Category: Faith


Past and Future

Oscar Wilde once quipped: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” Looking back at our journey to faith in Christ, we are reminded of the gracious invitation to follow Jesus. At some point in our past, we responded to the love of Jesus and experienced His forgiveness. But we are also mindful of doubt, skepticism and fear that affected our response. Following Jesus was not easy and I would suggest it is still not easy today.

There might be memories of past traumas and hurts, past failures and sins that impact our current experience of grace. Perhaps, we feel inadequate and unworthy to be called a Christian. Perhaps, we find it hard to let go of past criticisms and complaints. Perhaps, we are discouraged by the lack of care and compassion from other Christians in the local church.  Perhaps, we have made some poor choices and given way to temptation. Perhaps, we are afraid our past will catch up and ruin our future.

I believe Jesus looks at us with deep love and real grace. Our past has been redeemed by Jesus and therefore nothing we have experienced is wasted. Jesus assures us of His forgiveness and healing for all that has taken place in our past. But He also challenges us to embrace our future as defined by His calling and purpose. We are no longer strangers or foreigners to the Kingdom of God. We are now beloved members of God’s household, brave citizens of God’s Kingdom, and bold partners in the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are called to live and to act as chosen disciples of Jesus. We have a future that is filled with hope and grace.

The Apostle Paul describes his own journey of faith in Jesus: “No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3:13-14 NLT) Every disciple can forget the past and forge ahead towards the future defined by Jesus’ call.

How would you describe your personal story of faith? Does your past weigh heavily on your present? What is Jesus saying to you about your future? Where are you headed in your journey of faith? Are you looking back or facing the future?  Every Christian has a past and every disciple has a future in Jesus Christ. Following Jesus today is not easy but it is the only path that leads to total freedom from our past and total fulfillment for our future. We are destined to reign with Christ Jesus in the glorious Kingdom that He will establish at His return. For that reason, we persevere in faith and endure all difficulties by His grace. My dear friends, do not lose heart and do not be afraid.

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Lauren Winner’s new book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, describes her journey through the middle of a faith crisis. Her conversion from Judaism to Christianity was a significant beginning. Recently, Winner’s mother died from cancer. Not long after, she and her husband of five years divorced. Both events shook Winner to her core and she found herself in a liminal space, a Middle, she was not prepared to face. Confounded by doubts, burdened by a sense of failure, Winner’s faith shifted beneath her.

For Winner, faith was supposed to sustain her through hard times but it did not happen that way. In her own words: “as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die, too. God had been there. God had been alive to me. And then, it seemed, nothing was alive–not even God.” “The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow farther away, maybe in hiding…this book is about the time when the things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living.”

It seems to me Winner is looking for a faith that matches her life situation. She needs a faith that actually applies to the life she is presently living. While her faith shifts and turns, she continues to look to her church for stability and sustenance. She prays to a God who seems silent and sometimes absent. She feels the desolation of being left alone in her seasons of pain and doubt. From a spiritual perspective, her faith is being tested.

In the Book of James, we read words of encouragement for such times of testing. “ Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James 1:2-4 NLT) I suppose it is inevitable that our faith will be tested because life is messy and often filled with contradictions. Faith in God is somehow deepened and formed through the seasons of trials and unexpected difficulties. It seems we are led straight to God through crooked paths.

But faith is not simply a set of beliefs. It is more than statements of credal affirmations. Faith that is personal and relational embraces the mystery of trusting God fully while not understanding why things have to happen the way it has. Faith that perseveres and persists against all odds relies on the inner awareness of God’s presence and love. Genuine faith finds opportunity for great joy as we learn to endure the moments of doubt, struggle and desolation.

Our journey in faith is similar to Winner’s search for a relevant faith. But, I am convinced that faith is not determined by the kind of life we are living. Instead, faith is formed by the God who shows us how to live like Jesus. In other words, our life can be transformed by the kind of faith that Jesus imparts into our consciousness, our emotions and our intentions. Jesus transforms our weak and sometimes floundering faith into a strong, resilient and tenacious faith. Even when life is bleak, dark and terrifying, faith in Jesus lights the path ahead, one or two steps ahead, just enough to keep us moving forward. Jesus calls us to a life of faith. Even a faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains. It is not a question of how much faith we seem to muster. It is really a matter of sustaining faith that is personal and intentional.

