Lament for A Father: Seven Lessons about Death and Dying

playtime with Nonno

I woke up to a call at around 3:30 am. It was my mom. “Dad passed at 2 am. Please come.” I dry swallowed and hung up, only to see that I had missed two of my mom’s earlier calls, and two texts. One from her and one from my brother. Half asleep, I threw on some joggers and made my way to the hospital.

When you experience the loss of someone, you don’t only lose what you had, but everything you looked forward to. My father had just moved back to Montreal. He had been living in Italy for around 7 years. Before that I had lived in the States, and then moved to Vancouver. I looked forward to finally living in the same city, seeing him eventually slow down, and  have more time to spend with his kids and grandkids. There were hopes. But those hopes were interrupted.

In November, just as he received the keys to his new home nearby, he heard the news of his deteriorating health. We had hope that he’d be okay, but it got worse as time progressed.

Throughout this process I was reminded how much people have a hard time being sad, or being in the presence of sad people. For some, too much sadness is a sin, while for others it’s just too uncomfortable to bear. So they try to help by alleviating the discomfort, by focusing on the “bright side.”  Here are some lessons I learned about death, dying and helping those who experience loss.

1) Maintain the tension of hope and compassion.  

While my dad was in the hospital, well-meaning visitors would offer a positive and hopeful attitude. They’d say that they were not worried about him and were “believing for a miracle” and would “declare” that he’d preach again.

There’s a good intention there, and that kind of talk is often celebrated as Christian “faith,” but it often overlooks one important Christian ethic: compassion. It seems incredibly easy for Christians to be “positive” and hopeful and yet forget to show compassion.

The word compassion means to “suffer with.” It means to enter into the pain. To feel what one feels. To carry another’s burden with them. To “grieve with those who grieve.” When you offer hope for future, it should never whitewash the pain of the present.

2) Don’t deny the ugliness of disease and death.

When my father passed away I found that most people preferred to cover up the ugliness of death and disease. Untimely death is harder to prettify, but some people always find a way to accentuate the silver lining. I can’t tell you how many people told me that my dad was in a better place. Or that God was in control. Or that at least he wasn’t experiencing pain. Those thoughts may all be true, but they’ve missed the mark, and though they intend to be “helpful” and offer hope, they often only make things worse.

The pain of loss and the ugliness of death should not be sugar-coated. The reality is that my father didn’t want to go to that “better place.” He was 58. He wanted to live, and we his family wanted him to live. . He wanted desperately to get out of that hospital bed and “feast” with his friends and family. My dad did not want to die. This was a loss not just for us, but for him too.

When we find the silver lining of death, we often ignore the ugly pain of loss.

3) Don’t equate grief and anger with small faith.

Some Christians I know confuse grief and anger with a lack of faith. They’ve been told all their life that sadness and anger are sins to be avoided, so instead of living in the truth of their emotions, they find ways to cover them up. It’s not a sign of Christian maturity and strength to be unemotional, and always “looking on the bright side.” Indeed, from cover to cover the Bible is replete with stories of people who loudly lamented their grief. David grieved the loss of his son. Naomi (who changed her name to Mara because she was bitter towards God) grieved the loss of her husband and sons. Jeremiah grieved the injustice and sinfulness of Israel and wrote Lamentations for the world to remember it.

Not even Jesus avoided grief. He is described as one “acquainted with grief,” and experienced the fullness of lament on more than one occasion during his lifetime. One of the most important stories in the Bible is when Jesus weeps and mourns the death of his friend Lazarus. When Lazarus dies and his sisters cry to Jesus, knowing that he could have prevented all of this pain, Jesus enters that lament and weeps. When Jesus wept, he revealed God’s posture towards death and pain in the world. He weeps with Mary and Martha at the death of their brother, but he’s also weeping at the brokenness and pain in the world that is yet to be made new. He is weeping for a world marred by sin. He weeps with me, as I lament the loss of my father.

If Jesus weeps because his friends are hurting, we ought to learn to do the same.

4) Beware of using Scripture to “fix” someone’s feelings

One thing that people say when things aren’t going well is, “God is in control.” I think what is meant is that God can bring comfort and redemption even in the saddest, and most broken situations. That is why throughout the Bible God is identified as a Redeemer and Comforter, but never a controller. God is not the cause of pain and death. I don’t believe that God caused my dad to suffer and die. God did not “call him home.” The biblical story suggests to me instead that it was neither His plan nor His will. It just was–some things just happen because the gift and beauty of life is fragile and feeble.

Untimely death and disease remind us of the fragility and finitude of our lives.  When bad things happen you are not meant to numb your pain and fake a smile because of an easy explanation—you are to enter into that pain. In other words, we are to feel the finitude, experience the fragility, learn to “number our days” as the Psalmist petitions (Ps. 90:12, cf Eccl. 7:1-2).

5) Welcome God’s comfort in times of lament.

I’ve learned that to avoid the grief and the lament in loss is to miss out an important way that God wants to meet us. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Not those who “stay positive,” who “never get sad,” or who “deny their emotions.” It’s unfortunate that most people won’t experience the comfort only God can give because they refuse to mourn. By honestly acknowledging the tragic nature of human existence before God, we allow Him to raise us up.

6) When you eliminate grief you eliminate compassion.

