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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!"