I wish to share an ancient hymn written by Aurelius Prudentius in the 5th century that expresses a deep faith in the Father’s primal love for Christ Jesus, and for all of creation. Out of love, the Saviour was begotten. Out of love, the long expected Redeemer enters our world. Out of love, the grace and glory of God revealed.

Of The Father’s Love Begotten (Corde Natus Ex Parentis)

Of the Fathers love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,

He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,

Of the things that are, that have been,

And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

 

At His Word the worlds were framed; He commanded; it was done:

Heaven and earth and depths of ocean in their threefold order one;

All that grows beneath the shining

Of the moon and burning sun, evermore and evermore!

 

O that birth forever blessed, when the virgin, full of grace,

By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bare the Saviour of our race;

And the Babe, the worlds Redeemer,

First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

 

This is He Whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord;

Whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word;

Now He shines, the long expected,

Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!

 

O ye heights of heaven adore Him; angel hosts, His praises sing;

Powers, dominions, bow before Him, and extol our God and King!

Let no tongue on earth be silent,

Every voice in concert sing, evermore and evermore!

 

Christ, to Thee with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,

Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving, and unwearied praises be:

Honour, glory, and dominion,

And eternal victory, evermore and evermore!

From the original Latin of Aurelius Prudentius (5th C.) translated by John M. Neale & Henry W. Baker (19th C.)

Advent season is upon us. We now enter a season of the Christian calendar which anticipates the unfolding story of Christmas. As we learn to inhabit the amazing story of God, our hearts are filled with wonder and awe. The ancient promise of a child who will be the Chosen Messiah and who will dwell in our midst to establish peace, joy and love captures our imagination and hope. When will this happen? Where will this take place? Who will witness his arrival? How will the people receive this event?

The prophets of Israel have foretold the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah, Zephaniah, Micah and Malachi presented their messianic visions through eloquent poetry and oracles.  The Gospels record the fulfillment of the prophecies with exciting detail. Even without the broadcasting tools of modern communications, the news about the coming of Jesus spread swiftly across the land. From the rulers to the shepherds in the fields, many heard and enquired about the Christ Child.

Advent is a season of waiting and anticipation. We long for the coming of Jesus. Living in between the first and second advent, we are waiting for the unfolding story to lead us to the climactic conclusion when Jesus will return in glory, power and judgment. Nevertheless, we learn to wait. We watch for the seasons and watch for the signs of his presence. We pray and long for God to change our darkness into light; to turn our hardship into celebration; to transform our weary hearts into joy and hope; to overcome evil with love. In our waiting, we are stretched in faith and formed in character. In our waiting, God makes our soul yearn for justice, truth, and goodness. As the story of God dwells in our lives, we are inspired to live intentionally and fully for Him.

What are you waiting for? What do you long for? Do you sense God doing something new in your life? Are you anticipating a season of growth and change? Will you discern God’s future for your life? What makes the work of waiting paradoxical? I believe the stories of Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist and certainly Mary can help us wait expectantly. Perhaps, we can listen to their words and pray their prayers. Over the next four weeks leading to Christmas, we can attune our hearts to the joyous mystery of Christ’s incarnation. We can go back to Bethlehem and relive the story of Christ’s first coming. By so doing, we deepen our longing and hope for Christ’s return.

“In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’” Isaiah 5:2-3 NIV

Wasteful Devotion

Jesus knew the path to Jerusalem will inevitably lead to conflict and confrontation with the religious authorities. During the Passover celebrations, many pilgrims would make their way to Jerusalem. Jesus was mindful of his own destiny. He was conscious of the impending sacrifice on the cross. Under those circumstances, Jesus retreats to Bethany for a quiet time with friends. He has dinner with the disciples in the home of Simon, the leper. The action of a woman becomes the catalyst for controversy as she pours a pint of very expensive perfume on Jesus. What she did, why she did it, and the propriety of doing it becomes the center of controversy. This event is described in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-11. (Likely the event in Luke 7:36-50, though similar, is a different event.)

This woman deliberately lavishes attention on Jesus out of extravagant love. She intended to demonstrate her exuberant appreciation for the Messiah. Others, however, rebuke her harshly and call it a waste (v. 4-5). This woman was anointing Jesus with pure nard, a valuable perfume oil used for solemn acts of devotion. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that the expensive oil could have been sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor. This amount would be equivalent to a year’s wage for the average worker. Indeed, from the disciple’s point of view, this woman should be scolded for her wasteful action.