When we avoid painful emotions like grief and sadness, there are costly implications. The extent to which we can grieve our own losses is the extent to which we can comfort others who suffer.

Henri Nouwen writes, “There is no compassion without many tears… to become like the Father whose only authority is compassion, I have to shed countless tears and so prepare my heart to receive anyone, whatever their journey has been…”

When we refuse mourn our own losses, we render ourselves unable to comfort others who are mourning theirs. To develop compassion for others, we’ll need to learn the practice of lament. Not only for our own sake, but because the pain, regret, and loss we experience point to a marred world yet to be redeemed in full. As Paul declares, with the creation, we patiently, hopefully and eagerly await the redemption of our bodies. This kind of waiting involves grief that makes room for compassion.

7) Practice presence presence presence.

Ultimately, helping those who experience grief and loss doesn’t happen by taking away their pain but by entering into it. Resist the temptation to offer an “answer” to the problem, or offer a “positive perspective,” but be willing to offer presence instead. The Jewish tradition of “sitting Shiva” is the practice of sitting in silence with a person who’s grieving. Not offering any words but mere presence. Practically that might look like offering a meal, free childcare, or just a silent embrace.

Stanley Hauerwas writes, “to be kind is the willingness to be present when nothing can be said or done to make things better.” The sadly forgotten virtue of kindness finds its embodiment in quiet presence. Be willing to simply be there, without offering a quick fix.

The mystery of the incarnation is God with us. God with us in our joys and sorrows, our wins and losses, achievements and failures. He was and is fully and utterly present to us, and we, his hands and feet ought to continue his mission to offer hope with compassion, to acknowledge the ugliness of death, and lament in our full humanity. So if you’re experience loss, tragedy, or any kind of burden, use your God-given lungs to lament, shed tears, write about your anger, change your name to Mara and carry your loss in its fullness. Only when we live in the fullness of our humanity–climactically manifested on Good Friday–can we experience God’s comforting blessing and joy of Easter, which ultimately equips us with the capacity for compassion and kindness to others.


Can you relate? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

My Journey Out of Calvinism – Part 2

I entered my undergraduate education with a deep love and affection for Scripture. When I was 12, my father had given me a Bible he owned when he was younger. The back cover was falling apart and adorned with a gleaming silver duct taped spine. It was red, and filled with assorted coloured highlights and underlines, revealing its timeless power to transform lives. I loved reading the little notes my dad made in the margins, speculating on what he may have been going through in his own life as he read the same words I was reading. I inherited ancient wisdom that was wonderful and mysterious at an age where wonder and mystery was not yet abandoned. 

When I was admitted to Bible college, I didn’t know quite how to read what I was given, or really what it was. But I treated it with a reverent hunger, knowing that its content had the power to enlighten my young mind and change the trajectory of my life. I was hoping that Bible college would help me learn to read the Bible better and understand its nuances. Though I eventually chose to focus my undergraduate degree in “Biblical Studies,” what I learned most during those college years was not Biblical expertise, but how to pray. How fitting that the greatest gift my Pentecostal college gave me was to teach me how to pray in a new way. It was the context where I learned how to dive into the depths of God through fasting, fervent prayers and disciplined Bible reading. 

I’m not saying that my college was one of those feel-good, prayer-only schools that didn’t teach Biblical exegesis and hermeneutical fallacies. I had great professors. But it was ultimately the alluring influences of Calvinist preaching during my time at Bible college that solidified the lens by which I would read Scripture.[1][2]This was an experience that I am very grateful for because through Calvinist preaching, I developed a love for Scripture and theology that I hadn’t experienced before. A way of talking about church, Jesus, and the gospel, that was foreign to my Pentecostal upbringing, despite my early love for the Bible. 

But along the way, something changed. My life of prayer was slowly trumped by a life of study. Why they became mutually exclusive I can’t explain, but somehow exegetical Bible study and listening to sermons supplanted prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Something else happened as well. Without knowing it, the humble posture towards Scripture and theology that I had embraced as I entered college was usurped by a fault-finding superiority and conceit. The beauty of my growing love for Scripture and theology was morphing into something ugly.

Visiting my Bible College in Massachusetts last year.

In college, we had chapel services four times a week. These services included music for worship, preaching, and a response time. I had made like-minded friends, who were also disillusioned by their Pentecostal heritage, and captivated by the Calvinist impulse.  My friends and I critiqued the preachers who didn’t preach expository sermons. We found solidarity in bemoaning the topical sermons and emotionalism as deeply unbiblical and therefore inferior. We’d text each other protests of our laments during chapel services when preachers took Scripture out of context, and students rushed to the altars to rededicate their lives to God for the 4th time that week. “Another topical sermon about being better Christians?” “When will hear actual Scripture?” “Does this guy even know the gospel?” 

Indeed, we’d find a sort of superiority in skipping chapel services of “prayer and fasting” seeing them as hysterical sentimentality and a major waste of time. On on day of prayer and fasting, while every other student was on their way to chapel, famished from their fast, my Calvinist guild and I decided to order pizza to our dorms and watched videos of Matt Chandler and John Piper instead. We embodied an aloof smugness that was masked in Biblical fidelity. 

