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Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Peace on Earth

I would like to wish each of you a Blessed and Merry Christmas. This morning in our time of worship, we looked at the angels' song and the offer of 'Peace on earth.' This peace the angels' sang about is more than just an absence of conflict or war, God's peace is shalom peace. Shalom is peace inside of you; peace with God, peace within the community of God’s people, peace within your heart as you experience forgiveness and reconciliation with God; this is all part of God’s shalom for you. Shalom is about health and wholeness, freedom and renewal, a new life fuller and deeper than the life you are living presently. Shalom is all about God’s favour resting on you, filling you with his presence and his love. It’s about being drawn closer to God. 
We have a Prince of Peace who came to earth all those years ago. He has the authority, the wisdom, and the power to bring about the true heart shalom kind of peace. The shalom Jesus brings puts the creation back in balance so that the whole of creation can live and flourish and be in perfect relationship, like we were created to be.
This is a peace I yearn for, especially this year as I watch two of my children go through marriage break-ups, I see hurt all too often, and I realize more and more the wonder of God's gift of peace through Jesus Christ. I pray that you will experience God's shalom peace today and each day.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Church as family

This morning I noticed my daughter had posted on Facebook a thank you to my wife and I for being her parents and for loving her and her son. There's a whole long story there, but Melissa and Real are a huge blessing to us and our family wouldn't be the same without them. God uses many different ways to create families and ours has grown in different ways than most others. Yet at the end of the day, we are family and I can't imagine our family in any other shape or way. Every time our family grows I find my ability to love grows deeper and richer, even if I don't always say the words. We make commitments to each other that keep us together even when we disagree, even when the disagreements are "atomic," because we belong together as God has brought us together as family.
This got me to thinking about "church families." Like my family, church families grow in different ways and God uses a variety of methods to bring each "family" together. Likewise, every time our family grows, my/our ability to love grows so that, hopefully I pray, the new members of our church family experience God's love through us. I guess what gets me to thinking about church as a family is what happens when some members decide they no longer want to be part of the family and go looking for a new family. I'm surprised every time by how much this hurts.
Two of my children are going through divorces right now, more long stories, but also very painful. I'm recognizing that this feels a lot like what I feel when others leave our church family for another one. There are feelings of sadness and grief, a wondering why we're not family any more, some anger but also feelings of rejection and a wondering what really happened and why. At the same time I also really hope and pray that they will find a church family where they can become lifelong engaged members, a family to set their roots into.
In my own personal family, because of how God put us together, we made promises, most of them to God, that we would commit to each other no matter what. This has led to some very interesting and intense times in our family, but has also made everyone know they belong and are loved. In church families, similar promises are made to each other, but so many of them are unspoken today, that I wonder if this makes the promises less precious, less strong. I wonder about the migration of Christians between churches and I wonder with my own church family, when family members leave, where I have failed them as pastor. I know the reasons for finding another family are complex and each family believes they are doing what is best for them, yet......? I am also much more aware of the pain of other church families when we have former family members from their churches appear in ours. I often say that churches are funny creatures, something only God could have created, considering how many different kinds of people are found in our church from all over the world and such a great variety of backgrounds.
This isn't meant to be a depressing post as a visitor yesterday mentioned how he enjoyed our church and how people seem to care for each other; it fills me with hope that we are being shaped by our heavenly Father in good ways. We have our moments as a church family where things get interesting, and we cannot be the family for everyone, and it hurts then, but I pray that as we live and love together as a church family with all our warts and faults, that our Father God will continue to work through us to invite and welcome new believers in Jesus into our family so that our love might continue to grow larger and deeper and richer and we might all become committed disciples of Jesus.
During this time of advent as we look at Jesus' first coming and at his return, I am reminded that God is in control and that our church family is blessed because He is in control. I pray that as we work on our love for God and each other, that our church family will reflect God's will and plan for who He is calling us to be.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

What do you get out of Christmas?

