Saturday, September 24, 2022

 Dialogue With an Atheist Pt 4

The answer to prayer that I shared with my unbelieving friend was not really the issue. It was an incident in my life that I shared with him. He spurned it, as if I offered that story as slam dunk evidence for God’s existence. There is a difference between scientific certainty (the kind that enables me to safely assume that 2+2=4) and the things I believe. The word, ‘believe’ in itself, denies that kind of certainty. We don’t say “I believe 1 and 1 equals 2.”
I believe that was an answer to prayer. I do not hold it up as slam-dunk proof.

 A Dialogue With an Atheist (Pt 3)

Part 3
First, I must share the story of the lost keys so that you understand how humanly improbable this was. (Our folks at CGC might remember this. I shared it with them the next Sunday). As a Pastor of a downtown church in Toronto, I was given a set of keys along with a solemn warning. Those keys were expensive, and should I lose them, we might have to change locks on several doors, and then outfit all keyholders with a new set of keys, electronic fobs and all. One Friday night, after an evening of fellowship I realized once I arrived at home that I no longer had my church keys. I searched everywhere for them. I was hesitant to pray about this because it seemed too trivial an issue and besides, I don’t deserve an answer to prayer because my prayer life is so inadequate (Is it ever adequate?)
Nevertheless I pray. Sunday morning I arrive at church. Thankfully the music team has arrived first and the doors are open already. Our worship service begins at 9:30. At 10:40 or so, everyone spills out onto the sidewalk for a break. The sidewalk is full of people; tourists going by (we are in the heart of Chinatown) and worshippers mingling. I need to go from one building to another, so I manage to push through the crowd. In the thick of all that, I see a homeless looking old man shuffling through the mass, and as he passes me, I hear him mutter under his breath to no one in particular, “found some keys.” I didn’t pick up what he said until after I entered the building next door, and I pulled up short. Did he just say “found some keys?”
I rushed back outside, and he was still shuffling his way eastward on Dundas, past the thick of the crowd now. I ran to catch up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me. Did you say you found some keys?”
“Yes. Friday night.” Hope sprouted wings. “Where did you find them?”
“Over there”, he said pointing at the bus shelter in front of our church.
“Do you still have them? Can I see them?”
“Sure. But they are at my place.”
So he wasn’t homeless. “Where do you live?” I ask. “Just down this street”
“Would you please get them and bring them to me?” I couldn’t offer to go with him. Our next service was about to start. I was really hoping he would remember to come back.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, he came back and there were my keys.
A man not related to anyone in our church, shuffled by our church, walked through our sidewalk crowd, and would not know who to talk to among the 75-100 people on the sidewalk that day, not having the express purpose of returning the keys and not knowing that they were church keys. I, the loser of the keys just ‘happened’ to be on the sidewalk the exact moment he was walking by, and heard him muttering under his breath.
My friend of course wrote this off as a coincidence. The only smart aleck rejoinder I had in response was “Funny thing, the more I pray, the more coincidences I see.” To which of course, he rolls his eyes and cites a controlled study of an experiment that was done of a prayer team who prayed for a number of patients on a certain ward and did not pray for a different ward. Apparently it made no difference. Rates of improvement were the same. A nice but kinda silly ‘what aboutism’.
Part 4 coming soon…

A Dialogue with an Atheist

Part 2
Please see my previous post about my atheist friend’s question in order to provide context for this post.
Here is the beginning of my response (I cannot remember how I responded to my erstwhile friend). I don’t believe providing answers to troublesome questions of this sort helps very much. Even if they were answered satisfactorily, my buddy would replace the question with 100 others. Often we would move on to other topics to seek common ground.
He first became known to me in the basement of our church where we fed people under the “Out of the Cold” program in downtown Toronto. It was surprising to find someone in that crowd who had read Hitchens, Dennet and Dawkins as well as the Bible. We agreed to meet regularly for coffee and discussions. So my first point is that relationship (and not as a “method” of evangelism either) is far more valuable than a strong philosophical answer.
I loved that man - what there was of him. I say that because as smart as he was, his humanity seemed to have shriveled to the point where he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate beauty in the arts or anywhere else. Everything could be understood through a syllogism, algorithm or the sciences. He insisted that love was only transactional (all wives were merely prostitutes who exchange their bodies for benefits and all men use them that way) and our friendship felt very one sided to me. Being truly gracious was an illusion. We are gracious because we get rewarded either through the dopamine hit or promise of reward in the future. He was using me to bolster his assumptions about life and worldview and I was aware of that.
One of the great ironies here - At the same time, he wished out loud to me several times that his drug-addicted son would convert to Christianity, because he would see the good that it would be for him. He admitted that Christianity was valuable in that it did change lives for the better; whether it was true or not didn’t matter to him. The son never gave his Dad permission to introduce me to him.
On my next post, I will begin to address the question itself.

