Have Doubt? Mercy!

The Incredulity of St Thomas - Caravaggio, 1601-1602

The Incredulity of St Thomas – Caravaggio, 1601-1602

Everyone has doubts.  Believers have doubts of all kinds whether they admit them or not.  I have doubts even about some of the strongest convictions I possess. As in many things, there are two ditches on either side to fall into.

Often, doubt is seen as the deadly enemy of true faith.  If we have uncertainty then our faith is not strong or it is failing.  The existence of doubt, however, is not what makes or breaks true discipleship.  Rather it is how doubt is walked through, handled, wrestled with.  After the Lord’s rising, Thomas famously doubted the truth of it.  Instead of wallowing in doubt, Thomas sought after truth and ended up making an amazing confession:  My Lord and my God!  Doubt was not the antithesis of his faith but was part of his path of discipleship.  Doubting Thomas becomes Saint Thomas after all.  So we need not avoid or deny struggles with doubt we may have.  The struggling part, though, is not to be overlooked.

Jesus does not condemn Thomas’ uncertainty, but neither does he commend it.  The second ditch to fall into is a notion that to doubt or be uncertain is somehow to be more authentic or “real”.  Sometimes an aura of depth is cast upon the one who is perpetually in doubt – that’s depth as in, “oh that’s so deep, man!”  Christian books are written lionizing doubt, and a virtue is made of never being certain of God or truth.  These books are trendy (or at least were in 2008 or so).  I fear, though, that this is a false virtue and a cheap illusion of depth.  Thomas’ virtue is in his confession after doubt – not in perpetually staying in it.  As Matthew Milliner pointed out (in probably the best blog post ever – READ IT!) wrestling with difficult questions is “…called normative Christian maturation” but “perpetuating those questions indefinitely, however, is another thing entirely: Frozen adolescence.” 

The Bible does not condemn doubt and Thomas’ path shows that.  But neither does it commend it as though it were,  in and of itself  a mystical state.

The apostle James has nothing nice to say about doubt:  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;  he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:6-8).

And what does the Apostle Jude prescribe for doubt and doubters?  Mercy. (v22)  As a pastor who chats with those, inside and outside my congregation, I always must remember to be merciful on doubts, uncertainty, and wrestling matches with difficult questions.  Always reminding myself that this could be someone’s path to greater maturity or to the loss of vibrant faith.  And that I could be wrestle with the same sort in my own walk with God.

Does it ever occur to us though, when we doubt, to ask for mercy?  Rather than condemn or congratulate ourselves for it?

Truth & Reconciliation – and Prayer

T&RC

What follows is roughly what I shared as some pastoral commentary this Sunday with my own congregation, The King’s Fellowship.

This has been an historic week for Canada wherein the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been released.  They, of course, address the residential school system that has been, and remains, a blight on our national heritage.  Our own city, Winnipeg, is at the centre of these historic events.  It is critical that Christians are aware of this cultural moment and respond with prayer for victims and for our country.

The report findings and recommendations have been made public.  Justice Murray Sinclair, an altogether impressive man, has said: “we have led you to the mountain, we’ve shown you the path, now you must climb”*  The report is a challenge that Canada must respond to.  The specific recommendations can be discussed/debated and perhaps should be but that is to be done by those better qualified than myself.  What I can say is that while all Canadians should be made aware of the T&RC, those of us of Christian faith should embrace a special duty.  At this historical juncture – why shouldn’t we pray for the healing of our nation(s)?

The residential school system is the shame of our entire country.  We shouldn’t step back from acknowledging the Christian role in this system.  It was not just bad public policy.  Churches participated and that was bad evangelization, bad theology, bad methods, with a bad outcome.  We ought to pray for mercy.

And yet the Gospel message should both correct the bad that came before and be of present help now.  The Gospel, the good news of Jesus, has truth and reconciliation at heart of its message.  It has the truth of who God is and the truth of the human fallen condition.  It offers reconciliation between humanity and our Creator.  By implication it brings reconciliation between women and men to one another.