I'm a sentimental kind of guy, I know, I know that it usually doesn't show, but I like this time of the year with the Christmas music, the tv tear-jerker movies (I confess that I do need to wipe my eyes once in a while), and the decorations that brighten everything up in a celebratory profusion of colour and beauty. I love the focus on family and friends, the meals together and the evenings with a little wine and music and conversations with those close to us.
But what I love more is the challenge we get from God at Christmas. Think about it, Jesus left home to live with us, definitely a step down in living arrangements so God challenges me to live more simply, focusing on my relationships instead of a wish list of more stuff. Jesus came to us vulnerable and depending on Mary and Joseph to keep him safe and provide for him, I'm challenged to be more vulnerable with my family and friends and be humble enough to tell them that I really need them and God too. Jesus came to sacrifice himself and I'm challenged to be more sacrificial in my own life. Jesus came completely focused on God his Father and I'm challenged to be more focused on God my Father and what he expects from me; not even so much in what I do but more in who I'm becoming as his child. Jesus came and loved others and went out of his way to help others and make them feel like they really count and I'm challenged to do the same.
But there are many things Jesus did that I cannot; I cannot forgive my own sins, I need Jesus to do that. I cannot redeem myself from my slavery to the world and its values, from my constant search for gods that I can control instead of following only God the Father, only Jesus can do that. I cannot pay the price for my sins, but Jesus does redeem me and gave me his Spirit to help me keep my eyes and heart on God. For a long time this was something that I accepted as true, but nothing really changed in how I lived because it hadn't reached down into the heart part of me; that sentimental part of who I am. I was basically a nice guy, maybe a bit opinionated at times, sometimes a wise guy, but I always felt there was still something missing inside, that there was more to being a follower of Jesus than being kinder and caring for others.
It's through my children and their struggles that God finally reached into that emotional part and did the real change that comes from accepting Jesus in my heart instead of just my head occurred. I need both the head knowledge and the heart knowledge of Jesus to make a real change in my relationship with God and my understanding of who God is.
My children have the disadvantage of having to put up with me :), but it's more than that. God brought three of our children into our home through fostering and they have had to overcome the neglect and even abuses that they experienced before they became part of our family. They've all wrestled with big emotional and spiritual stuff, but I've watched how in all their struggles, they've made their way, or are making their way to Jesus and finding strength and even hope on the way. In their walk towards Jesus my own heart was reached as I see more and more that Jesus came also to turn our world upside down and bring not only forgiveness, but healing, reconciliation, meaning, purpose and depth to our lives. What I've found is peace no matter what is going on, and a deeper trust that we are not alone as we go through life. I am able to accept those verses that talk about God working all things for our good, even the hard things like watching our children wrestle hard with relationships and life because I know that Jesus came so that we never need to walk alone, and that includes my children.
I get all this out of Christmas, how about you, what do you get out of Christmas?

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Confession: needing a safe place

Last time I wrote about repentance and the need for us to change. This time I'd like to do some reflecting on the benefits of confession, specifically the call by James to confess your sins to someone else. I often think that we Protestants are missing something very important in our faith life by not having confession as the Roman Catholic Churches do. I'm not saying this because as a pastor I want to know all the deep dark things in the members of the congregation's lives. I'm saying this because confessing our sins to someone else forces us to become specific about our sin rather than getting away with a generic general confession that is merely symbolic rather than felt or even believed and done out of ritual or custom.
I came across a story of a group of Christians on a college campus who set up a confession booth, not to hear people's confessions, but to confess to those who came about not being a very good Christian themselves; kind of a reverse confession booth thing. Here is what Donald Miller had to say about the experience afterwards, "Many people wanted to hug when we were done. All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. I was being changed through the process. I went in with doubts and came out believing so strongly in Jesus I was ready to die and be with him. I think that night was the beginning of a change for a lot of us." 
The power of confession is that it does change us, it does draw us closer to God, even if that might feel backwards to you. It draws you closer to God because you are forced to look inside your self and acknowledge you're not the wonderful person you keep believing you are. You're forced to vocalize it and make your sin real to yourself, and you are forced to trust God when you share it with someone else. Then it makes you accountable to the person you have confessed you because they can,and hopefully will, ask you the next time they see you: How is this area in your life going? Are you working on it, how is God working in you to change this area of sin, or this specific sin? Do you feel God's forgiveness and have you asked forgiveness from God and the person you sinned against. 
As I think about all the benefits and blessings of confession, I should wonder why we don't do it more then, but I don't. This takes a community of believers who are willing to trust each other as they trust God; it takes a community willing to walk deeply with each other with a real desire to help each other to be shaped by God. This takes followers of Jesus brave enough to be willing to be hurt as they start to take these kinds of chances with each other to model what a group of Jesus followers can become; a place of safety, grace, acceptance, love, forgiveness and transformation. Most of our churches are not ready for this kind of commitment with each other or with God.
I know this is much easier to write than to actually do, but over my sabbatical I've had an opportunity to begin to share more deeply about my own faults and sinful ways of acting with a trusted counsellor, who is also a friend, and I've experienced healing, grace and growth in my own walk with God. The greatest times of blessing were when I was prayed for, as a pastor who is always praying for others, this was powerful. James knows what he is talking about when he tells us to confess our sins to one another and to pray for one another, the question is "Are we creating churches that are being formed where this is possible?" and "Are we looking to build relationships with one other follower of Jesus where you can confess, hear the words of forgiveness from God and then be held accountable to deal with what you've confessed?" 
I believe God gives us this pattern of confessing and praying to help us learn trust in him and to force us to honestly deal with our sin and work on holy living. Are you willing to trust God and build a relationship with a fellow believer built on confession, prayer, and accountability?  

