Category Archives: Devotional

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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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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Does Your Coat Have Two Pockets?

“We need a coat with two pockets.  In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold.  We need a coat with two pockets to remind us of who we are.” (Hasidic tale)

Does your coat have two pockets?  I ask because many of us wear a coat with only one.

If we only carry around dust, we will live with the crushing awareness that we are fragile, vulnerable, small, dependent, and broken.  Self-loathing will inevitably set in.

If we only carry around gold, we will live with the crushing delusion that we are grand, glorious, and precious without qualification.  Narcissistic self-aggrandizement will inevitably set in.

Where can we find a coat with both pockets?  The gospel.

Only the message of Jesus’ incarnation, atonement, and resurrection provides us with such a coat.  In the gospel’s simple message we discover, as Timothy Keller notes:

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

 

We are broken, unworthy, lost, fragile and feeble creatures.  Dust.

We are loved, dignified, justified, redeemed, beautified, and glorious in Christ.  Gold.

Does your coat have two pockets?
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“Does the Work I Do Matter?”

Labour day is the perfect time to be reminded that our work–be it accounting, construction, writing, housekeeping, farming, customer service, banking–can have eternal significance.

In his book Every Good Endeavor, pastor Timothy Keller makes the following claim:

“Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavours, even the best, will come to naught…unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavour, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”

When I first became a Christian, my understanding of the gospel was little more than,  “Jesus died so you could be forgiven and go to heaven.”  Inside of that definition there’s hardly a compelling vision for our work beyond perhaps a (re)commit to basic ethics such as “don’t steal.”  But when we allow the full gospel to inform our understanding of life here and now; a gospel that holds together the key truths that God came to rescue us (incarnation), through a sacrificial death (atonement) and by his resurrection offers to empower us into a new kind of life, our everyday lives become massively interesting and unimaginably purposeful.   We’ve been ask to join God’s mission to bring his redeeming, restoring love to bear on every sphere of life.  This will mean seeing our jobs as arenas of influence through which we have the privilege to creatively, thoughtfully, prayerfully, purposefully seek to honor God and bless our neighbours through our work.

When the gospel transforms our understanding of work,  we are no longer held hostage by the two great temptations we face regarding our approach to work.

1. Work as the foundation of identity and meaning. Many people in the modern world look to their jobs for supreme self-worth and significance.  Work, functionally speaking, is their god; an idol that promises salvation from insignificance (as long as we can keep producing and achieving).

But the gospel gives us an entirely new foundation for our self-worth and significance. We are treasured by God,  and immensely valuable to Him.  Our worth and significance is revealed most strikingly at the cross: God self-sacrifices himself on our behalf in order to save us from the power and penalty of sin.  This good news allows us to put our work into a larger perspective, one that liberates us from the need to wed our identity and value to what we do and how successfully we do it.  Inside of God’s redeeming love, work can become a noble good without becoming a destructive idol.

2. Work as burdensome, pointless drudgery.  For as many people who idolize their work, just as many fall into the opposite temptation: to see work simply a (burdensome) means to an (self-serving) end.  This view sees work as something that must simply be endured.  Our jobs are necessary evils, and the goal becomes to work as little as possible in order to get on with the life we want.  Of course, for many people this means simply doing work in order to access more money in order to fulfill self-serving ends (more recreation, more stuff, etc.).

But the gospel compels us into a vision for our work that explodes the “working for the weekend” paradigm.   In the resurrection God has revealed his intention to “reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20).  Christianity boldly declares that part of the mission of the church is to equip people to go into their workplaces confident that God will use their efforts within his broader conspiracy to overthrow the world’s brokenness with his restorative grace and goodness.  Yes, every job remains difficult at times.  But no job is insufferably purposeless and burdensome when we go into it knowing God has placed us there in order to express love, grace, care, integrity, and excellence.

Labour Day marks a time of transition.  Some of us are preparing to head back to school tomorrow.  Many of us are preparing to go back to work (at least in earnest after a summer lull).  As we move back into our workplaces, what posture will characterize our efforts?

Anxious striving?  Apathy and resignation?

Another way is possible.  But only through the hope and power found in Christianity.

 

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Best Devotionals for Children and Teens

Finding quality devotional resources for children and teens isn’t always easy.  There are tons of formats and hundreds of options to choose from once you start looking.  It can get pretty overwhelming.

But getting resources that help our children understand and apply the Bible’s teachings is critical, so I’m going to highlight the best devotionals for ages 3-18.

Spoiler alert: they are all produced by CWR!

I’m highlighting CWR’s line of devotions for children and teens for a few reasons:

1. Theologically solid.  My exposure to these devotionals over the years has never failed to impress.  The writers of these devo’s are rock-solid theologically and cover a broad range of biblical topics, themes, and books through their materials.

2. Accessible themes and language.  I wish I was half as creative as these writers!  Every month they do an excellent job of tying together biblical themes with cultural currents that make for easy engagement.  The tone and language of the devotionals are straightforward, punchy, and fun.

3. Easy of access.  Although produced in the United Kingdom, all of these devotionals can be shipped to your door via a subscription service.

Available Devotional Resources (with store links)

PensPENS (Ages 3-6)

 

TopzTOPZ (Ages 7-11)

 

CaptureYP’s (Ages 11-15)

 

MettleMettle (Ages 14-18)

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Good Friday: Blood Magic

Isaiah 53 (ESV)

53 Who has believed what he has heard from us?

And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,

and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned—every one—to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away;

and as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,

stricken for the transgression of my people?

And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death,

although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10  Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;

he has put him to grief;

when his soul makes an offering for guilt,

he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

11  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,

make many to be accounted righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

12  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,

because he poured out his soul to death

and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,

and makes intercession for the transgressors.

 

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Fire Made Flesh: Responding to Jesus’ Authority

I’ve been reading a lot of commentaries and teachings on Mark 2:23-3:6 over the last two weeks.  Here’s a snippet from a Timothy Keller sermon.  It begins with a powerful quote by NT Wright that Keller uses to offer a piercing reflecting on what it means to respond to Jesus’ authority:

“How can you live with the terrifying thought that the hurricane has become human, that fire has become flesh, that life itself … walked in our midst? Christianity either means that, or it means nothing. It is either the most devastating disclosure of the deepest reality in the world, or it’s a sham, a nonsense … Most of us, unable to cope with saying either of those things, condemn ourselves to live in the shallow world in between.” NT Wright

He’s right, because if you have a shred of personal integrity, you’ll know you can’t like anybody who makes claims like this. Either he’s a wicked or a lunatic person and you should have nothing to do with him, or he is who he says he is and your whole life has to revolve around him, and you ought to throw everything at his feet and say, “Command me.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but do you live in that sort of misty world between that N.T. Wright is talking about, that he says no one with integrity can live in? Do you pray to Jesus sometimes, maybe not a lot, but sometimes? When you’re in trouble you pray to Jesus, and then sometimes you kind of ignore him because you get busy. Is that right for you?

Listen. Either he can’t hear you because he’s not who he says he is, or else how dare you check in occasionally with this person? You can’t just pray to Jesus occasionally. Either he can’t hear you, he’s not who he says he is, or else he has to be the still point in your turning world, he has to be the thing around which your entire life revolves.

Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

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