In many ways I am deeply grateful for this shift that took place in my life. I had a growing appreciation for preaching and Scripture, and its role in transforming lives. And I’ll admit, there were many sermons in chapel those years that merited cause for suspicion, so I sympathize with my younger self. But in my immaturity I didn’t realize how in my entrance into the world of Reformed theology, I had become smug, vain, and bitingly critical. I don’t blame Calvinist theology for my immaturity and sin, but there seemed to be no mechanism in place nor any model from my digital mentors on how to be a Calvinist without being angry.[3]Combative criticism and angry arrogance seemed to come with the territory of “gospel purity.”  

There is an irony here. The Calvinist notion of God’s total involvement in each person’s individual salvation is meant to be a humbling, God-glorying, doctrine. And yet I found precisely the opposite in my Calvinist community. My Calvinist camp taught that because man is totally depraved, he is unableto say yes to God’s invitation to accept and follow him, unless of course God has already chosen him in advance. Indeed, Jesus’ invitation to follow him isn’t a real choice for the non-elect, nor is it a real choice for the elect, since God’s choice is “irresistible.”  These doctrines that were meant to make you humble, made you, more often than not, prideful, arrogant and angry. I found myself passing off angry preaching as “boldness,” never considering how my words and tone might be received. 

Perhaps herein lies one of the problems of a world obsessed with digital pastors: the increasing neglect of the Christ-forming context of the church. In retrospect, I found that my love for preaching and the Bible was not only stunting my prayer life, it was diminishing my ecclesiology to mere “methods.” Church wasn’t essential to discipleship, nor a picture of the diverse and far-reaching grace of God. It wasn’t the context where God forms his people, but the place where we reinforce our short-sighted ideas. Indeed, the real church was the one that agreed with me in my newly unearthed theology. It was now salvation by Calvinism, a sadly myopic and unsightly vision of the church Jesus had been building for two millennia.  In hindsight I realize that I wasn’t at all growing in greater love for the Bible, but for my particular reading of the Bible, offering a sense of superiority that comes with being right. 

My journey out of Calvinism has had many twists and turns. Indeed, my anger and arrogance would eventually be met by sadness, despair, and even depression. But my moral and existential crises experienced as a Calvinist were ultimately not the reason why I abandoned its theology. In the end there were biblical and theological reasons for my departure. These reasons I will explore more closely in my next post. 


[1]At the risk of over-generalizing a complex and variegated system of belief, I will express some of the elements of Neo-Puritanism as I encountered it. In this post I’ll refer to it to “Calvinism.” 

[2]I’ve come to see a big difference in classical Reformation theology and the more common/popular expression of Calvinism known as “New Calvinism” or “Neo-Puritanism.” I personally embrace much of Reformed theology, particularly aspects of Covenant theology, as well as much of the writings of John Calvin, who’s theology should not be reduced to “five points.” Calvin had much more to say, including a much more mystical approach to the Eucharist, which I’ve written about here.

[3]I’m not the first to suggest a problem with anger and arrogance in the Neo-Reformed community. A prominent Calvinist, one which I admire, addresses the problem here. Jonathan Merritt from Religion News has raised similar moral issues here.

My Journey Out of Calvinism

I distinctly remember the warm and sunny drive back home to Montreal from my Pentecostal Bible college in Massachusetts. It would be the last of many I had made over the years. Most of the drive was spent with windows down and music loud; I felt nervously exhilarated by the sensation of leaving one stage of life and entering a new one. Always keen for a new adventure, I was feeling receptive and open. Degree in hand, and car brimming with all the possessions I had accumulated, my drive was christened by a 5-hour lecture series on Calvinism by a well known Calvinist pastor (a topic I had been exploring over the last three years). When I got home (to my Pentecostal pastor of a father), I looked at him and with the ambivalent confidence of a freshly certified undergraduate student in theology I declared: “Dad, I think I’m a Calvinist.”


“We’re created to glorify God,” I asserted, “and God forgives us for his own glory,” I continued, quoting Isaiah 48. “We are born depraved and can’t possibly respond to God’s gracious election apart from his irresistible exploits.” I had my dad’s attention, but he didn’t seem worried. He listened curiously and waited patiently for me to finish my speech and then responded. He pointed out his own proof texts in a respectful, classy way, in the form of questions to get me thinking. But I had just gotten my degree in Biblical studies, and I was 20, so it didn’t really matter what proof texts he had. I had TULIP-coloured glasses on, helping me see Scripture in a new (and true) way. How could he not see what I see? 


My newfound confession of the “doctrines of grace” was the culmination of about three years of reading books and listening to sermons and lectures from Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, John Piper, and one of my favourites, RC Sproul. Driscoll of course, was the gateway drug. I still remember where I was sitting when I first heard him talk about men and manliness on a video clip from a “Desiring God” conference in 2007. 


calvinist reading

Without really knowing it at the time, I began to drink, eat, and sleep Neo-Reformed theology (also distinguished as Neo-Puritan theology by some).

I immersed myself into any book I could get and any sermon I could find. I loved what I considered to be strong preaching, with Biblical books and verses coming alive to me in a way I had never experienced before. And some of these guys were cool too. They communicated eloquently and were in tune with cultural norms. And I was a great evangelist of the content–I’d share lectures and sermons and even burn CDs with whole sermon series for those who showed the slightest interest. 