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Repentance: say what?

There are a lot of powerful 3 word sentences out there that can really change how a relationship grows, or doesn't grow between people. There are a couple that come to mind almost right away: "I love you" and "I am sorry." Both of these sentences draw people closer together because they show that the person cares about the other person. As a husband and father I've learned the power of both sentences and have learned to use them often, usually daily, and if I'm having a contrary kind of day, many times that day. I will confess that there are days when I find myself simply wanting to be contrary for no real reason at all, there just seems to be a need sometimes to stir the pot and then deal with what develops, even though I know that it will cost me in the end.
But there's one other 3 word sentence that is even more powerful and important than these first two. It's more powerful because it is a way to say "I love you" and "I am sorry" with just 3 words and means a whole lot more in the long run. The 3 word sentence is "I will change." Another way to say this is "I repent," but that's only 2 words and I'm into 3 word sentences today.
We say "I love you," to our spouses, our fiancées, our children, and the girl or guy we want to hear say "I love you" back. We also say it to ice cream, to a friend who drops off chocolate, to my dog, and a whole host of things and creatures. We say "I love you" even when we aren't really meaning it but because it's simply easier to do it at the time. But what does it really mean to say "I love you?" I say it to my wife because she makes me feel good and I have these feelings for her and yet I often do things that make her angry or frustrated because I so often think of my own wants first. If I really loved her wouldn't I think of what she wants first and then do that instead of what I want?
How about the sentence "I am sorry?" I'm Canadian so I say "I am sorry" a lot. I say "I am sorry" when someone is feeling bad even if I'm not the one who made them feel bad. I say sorry when something goes wrong and I have nothing to do about it. I say sorry when someone bumps into me and they are the one who wasn't looking, and I might even say "I am sorry" when the Leafs beat the Habs even as I'm cheering like crazy. Admittedly that "I'm sorry" might be a little bit sarcastic. Often I say "I am sorry" as a way to empathise with the other person, but it's not deep or very meaningful, just something to say at the moment. Sometimes I say "I'm sorry" when I really mean that I'm sorry I was caught.
Now I do say it seriously when I do something wrong that hurts my wife, my kids or someone else like in the church. I say it because I don't like hurting anyone or disappointing them because they are important to me. But saying "I am sorry" doesn't necessarily mean that I am going to do anything differently, it just means that I feel bad.
When I say "I will change" because I've done something to hurt someone else, it's more powerful and meaningful because I am saying that I am willing to change who I am to show you that "I love you" and I really mean that "I am sorry." It means that I am willing to put the other person first in my life instead of myself. Saying "I will change" means I take on the responsibility for what I did and accept that responsibility instead of trying to place the blame somewhere else.
When I listen to Jesus' teaching, it makes more sense to me now when I place it in the context of his main message to "Repent and believe because the kingdom of heaven is near." Jesus is calling me to take responsibility for what I do, for how I live life. He doesn't want me to take the easy way out by blaming others for the choices I make and the hurt I do to others and to God by doing my own thing instead of God's. If I really want to say "I love You" and "I am sorry" to God, then I will make sure that I also say, "I will change." I change because I am experiencing the simple fact that Jesus knows me better than I know myself and his way is the one that leads to my best life. As I continue changing, I am finding I am living a deeper life and have more meaning in my life. I have discovered that when I say "I will change" and mean it, that I am finding more joy in my relationships with others. I am especially finding more joy in my relationship with God as I continue to work on changing to fall more in line with what Jesus teaches. And as I embrace Jesus' call to repent, I also show that I do believe in Jesus as my saviour and that I do trust in him alone. Jesus calls me to repent, to change because he loves me so much that he wants the best for me and he has shown me how to change through Scripture and the gift of his Spirit.
Jesus says, "I love you," by taking responsibility for our relationship with him and putting us first by going up on the cross and taking on all our sin with him on the cross so that we can have an intimate relationship with God. What a reason to say to God, "I will change!"