Now both sides of this issue in Canada need truth and reconciliation.  Even if no one is Christian on either side, God’s common grace can extend.  We can pray for truth to come forth and for reconciliation to happen between the First Nations and the rest of Canada.  We can pray that as the people who have experienced the ultimate truth and ultimate reconciliation.

Tree of life - City of GodWe can also bear in mind the end, the goal, of the Gospel. That is, the coming City of God.  We await a renewed society of perfect peace and justice, where perfect truth and complete reconciliation exist between us and our Creator, and between all the redeemed.  The Apostle John describes this City of God in the final scene of the entire Bible.  He tells what lies at the City’s centre – the Tree of Life.  And we’re told that …the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:2)  In light of that final hope, we can pray for the healing of the nation of Canada and for the 600+ First Nations in our country.  Sin remains and so complete healing of the world will not happen until then.  We can, however, pray for partial but profound healing in our lifetimes.  If we care to read the findings and recommendations of the T&RC, we’ll know we need that healing.

 

 

 

* this is a paraphrase from memory of what I heard Justice Sinclair say on CBC radio.  It may not be an exact quote.

Who Am I? vs Who Are You?

How do we respond to God properly?  How do we respond with thankfulness and not with presumption?  How does our response show how we have received (or not received) His grace?

"I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord..." King David Playing the Harp, Gerard von Honthorst, 17th C

“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord…”
King David Playing the Harp, Gerard von Honthorst, 17th C

King David was a man of many failures.  Also, he had many high points in his relationship with God.  Perhaps that is why he can be of such help to us as we all struggle/stumble/trip/fall/get back up in our pursuit of God.

2 Samuel 7 records an amazing prayer of thankfulness that David prayed God makes covenant with him.  It is well worth meditating upon but the first line jumps off the page.

Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?

This is how to pray.  This is prayer to God that understands his grace.  And when we understand God’s grace, our disposition to Him will be similar.  When we don’t, it tends to veer to the opposite.

Who am I?   David prays with total humble thankfulness.  He knows that he deserves nothing from God.  Why?  Because he remembers where he’s from and that it was God’s grace alone that brought him to where he is.  He is King (no small achievement).  he has had success (by God’s power).  And he knows that everything is his life is a gift (it’s this way for us all).  He has a low view of himself and his efforts – not in a low self-esteem way but a healthy way.  He has no sense of entitlement.  He is at the top of his life and knows he doesn’t deserve.  God’s grace has made him amazed, thankful, and reverently worshipful.  He gives all the glory to God.  This is a response of one who has a sense of God’s grace.

Who are You?  Without a grasp of grace, we will either become arrogant in ourselves or will turn demanding of God.  Instead of an amazed ‘who am I?’, we may begin to ask God ‘who are you?’.  Not in a searching, seeking way but in a demanding way.  We believe that God owes us something – for our good behaviour, or just because we’re entitled to a good life.  But we’re not.  Everything comes as a gift from God.  When we forget that, our amazed thankfulness will turn to demand.  And because the life we want is rarely the life we get, we could doubt God’s goodness or blame Him in some way.  Who are You? we could ask, demanding that He give the life we desire.

God’s grace given to the undeserving is the heart of Christian faith and a key to the amazed, worshipful, and thankful soul.

Why Should a Church Help Clean the Neighbourhood?

good posterThis Saturday is a community clean-up organized by the neighbourhood in which sits our Church building.  This year we’re taking part – both by encouraging bodies to help out and with a little funding.

Why?  Why is the perennially important question for anything so it’s important to ask it here.  Why should a local Church participate (enthusiastically by the way) in a neighbourhood clean-up?

This post (a repost from a year ago) is mainly for my own congregation’s benefit to help us focus on why we would expend effort on something like this.  Not that we’re cynical or resistant to the idea, by and large, but just to help us be clear.  But if you’re a reader from elsewhere, there might some pearls in it for you too.