Finally, I had discovered the true gospel, in its full form, I thought, uncontaminated by any “works” pseudo-gospel that told me to “do better” or “try harder.” I came to believe that if you weren’t preaching imputed righteousness via justification by faith alone through Christ alone, then you weren’t preaching the gospel. Verse-by-verse exposition was the only justifiable way to preach biblically (making Paul and Jesus “unbiblical” preachers). I was convinced that “topical” preaching was for the seeker-friendly crowd, and would sooner or later dilute the full gospel (because of course Jesus wasn’t a friend to seekers).

My tribe and I embraced and accepted this new line of believing. We had the truth. And it was God’s truth. 


On January 1, 2012, a year and a half after my drive home from Bible college, I moved to Vancouver BC to begin my MA in Theological Studies at Regent College. In the time between I had been devouring anything I could from the aforementioned four horsemen of Neo-Puritanism. In that process I had discovered JI Packer, who’s Knowing God was new and exciting territory for me. Packer wonderfully combined theological vigour with heart, devotion, and emotion–combinations I hadn’t seen modelled before. I remember it not being too arid or abstract theology, nor airy-fairy feel-good Sunday school lessons about nice-guy Jesus. It beautifully captured a Christianity that lived in the tension of the head and the heart–and presented a much more confrontational Jesus that I admired. Though I may not agree with all of Packer’s views today, his writing drew me to Regent College where he taught, and where I’d eventually get to meet him and discuss other topics around pastoral ministry, theology and spirituality. 


Though some might consider Packer as one of the father figures of the Neo-Reformed movement, his influence on the true leaders of the movement was behind the scenes. What’s unique about Packer is that he’s Anglican, an Anglican who’s done quite a bit of work to help evangelicals appreciate other Christian denominational expressions, something R.C. Sproul and his crew was not happy about. Indeed, Regent College was and is an evangelical, trans-denominational school; and so it was where I met Christians who weren’t Pentecostals, for the very first time. 


Regent was where I was introduced to some of the contemporary hard hitters of the Christian faith in the likes of James KA Smith, NT Wright, Mark Noll, Henri Nouwen and others. As Smith depicts it so well in his Letters to a Young Calvinist, I was so enamoured with a small room of Neo-Puritanism in a mansion of Christian spirituality, to the point where I came to believe that the small room was all there really was and all there needed to be. Of course, Smith uses the analogy of a mansion to speak of the riches of the Reformation, though I think he’d agree that the mansion can also be the “Great Tradition” beyond the Reformation. For a long time, I didn’t explore life outside my own like-minded Neo-Puritans–and I mostly just read from one publishing house. 


I was [pleasantly] surprised to discover that Regent would begin the slow process of unraveling my Neo-Puritanism. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, and not via any intentional process on the part of Regent. At Regent, I was gently and respectfully challenged to visit the other rooms in the mansion. With hesitation I did just that; visited these room, mostly because I had to or I would fail. Regent challenged me to read outside of my comfort zone, and at least learn to thoughtfully understand and articulate the theological positions I was claiming to oppose.  Initially I treated them as rooms that could be visited only for educational purposes–like an ancient ruin sealed off due to its dangerous air quality. It was already a stretch to read and write about the various Christian expressions that were vastly different than my own. So I inspected them as if visiting a crime scene, but not really a place to inhabit. I’d always just go back to the room I was most comfortable with. 


With time I found these rooms were far from ancient ruins or a crime scene to be investigated. They began to provide new vistas by which I could see the world and be enriched in my faith. They were a source of oxygen for my suffocating spirituality, which was beginning to wane with its overly cerebral dogmatism and stoic passivity. My spiritual life was being rescued because I was being introduced to the deep well of the Christian faith, much more robust in its theology, practice and spirituality.

My studies at Regent were only the beginning of my journey out of Calvinism. It took a few years and a lot of dark nights of the soul from my first day at Regent in 2012 to the day I would resign from my position at a church and move back to Quebec in 2016. That part of the story will be addressed in my next post.

St Augustine, you were with me but I was not with you

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,

but l outside, seeking there for you,

and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong,

I misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you.

They held me back far from you,

those things which would have no being

were they not in you.

They held me back far from you,

Those things which would have no being

Were they not in you.

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;

you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;

you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you

I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst;

you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

7 Ways to Strengthen your Marriage

marriage

‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Mark 10:6-9

Upon the arrival of our son, my wife Bethany and I were reminded of the magnitude of being one in marriage.

The stress of sleepless nights and the unpredictability of a newborn have the potential to catch any marriage off guard. Most married couples are familiar with the temptation to simply “get along” and “make the best of it” in such times of stress or conflict, and it can be easy to believe that letting things slide is the best course of action.

But that’s far from the truth.

Conflict, whether big or small, has a way of disconnecting us if not resolved in a God-honoring way. Unresolved conflict always separates things that are meant to be joined together.

As I’ve observed the older, seasoned adults in my life, I’ve found that oneness is hard to achieve. Instead, many couples seem to become passive aggressive over time, unable to communicate in careful and honest ways, and only getting along in a marriage marked by petty arguments, rivalry and antagonism. I think the problem is that we tend to think oneness in marriage simply “happens.” Like growing teeth, or going to college, or getting taller—it’ll just happen at some point.

But like most things that matter, a healthy marriage is more like a garden that needs tending than something that simply “happens.”  A healthy marriage needs careful gardeners on the lookout for weeds and other pests that poison the potential crop. The flowers need watering and the plants need pruning for that garden to flourish.

