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In a beautiful book, “Scouting the Divine,” Margaret Feinberg tells her story of journeying into the stories of Scripture by engaging in the nuances and earthiness of life. In her search for God in wine, wool, and wild honey, Feinberg meets people who read and appreciate Scripture as vintners, shepherds, and farmers. She discovers ordinary and extraordinary moments when God intersects our world. In scouting the divine, Feinberg learned from people whose experiences cultivated an organic and lively faith.

One part of her book involves time with a vintner in Napa Valley, California, who revealed pertinent insights into the meaning of fruitfulness. Kristof, the master vintner, shares his observations about John 15 where Jesus identifies himself as the True Vine and the Father as the vinedresser. Kristof points out that the passage does not describe the full role of the Father.

In a vineyard, there are multiple roles assumed by the one who cares for the vines and the craft of winemaking. Kristof suggests that the Father is not just the vinedresser but also the owner and the master vintner. Yet, Jesus focuses on the Father’s role as vinedresser, the one who prunes or sculpts the vine. According to Kristof, the owner and the vintner are vitally important persons but it is really the vinedresser who has the skill, knowledge and care in ensuring the health and fruitfulness of the vine.  The vinedresser knows each vine and branch intimately so that the pruning and cutting process is carried out with utmost precision and care.

As Feinberg discovers, the vinedresser looks at each vine carefully and determines the precise cut that will produce the healthiest and most robust vines. God is deeply interested in our lives and He knows us intimately. But only God the Father has the power and authority to judge the status of each branch. The vinedresser does not cut off a branch simply because it has no fruit. Sometimes what appears as a dead branch may have the potential for new growth if the vinedresser prunes in such a way as to encourage it. However, with all the care and expertise of the vinedresser, fruitfulness depends on the branch drawing all the nutrients and water from the vine.

In befriending Jesus, the disciples are led to a deeper experience of the organic relationship with Jesus the True Vine. We are the branches, cared for by our Father the ultimate vinedresser. Jesus insists that we must abide in Him as the branch abides in the vine. This profound union with Jesus sustains our discipleship and daily life. There is no other way but to remain in Jesus so that His life may flow through us and form us into the kind of people who manifest the love of the Father to a world that is desperately scouting the divine. Our fruitfulness depends on the intentional and uninterrupted union with Jesus.

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There is a sense of excitement and urgency regarding the work of the Gospel in our congregation. We sense an openness to the transforming work of God by His Spirit in our lives. As we learn to trust Jesus more deeply and intentionally, I believe we will experience the powerful presence of God in our hearts. In befriending Jesus, we learn to love Him by obeying His instructions.

What is Jesus saying to us today? What specific commands of Christ are we called to obey? Firstly, Jesus calls us to follow Him by submitting to baptism. Through baptism, we declare our love and allegiance to Christ. In our baptism, we commit to give our life to Jesus and to belong together in His Church.

Secondly, Jesus directs us to practice love for one another. It is the love of Jesus that motivates us to serve one another, to care for one another, to forgive one another, and to pray for one another. By loving as Jesus loves, we form deep relationships of trust and mutual concern.

Thirdly, Jesus invites us to ask the Father through prayer and intercession. We are commanded to ask for God’s will and God’s work to be accomplished in our lives. One exciting dimension of this privilege is the opportunity to ask for the Holy Spirit to indwell our lives and to empower us for ministry. I will explore Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit on Sunday when we contemplate the significance of Jesus’ teaching in John 14:12-31.

Fourthly, we are empowered by Jesus to engage in the work of touching people’s lives with the power of the Gospel so that they will be transformed by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Jesus promises our greater experience of doing His work because He has returned to the Father and the Father has poured out His Spirit upon every disciple of Jesus. In other words, the spiritual work that Jesus intends for us is validated by the the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in each person.

Let us pray for a deepening of our friendship with Jesus Christ. May the Lord Jesus direct our lives and invigorate our love and passion for God’s Kingdom.