A Dialogue With an Atheist

While living in Toronto, an atheist and I would meet once every two weeks for a coffee and a chat. Sometimes the chats were insignificant; other times they were intense. On one occasion we talked about answered prayer. I told him how I had lost my keys and after praying, found them again in a most implausible way. He then shared a story of how his mother had left her purse on a city bus, had prayed about it and at the end of the day, a transit employee called her to let her know her purse had been turned in to the lost and found. He mocked any possibility of this as an answer to prayer and wrote it off (as well as my example) as total coincidence. Furthermore, he held up the fact that the same day that his mama dared to presume that God cared about her purse with its relatively meaningless contents, hundreds of mothers on the other side of the world who also cried out to God lost their babies to starvation. “What kind of God does that” he asked with a flourish, as if he had hit a home run.

Christian, how would you answer?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Thoughts on Discipleship

 I have been reading The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. He is no longer on earth, but I have read some of his other work (on the Spiritual Disciplines) and find much of what he has to say thought provoking and real.

I have never been intentionally discipled by an individual. I want to invite you to think this through with me..

Basically, this is the question that I use as a basis for discipleship in my life. (Willard uses the word 'apprentice' a lot. I kinda like that.)  In Jesus' day, He would approach a prospective disciple and simply say "Follow me."

What does it look like for us to follow Him in the year 2020? He is not physically present. It's not about travelling from Nazareth to Jerusalem and surrounding areas, as it was for his then disciples. But just imagine what that must have been like!  You would get to watch Jesus interact with all kinds of people.
Important people, rich people, sick people, poor people, religious leaders.
Just to observe Him, and to listen to Him teach - what an experience that must have been?

But we might be getting ahead of ourselves.

What does it mean for you to follow Jesus, now that He is invisible to us, but available to a much larger number of people through his ever-present Holy Spirit. ?  What did the beginning of that journey look like? Let me see your comments.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What is a Christian to Do?

When I first joined Facebook I thought it would be a wonderful tool to help me keep in touch with my family as my grandchildren grow up. It would also reconnect me with friends I had from decades ago. As my list of friends grew, my newsfeed got busier, and soon the content changed. People and organizations had agendas that were pushed onto the newsfeeds. News articles replaced personal updates. I joined in with enthusiasm by contributing links to news articles I thought interesting or significant.Sometimes I would risk losing a Facebook friend by unleashing Snopes on their fake news. 

But these days it is becoming next to impossible to discern the difference between fake news, genuine news or an emotional opinion piece that passes as news. Even our mainstream news channels continue to provide “alternate facts”. Anxiety is bubbling over everywhere. Positions are taken that are either black or white. Friends and even families are expressing disagreement with each other. There is little room for anything in between. Saner voices are drowned out and overwritten. 
What is most concerning to me are the Christian voices on Facebook that don’t sound very Christian. Those who are meant to have their ‘feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace’ are using their keyboards to sound out a message of hostility. Again and again I see items from Christian newsfeeds that serve no purpose but to heighten fear and to polarize people. 
 May I leave you with a challenge?

a. With those sounds of hostility, you are pushing moderate Muslims into the arms of the radical Muslims. It is a known fact that Muslims who come to Christ come mainly because a Christian befriends them and demonstrates a lifestyle that takes them by surprise because it is gracious and it contradicts the stereotype of Christianity that they have been taught. By constantly posting anti-Muslim rhetoric, you are reinforcing the stereotype that they have been taught from the time they were children.
b. For decades Christians have tried to get into Muslim lands to proclaim the gospel there, and some have lost their lives doing so. Now God is bringing them to our shores. How is it that Christians are the ones expressing fear over this?? God is doing this, and we ought to be rejoicing. We ought to be learning how to befriend them. How many of you have learned how to share the gospel with a Muslim?

c. Let’s get back to what we know will transform hearts and lives ; i.e. the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He promised to give us life to the full. Let’s act like we have that life, and let’s let our joy and freedom become obvious, in our facebook posts as well as in our daily lives.