The truth is that in every relationship, something is growing. And if it’s a weed, every time it’s ignored, it will grow stronger, establishing deeper roots. If we know anything about gardening, it’s that weeds have the power to kill everything healthy around them. Weeds spread and turn what could be beautiful into something dreadfully ugly.

I often find myself reminding my wife (and myself) that we are a team.

A team is made up of players with different strengths and unique perspectives who are united in goal and vision. A team that wins is a team that works hard to remain so. And in a marriage, you’re either on the same team or on opposing teams—there’s no neutral zone.

We’ve all met couples who are simply married on paper. They stick with it “for the kids” but are clearly on separate teams going separate ways. So here are 6 ways that have helped my wife and I foster the culture of team in our marriage.

1. Commit to honesty. 

A team that works well together knows that anything deceptive will kill oneness. Without a commitment to truth there can be no trust, nor grace. Honesty doesn’t simply mean bluntness or lack of restraint. Rather, honesty in marriage means that we tell the truth in loving ways, in ways that help the other flourish, and not feel belittled or crushed. Honesty means telling the truth when we are upset—even when we know we are being unreasonable or irrational—because we know that truth will always be exposed one way or another.

2. Affirm the other’s strengths.

When a team is infiltrated by jealousy, it falls apart. Every team member plays a unique role which maximizes their strength and the strengths of those around them. For that to happen, everyone on the team needs to know and admit what their teammates are good at. Are there things your wife or husband is better at than you? Affirm these things, acknowledge them, and celebrate them. It will help you and your marriage in the long run. Don’t allow your spouse’s strengths to make you feel insecure or envious. Competition of that sort is dangerous—putting you on opposing teams and making room for weeds to grow. Affirming the other’s strengths, especially the ones you don’t have, will help them flourish, and will build trust.

3. Trust good intentions.

Trusting your spouse’s intentions means believing he or she has your best interests at heart. For a team to flourish there must be a constant trust and assumption that your spouse wants the best for you, your marriage and your family. What that means is that you don’t interpret every comment or action as a means of undermining you. This is called being passive aggressive. For example, if your husband cleans the house while you’re out, trust that he’s just trying to be caring and helpful—it’s not some subversive way of letting you know that you’re not a good wife. 

If you can’t trust your spouses intentions, then there is something deeper that needs addressing. Go back to number 1 on the list above.

4. Ask for help.

Asking your spouse for help can be really hard for the independent type. It means taking a humble stance and recognizing that neither of you is doing this alone—you’re committed to doing it together.

5. Over-clarify. 

How many fights, arguments and regrets have been caused by misunderstanding? It has been said that “the biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It’s often much less complicated to say “never mind” when your spouse doesn’t understand you. Working at clarity takes time, but the effort is worth it.

6. Make each other laugh.

Karl Barth once said that “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” Without laughter, we take ourselves—and life—too seriously. Laughing at the perplexities and challenges of life reminds us that everything, especially your imperfect spouse, is pure grace. So put your shirt on backwards, stick out your tongue, and do something silly, because humour will remind you that everything you have is a gift, and that will always boost your sense of oneness.

7. Have team rituals.

All great teams have rituals, from practice on Mondays to wings on Wednesdays. A ritual in the context of marriage is something that you do together, maybe weekly or monthly that help you focus on connecting with each other. This could mean a family outing to the grocery story, a good conversation over a special dessert, or an honest discussion over how you’re doing in the areas outlined above. Team rituals gives you and your spouse a chance not only to connect but to practice honesty with each other.

This is not at all an exhaustive list, but a good start to growing in greater oneness in your marriage. Oneness in marriage takes work, patience and a lot of grace. Like a garden, it needs careful tending and intentional planning. But perhaps if we get this right we can create a picture of something beautiful for the next generation—an alternative to the cultural offerings and a testament to the reality that Jesus-inspired, long-term commitment and hard work produces the best kind of fruit.

 

 

What’s the Point of Prayer?

prayer

What do you think about when you think about prayer?

I have a confession: throughout my life I’ve had moments of skepticism regarding the value of prayer. Does prayer accomplish anything or is it simply wishful thinking?

Over the years I’ve learned that a lot of people avoid prayer because they’re afraid that it might not work and by that they mean that their requests won’t be fulfilled. So they keep prayer at a distance, safely tucked away and pulled out for religious occasions.

You’ve likely heard the maxim that “prayer changes me more than it changes God.” Perhaps that is true, but I would put it this way: prayer is the arena in which God changes me. When we pray, we are being drawn into a conversation that has already been going on long before we show up. Prayer draws us into God’s life, helping us align our desires with his.

Henri Nouwen says it beautifully when he writes that “prayer is not what is done by us, but rather what is done by the Holy Spirit in us.”

One of the ways prayer changes us is by giving us a new vision. In my own experience, prayer has afforded me the possibility of having a new set of eyes for seeing people and situations.

Jesus was known to say, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”

If you’ve ever tried to pray for someone you dislike, or who has offended you, it doesn’t take long to realize why Jesus invites us to pray for those who persecute us. It’s not simply because Christians should be “nice” to all people, it’s much more. When we pray for our enemies, we’ll inevitably be put in a position to think about what would be best for them. What do we hope for him or her?  What do we want for them? When we pray for those we are against (or those who are against us), we’re not complaining about them or focusing on how they offended us,  but wishing good for them and hoping the best for them.

