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Riding Hood and the Good News of the Kingdom

Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about sheep, and not because of insomnia.  I have am privileged to serve in two very different ‘worlds’ and these ‘worlds’ have been colliding! One ‘world’ is the world of the gritty inner-city Bible Study I lead three mornings a week. The other is the more bucolic world of a little country church where I preach twice a month as they search for a new pastor. When I agreed to this second world’s entrance into my life I assumed one was East and the other West and “never the twain shall meet”, but the same theme arose in both. The readings last Sunday in church were about sheep and this September we started a study of Matthew in our Study and Prayer times. We have been like a river of molasses as we have cascaded through the text. Folks do not like to miss anything and some whole studies have revolved around a verse or two. Recently we have been following the sending of the Twelve. Jesus: has taught about the Kingdom, has demonstrated, in power, the Kingdom, and now he is instructing and sending his disciples to do likewise.

In his instructions he says “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Matt. 10:16). At this point I was reminded of one of my first sermons in Northern Quebec, in a Cree speaking church. I had a translator. I would say a phrase and he would translate it and I would say another phrase and so on. I glibly mentioned “Sheep” my translator took an extraordinarily long time to unpack my phrase. The Cree have little actual experience with sheep and I realized my sermon was going to be a snoozer if I kept repeating my phrase and having him explicate it. I had to edit the rest of message on the fly! It was a memorable experience. My inner-city friends also had little experience of sheep. Most have never even had a lamb chop! So we camped out among the sheep for a bit. We noted that the idea of going out as sheep among wolves sounded ominous. We all remembered Little Red Riding Hood and “My, what sharp teeth you have!” Wolves can be dangerous adversaries! So what is a sheep’s defense? Turtles have shells. Porcupines have their quills. Skunks … well they are skunky. The deer in the woods blend in to the background and are very quick. The only defense a sheep has is its shepherd! It is not viscious or fast. It has no quills or shell and is not particularly stinky. Left on its own it is a lamb chop on the hoof! Earlier in the narrative we had read that Jesus had compassion on them because they we harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. The big stain glass we all see on our way to our study room is of “Jesus the Good Shepherd”. We have clued in that he sees us like sheep and he is sending us out as sheep into a world of wolves.

We are not to engage the ‘dog eat dog world’ as a wolf but rather as a sheep. The teachings of the Kingdom are to be our rule rather than the sharp toothed lessons of this fallen world. We engage with the Good News that there is another and better way. We demonstrate as Jesus did when “Like a lamb led to the slaughter” he did not use the world’s ways but silently endure the humiliation, out of love. And what is our defense? The Good Shepherd remains the only defense and the only defense necessary. The choice though remains ours we can choose to snarl and bite our way through life believing the lie that we are canines in ‘a dog eat dog world’ or we can live out our true identity as sheep protected and kept and led, even through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It may take courage to choose to be a sheep. It does not seem the logically choice but that is because we have been deluded.

On another note I had a great conversation with one of my Street Hope Friends. The day before we had been talking about the power of encouragement. My friend told me that that night he was convicted that he had been discouraging a friend by the use of a nick name. She told me of her decision to no longer use these words with this friend. This may seem like a small thing to many readers but it means much to me to see our studies put into action!


What if they held a war and no one showed up?

I’m a conscientious objector! Several folks have tried to enlist me in the culture wars and I am adamantly refusing. Some want to sign me up in defense of Christmas. They demand the right to say “Merry Christmas” and invoke the phrase of keeping Christ in Christmas. I must admit that I have never been reprimanded from uttering that particular phrase. My decision not to be drawn into this battle (Is it being stirred up by some Russian bot?) does not mean I will not honour Christ’s nativity, I will! I will do so by concerning myself with the things that I believe concern Him: the poor, justice, kindness etc. Commercialism, nostalgia, and other “isms” do not do homage to the ‘Light of the world who stepped down into darkness’. He came in humility and simplicity and I’d like to honour him in the same spirit.

