the pattern of leadership that he embodied; a self-sacrificing use of power that leads to life and flourishing for others.

Walking the Path to Greatness

Even if it is meager, each of us holds a certain measure of power and influence.  What might it look like to move into our marriages, workplaces, schools, sports teams, relationships, etc., with a view to use that power to serve and bless others?

In his book The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf defines those who live out of this Jesus inspired paradigm as servant-leaders.

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Regardless of whether we occupy formal positions of authority, the characteristics that define servant leaders are ones that each of us can integrate in our lives.

Like James and John, our hearts crave greatness.  But too often we seek to satisfying this craving by putting ourselves in positions of power over others.  We desire to be on top and in control; masters but never mastered.  Jesus declares this path to “greatness” to be an anti-God and anti-human path to walk.

Embracing the heart of a servant, Jesus says, is the path to true greatness.  And it’s a glorious and world-transforming path to walk.

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