So why is The King’s Fellowship participating?  How about for three reasons:

1)  For Us.  We’re doing it in order to help us.  We need opportunities to serve others and taking part together in something like this is to that end.  Many people in the congregation serve wonderfully in their own neighbourhoods and social circles.  It should never be suggested that we are not a serving people.  But corporately, as a congregation, there has never been a strong history of King’s doing service together.  So we need practice at that.  This Saturday is an opportunity for that.  Participating for one Saturday may not seem like a big deal – it’s not! – but it could be a step toward more ways to corporately serve.  Plus, it will be fun!  As someone who used to work in West Broadway take it from me; this community knows how to make stuff fun.  We’ll take part and we’ll be build community amongst ourselves.

2)  For Evangelism.  Picking up garbage with our neighbours is evangelism?  No, it’s not.  It is service.  Evangelism is when we speak the words of the Good News to someone and plead, persuade, and appeal to them to repent and believe.  Evangelism isn’t service but it can be helped by service.  Our Church has owned a building in this neighbourhood for years.  People could come to faith through our witness.  But they need to know we’re here first.  Serving is a way to let our neighbours know that we’re here and that we want to serve them (and serve with them) in Jesus’ name.  In addition to being an intrinsic good on its own, serving can be a way of ‘earning the right to be heard’.  This, I suspect Christians will learn in the decades ahead, is even more important as suspicion of traditional Christianity rises around us.  Picking up garbage this Saturday is a way to get to know our neighbours, be seen helping alongside with their common concerns.  No pressure to ‘share the Gospel’.  We’re there to serve.  But let me just share what a community leader told me once.  I told him that “propagating our faith is always a top priority for us”.  He smiled and replied:  “Hey, we’re all people.  We may see the world in different ways, but if people see you taking part, maybe they’ll be more open to your beliefs”.   Wise words.

3)  As A Stepping Stone To Something More.  One of my constant prayers for my congregation is that God would give us one or two unique ways to serve our neighbours.  That’s an important prayer because WB is a community which has lots of needs but also lots of people, programs, and organizations (both religious and non) who are already meeting those needs.  We don’t want to be redundant and run, for example, a healthy breakfast club or food bank when those things are already being done competently by others.  We also don’t want to shirk responsibility either.  We are to be a city on a hill after all.  It is important to not parachute in with our plans and agendas to help out.  We need to come alongside and participate in what is already going on.  We need to be servants and act like missionaries where we’ve been planted.  We need to not come in wearing our T-shirts but to wear theirs. *Psst, this isn’t just a metaphor – there’s a free t-shirt in it for you!*  If my prayer for one or two specific ways to serve is going to be answered, it almost certainly won’t be answered while sitting still.  If we take part in something as simple as this clean-up , and keep on for maybe a few years, we will be learning, making connections, becoming comfortable with our neighbours, and they with us.  Then, who knows what could come of it?  Oh wait, God knows!  Let’s participate and be in prayer.

ISIS, Martyrdom, Fear, and the Hope of Christ

Screen grab from Al-Jazeera television.

Screen grab from Al-Jazeera television.

Yesterday, ahead of the weekly sermon, I said a few words about recent events where 21 Egyptians were beheaded on a beach in Libya.  The executioners were ISIS affiliates.  The victims were self-identified Christians.  It is important that we face and at least try to address some current issues from the viewpoint of those who embrace the Gospel.  Here is a paraphrase of what I shared on Sunday:

 

We are trying, in addition to preaching, to make some brief pastoral commentary on issues that are current in our world.  This week, on a beach in Libya, 21 Egyptians were beheaded by ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State.  Many of us will have known of this through the news.  This is not new or the only such event but because of the imagery it serves as emblematic of such violence happening these days.  So for a few minutes, I’d like to just comment on that.

ISIS – I’d like to say a few words about ISIS.  They are a group that is motivated by their religious ideology and they believe that they are brining history to its conclusion.  They are not just a bunch of “wackos” but are acting upon a very coherent view of the world and of their own actions.  I’ll post (Graeme Wood, The Atlantic) probably the best article I’ve found on their background and beliefs.  It’s not a politically driven article, neither is it from a polarizing magazine.  If you’re interested you should read it.  It is difficult in our culture, being couched in comfort and secularism as we all are, to believe in such things.  But as Christians, we have a basis and foundation for belief in real evil – even religious evil.  ISIS is without doubt an example of a deeply religious evil.