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Who do you hang around with

In my last blog I talked about following Jesus so closely that we get covered by the dust of his feet. I wonder how many of us are willing to follow Jesus that closely because that can be pretty messy business. Look at the accusations against Jesus about who he hung out with, Jesus repeats some of these accusations in Matthew 11, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."' I'm wondering what those people would say about the average disciple of Jesus today, if we would be accused of being gluttons and drunkards because we hang out with the undesirables, the fringe people in our society. It is much easier to look like a Christian when everyone around is playing at following Jesus too. There's a collection to feed the hungry, throw a couple extra bucks in and we're good with God. Sign a petition against the evil of the day and you're standing up for the faith. Commiserate with your friends about how we're no longer a Christian nation and then head over to the latest shoot-them up blood bath movie with everyone else and cheer.
I grew up in a family where faith got messy. Some of my earliest memories are of people showing up at the door looking for a meal and my mother or grandmother digging in the cupboards to find something for them to eat. One evening when my dad was at work, we heard a frantic knocking on our door and there were two little girls wet and bedraggled, their mother had just tried to drown them in the ditch because she was at her wit's end. They were hungry, alone with no one and nothing. I was sent to run over the the pastor's house to get him, but he wasn't home. When I came home the girls were in a warm bath, the mother was sitting in our kitchen drinking coffee while mom was cooking up some food for them. When the police arrived, my mom met them at the door and told them to be kind and gentle. She then invited them in and they joined the distraught mother for coffee and some food. I was put in charge of making sure the two little girls were alright. This is simply one example of how my parents lived out their faith. It was about stepping into messy lives and situations and telling people that God is with them.
My wife, God bless her soul, has entered into many messy life situations because I have a tendency to enter other peoples' messy lives too. Even before we entered ministry, we had strangers knock on our door asking for a bed and food for the night, and we welcomed them in; some more heartily than others I will admit. One day I came home from working at the bakery and there was a woman and her son sitting on our neighbour's step. They had been kicked out and had no place to go. They were living in an RV that had no propane left and it was autumn and snow was beginning to fall. She was a stripper as this was one of the few ways she could support herself and her son. I welcomed her in and my wife supported me. Over the next couple of weeks we had a chance to get to know her and her son and introduce her to our pastor. She continued to work in one of the bars and when she saved up enough money to get back home, halfway across the country, she and her son went. About a year later we received a card thanking us for helping them get back on their feet again and that they were checking out churches in their area.
Montreal has been a fascinating place for us to live as we've had many strangers and others find a place to stay with us for periods of weeks to years. It has often been messy and even unwise at times, but in every situation there was someone who felt they had no one else to turn to. We have even faced opposition from members of our own church who felt this wasn't proper, which surprisingly hurt us. In human terms, maybe it wasn't always wise, it was almost always messy, but each time another person showed up I thought of Jesus' words, "Come into my kingdom because you fed me when I was hungry, you gave me something to drink when I was thirsty, you took me in when I was a stranger, you gave me clothes when I was naked and looked after me when I was sick. You even came to prison to visit me." It's not about earning my way into heaven, but about trying to develop Jesus' heart in my own heart.
My daughter recently asked me why my wife and I took her, her sister and her brother into our family. They are all related to each other but were in three different foster homes and over the years God brought them back together again in our home. She mentioned how life would be so much easier for my wife and I if we hadn't bothered, but as I think back to why we had so many children go through our home and why we embraced three of them into our family permanently even though it has made life messy for us, I can only say that following Jesus is messy and this is what he wanted and we gladly joined on in. In the process, God has blessed us; not with wealth or influence, or even a successful ministry, but with love from those who have passed through our lives and we have learned how to live out love.
How about you, who do you hang out with? How messy is your faith life?