We live in a world where trust is a premium and not always evident. In a low-trust culture, a common question would be: “How do I know who I can trust?” Some feel the risk of trust might be too much because corruption, scandals, scams and lack of transparency seem unavoidable. A parent might admit: “I wish I could trust my kids, but they’ve proven time and again that they can’t be trusted. How can I get them to change?” Within the community of faith, when our prayers are not answered or when disappointments become too unbearable, we wonder if God can be trusted? In a local church, if a member betrays our trust of confidentiality, do we conclude that all Christians are not trustworthy?

In our pulpit series on Befriending Jesus, we note how Judas left the Upper Room after Jesus revealed that one of the disciples would betray him. In a tense moment, Jesus disclosed his intention to leave the disciples for a time. On this occasion, Peter sensed the danger. Perhaps Peter does not understand the nature of Jesus’ message. From a human point of view, it was not appropriate for Jesus to assume the servant’s role in washing the disciples’ feet. Earlier, Peter had questioned Jesus’ mission to  suffer and to give his life as a sacrifice. Peter wanted to save Jesus from becoming the Suffering Servant. From his own sense of human strength and power, Peter felt confident he could lay down his own life for Jesus. But Jesus reminded Peter of his inherent weakness and vulnerability – “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” From that moment on, Peter was silenced and shaken.

At the heart of Peter’s impulsive relationship with Jesus is the paradox of trust. Peter wanted to follow and serve Jesus. But he was not prepared to give up his own sense of control and power. If Peter trusted Jesus at his word, he would have accepted the promise of Jesus’ love without conditions. The disciples were in a difficult place. They were reluctant to let Jesus leave. They felt threatened by the revelation of betrayal within their own ranks. Furthermore, they were shocked by Jesus’ prediction that their lead disciple, Peter, would deny Jesus three times. In the tense moments of self-doubt, suspicion, and fear, Jesus assured the disciples not to let their hearts induce more anxiety or distress. Things were not what they seem. It was a moment to trust Jesus more than to question his motives.

Jesus invited the disciples to trust him fully and wholeheartedly. Jesus introduced a new covenant shaped, sustained and secured by his persistent, unstoppable love for the disciples. As a result, Jesus’ love would overcome all fears. His love informs, inspires, and invigorates the disciples’ relationship with one another. Jesus challenges the disciples to trust him without reservations. If they trusted God, now they must trust Jesus more intently. The power of trust and the power of love are intrinsically inseparable in the person of Jesus. As the disciples learn to trust him, they will experience the incomparable extent of his love for them that will lead to a deeper encounter with the living God. Trust is necessary, non-negotiable. The question remains: Do you really trust Jesus?

Andrew Sullivan wrote a cover article for Newsweek recently: “Forget the Church. Follow Jesus.” Following the example of Thomas Jefferson, he advocates a personal quest for listening to Jesus and ignoring the “politics, priests and get-rich-evangelists” who have destroyed Christianity in American society. Sullivan expresses profound disappointment with institutional religion. “Christianity is in crisis,” laments Sullivan. In some ways, Sullivan’s complaints are serious and noteworthy.  However, unlike Jefferson, who used a razor to cut out portions of the Gospels which he regarded as the “pure doctrines” of Jesus, we are compelled to discover the real Jesus of the Gospels. In order to follow Jesus, we need to give attention to everything He taught. We need to read the Gospels afresh with an open heart and authentic faith.

John’s Gospel chapters 13 to 17 contain what is traditionally described as the “Farewell Discourse” or “Upper Room Discourse” of Jesus. Following Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, we note the prediction of Judas’ betrayal. As soon as Judas departs, Jesus confides in his disciples, revealing significant insights into the relationship between Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit and the disciples. I find it compelling that Jesus reveals the heart of God’s intentions for his disciples only after Judas has left the upper room.

“Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God.” (John 13:3) Consequently, Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet and the specific teaching in chapters 13 to 17 were intended to prepare the disciples for their mission in the world after his personal departure. Out of deep love for his disciples, Jesus revealed the full extent of his love for them (John 13:1). The act of becoming a servant and laying down his life for his disciples is symbolic of his mission and personal sacrifice on the cross. In anticipation of his departure, Jesus explains the way to lifelong relationship with the Father, sustained by the presence of the Holy Spirit and secured by the indwelling life of Jesus.