Sometimes I wonder about our spiritual life – why do we waste time praying if God knows what we need? We might feel it wasteful to keep on praying for someone who refuses to believe in God. We might feel that worship is a royal waste of time because God does not really need our praises. We might feel that running an Alpha dinner series appears wasteful because some people only show up to enjoy the free meal. Doing the work of the Gospel, preaching the Good News, and distributing Bibles all seem to be wasteful because we are not assured of the returns.

But Jesus defends the woman’s action. He says, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me.”(v. 6). Her act of wasteful devotion was received by Jesus as preparation for his burial. Something that only Jesus could have revealed but was not clearly understood by those present.

Jesus was not an ascetic, nor was he rich. Despite the difficulties of his ministry, he enjoyed life to the point that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. And when he received an extravagant gift as an expression of someone who loved him, he accepted it gladly. He clearly wanted her to experience the joy of giving, even as he experienced the joy of receiving. I think Jesus is saying: Don’t squash an act of love with guilt. There will always be plenty of opportunities to live out your care for those in need. It’s also important to express your love through your giving, whether the recipient is in need or not. Love never calculates; love never thinks how little it can decently give; love’s one desire is to give all it has to give; and even when that happens, love still thinks the gift too little.

This controversy raises a number of questions. Are we sometimes too calculating in our devotion? The objectors had figured out how much this cost and how the poor would benefit. Are we too restrained and reserved in our devotion to Christ? She was extravagant and exuberant in her devotion to Jesus, regardless of what others thought. To be extravagant means to be lavish, wasteful, excessive, unrestrained. Extravagant love for Jesus is the kind of love that has no boundaries, it goes beyond the ordinary. It is the place where you can’t show Him enough, you just keep pouring it on because loving Him has become the central focus of your life.

Are there times when the only proper response to Jesus is extravagant love and exuberant praise? How does this fit with our somewhat austere and predictable expression of faith? And, how do we authentically blend solemnity with exuberance? How and when should we express our exuberant passion for God?

A Christian business man went to South Korea on a visit. As he was traveling about he noticed one day in a field beside the road a rather strange scene. He saw a boy about eighteen or nineteen years of age pulling a plow, and holding the handles of the plow was an older man, evidently the boy’s father. The businessman took a snapshot of it and said to his guide, “What a strange thing that is. I suppose they must be very poor people.” The guide, who was a Christian, said, “Yes, they are poor. I know the story behind this. A number of months ago, when the church to which these people belong was erecting a new building all the members were asked to contribute something. This father and his boy wanted to give but they felt they had nothing to give, until it dawned upon them that they could give their only ox. So they killed the ox and sold the meat in the market and gave all the proceeds to the church building fund. This spring they have had to pull the plow themselves.” The businessman said, “That must have been a most remarkable sacrifice for them.” The guide said, “They did not think so. They thought they were rather fortunate to have an ox to give.” That man went back to his own pastor in the USA, showed him the picture and told him the story, and said, “Pastor, I want to double my giving to the church this year. I have never given anything that cost me something. I want to do some plow work for the Lord Jesus Christ!”

Do you have an alabaster jar? Do you have an ox to give? What do you value most? As you ponder the unconditional love of Jesus and the extravagant mercy of God, how would you express your wasteful devotion for Jesus?

At a time when Jesus would encounter human bitterness, treachery, intrigue and tragedy, this story of a woman who became an example of wasteful devotion stands out as a beautiful and lovely memory of what Jesus values and desires from his disciples. Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan has become a greater disaster than anticipated. It seems the experts underestimated the dire consequences of a nuclear reactor failure because the structure was not intended to withstand an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. Now Japan and nations beyond are nervous and fearful of the outcomes.

What do you fear most? Nuclear disasters and terrorist attacks? Environmental crises and toxic contamination? Global economic meltdown and financial chaos? Personal health challenges and emotional upheavals? Rampant violence and evil atrocities? Spiritual brokenness and persistent anxiety?

Throughout the Gospels, we hear Jesus speaking the powerful words of assurance to the disciples: “Do not fear. Do not be afraid.” In the face of uncertainties, Jesus promised that He has overcome the world; that He will give us a peace that the world cannot give. But how can we experience this assurance of peace and hope when the world seems to be convulsing in pain, crises and disasters? Not a single day passes without hearing news of conflict, trouble or human suffering. Is there good news for a world in turmoil?