*  Of course, it needs to be said that most Muslims in Canada are our friends and neighbours.  Also, most Muslims in the world can live in peace with us.  Most victims of ISIS are Muslims.  We need to remember our friends and neighbours both locally and globally and to pray for their prosperity, peace, and safety.

 

VICTIMS – A few words now about the victims of this event.  They were Egyptian Coptic Christians who practice a very different version of Christianity than us.  But they were killed because of their association with Christ – they died because they would not renounce Him.  This  makes them martyrs and martyrdom is not new.  If we’ve forgotten the call to follow Christ often involves this than we must allow a rebuke to fall upon us.  We have too much comfort, too much secular influence.

US –  So what about us?  When we watch or read of such events, I think we either go numb or feel shaken.  Neither of those is good.  I’m going to pray for us in moment – to be strengthened – to be faithful.  ISIS deliberately wants us to feel they are in charge of history.  This is their religious motivation.  Our own secularized culture wants us to understand this as something else; merely political or some other social phenomena.  We must not go numb and we must not be shaken or give in to fear.  So I will say one more thing that will correct us, comfort us, anchor us.

THE LORD – Our confession is that it is the Lord, the Triune God, who is in charge of history.  And Jesus is the Lord, the King of world, the Lord of all the Earth.  His way is justice, peace, love.  His way only looks weak, but in fact He is strong.  There is a conclusion to history and He will bring it – no other.  ISIS is not in charge of history, Jesus is.  As Christians we confess Him and while we can not predict how or when the conclusion to history will come, we must have hope in our confession.  We can have real hope.  The last book of our Bible was written to give us hope and to show us that Christ is the Master of History.  There are many interpretations to that last book but if we read Revelation and don’t find hope and confidence – we’re reading it wrong.  The Lord is in charge – no other.

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So we must have confidence in our confession and we must pray.

We must pray for mercy for our enemies.  This is what Jesus commanded and taught us to do.

We must also pray for God’s justice to come.  This is equally part of New Testament teaching.  (O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood…)  

We must pray for all our neighbours (in mind here are Muslims locally and globally) for peace and safety for them.

We must pray for all those who suffer for the sake of association with Jesus.  Their suffering and even death teaches and sometimes rebukes us.  We must pray for strength and faith for them.  We can also pray for their safety and peace.

For ourselves we must pray against fear and complacency.  And pray for confidence in our confession that Jesus is the Master of History and the Lord of all the Earth.

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For more on this issue:

What ISIS Really Wants – Graeme Wood, The Atlantic.  Wood writes a very lengthy analysis into the beliefs of ISIS and how they differ from other forms of Islam.  This article is vital if one wants to understand the headlines.

The Briefing from February 18, 2015 – Dr Al Mohler (audio).  Al Mohler is a Baptist theologian who addresses the recent beheadings on his daily podcast.  His commentary is helpful.

A Biblical Meditation on the ISIS execution of 21 Christians – Tom Schreiner.  Schreiner gives some Scriptural reflections on the recent events.

Misguided Compassion, the “Right” to Die, and the Christian Response

Heart Rate

This past Sunday, I took a few moments to make some commentary on the recent decision by our Supreme Court to strike down the ban on physician assisted suicide.  Here is a rough paraphrase of what I touched upon.

 

We have been trying to make some brief commentaries about current issues during our gatherings.  And so before I begin my sermon I’d like to make a few comments about the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in which they struck down the ban on assisted suicide.

Maybe you didn’t know about it, maybe you didn’t care, maybe you were troubled by it, maybe you’re wondering why it’s a big deal.

It needs to be said that this decision, and the public support behind it, is motivated by compassion.  There are many people suffering in our country and it is right and compassionate to want to end suffering.  Compassion is good but in this issue the compassion is seriously misguided.