In essence, Jesus discloses his personal desire for the disciples: that they would know Jesus intimately by befriending him. “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” (John 15:15) We are called friends of Jesus because we have received everything that Jesus teaches and we live in the fullness of His love for us. Befriending Jesus is the lifelong experience of following Jesus, loving Jesus, and serving Jesus. Befriending Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus declares: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’ life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:13,14)

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.

The series of messages on emotionally healthy spirituality will invariably elicit different responses to the challenges and issues. According to Peter Scazzero, some of the responses from church leaders and pastors serve to highlight the importance of this subject for the local church. Here are some examples:

  1. I have neglected my inner life.
  2. I have given away my walk with Jesus to manage my congregation; I have impoverished my marriage in the process.
  3. My stoicism, in reality, is a self-protective device, and it demeans who God made me to be.
  4. I need to have more self-awareness.
  5. No more “flying by the seat of my pants” – emotional health takes discipline and hard work.
  6. I need to place a higher priority on time with God and trust Him with the rest.
  7. My congregation needs emotionally healthy practices if we are going to mature as a family of faith.
  8. I am spiritually dry, running on empty. I need to slow down for Sabbath rest.
  9. I am more insecure and averse to conflict than I admit.
  10. Exploring my past is not dwelling on my past.
  11. I take things too personally when it is not my personal responsibility.
  12. The world will go on without me; but I cannot go on without Christ.

As we grow in emotional and spiritual health, we will discover essential changes in our heart and soul reveal significant growth in our personal spirituality. Some of these changes will include the following:

  1. We have a greater capacity to wait on God and surrender to His will.
  2. We are kinder and more compassionate.
  3. We are less pretentious and less attached to nonessentials in our life.
  4. We are liberated from having to impress others.
  5. We are able to live more comfortably with not knowing everything while embracing the mystery of God’s purposes.
  6. We are characterized by a greater humility and brokenness.
  7. We enjoy a new, vivid appreciation of the sacredness in all of life.
  8. We have fewer fears and a greater willingness to take risks.
  9. We have a greater sensitivity for the poor, the weak, the broken, and the wounded.
  10. We are more at home with ourselves and with God.
  11. We perceive others as persons made in the image of God.
  12. We live as the beloved of God who love as we are loved by Jesus.

The vital key to growing into an emotionally healthy spiritual person is Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus, loving and trusting Him in our daily lives will engender liberating changes in our attitudes, emotions and choices. Believing in Jesus involves becoming the kind of person Jesus calls to be. At heart, we are called to love God and to love one another just as Jesus loves. The question remains: do we love as Jesus loves? Jesus models and embodies the fullness of God’s love for us. We are compelled by the love of Jesus to see ourselves and others as the beloved of God. Knowing we are loved, we are set free to love others with genuine compassion and kindness. Love actually defines our identity, our values, our purpose and our destiny in Jesus Christ who said: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” John 15:9 ESV

Enjoy the rest God gives

Life on the West Coast of Canada cycles through the seasons of the year. Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn feature distinctive opportunities for business, work, recreation, and leisure. The weekly routine for most of us revolves around the weekend.  Sunday is regarded a typical “day off.” We are free to stop work, change the pace, dress casual and enjoy the day as a personal entitlement. For many people, the speed of business and stress of work have stretched our weekly engagement. For some, even Sunday is no longer assured as the usual “day off.”

What is your idea of a great “day off?” Would it include…

  • reading a good book
  • getting some extra sleep
  • spending time with family
  • walking or hiking—alone or with someone I like
  • going shopping
  • watching sports—on TV or at the game
  • eating a meal with friends
  • playing your favorite sport
  • going to the movies or a concert
  • attending a worship service?