Friday, 18 October 2013

Being a Disciple

When you give a pastor a chance to slow down and do some reflecting, I believe you will always end up at some point reflecting on being a disciple. We talk about discipleship and use all those churchy words like being justified and being sanctified, but I rather like the image I came across a few years ago, the image of walking so closely behind Jesus that you get covered by the dust he kicks up as he walks along. The idea is that you stay so close to him in order to hear every word he says, you stay so close so that you can see everything he does and how he reacts to life so that you can learn to imitate him exactly. The whole goal is to start to look and act so much like Jesus that when people look at you and get to know you, they say, "You really remind me of someone else, you remind me of Jesus."
This means that being a disciple means you get dirty. You get covered by Jesus' dust, but you also get dirty because you follow Jesus into all the messiness of the world and the chaos of people's lives. The more I study Jesus' life and teaching, the more I'm struck by how he noticed the chaos in people's life and how he stopped and entered into their chaos to bring forgiveness, acceptance, healing, and hope. Jesus deliberately made himself unclean time and again so the people he touched could be made clean and whole again. As Jesus made them clean and took their uncleanness in himself, their uncleanness wasn't able to stick to Jesus because of his holiness and purity.
I've been thinking about this and how it relates to what the church has often become today and who we are as the church. Jesus waded into the mess of religious legalism in his day and simplified the mess into two laws that revolve around love: "Love God with everything you have and are, and love your neighbour as yourself." The problem is that we are then forced leave the clean places of our sanctuary walls and worship places and walk deliberately into the greater mess of life so we can practice loving God and our neighbours. It's safe and easy to be a disciple when you're in a place where everyone is pretending that life is all good and God is blessing us, a place where we pretend that life isn't messy and dirty and that we're all clean and good.
I believe we misunderstand purity. We are pure, or clean because of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. He became human, entering this messed up world filled with dirt and filth to take it on his shoulders to the cross so that we might become clean or pure again. This allows us to be in this messy dirty world because we are washed clean by Jesus and as we follow him into the world out of our safe sanctuaries and worship places so closely that we get covered by the dust of his feet. We are able to enter into the chaos and uncleanness and bring forgiveness, acceptance, healing and hope as Jesus did knowing that because of Jesus we too can touch people and bring wholeness and cleanness in Jesus' name while remaining pure because our focus is all on Jesus and we know Jesus' blood and body keeps us clean. We follow Jesus into the messiness because we are loved by Jesus and we are working hard at our love for God and our neighbours, putting God's love for us into action towards others.
Jesus told us to go out into the world, not separate ourselves from the world, all so that we can make disciples of all nations. Being a disciple is all about making disciples; inviting others to follow Jesus with us so closely they too get covered by the dust of Jesus' feet.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Thanksgiving when there seems little to be thankful for