As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter celebrations, let us remember the Good News according to Jesus Christ. We recall how Jesus faced the cross with deep anguish and powerful resolve. He overcame the temptation to find an easier solution to human sin and misery. He embraced the necessity of death and sacrifice because he was sent by the Father to establish once for all the triumph of divine love and goodness. Jesus fulfilled his destiny to be the perfect lamb who takes away the sins of the world. He suffered the agony and pain of a cruel death. But Jesus also mediated divine forgiveness and reconciliation by the power of the resurrection. One day the Lord Jesus will return as the glorious King, establishing His Kingdom on earth and people from every tribe, nation and culture will gather in worship and praise. As the hymn summarizes so eloquently:

Living He loved me,

Dying He saved me,

Buried He carried my sins far away,

Rising He justified, freely forever.

One day He’s coming,

O glorious day.

With the Apostle Paul, we now declare confidently: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-32, 38-39)

As vintage disciples of Jesus, our primary calling is to abide in Jesus. Every outcome and impact we hope for in our culture and community, all the fruit that we seek flows out of the unique privilege of remaining in Jesus’ love. Our essential task is not to focus on fruit bearing but simply on remaining in Jesus through our obedience to His word.

Can you imagine what fruitfulness might look like for WVBC? What are the signs of God’s Kingdom in our community? What impact would vintage disciples have on the generations? What are the stories that emerge from fruitful relationships and fruitful living?

Our experience of fruitfulness begins with a personal encounter with Jesus. In knowing Jesus, learning his ways and assimilating his teachings, we also discover the love of Jesus flowing into our relationships and life choices. We become aware of people as persons who long for community and love. The profound desire for belonging and believing directs us into authentic connections and intentional prayer. We delight to hear what God is doing in each other’s life. Our prayerful attention to those in need engenders surprising moments of spiritual vitality. God the Father is at work in our hearts as well as in our daily life.

We see the world through the eyes of Jesus. Instead of being overwhelmed by consumer materialism, we perceive the inner loneliness and the hunger for spiritual reality. Instead of being driven by the psychological drama of self-obsession, we are set free by God’s love to receive His love and to offer love to others. Instead of being deceived by worldly ideas and values, we seek the truth, the way and the life of Jesus.

Jesus described the blessedness of being pure in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, peaceable, compassionate and resilient. Even when we are maligned, persecuted, misunderstood, or suffering, we are still called to remain in Jesus’ love and to allow

His life-transforming power to energize us. Our stories of faithfulness and allegiance to Jesus as well as our deep commitment to love the people of God will have such a profound witness to the world that many will know Jesus is truly present and real.

In John 15:16, Jesus made it clear to his disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might goo and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” We are greatly privileged to be chosen and appointed to go and bear lasting fruit for Jesus. We are also given the authority to ask the Father for His grace and power to live fruitful lives. So let’s go and bear fruit.

Not Ashamed

In the Fall of 2010, a London-based Christian advocacy group, Christian Concern for Our Nation, launched a campaign defending the right of Christians to express their faith and beliefs in the public square. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey wrote a leaflet in support of the nationwide “Not Ashamed” campaign. At issue was the discrimination some Christians experienced in school or the workplace for being consciously open about their beliefs. For example, the advocacy group mentions the high profile cases of Gary McFarlane, a relationships advisor who was dismissed by Relate for refusing to counsel same-sex couples, and Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was taken off wards after refusing to remove her crucifix.

The group’s founder, Andrea Minichiello Williams, contended that attempts to remove Jesus from public life and confine faith to the private sphere called for an appropriate response. She believed “many Christians have felt unable to speak and live out their faith, or confused and bewildered at what they are allowed to say and do in public.” Williams said the campaign was about giving Christians at the grassroots the courage to stand up and be counted and to “fearlessly declare that they are not ashamed of who they are or what they believe in.” “It is time for the Church to find her voice again,” she emphasized. “We are praying that this campaign will achieve just that by igniting a flame in Christians such that they find their voice and place in public life. The Not Ashamed symbol of the cross is designed to act as a reminder of the hope that is found uniquely and supremely in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus taught his disciples that they would be pressured to declare their allegiance to Him or to the world: “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God…When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:8-9, 11-12) Those who fear God will choose Jesus. Those who fear men will choose self-preservation. The world is hostile to the ways of Jesus and it is inevitable that the disciples of Jesus will face the test of allegiance in the public square. Jesus promises the Spirit’s wisdom and advocacy for those who are not ashamed to bear the name of Jesus. We are called to stand up for Jesus and to acknowledge Him publicly without fear or hesitation. It is time for Jesus’ followers to voice our faith as we live out the Gospel in an unChristian society.