We realize the demands of work, study, business and social obligations impose great burden on our soul and body. Success, achievement, competition, and busyness disrupt our balance between engagement and rest. We feel tired, exhausted and weary. Over time, we sense the emotional and spiritual deficits building up in our life. We do not seem to have enough time for God, for our spouses and children, for our friends and neighbors and even for ourselves. We suffer from lack of sleep, anxiety, and hurry. Ironically, our time-saving devices seem to drain our capacity to reflect, to contemplate and to slow down. The need for rest, renewal and replenishment is evident. But we seem unable or unwilling to change our pace of life and to slow down. The idea of a weekly sabbath for rest and refreshment seems more of a luxury.

Our society claims our attention and active engagement at all times. Stores are open 24 hours a day. Cable TV and the internet channel almost unlimited content and programming into our lives. We are easily overwhelmed by the choices as much as by their coercive messages. We are constantly driven to consume, to acquire, to gain knowledge, to procure services, to be amused and entertained. It seems the possibility of silence, solitude and stillness is largely a figment of our imagination. The reality is we are just too busy, too driven and too self-obsessed to stop once a week to enjoy the rest God has given to us.

The gift of sabbath is intended for our benefit. As Jesus countered the legalists of his day, “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Perhaps, we need to reclaim this gift and practice the rhythms of rest and renewal. We can begin a quiet revolution of change in ourselves and our families. Let us slow down, rest, pray, meditate, walk, sing, eat and take time to be present to those we love. For one day a week, let us cease our striving for more, and instead taste the blessings we have already been given and give thanks to God.

When we are broken

On the journey to emotional and spiritual wholeness, we are not surprised by the seasons of trouble, pain, disappointment, and suffering. Emotional baggage from the past along with personal issues in relationships and identity could also stifle our progress on the spiritual journey. We may find ourselves doing church rather than being church. Just showing up on Sunday for the usual routine of worship, sermon, and prayer does not measure up to the kind of engaging discipleship Jesus presents in the Gospel. Before long, we feel discouraged by our lack of spiritual passion and disoriented by our lack of mission as followers of Jesus.

Life seems more difficult and demanding than we care to admit. We wake up to the harsh reality of dealing with demanding relationships and emotional tensions. Sudden illness, marital problems, death in the family, loss of employment, and personal addictions destabilize the soul. We are left with more unanswered questions. Where is God when it hurts? Why is this happening to me? Why has God failed me? In a fallen world, sin, failure and trials seem inevitable. But when we are personally afflicted with suffering and pain, we question God’s purpose.

The Apostle Peter reminds us that the journey of faith towards Christ involves trials, persecutions and suffering. “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.” (1 Peter 4:12-13 The Message) Likewise, the Apostle Paul explains: “For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.” (Philippians 1:29 NLT) The call to follow Jesus involves taking up the cross, sharing in His suffering and learning from Him.

Being human means embracing our frailty and fragility. In the midst of our brokenness, we desperately long for God’s presence and comfort. The greater our pain and suffering, the stronger God embraces us. Perhaps, this is God’s way of lovingly breaking us so that we might experience His redemptive work in our lives. Each crisis of faith will test our relationship with God. When we come to the place where we are broken within, we have a choice. We could invite God to do his gracious work in our heart, mind and soul. Or we could withdraw and turn inward, blaming God and spurning all gestures of grace. Ironically, the more we feel weakened by our brokenness, the more we need to lean hard on God’s grace and power. The Apostle Paul clarifies the nature of our spiritual journey: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” (Romans 5:3-5 NLT)

Finding God in the dark

In a recent book on Mother Teresa titled “Come Be My Light,” we read the private letters and prayers of a godly woman who was deeply aware of her spiritual struggles. She described her feelings of emptiness, loneliness and darkness throughout a significant period in her life. Her spiritual experiences are comparable to that of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic who wrote “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Teresa felt the pain of longing for God while sensing the purging work of God in her soul. It seemed as if God was absent and silent. Yet, this season of purging was somehow a necessary preparation for a deeper union with God.

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them …When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”

— Mother Teresa, addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated.