The angels’ proclamation was one of peace. I will not be drawn into a conflict in the name of the Prince of Peace. Rather than defend my right against political correctness I want to seek winsome ways to engage others in a conversation about what they see as important. This listening then gives me permission to share (rather than impose) my beliefs. Such sharing is much more likely to be effective.

Jesus nativity is an important event in the reconciling humanity to God. I must not let this reconciling event be turned into a wedge to drive people apart. Such activity may, in the short term, feel like authentic Christianity, but in the long term is not at all Christ-like!

What if they (Russian bots?) held a war and no one showed up? I cannot sing or send cards, with integrity, invoking “Peace on Earth” while engaged in battles with others. Such activity may seem like standing for Christ but I don’t think they stand for what He stood for.

I am not advocating that we celebrate some kind of anemic ‘Holiday Season’. I want my personal witness, in word and deed to speak loudly of my allegiance to: Christ, his Kingdom, and his ways. Rather than legislating a bland cultural nod to the nativity, the Church would do better to incarnate the Word made flesh, so that the world has an opportunity to witness his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son full of grace and truth. This is much more challenging than merely ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ a rant about holiday trees or keeping Christ in Christmas. That is way too easy to be the Way of Christ.

Paul reminds us that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood”. People are not our enemies. They are objects of our Father’s love. They are the focus of the reconciling work of Jesus. We partner with him not by further alienating our neighbours but by intentionally loving them, in word and deed. This Holiday Season gives us an opportunity ripe with possibilities if we use it positively rather than engaging in cultural warfare.

I look forward to reading your comments.

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The Power of Random Acts of Kindness

Years ago I was the recipient of a random act of kindness which may have proved one of the determining factors of my life’s course. My Aunt Hazel, who was my grandmother’s step sister, gave me a book for Christmas. I don’t remember how old I was, perhaps 7 or 8, but I had started to show a real interest in reading. The book she gave me was a pop up picture book titled “The Littlest Angel”. It was beautifully illustrated and told the story of a seemingly insignificant little angel who was given a most significant role in the Nativity story.

As the middle child, not one of the older ones nor one of the younger, I often felt insignificant, but to be the only one to receive a gift from this aunt made me feel special. Now that I have grown up I realise that she likely saw the book and wanted to buy it for someone and I was the one who fit the age appropriate bill. However at the time I saw great significance in being ‘the chosen one’! I read and reread that book until I had every line memorised. I came to associate with that little angel. I began to feel God had a special purpose for my life!

That single act of kindness had an influence on me that no one, least of all Aunt Hazel could ever have dreamt. My course was set and my path determined. There were lots of twists and turns along the way but so many years later I am grateful for that simple act.

We can never know the full extent of the impact of an act of kindness. They can’t all be as profound as that little book but they can be! I think it would be so cool if years from now someone might pen a story about how a simple act of kindness, in which I was involved, had been used to positively change a life. I never got to tell Aunt Hazel of the impact of her kindness and that is probably the way with most such acts. Our activity each day is like planting seeds. We may never see the resulting growth but it is “God who gives the increase”.

I often get to see the results of seeds sown by others. I know that in God’s economy this is how it works. This is why, at Street Hope, our chief goal is to develop a community of kindness, blessing others in Jesus’ Name.

Several years ago a friend, Jack, gave me another book. It is “The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous” Since then I have been privileged to be a part of hosting many workshops teaching “How It Works” and in a couple of weeks we will be putting on a workshop to train some folks in ministry how to better help these folks who are seeking to become spiritually fit. Jack has since died but I am grateful for his gift and encouragement to be involved in this spiritual movement.


A Quiet Life

A couple of weeks ago  I was invited to lead a service and preach at a little country church, I have come to love. One of the prayers spoke of living a quiet and peaceable life. As the words passed my lips, I started a long ponder about “a quiet life”. The ponder has continued for a couple of weeks now.