According to a recent report by Michael Valpy in the Globe and Mail (December 14), young people in Canada seem to be losing their religion. “More than half of Canadians in the 15-to-29 age cohort either have no religion or never attend a service of worship, says Statistics Canada. Only 22 per cent say religion is very important to them, down from 34 per cent in 2002. And in a recent poll done by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail, just one in five of the under-30 age group say they are the generation of their family that attends weekly religious services.”

While the decline in religious affiliation is noteworthy, yet there is hope for the Evangelical Church. Young people are still interested in Jesus. Instead of telling young people what to believe, we are invited to share our stories of faith; to share our experiences of love; and to share our concern for justice, peace and truth. When a young person undergoes baptism and speaks publicly of her reason for committing her life to Jesus, her friends and family listen with genuine interest. The compelling witness of a personal faith demonstrated in water baptism cannot be explained away.

On Sunday, when we witness the baptisms of an adult professional and a high school student, our faith rises up in hope and celebration for what God is doing in each person’s life. We resonate with the act of faith commitment to Jesus. We celebrate the hope that Jesus gives to each person who dedicates his or her life to God. There is no doubt that faith engenders faith; that faith is contagious; that faith is life-changing.

While Canadians seem to be losing faith in institutional religion, the followers of Jesus in the Evangelical community are actively sharing their faith and making disciples. We have an urgent priority in sharing the story of Jesus; in telling our story of personal commitment to Jesus.

Let us pray that God will turn the tide of secularism and unbelief in Canada. Let us ask the Lord of the Harvest to raise up committed believers who are not ashamed of their faith and who will engage in sharing their personal faith others. Let us pray for an amazing outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the people of Canada. Let us remember Jesus’ charge to his disciples in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Extraordinary faith

In a season when businesses are advertising their products at sale prices, the message is essentially focused on buying gifts that show we care. By contrast, the Centre for Inquiry, an atheist organization, is preparing a provocative new set of posters on buses across the country in the new year. Moving beyond the last ad campaign claiming “there’s probably no God,” their new poster declares: “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence” with “Allah, Bigfoot, UFOs, Homeopathy, Zeus, Psychics, Christ” listed below. The organization plans to post the ads on buses in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa, Saskatoon and Montreal.

These ads will certainly provoke reaction and debate among the faithful and the secular. Why do we dismiss certain claims, such as Bigfoot, as fantasy? Why do we make extraordinary claims about Jesus Christ, especially during Christmas and Easter? What extraordinary evidence support the extraordinary claims that Jesus is the Son of God? It may be the case that we live in a world that has reduced the truth of the Gospel to something more manageable and less controversial. If so, then we are subject to the widespread sentiment that any truth claim about Jesus Christ must be trivialized, flattened, and rendered inconsequential. According to atheists, there is no extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claim that Jesus Christ is Emmanuel – God with us.

Popular icons of Christmas are conspicuous – Santa Claus and his elves, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, decorated trees with beautiful trimmings and lights. Christmas carols and songs are broadcast everywhere. Our senses are delighted by the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas. But do they provide evidence, ordinary or extraordinary, for the Good News regarding Jesus Christ? What does the greeting “Merry Christmas” mean nowadays? What makes Christmas a global phenomenon? It there any evidence that Christmas is not just a holiday fantasy created by smart marketing executives? Is there any extraordinary evidence that the story of Jesus Christ might be an extraordinary truth?

John’s Gospel notes the disturbing reality that Jesus came to his own people but they did not welcome him (John 1:11). Mystery and wonder surround the Christmas story concerning the birth of Jesus Christ. There were shepherds who received the good news while there were political rulers, like Herod, who resented the threat of a messiah born in his territory. There were skeptics and doubters. But there were believers and admirers. The Gospel story about Jesus Christ is an extraordinary claim. For the past two thousand years, faithful witnesses testify to the truth of Christmas. The growing community of Jesus followers around the world who continue to proclaim the Christmas message is undeniable. In reality, the extraordinary evidence for Jesus Christ is found in the extraordinary resilience and salience of faith among people whose lives have been powerfully transformed by the reality of Jesus. In short, the extraordinary evidence for Jesus is made plausible and real in the extraordinary lives of Jesus’ disciples. When people perceive Jesus in us, they will recognize Jesus as the Lord and Saviour of the world.