This is brilliant!

When we pray, we’re letting God give us a new perspective on the people we would otherwise dismisson the people we would otherwise want to avenge, and want to see fail.

It gets better: prayer doesn’t only do this for our relationships, but for any situation in our lives that might seem like “an enemy”the moments in life where we feel like everything is working against us and things seem hopeless, aimless, pointless.

As a pastor, I have had times with people who reveal their grievances and complaints about someone who has offended them. In these situations, I’ve learned to follow up with an important question: “What do you hope for them?” This question is usually rhetorical, but important. It draws them into the transformative practice of beginning to actually pray for their enemy.

Prayer is the place where we are challenged to discover what God wants for a person, a circumstance, a next step.

Prayer gives us a new set of eyes for the people who get on our nerveseven those closest to us. When Jesus invites us to pray, he invites us to develop a future vision to see beyond the faults of those who offend us.

This is what prayer does: it gives us vision. It opens up possibilities. It says “yes” when everything in you wants to say “no.”  In prayer, God takes us away from our present offences to a greater vision of what could be.

So prayer, more than merely a tool for requests, is a means of transforming our very desires. Prayer is a means of changing our “hunger and thirst.” Prayer helps us have the wants that God wants.

Perhaps the lack of hope and vision for our lives (or our children’s lives, our marriages, our relationships) is often due to a lack of prayer.

I know I’ve found this to be true in my own life.

In fact, when Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, he was defining perfection.

“Be perfect, just like your Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good.”

For Jesus, perfection means we live with a deep hope even in the most broken situations; that nobody and nothing in our lives is beyond repair.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Next time you feel anger or offence, ask yourself what God may want you to want for your offender. It won’t be hard to figure out, and maybe in that process you’ll find yourself loving your enemy, praying for your persecutor, and just a little closer to perfection.

The Good News of Election

It was on my 6 hour drive home from my Pentecostal Bible College of which I had recently graduated, that I got serious about being a calvinist.

I was listening to a series of lectures on TULIP, and by the time I arrived home, I walked up to my dad and said, “I think I’m a calvinist.” That was in 2010.

Today, I reject the teachings I embraced many years ago. Here’s some of that story.

(By the way, the basic idea behind TULIP is that we are so totally depraved that we can’t choose God, he must choose us.  Fine, but this is where it gets sticky. When God does choose us, he “doesn’t miss”; his choosing is “irresistible” – when God chooses you for salvation, you can’t resist him.  And since it’s irresistible and God is efficient, Jesus only dies for those God already chose. “Election” therefore, is the idea that since nobody can choose God, nor resist God, God “elected” or “chose” them before the foundations of the world to be “saved.” He chooses by grace, not by merit, I should add.)

I started to engage with the biblical idea of election in my late teen years.

I read and re-read Romans 9-11, Ephesians 1, and other similar sections wondering what it all meant and if I could believe in a God who “chose” some for heaven and some for hell. When I went to college I dabbled in calvinist theology and was eventually on staff at a church where the calvinist understanding of election was taught as orthodoxy. For a little while, I reluctantly embraced calvinist doctrine as most faithful to Scripture.

Over recent years, my stance has changed. What I’ve found is that most understandings of election are read through a thin eschatology of a disembodied heaven as God’s ultimate goal for the world, and a thin soteriology in which salvation has everything to do with arriving at this disembodied destination. In simple terms: being christian is all about securing your place in “heaven” after you die – a place far away from this world.

Things started to really shift when I read Karl Barth.

Barth was an important 20th century theologian who considered himself Calvinist, but in a unique way. He provided me with a new way of thinking about election. For Barth, Jesus is both the Elect one and the Reprobate (or condemned) one. Barth uses Calvinist categories but re-shapes them in a creative way. Jesus is the one that is both “accepted” (or elected) and “rejected.”

That got me thinking.

Barth’s rendition opened new doors for me to think more deeply about the biblical meaning of election.

An important shift in my thinking came when I started to consider the meaning of election in the Old Testament.

I learned that if you misread the story of Israel, you will misread a lot of important theological ideas like election or salvation, or even the so-called “end times.” Most of our contemporary ideas of what the bible says about election, salvation and the end of the world would be vastly foreign to what Abraham, David, and Jesus thought.

Foundational to election in the Old Testament is the calling of Abraham as the bearer of a new tribe, one that would exist for the sake of blessing other tribes.

This story comes to us at the climax of evil in the early stories of Genesis. The extent of humanity’s brokenness is both relational and societal. It’s revealed in the violence of the first two brothers and comes to a climax in the story of a babel: a story of societal domination.

If chapter 1 of the Israel story is about a good God creating a good creation, chapter 2 is about how things went wrong. And chapter 3 is about about God’s desire to bring things back to the way they’re supposed to be: good.

How? Election. God elects a people: Israel.

Abraham’s family becomes those through whom God would use to heal the world and bring it back to its intended goal. That goal illustrated by God’s calling to Adam and Eve to be stewards of creation, making it flourish, and taking it from “good” to “very good.”

Abraham wasn’t promised a spot in heaven.