I love this time of year with the days getting cooler, the leaves changing colours, reminding me that God is definitely a wonderful artist. I enjoy the longer evenings and of course Thanksgiving Day. For my American friends, we celebrate Thanksgiving much earlier than you do, probably because our seasons change a little earlier than yours do.
Yet as I bumped into someone I haven't seen for a bit and we caught up on the last little while, she said something that made me pause. She said, "It must be hard for you to be thankful this year." Now I guess I can understand where she is coming from, after-all two of our children are going through divorce, my faithful pet dog Babette died a couple of weeks ago (see previous post), and then while doing some travelling on my sabbatical my car decided it had enough and I found myself stranded hundreds of kilometres from home and now we're new-to-me car shopping (basically looking for an old car that will last a few more years yet). These are a few of the events in the past few months only. I've also been doing a lot of self reflection on who I am as a follower of Jesus, as husband, father and pastor and that has often been hard too.
Yet I do feel thankful to God for the past year because it has made me focus a lot more on where I find my hope, my meaning and my joy in life. Certainly I grieve with the two of my children who are going through marriage break-ups because so many people and children are hurting, and though the other things are sad as well, yet I have also seen God provide in each situation, even if it's not the way I would have done it. I have had more talks and deeper talks with my adult children about God and life than I've had the opportunity for in the last number of years and my wife and I have seen or are seeing all our grandchildren this year and were able to show them they are loved by their parents and grandparents and that no matter what happens, God loves them even more. I have the privilege of being able to visit our oldest son and his family in a few weeks in order to participate in the baptism of their youngest daughter, our beautiful granddaughter.
I can see now, and have experienced how difficult times can do more for our walk with God than all the blessings of prosperity and health ever well because as a family we've become closer and have been able to show and express our love and support for each other in meaningful ways, but even more important, I've seen them turn to God even in their hurt and it's deepened my own faith as I try to walk alongside our children, pray for them, and as I talk with God, tell him that even if I don't understand the whys, I do trust him. I've been helped by a good friend and counsellor during my sabbatical to reflect on my personal relationship with God giving me greater insight into who I am and am becoming. Even though I had been stranded many hundreds of kilometres from home, I had made it to friends in Welland who were a huge blessing to me and helped me get on my way again. By the way, if you have a lead on a reliable car......... :)
While I don't wish for suffering and hurt, it doesn't frighten or bother me nearly as much now. Learning to trust God is all things also allows me to give thanks to him no matter what is happening all around me to even to me. Through it all I am never alone, God keeps reminding me that he is with me and my loved ones always. I have a wonderful church family who are supportive and loving too, another way God provides.
I don't wish suffering or difficult times for anyone, and yet I do pray that God shakes you up a bit in your lives to get you thinking and reflecting on what is really important to you and where your life's meaning comes from and may that be a time where you turn to God in a deeper relationship with him.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

God, love and actually saying it

As part of my sabbatical I'm sitting down with a counsellor to think through ministry and my calling as a pastor and who I am as a person. In our last meeting she asked me what God wanted from me and my go-to answer is obedience, faithfulness and dedication as a pastor. She kept pushing me until a light went off as I began to connect the dots between our conversation before and her question. The answer of course is that God wants my love. Kind of a duh moment for me, but I realised that I so often think about my relationship with God in terms of my calling as a pastor and not nearly enough in terms of my own personal relationship with God as a person, a child of his.
Do you remember in school when you would get the answer right and a warm glow of pride would go through you? That happened to me too :) I'm still kind of a kid at heart I guess. The problem was, my counsellor had another question waiting: sigh. This one got me too: how do you show God you love him? Again, my first thoughts revolve around doing, After all Paul tells us that love is an action word, something I keep reminding every couple who comes into my study wanting to get married. But somehow I knew that this wasn't the answer she was looking for. Finally the light bulb goes on again: I need to tell God I love him and it was then it struck me that I don't often stop and tell God, "I love you." I work at obedience, after-all Jesus said, "If you love me you will keep my commandments." I work at faithfulness, working at being the pastor and person God wants me to be, but I don't often say, "God, I love you."
It makes sense, at least to me, that I need to say these three words regularly. Yes, love is an action word and it shows in how I live, but when I fail to tell me wife, "I love you," on a regular basis, she starts to wonder what is wrong in our relationship. Being a guy, a Dutch guy, saying "I love you" doesn't seem to come so naturally to me, but my wife has taught me how important and powerful these three words are. When I talked to God later that afternoon, I said to him, "God, I love you, I know you know this, but my saying it reminds me of its truth." And that's kind of the point here, by saying those three words and hearing them come out of our mouths, we remind ourselves of the foundation of our relationship with God; he loved us first and desires our love in return. I encourage you the next time you take time to talk to God, begin with these words, "Hello God, I want you to know I love you." It will make you prayer time even more meaningful and special.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Do all dogs go to heaven