The Psalmists also describe similar laments of a soul crying out to God, longing for a deeper connection and communion with the Holy One. In Psalm 42, for example, we hear soul talk, a spiritual soliloquy: “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad?” Day and night, the psalmist thirsts and longs for God while others taunt by asking, “Where is your God?” The soul cries out in pain, in suffering, in desolation. Like Mother Teresa, godly believers have been troubled by their feelings of inner loneliness, dry emptiness and heavy darkness. It seems there are seasons in the spiritual journey when our hearts long for a deeper communion with God but somehow God seems distant and silent. It seems during such times, the soul is purged of natural and spiritual imperfections. Our desire to love God for who He is may be affected by our preoccupation with those experiences and desires which God gives.

For most Christians, prayer, worship, solitude and contemplation are valuable spiritual disciplines that draw us closer to God. However, our attention and focus should not be directed towards those disciplines. Instead, we learn to pray by being present to God rather than being more self-conscious of how we pray or the words we use. We learn to wait on God by being silent and still rather than being more concerned with our physical posture or location. Paradoxically, we may also experience a profound purging of our sinful thoughts and inclinations. We sense the immense light of God’s holiness overwhelming our sense of sin and darkness. We feel the weight of God’s glory and goodness overwhelming our infirmities and superficiality. We feel the purging power of God’s love overwhelming our pain and brokenness. Indeed, the more we long for God’s presence, the more we feel the emptiness and inner loneliness within. We are invited to find God in the dark.

Looking back at our family histories, we discover the various sources of influence on our current experience, relationships and identity. Our cultural background, social context, and personal beliefs affect our understanding of what has happened in the past as much as how we respond in the present. Our parents and grandparents, along with our siblings, may have contributed to our sense of worth, belonging and love. But they could also generate family tensions, strife, rivalry, hatred, bitterness, regret, anger and rejection. We may not realize how certain family patterns carried over from past generations might actually shape present relationships and emotional responses.

But is it possible that the negative effects of our family history remain unchanged over several generations? Do we inherit the flaws, failures and frustrations of our forefathers? Are we helpless victims in the vicious cycle of destructive behaviour? Can we overcome the sinful tendencies of our past? Do we underestimate the negative and harmful influence our family of origin might have on our present situation? What can we do to break free from the power of the past in order to live the life of love God intends for us?

Consider the following dimensions and reflect on how they influence your life today:

  1. Money – Is money your most important source of security? Does making money validate your ability or self-worth?
  2. Conflict – Do you avoid conflict at all costs? How do you cope with fighting and anger?
  3. Sex – Is this a taboo subject? Do you hold on to stereotypes about gender and sexuality?
  4. Grief and loss – Do you find it hard to express your feelings of sadness or loss?
  5. Anger – Do you repress angry feelings? Are you able to express anger without hurting others or yourself?
  6. Family – Do you feel totally obligated to your family? Do you find it hard to be honest about what goes on within the family?
  7. Relationships – Do you trust people easily? Are you afraid that people will disappoint you? Are you vulnerable?
  8. Different cultures – Do you only feel safe and comfortable with people of the same culture? Do you hold personal biases or prejudices against people of different cultures?
  9. Success – What are your personal indicators of success? When do you feel a failure?
  10. Feeling and emotions – Do you feel constrained in expressing certain feelings? Do you react emotionally before thinking about it?

As we review our past, especially our family histories, we might discover some deeper issues that continue to affect our sense of self-worth and identity. We may have inherited destructive patterns of thinking and behaviour. Our pain, suffering, and brokenness remind us of our human condition as people in need of God’s grace, mercy and love. Through the power of Jesus Christ and his love for us, we can break free from our past and experience healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Understanding our past and inviting God to deal with our brokenness will set us free to embrace a new sense of emotional wellbeing as well as a new awareness of spiritual vitality. We are invited to release our fears, our past hurts, our regrets and our bitterness to Jesus. There is nothing in our past that cannot be redeemed by Christ and turned into good according to God’s mysterious power and purpose.