d. You say you believe in the sovereignty of God? Then stop being so afraid. Stop reacting to every hiccup. God has ordained the powers that be. He is moving things towards the fulfillment of His purposes, and no one can ‘stay his Hand.’ He will determine when it is closing time, and no one else. Let’s act and live like we really believe in His sovereignty and that He is in charge of the end times.

e. We have had it good for a long time in the West. What? Did you think this would last forever? Did you think North America would escape the judgment of God? We have built up a huge moral debt with our profligacy and our consumerism. Society is flaunting God’s laws at every turn now. This cannot happen without divine consequences. And Christians will have to live through times of national judgment.

f. “Be anxious for nothing”… remember those words? They were written to Christians in an era when Christianity was officially illegal under the governance of the Roman Emperors. In fact, Christians were exhorted to be submissive to the very emperor who was persecuting them. Should we not do the same? How about learning how to bless those who persecute, and to pray for our enemies; in fact learn how to love them. Didn’t Jesus say that even the Pharisees love those who love them. But he expects us to be wonderfully different from those in the world.

g. Let’s get back to the great Commission and the great Commandment. That’s our primary obligation as disciples of Christ. Not the disruption of governance, whether good or bad. We cannot change hearts. But we can show people our changed hearts. And if Christ is seen there, who knows what can happen?

Thursday, January 09, 2014

What Compelled Them to Stay?

In John 6, Jesus taught some things that were extremely difficult for many of his followers to accept. We are told that many of his disciples deserted him at that point. Jesus then turned to the remaining twelve and asked them, "Will you also go away?"  

What was so compelling about the words of Jesus that causes Peter to say, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." What is there in the foregone discussion that helps us understand why Peter would say this? What are the words of eternal life? What was it that compelled them and yet simultaneously drove so many others away? After all, anyone can opine about eternal life. Clearly, there was something powerfully compelling that drew these disciples with such force that they left vocation and family to follow a man from a peasant family all over their country of Palestine.

It is a Divine compulsion
There is a mysterious aspect to the process of becoming a genuine follower of Christ over which a world of books has been written. Jesus tells us that his Father decides who comes to Christ and He (or His Spirit) is the One who compels them. This is difficult for some to accept, but accept it we must because there are no alternative interpretations. The words are easy enough to interpret. Jesus tells us about this Divine compulsion in three different ways in this chapter.

"All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." 

Does God own me prior to me becoming His follower? Is it His prerogative to own you and to "give you" to the Son without your say so?  Why yes, He does. Even though one may not even believe in the existence of a Saviour or a God, humans are His by virtue of creation. We are all His. I am created and sustained by Him through all the years that I have existed. All who have been given to Christ by the Father will come to Him. Those who come will find themselves drawn to Christ.

Jesus reinforces this concept in verse 44 and again in verse 65. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him"

These are astonishing words. These words reveal that humans are incapable of becoming Christ followers without the Father's involvement.  How often I have shared what I thought was quite a simple and compelling case for the truth of the gospel, and the person I am speaking with will respond with blind indifference.  "I just don't see it. I don't see things the way you do."

But why? Why are we incapable of deciding on our own to become followers of Christ?

Those disciples who deserted Christ came to him in the first place, not because they saw their spiritual need for the Living Bread, but because they saw in Jesus someone who could fit their agenda. i.e. "Jesus would make a good political leader, I will invest my time and resources in following him, and maybe we can finally kick the Romans out of our land."

Or "If I follow Jesus, I can get some free lunches every time he does a miracle, and my family will be provided for"

Or "Maybe if I follow Jesus, He will heal my hurts."

So many of us see Jesus the same way we see our dentist. When we hurt or have a need, we make an appointment and go see the dentist, but aside from that appointment, we have very little engagement with him.

Alternatively, we follow him zealously, hoping that our devotion and obvious commitment and service will make a favourable impression on Him and perhaps He will take notice and return some of that kindness and grant us wealth, or a few kindred favours.

As soon as Jesus told these fair-weather disciples what His agenda was, they rejected Him and they all went home to resume their lives.

Why were they not compelled to stay like the 12? They were deaf, dumb and blind to the words of eternal life that the genuine followers heard. But why? The brute reality is that apart from the influence of the Holy Spirit, we are spiritually dead and therefore insensitive to the "words of eternal life". Can it be that because of our human nature, we simply are incapable of seeing our need for genuine repentance? It would be as impossible for us to experience that as it is impossible for a dog to sprout wings and fly. That is why we need to be born again.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thinking Christianly About our Mayor

Thinking Christianly About our Mayor

In the last few months, our city has been beleagured by news about our Mayor that has given talk show hosts and journalists plenty of fodder. Twitter is all a-flutter and one can't avoid the topic on Facebook. Every time we turn on the news, we see another depiction of a grown man who is either enraged, drunk out of his gourd or making sad excuses for his behaviour.

