Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Hope in the new generation

There is real hope amidst the gloom about the rapidly dropping numbers of young people in North American churches.

My wife and I look at our own children and see a deep commitment to Jesus.  And we see it in their friends, too.

What delights us is that they are going beyond us, thirsting even more for God than we did at their age.

And they are not alone.

Last Thursday, the American newspaper USA Today, trotted out the usual discouraging statistics about young people deserting churches.  It quoted a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey which found that fewer than 10 per cent of young American adults attend worship services.

But the article went beyond the bad news to look at young Americans who are passionately pursuing a close relationship with God.

One of the bright lights is Ethos Church, a youthful church in Nashville, Tennessee.  The young pastor, David Clayton, is only 30 and most of the congregational leaders are 28 or under.

The church they launched with 12 members in 2008 now has 2,000 members with about 150 small groups.  The church’s goal is to help attendees “wrestle with what God wants to say” rather than using gimmicks to draw the curious.

The article said the church, which is involved in community service projects, gives 50 per cent of its income away.

As we look at our own children and their friends, we see something of the optimism and courage that the young shepherd boy David showed when he visited the Israelite army cowering before Goliath and the Philistines (1 Samuel 17).

David, still only a boy, was astonished to see the pessimism and fear among the Israelites.  He said he could kill Goliath, the giant who struck such fear into the hearts of the Israelite army.

“The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine,” he said, showing his deep trust in God.

As we know, David won that battle.  And he later made Israel one of the greatest nations in the Middle East.

David put God first in his life – and many young Christians in North America are following his example today.

Just as David ignored the cries of despair among the Israelites, so many young people today see challenges they are ready to confront and overcome.

Who knows what God can accomplish through people like them?

 

 

 

Christ: Gift or threat?

Like many Christians, my heart warms when I gaze on manger scenes at Christmas time.

I see Jesus, coming in the form of a baby to humble parents – the all-powerful God setting out on a mission to rescue me and bring me into his family.  He comes in such a gentle, unthreatening way.

But many others see him as a threat.

We see this in many places in our Western world today.  Some schools ban any mention of Christmas and the Christmas story even as they allow other traditions to speak of their holidays.

Yet the shepherds and the wise men journeyed to see the little baby because they considered him a great gift.  They worshipped him.

On the other hand, Herod saw him as a threat to his rule as King of Judea.  On hearing about him from the wise men, he tried to kill the infant Jesus.

That is the way it has been ever since.  Some worship him and others try to destroy him and his followers by words and deeds.

The apostle Paul recognized this.  In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, he describes the reaction of people to his preaching about the gift of salvation through Christ.  He says:

“To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of  death and doom.  But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume.”

As a believer, I find this hard to understand.  Why do people fear – and even hate – Christ?

Perhaps it has something to do with losing control.  Putting my faith in Jesus means admitting there is someone greater than me.  As Isaiah said, God’s thoughts are higher than my thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

As well, believing that Jesus died for my mistakes and sins means acknowledging that I am not good enough on my own to deserve to be with God.

If you believe that humanity is the highest form of life, God is someone you thrust out of your mind.  The thought of God smacks of dependence.

Or, perhaps you do believe in God – but not the loving God that Jesus represents.

That love is truly astonishing.  Rather than coming as a conquering king, Jesus came as a tiny bundle of human flesh.

He wanted his message of peace with God and everlasting love to be for everyone – poor just as much as rich.

He came to die, knowing he would be rejected by many.  He came to die for me – and you.

He did this so that we could be with him always, forever in his embrace.

What a gift.

Struggling for peace

It’s funny to talk about struggling for peace – “peace” and “struggle” seem opposite.

But many of us toss and turn during sleepless nights, trying to find rest and peace from our worries or resentments or fears.

In war-torn countries, peace is particularly desirable – it’s the difference between life and death.

But in my country, the struggles are less life-threatening.  More often than not, the war goes on inside our minds and hearts – and sometimes on our tongues.

Peace is important to God.  It is one of the names of God – “Jehovah-Shalom”.  Jesus is called “the Prince of Peace”.

How do I find the peace of God?  And does it make a difference in my everyday life?

Interestingly, Jesus says peace is a gift.  I don’t have to fight to get it.

In John 14:27, he tells his disciples just before his sacrifice:

“I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart.  And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give.  So don’t be troubled or afraid.”

Strangely, this comes just before the fearsome events of the crucifixion which shocked the disciples and prompted bold Peter to deny being a follower of Jesus.  Clearly, the disciples forgot about the gift of peace when trouble erupted.