Babette, my faithful dog died this afternoon and as we went and took care of all the details to properly take care of her body, I couldn't help but think about the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven and found myself hoping it is so. Theologically it may not be so orthodox and I may be held to task for this because I'm a pastor, but dogs, especially pet dogs are a wonderful gift from God that keeps on giving. Babette often reminded me of this; she reminded me of what a sinner is all about, often deliberately being disobedient and then coming up to me, head hung low, but with a seeming grin also on her face as she counted on my forgiveness and love. There were times when she even took great joy in her disobedience, her tail wagging away as she would refuse to come when I called, even when I was offering her a treat. She would only come when she felt it was time to come. That so often reflects my own relationship with God, I too find myself sometimes dragging my feet when I sense God calling me to a certain path or task.
Babette was great at evangelism, she was friendly to everyone in our neighbourhood and was well known, even by those who didn't have dogs. I can't count the number of times she has startled people by jumping up at them, looking for a friendly pet on the head, with a great grin on her face that made her look fierce and scary. But after being here 10 years now, most people know how loving and gentle she was. The people in our neighbourhood know me as Babette's owner, the religious guy who works at the church on the corner, the guy we can stop by and talk to any time. It is going to be strange to walk through the neighbourhood without her.
I always joked that every pastor needs a dog because, like God, they love you unconditionally and that even when my wife, my kids, my church or all of them together would be angry and frustrated with me, Babette would still love me and lovingly accept me for who I am no matter how badly I messed up. I would come into the house after a day at work, whether good or tough, and Babette would be there with her tail wagging, eager to greet me.
I already miss her, but am also so thankful to God for having had her as part of our family for the past 10 years and just maybe I'll see her again one day in heaven!

Friday, 13 September 2013

Time to Simply Think

It's amazing how quickly time goes by in September. Even though I'm on sabbatical, time hasn't slowed down. This is usually the busiest time of the year with the church's ministries starting up again, making sure our safe church policies are reviewed and carried out, our corn roast by the cadets and Bible studies and small group studies all beginning to meet again. It's wonderful to have a good leadership team in place as I haven't worried once about how the start is going.
So far, the first two weeks of the sabbatical have been filled with reading, study, some writing, and a whole lot of thinking and reflecting. It's wonderful to have the time to simply think. There's a lot to think about: my relationship with God, my family, with the church among other things. But my thoughts keep going back to how the past 10 years have gone here in First Montreal; where I've messed up and failed and where, thanks to God and His working in and through me, I've been able to do well and help various people and the church move forward. I've realized that it's much easier to list what I consider failures as I've been reminded often by different people when I have not lived up to their expectations, or I have simply and truly messed up. I went into ministry to help people find healing in God, and the hardest part of failing as a pastor is that often it involves people getting hurt, kind of the opposite of what I prayed God would do through me.
However, thanks to a wise counselor and friend, I'm coming to see that what I may consider a failure can often be a part of God's plan and a part of the journey of healing or growth that God has been taking us on. Sometimes we need to experience deep hurt before we allow God to work in us. Some time we need to suffer so we can understand how great our need is for healing; healing that only God can do. The very words I've so often used to encourage others during difficult times, I needed to hear myself. I thank God for the wisdom and faith of this counselor!
This has raised up a concern at the same time. Who do pastors go to when they experience a crisis; either as a pastor called into a situation, or in our own life situations. As my counselor mentioned, those who work in the mental health field undergo debriefings regularly to help them maintain their own mental health and deal with the stress and trauma they go through. As pastors we may have peer learning groups, regional pastors, and ministerial associations where we can find support and encouragement, but my own experience has shown my the value of trained professional counseling. I began my first session trying to stay in control, but through the counselor's skills and persistence, she worked past my control to the hurt and pain I often tuck away. Often pastors have no choice to just tuck this stuff away as there is always something else needing our attention, another person needing someone to help them see that God is near, so it's easy to not deal with it until it's too late.
I wonder if pastors and their elders need to sit down more often and talk openly about the pastor's emotional and spiritual needs, asking if there are things the pastor should be talking about and isn't? I wonder if we as pastors need to be pushed to find a trusted Christian counselor and be strongly encouraged to meet with them a couple times each year to hear those words, "God is here and He is working in you and through you, often through those painful moments you don't want to deal with." Just a thought.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Sabbatical time