Christians have reacted in different ways. Those with an over developed sense of compassion cannot abide any criticism of him. I saw one person responding to a Charles Adler column about our mayor in which he had mispelled a word.  She criticised him for the mispelling and suggested that he learn how to spell before criticising others, as if a spelling mistake was morally equivalent to drunkennes, lying, morbid obesity and smoking crack. Many of those Christians in my city who help make up Ford Nation are standing by their man because they are conservative and helped vote him into office and are trying hard to overlook everything else. Talk about an elephant in the room!

 Others are reacting almost in glee at the revelation of yet another embarrassing episode of this broken man and provide us with links to news articles, in case we have missed it.

What are we as Christians to make of this whole affair? How do we respond in a Christ-like manner?

1. We are, and always have been, obligated to pray for Rob Ford. To pray for a man in office does not mean we endorse his politics, so whether you are Conservative, Liberal or NDP, your first loyalty is to Christ, and Him we must obey who commanded us in His word to pray for those in leadership. Pray that God would have mercy on this man and his family and would lead him to a place of profound repentance and conversion to Christ. If ever we had a living example of a fallen man who is in need of transformation, this is it.

2. We must learn that civic leadership is about more than the money. It is about exemplary character. Perhaps because it has been a long time since we have seen exemplary character in the mayoral office that we have forgotten this salient point, but it becomes a stark point that is brought home to us powerfully when there is an abject failure of character in that office. We cannot simply repeat the mantra that Ford has "stopped the gravy train" or that he is saving us  tax dollars, as if money is our ultimate value. Wealth retention is NOT the Christian's ultimate value. Righteousness is.

How many drug addicts today have sunk even lower in their self-justified rationalizations because of the example of our mayor? How many have even less respect for the law, after seeing the leader of our city treat our laws with such flagrant disregard? What kind of impact does an example like this do to the countless number of adolescents whose values are not yet formed and who have no strong examples at home?  The potential for damage done to these young lives cannot be measured. Character still matters. If the mayor's office is just about reigning in expenses, we could have simply appointed an accountant to the office. Why didn't we? Because that office is about far more than saving the taxpayer dollars.

3. To call on him to step aside in order to get help is not an unchristian thing to do. If as a pastor I were guilty of a gross moral failure, stepping aside if not completely stepping down while working on the essentials of restoration is the only right thing to do. A desire to hang on to power and control is only further evidence of the dysfunction that leads to moral failure anyway.

4. Pity the man, but if you voted against him, let's stop the Schadenfreude (enjoying someone else's demise). One day God will have the last word and He is the ultimate Judge who does everything right. One of the most oft misappropriated verses in the Bible is that verse where the Lord tells us not to judge, lest we be judged with the same measuring stick that we ourselves have used. This is NOT a prohibition against speaking out against public drunkenness or getting stoned on illegal substances. In fact the children of our city need to hear this message loud and clear as they watch the videos and read the news - No - this behaviour is NOT okay.

5. Recognize with humility that we are all made of the same stuff. We tend to demonize those who are caught in gross sin. We do this to assure ourselves that we are very unlike them. But this is a deception. Quite the opposite is true. We are all made out of clay. We all have the same capacity to sin and wickedness.

6. Move on. The news channels, talk show hosts and the comedy circuits will continue to show the same news clips and videos time and time again. There is an episode in the Bible where the sons of Noah walked into their father's tent backwards with a blanket to cover their father's shame. Whatever else was going on there, it was the right thing to do. Let's not be party to the ongoing embarrassment and shame of another human being. I am not saying that we ought to cover up sin, but we should not contribute to the shame of the man. He has plenty of that by his own doing. He doesn't need our help. Let's look away. and let's look up to where our real help and leadership comes from.

Monday, June 28, 2010

We Can Do Nothing

Picking up the theme of my previous post, written a number of months ago, I have to tell about an experience I had yesterday. We were saying our farewells to a number a visitors to our worship service.

It had been an extraordinary time of worship and celebration. One of the missionaries we support is a Wycliffe Bible translator. Our church has known her for over 35 years, and her family is deeply embedded in the DNA of our church. She had just come home after completing the translation of the New Testament into the Maithili language, a tongue spoken by a people group of 22 million people in Nepal and India. This was an historic occasion, and we celebrated it with her and many of her acquaintances and relatives present with us.