A reading of the passage leading up to Jesus’ statement in John 14 indicates that the gift Jesus was talking about was the Holy Spirit.

In effect, he told his followers that he – Jesus – would come to live in them through the Holy Spirit.  God would make his home in their hearts.

He gave a great promise: “I will not leave you alone as orphans – I will come to you.”

He tells them that the Holy Spirit will help them and guide them.

So, why should I find peace of mind in knowing that the Holy Spirit is within me?

Because if God is for me, who can be against me?  The daily troubles I face may be severe; but, the most important thing is that my eternal future is settled.

In the end, I know that God is in control and that all things work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28).

That’s the strong foundation of my peace.

Is it right to fight?

Many Christians love to fight – just as much as unbelievers.

Is it right to fight?  It depends.

Some years ago, a close relative of ours belonged to a church where there was a battle over an expensive new organ.  Some members left the church because of that struggle.

In our travels, we have sometimes seen little churches seemingly sharing the same faith crouching across the street from each other.  Often a trivial difference of opinion or a personality conflict are at the root of church splits.

In my view, such battles are damaging to the Christian church.  Outsiders are turned off Jesus Christ when they see his followers fighting like that.

But is it right to let everything slide when there are differences of opinion?

No, I don’t think so.  The history of the Christian church might be very different today if the apostle Paul had not stood up to the “Judaizers” in the early church.

As you may recall, some early Jewish Christians taught that new non-Jewish Christians should observe Jewish law including circumcision.  Paul objected that such restrictions should not be imposed on new believers.  Christ had fulfilled the law and believers in Christ were now free of these Jewish observances.

There was a debate before the apostles and a later confrontation between Paul and Peter.  The result was a decision in Paul’s favour which placed the spotlight on Christ and what he has done for us and not on fulfilling certain legal requirements.

Clearly, differences on vital aspects of the faith are important.  They can’t be glossed over.

But even when there are faith differences, we are called to be patient, kind and loving.  I admit that’s hard – especially if we are passionate about our positions.

I like the way the apostles dealt with the dispute I mentioned earlier.

The Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 heard demands by Jewish Christians that new non-Jewish believers should follow Jewish customs.  The council discussed the issue, hearing Paul and Barnabas’ experience preaching Christ to non-Jews.  Then, the apostles referred to Christ’s own life and approach and to scripture,  and then gently presented their decision to the council.

It was a reasonable and scripturally-based decision following thoughtful discussion.  There was no hint of condemnation of either Paul or Barnabas or of the Jewish traditionalists.

Of course, there will be instances where agreement can’t be reached.  Sometimes, it is best for people to leave a congregation if they can’t agree with the church’s faith stand.  But there shouldn’t be bitterness and unforgiveness.

How we disagree is almost as important as what we disagree about.

After disappointment, joy!

Someone once said: “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.”

It is true, as well, of the Christian life.

A sprint is one sustained burst of energy with a quick end.  But a marathon is a long run with many ups and downs.

I have never run a marathon, but I have read that the Boston Marathon has a hill toward the end called “Heartbreak Hill” because runners hit this obstacle when they have just about run out of gas.  Their energy levels are low.

But runners keep running the Boston Marathon because of the great joy and prestige that comes at the end.

I’m thinking of this because I have had ups and downs in my Christian life.  Periodically, I am down because things haven’t gone the way I think they should.  Indeed, sometimes I wonder what God was doing – another way of saying that I whine.

After one such occasion recently, I read Psalm 13 which caught my mood exactly.

The psalmist David begins by saying: “How long will you (God) hide your face from me?”

He goes on to say that every day he has sorrow in his heart.  His enemy is triumphing over him.  In fact, his foes will “rejoice when I fall”.

In effect, David is blaming God for his predicament.  He is saying that God doesn’t care for him.

In my mind, I try to avoid being as honest and direct as David is in this psalm.  Yet I have to admit that sometimes my thoughts run along those lines.  I wonder why God doesn’t work things out the way I think he should.

There is a temptation to give up when faced with baffling – sometimes tragic – events.  But God wants us to hang on because the rewards are eternal.

David saw this despite his funk.

He concludes his psalm with these uplifting words:

“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord because he has been good to me.”

How can he switch gears so quickly – from the depths of despair to rejoicing?  Because he is a man of faith.  He takes the long view – the marathon runner’s view.

He has experienced God’s love in the past.  He rejoices in the fact that God has chosen him to be his child.  He remembers the many good things God has given him.

These are great reminders for me.  These truths help me to be a marathon runner in the Christian life.