It's been a while since I've posted. It's been a busy time getting ready to take advantage of the gift the church has given me of a 3 month sabbatical. I have been fascinated by the reaction of many people who see this as an extended vacation rather than as a part of the rhythm of being in ministry, but I've been very encouraged by support and encouragement of the leadership in the church who have walked with me and my family through the past 10 years that we've been here. My elders and deacons have worked closely with me to shape this sabbatical with my needs, but also the needs of my wife and family in mind. They realize that a refreshed pastor is also a blessing for the church. I've been given three months to do some reading and writing, receive personal counseling to work through the highs, the lows and the regular times of ministry over the past 10 years and how it has shaped me, and finally time to get away with my wife for a week at a Focus on the Family retreat center where together we'll spend some time reflecting together on the past 10 years and do some reflecting on where God is leading us and dreaming about the possibilities of what God may have in store for us as a family and in our church.
It's only been a week but I can already feel the difference as I settle into a different routine, one that allows me to spend evenings at home with my family, gives me time to do some reflecting, and to rest. The rest part has surprised me the most. Sabbatical comes from the Hebrew root for rest, but it has still been a very pleasant surprise to experience it. The rest is not necessarily physical rest, most of the rest has come from not needing to be responsible for most of the day to day and week to week organization of the church, a release from needing to be present at the various meetings in the church, and a release of responsibility and authority to the elders and deacons for the next 3 months. I am blessed with wonderful leaders, both within council and in the church who are very gifted and committed to our church and where God is leading us, and who He is transforming us into as His presence here in the island of Montréal.
Before answering the call into ministry, I never appreciated how much the pastor carries in his or her heart and mind for and from the congregation and the community around the church. There are the times of celebration and joy, the times of struggle, and the times of grief and suffering and they all come to rest in the soul of the pastor because of the love we carry for the people God has placed us among. These have all found a place inside me and they are now a part of who I am. It is an honour to have all these moments within me as I have been blessed to have been invited into the most private and intimate moments of peoples' lives to help them see how God is present with them. The blessing of this sabbatical is that I now have the time to reflect on how these have shaped me over the years and to become more self aware of who I am becoming as a person and a pastor. Already after one session of counseling I have been able to let go of some of the hurt inside and see how God has used this to shape me and to be a blessing to others in it.
Over the next 3 months I hope to share some of what I am learning during this sabbatical through this blog. I am looking forward to the opportunity to have times to "be still and know God," to learn more about myself, and to do some focused reading and writing. Stay tuned.
 

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Who are you trying to impress?

I'm a bit of an introvert and yet people are really important to me, I love being a faceless person in the crowd, able to sit in a corner and observe others while remaining anonymous myself. Yet at the same time, I also find myself concerned about what people think about who I am; hoping that they find me acceptable enough to include in their circles of friends. Deeper down, I also know that I want to be recognised and praised by others, especially the people I admire; being accepted isn't enough, I'm looking to be praised too. That's why it kind of hurts when I read Jesus' question in John 5, "How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?"  
This is an 'ouch' kind of question because I think I get it. When I'm concerned about being recognised or praised by other people, I give them control over who I am, even if it means being someone that goes against who I know God wants me to be. In order to be accepted by the people who, at least in my perspective, are more important or special than I am, I become willing to become the person I think they want me to be, even if that's not really who I am. This comes out of a lack of self esteem or even from a lack of self knowledge or a shallowness in my personality when this happens.
Then there's the selfish side of me that wants to be recognised because I know how wise I am, how important I am even if others don't see it yet. I know I deserve to be recognised and praised because I am worth it and I've worked hard and sacrificed a lot to get where I am. This side of me wrestles with humility and with quiet service, and even if God sees and knows what I've done and who I am, that's not enough, I want more. 
That gets at what Jesus is asking here. Jesus is wondering, if you're busy accepting and wrapping ourselves in the praise of people around us, do you really accept God as God in every aspect of your life, or is God is simply a small part of your life that you can pull out or put away when it suits you. It comes down, at least for me, to the question, "Who is more important to me, God or the people whose attention and praise I'm seeking?" This then leads to another really uncomfortable question, "Who really is the God/god in my heart and life" I'm always afraid that deep down I take that place, or I allow some other person to take that place away from God.
Slowly I'm learning that what I want deep down is to hear God say, "You are my beloved," and "Well done good and faithful servant," yet I keep getting distracted by the other desire to hearing others saying it too. Yet when I hear God's praise, when I read this in God's word and the Spirit gives me the feeling/knowledge that this applies to me, then I know that I'm starting to focus more on who God has created me to be and less on who you want me to be, and that's a good thing, even if it means I don't always fit in the circles I want.