We must all seek to diminish suffering.  The classic Christian moral tradition, which we inherit, has always asserted that we must never eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferer.  This is because every life is precious, worthy of protection, not because of conditions or circumstances but just because it is a human life.

We should be concerned for several reasons:

1)  That this “right” will soon become an obligation.  Sufferers may soon face pressure to make what some will consider the “brave choice”.  Likewise, those who choose to continue living may be increasingly seen as being a burden.

2)  Christianity has always looked out for the most vulnerable of our society.  For us, these are namely the aged, the mentally ill, the marginalized, and the disabled.  We are promised safeguards for physician assisted suicide but the terms are vague, subjective, and do not inspire confidence.  The most vulnerable among us may well be placed in a precarious situation.

3)  When the door to this kind of death is opened, we have no way to stop where it may go.  This concern is often dismissed as a ‘slippery slope argument’ but we need only look to some places in Europe – Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark – to see what abuses are already occurring.

4)  Finally, we should be concerned that other avenues for alleviating suffering such as investment in hospice care and palliative research will be diminished.  These have only just begun to be explored.

We also have a different resource than some of our neighbours for resisting this false compassion.  We have a framework into which we can place the virtue of compassion.  We believe and follow God, the Author of all life.  We believe in the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus which makes us His people.  This Gospel message gives us every resource we need to live in times such as these.  It may be that in the years to come, those who stand for a culture of life will sound increasingly like a voice crying in the wilderness.  But we ought not to be troubled, we have been appointed to live in times like these.  The age we live in, with all its confusion and troubles, is a gift to us.  It gives us a chance to live like saints in the midst of society.  So let’s be firm, not be troubled, and hear the call to live like saints in our world and in our neighbourhoods.  And let us always stand for life.

For more commentary:

Why Assisted Suicide Will Put Canada’s Most Vulnerable At Risk – Steve Swan (yours truly), CBC

Our Euthanasia Point of No Return – Father Raymond J. de Souza

A Very Dangerous Euthanasia Ruling – Alex Schadenberg

Crossing the Rubicon, Supreme Court seems eerily complacent about ramifications of assisted suicide ruling – Andrew Coyne

Bruce Clemenger on 100 Huntley Street (video) – Bruce Clemenger of the EFC

 

 

Thinking and Responding to Muslims

Minarets

Interaction with Islam and Muslims is important for Christians to think about these days – especially given the climate of the world of just the last few weeks.

John Dickson – a pastor and Christian leader from Australia – has written a pastoral letter to his congregation which is worthy of wider readership and reflection.

The beauty of his admonition is that he avoids looking Islam with rose-coloured glasses – think of all “the religion of peace” stuff.  And he avoids the twin mistake of seeing Islam as universally violent and threatening.  Westerners, Dickson says,tend to impose their own imaginings onto Islam. Following September 11 years ago, and again more recently, people seem to break into two camps: those that rush to condemn Muslims per se as violent and poisonous, and those that defend Islam as a perfectly loving, non-retaliatory, democratic religion.”  

But Dickson also makes clear that most Muslims we meet in the Western world share many of the desires we do.  “I have no doubt that almost all the Muslims we’re likely to meet in Sydney [insert Winnipeg, or wherever else here] wish us no harm. They want what we want—health, safety, education, and a future for their kids.”  This is acknowledging that we have shared common ground with our Muslim neighbours and should seek fruitful co-citizenship.

But best of all, is his desire for personal connection.  Common sense and Christian faith urge us to shun both a naïve recasting of Islam as the mirror-image of liberal democracy, and a hateful projection of our own tribalism onto Australian [or Canadian] Muslims. Instead, let’s go out of our way in the coming weeks and months to pray for the Muslims around us and to convey love and friendship toward them.”  Make friends, seek the common good of all, be good neighbours, have conversations.  I, personally, have never had a conversation with a Muslim who has not wanted to talk about God with me.  Why can’t we seek to understand one another, and share the radical Good News of Jesus?

Dickson’s pastoral is brief, balanced, biblical, and heartfelt.  I agree with almost everything in it and encourage people to read it.

A Letter To My Church About Islam – John Dickson