Indeed heaven wasn’t on his mind at all–not in the way we westerners typically think of it. Just go through the psalms of David–he beleives that he will be in the place of the dead when he dies (“sheol”).

Abraham’s concern was the present world. And how God was using his tribe to make it good.

Christian “salvation” has a lot to do with getting us back on track on this mission. Getting us back to being faithful co-creators with God–the very thing he created Adam and Eve for. Abraham, and Israel is “chosen” or “elect” for this very mission, which is later handed to the ekklesia – those who gather to worship and follow Jesus.

So salvation and election has a lot to do with doing something than it does with getting somewhere. Let me illustrate:

When we think about election today, we know that election always has to do with performing a task. The President is not elected to merely relocate to the white house—that’s an added perk. Instead, he is elected for a task—i.e. to lead the country for it to flourish. He may do so successfully  or not.

When people use language of election to mean that God “chose” individuals to “go to heaven” they miss a large part of the Bible’s story. Not only is heaven not the ultimate goal (a renewed creation is), but the elect are chosen (by God, I will grant) for a special task to be the signposts of this goal through the life they live.

But just like in the Old Testament, the chosen or the elect can fail miserably. Yet God, in his grace, continues to invite all people to join him in his mission. Everyone’s invited. And everyone can choose to say yes or no (which is an idea so prevalent throughout Jesus’ teaching).

In comes Paul.

In the New Testament, Paul loves using the concept of election. He knows the story of Israel and of Abraham and talks about it at length here.

When Paul uses the language of election, he is thinking about Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the world. He is thinking about how God “chooses” ordinary people (including himself) to get the world back on track. To bring healing, wholeness, shalom, to a world tainted by the darkness of lies, injustice and dysfunction.

Now, for Paul, all those who put their faith in Jesus are the “elect” because it’s through trusting Jesus that the world could be “put to right” (N.T. Wright’s favourite phrase). It’s through trusting in Jesus that Adam and Eve’s task to be stewards of creation could be restored.

So much more can be said.

But here’s the big take away:

Election has little to do with where you go when you die. Election is a task–a task that is of course initiated by God himself in which we are invited to join. In Paul’s new idea of election, the church becomes the place of the elect – the place where those who trust in Jesus are formed in a new way of life. The church is not marked out by race anymore, but by trust (or faith) in Jesus. When you trust Jesus you become part of a new mission – you become “grafted” into the One who is Chosen (thanks Barth). And you are invited to be part of a way of life that bring healing and restoration to all parts of creation.

That’s good news.

The Challenge of Solitude

We are addicted to being busy.

In the western culture at least, we love to achieve, excel, and be persistently hurried to move on to the next thing. More than ever we need space to practice solitude, to be away from the noise, the frenzied lifestyle that renders us deaf to God’s gentle voice.

A couple weeks ago I went away for a a few days of silence and solitude. On my return I questioned whether I was supposed to feel more rested or not. I realized that in past experienced, I did feel rested, but not this time.

Indeed, the ancient christian practice of silence and solitude isn’t merely meant for us to find physical rest—it’s much bigger than that.

I’ve had times of solitude and silence in the past but this time around, it felt like I was riding a bicycle for the first time. It was a bit shaky, awkward, imbalanced and full of failure. It took some time for me to get into the right headspace. I kept doubting myself as to whether I was “doing it right.” Should I pray more? Read more? Eat less?

It was the first time in a long time—over a year—that I hadn’t had a time of silence and solitude, but I’m encouraged to know that like most spiritual disciplines, they get stronger and more fluid with practice. You start to know where the pedals are without looking, how to have the best possible posture for optimum balance, and you learn to get off and on as though the bike becomes an additional limb.  When the practice of solitude and silence becomes part of your rule and rhythm of life, you will get better at it.

Secondly,  I didn’t return from my day of solitude “rested” because of what solitude is actually for.  Henri Nouwen puts it best when he says that “solitude is the furnace of transformation.” When Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to be alone with the father, he encountered temptations and wild animals. Similarly, solitude is the place where we face our own devils—our pain, our guilt, our shame, our temptations—the things that God wants to set us free from. It’s a place of honest introspection, where everything comes out and we encounter the truth about who and where we really are.

This may be emotionally and physically burdensome.

Indeed, the place of solitude is a place where one might feel quite far from God, because they are coming to grips with their own godlessness.  In the classic book on contemplative prayer, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” the writer speaks of a “cloud” that seems to separate us from God when first seeking him in long  periods of contemplation, silence, and solitude. God may seem distant, far, even angry.

This is why Dallas Willard reminds us that  “we can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there.” Having our emotional trauma and baggage show up (when we thought we were done with it all) can be distressing both physically and emotionally—this is the “furnace” part that all transformation requires.

Henri Nouwen beautifully describes what silence and solitude with God can cause us to feel:

Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born…

In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing.

It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. 

But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive – or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory…

The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ (The Way of the Heart, p. 27-28).

This is the challenge of solitude: to make room for us to see our own need for Jesus and to truly trust him to make us new. Even when everything in us wants to run way, go to our usual comforts, and take matters in our own hands.

There’s a greater goal to solitude than rest—it’s trust.

Trust that God is not a far off punishing and angry God, but a close, loving father, who loves us too much to let us stay the way we are.

The challenge of solitude is the challenge of the furnace—the fire—of transformation.