As I was standing near the exit where people say there good-byes and God bless yous to the preacher, one gentleman stopped to commend me on the emphasis I gave in my prayers (there was no sermon on this day). He said, "You are right. We can do absolutely nothing. There's nothing we can do." He said it so very solemnly. I knew it meant a lot to him to share something with me that was so important to him. So I thanked him and he was on his way. For what he had in mind, he was probably right.

But two things happened to me internally. The first thing is this. Often people will say to me, as they leave, "I especially liked that part where you said..." and they will quote something I said, although I never said that.

The second event can best be described as an inner conflict. Theologically, the statement is wrong. I KNOW that there is no salvific merit in any of my actions in God's eyes. I know that it is God who works in me both to will and to do of his good pleasure. I know and believe the Word where it says, "apart from me you can do nothing." I get that.

But did you realize that even Jesus said this of himself? "By myself I can do nothing" (John 5:30). "I do nothing on my own" (John 8:28).

Now, Jesus did not have a sin nature to contend with. But even with a pure nature, He pointed to the fact that as the Father's Son, he was completely dependent on His Father for everything that He was to do.

Thus, we should be that much more aware of how dependent we are on Christ our Lord. We are far from sinlessly perfect; thus we have a strong bent inside of us that wants its independence from anything that sounds like the submission/obedience dynamic.

On the other hand, there are other declarations in Scripture that say things such as Paul's words. "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil 4:13). Had I whispered those words into our visitors ear in response to his words, I'm sure he would have agreed wholeheartedly.

So here is my point. The Bible nowhere says "We can do nothing." Everywhere where this is implied, there are modifiers.

Think of those heros of Bible translation in Nepal and India. For decades, day after day they would work on learning an obscure language, building contacts with key national figures who grew up in the language. Then they began to translate one paragraph at a time. It would have to be tested and retested. New fonts had to be developed by their IT department. Typesetting. Printing. Proof-reading. Publishing. Packing. Shipping. There was so much that needed to be done. Now how does that phrase sound. "Brother, we can do nothing.."

But they did it. It's not that they did nothing. It's that they did nothing apart from Him. But IN HIM, they gave it their all.

If we are standing in the right place, there are all kinds of things we can and should do. We must do.
By standing in the right place, I mean understanding and believing with all of my heart that God is Sovereign and I owe Him my all.
By standing in the right place I mean that I believe Jesus Christ atoned for all of my sin(s), and there is nothing left for me to do to "top off" any kind of payment to God by my works, penitence or devotion. Jesus indeed, "paid it all".

But now, on this side of Calvary we can and must be doing. In His strength, of course. In His name, to be sure. But we dare not be passive; there is so much to do. Let's maintain balance in our theology.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

My Mess is Bigger Than your Mess

In reading the blogosphere, the places I stop and read the most are Christian websites that have a reputation for linking me to great resources or those who make their research available for lesser scholars like myself. Being a part of the Reformed tradition myself, (okay, I am only a four-pointer, much in line with Calvin himself  ) I see a lot of blogs and websites that are written by those who are solidly reformed. I have one rather strange observation to make.

There are a good number of otherwise great Christians out there who are all claiming to be the chiefest of sinners. I get that there can be a plurality of chiefs. But there can only be one “chiefest of sinners”, and seeing as St Paul coined that phrase and applied that title to himself, all other ‘chiefest of sinners’ are frauds – a sin they can add to their long list.

Seriously, I understand that a thorough reading of the epistle to the Romans and the Institutes of John Calvin will teach us to know ourselves and to understand just how lost and depraved we are, apart from the merits of Christ. I havc no qualms with anyone experiencing levels of humility that rival the depth of a snake’s belly or the significance of an earthworm or gnat. But there is always a sneaking suspicion niggling in the back of my somewhat cynical mind that someone describing himself this way is really competing for the top prize for piety. I think it’s quite okay to be honest and to tell people.. “I’m a mess. That’s why I needed Jesus.” But it all begins to sound silly when we start competing over the question, “I’m a bigger mess than you are.” What’s the point in that?

Yes, let’s strive to be humble, but lets not self-consciously talk about the levels of humility we have attained. Like any other communicable attribute of our Lord, when we take our eyes off of the object of our faith and focus on the fruits of our faith, we’ve missed the point.