Confessions of an Introverted Pastor

I sometimes get the feeling that being a pastor is like fitting a square peg in a round hole. It’s as if something’s not fitting right — something’s missing. The ideal pastor, in my mind, is someone who always want to be around people. He’s the spotlight performer, eloquent and articulate, with the right amount of witty. I’m not sure where I got this image, but it certainly hasn’t been the case for me or many pastors I know. Don’t get me wrong, I do love people, but at times I find myself too drained to be around others and unmotivated to help. In these moments I start to wonder if maybe I’m not cut out for this job. Maybe there’s someone else who should do what I’m doing, and maybe I need to find another path.

In the midst of these questions, which often go unanswered, three reminders help give me a new perspective:

Leadership isn’t supposed to be glamourous.

One of the most encouraging reminders when experiencing self-doubt is realizing that it is a normative experience for many prophets and leaders in the Bible. I think of Moses: the paradigmatic prophet-leader who, from the beginning, finds excuses not to do the job, and wants to give up along the way. Or there’s Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, called to a life of sadness for the sake of God’s people and the world. I think of many of the prophets, who in no way glamourized their job the way many self-proclaimed prophets do today. Elijah was depressed, and Jonah wanted to die after seeing his enemies repent (Jonah 4). God doesn’t condone this kind of behaviour but Biblical leaders often find themselves doing a job that they wish they didn’t have to do.

In some odd way, this is comforting.  Someone once told me that the pre-requisite to Christian leadership is not wanting it. In God’s pecking order, not wanting to have the spotlight makes you the perfect person for the spotlight. Maybe this has something to do with Jesus’ words about greatness and service.   Our culture celebrates leadership as something that sounds like a great idea, but they have no idea what they are up against. It’s not for no reason that leadership and loneliness are known to walk hand in hand. Leadership isn’t supposed to be glamourous.

People are sacred.

In my self-doubt I’ve discovered something so profound yet so simple. Christians always talk about how all people are created in God’s image, and are therefore worthy of respect. Usually what they mean is that people in some way reflect God because he created them. But I think we need to take it a step further: not only do humans reflect God, but God is in them.

If all things live and breathe and have their being in Jesus, and if Jesus is present and at work in every human being, then whenever we encounter a human, we experience a chance of encountering God. I’m not saying humans are God, but that God is in some mysterious way present in people, and that God reveals himself in our encounters with people. People are sacred. C.S. Lewis says it best:

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

When this occurred to me, I started to see people differently — and not just people I know, or Christians, but every living person, regardless of age, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Jesus spent a lot of his time with the rejects the renegades and the religious leaders. There wasn’t a speck of favoritism in him, and the idea that people are sacred runs through the whole of his teaching (Matthew 5:24).

I may not be special, but I am invaluable. 

This one is so deeply foundational to healthy ministry, and for me, probably the hardest one of all.

We all like the idea of being a unique snowflake with brilliant abilities. But in reality, the things you and I say and do are not that special at all.

Yet they infinitely matter.

This is a difficult tension to keep: 1) you are ordinary, 2) what you offer the world is incredibly valuable. I find myself wanting to share my opinion only when I think it’s the most creative and clever in the room.  I think it’s good for me to speak up only when what I have to say has never been said before.

Do you believe that what you have to say, no matter how ordinary and common and non-unique it is, truly matters? I think this is what meekness is all about. Meekness comes from an unwavering trust that I am deeply, and unconditionally loved, and that what I say and do, though average, is extremely important. If you don’t believe this in a healthy Gospel-informed way, you have no chance of loving others well. This is the fuel for loving others–you can’t give yourself to another if you don’t believe the “you” is worth giving. You’ll merely be giving out of an empty tank, and it will rob you of joy and make you resentful. The only love I can give to others flows from the reservoir of love that exists for myself.

These three reminders make a big difference for me. When I remember that leadership isn’t supposed to be glamourous, that people are sacred, and that thought I am just another person, what I have to say and offer matters in ways I can’t even imagine.

 

How to Start Your Craft

One of most important lessons I’m learning is to love my craft even when nobody cares.  Learning this lesson is an important first step in getting started on whatever it is you want to accomplish. One of the best and hardest advice I’ve heard on creativity is from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: write for yourself. He captures it well in this statement:

“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.”

When it comes to your craft, whatever it may be, your primary audience is you.

In a world where fame is the most praised sign of success, writing for yourself in an important lesson. Our world tells us that the only things that matter are things that get a lot of attention.  A mentor once asked me, “would you still write if only one person reads what you wrote?”   He spoke of a woman he admired for being committed to writing to her audience of three.  She valued the craft itself more than the little attention that came with it.

There’s something beautiful about someone who experiences her craft even when it doesn’t “succeed.”  There’s something innocent and childlike about it. We affirm it when we see it in children, who don’t really care about who admires their creativity.  After we’ve enjoyed the process for its own sake can we take the next step to share it with another, as a child does with her parents, or as a blogger does with the internet.

How many are kept every day from exploring their craft because they’ve equated importance to fame? There are many articles that I didn’t write and books I didn’t read because I didn’t think it mattered to enough people. We all have moments where we miss out on enjoying the process of creating and loving our craft because we believe that it only matters if it matters to a lot of people.

It is human to create, so do what you love, even when no one shows up.

What’s keeping you from exploring and creating something new?