On the one hand I love a quiet life. I am an introvert of long practise. I love to be alone with my thoughts. I love to read and I enjoy a rich inner life. Quiet is in many ways my preferred mode of being.

On the other hand, I have a creative and entrepreneurial nature which thrives on new and often chaotic ventures and adventures.

This duality of natures leads to a ‘push-me-pull-me’ kind of existence. It leads to seasons of fallowness and seasons of frenetic activity.

Lately thing have, like the Eastern Front, become quiet. I have had several morning Bible Studies with no one or one or two members. Our usual team of helpers at Loaves and Fishes was down to Linda and me. A fellow could get disheartened, but this is just a quiet fallow season! The reasons for the lack of people are basically twofold: success, and death.

Early this week I had lunch with a former student, who did his practicum with me some ten years ago. He asked me if anyone was still alive from those days. While I could name a few many are no longer with us and I don’t believe any were the age I am now. I have been rehearsing all the core folks who have died over our time in Uptown Saint John. Early death is a sad fact of life in our community.

I have also been thinking about all the people who no longer join our studies because they are succeeding in life. Folks have recovered and found jobs. They have taken on new responsibilities and are contributing to their community. I still see most of them and they remain in the Street Hope orbit but they are no longer at the core of our activities together. A quiet life is the price of success, theirs and God’s!

So I shake off my initial impulse to self-pity and enjoy this time when I can have deep conversation with one or two at a time. Experience tells me that there will be more activity just around the corner but that God is working even (or especially in) in my quiet periods.

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Ever Shrinking Legacy

As a young school boy, I began a lifelong fascination with Alexander the Great. I was bored with whatever my teacher was expounding on (probably mathematics which remain a mystery to me yet today) but out of boredom, I snuck a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica off a nearby shelf. I soon found myself engrossed in the life and achievements of Alexander. Two and a half dense pages told of his vast conquests and heralded his exploits! This was probably a volume of the encyclopedia from the 1940’s but a look at a current version will show that Alex no longer merits the same number of lines. So many other events have occurred that his once formidable legacy is ever shrinking.

If Al who conquered the whole known world before he was thirty and his legacy is shrinking year by year, and he may soon be surpassed by a Kardashian, what is my hope, or yours, to live a life of significance? I believe we are each created with an impulse to be significant and to make a difference with our lives. Yet the incredible shrinking legacy of Alexander gives us little hope that we will have an impact that lasts beyond our obituary.

This pessimism is merited if we measure our impact according to the metrics of this current world. If we invest our lives in the things that don’t last then the idea of leaving anything lasting is foolish indeed. With this thought in mind I cast about looking for things that do last and I came up with a short list.

Jesus says the word of God stands forever. Time and energy invested in learning and communicating his word then is an investment that outlasts the rust and moth and thieves.

Love lasts! The eternal God describes himself like this, “God is love”. Of Paul’s three things, faith, hope, and love, only love remains eternally. Time and energy invested in love are guaranteed to be of eternal profit.

People are made for eternity! Care for people especially needy people is an investment in significance. I am convinced that loving people and sharing the Good News of God’s love with people is the intention of our Creator, for our lives. I have this God given appetite for significance that is doomed to frustration apart from apart from his design for meaningfulness.

The world will little note this effort or these activities and I am alright with that, as long as I know that I am investing in the things which outlast this tired old world, with its fleeting and ever shrinking legacies.

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On Being Late

I hate being late. I think I got this from my mother. The only time I remember her being late for something was at her own interment. The minister turned to me and said “Where are the ashes?” No one in the family had thought to stop by the cemetery office and pick them up. My brother raced down and got them and so she was the last to arrive at her own funeral!

I am late with this blog, though. I even got a call from my son wondering if everything was okay because he hadn’t seen my weekly writings. It has been a hectic week. I had a few extra meeting and a two days of classroom learning added to my week. In addition I had a memorial to plan and a couple of sermons to prepare. Something had to give! In days past it would have probably been sleep that was sacrificed on the altar of busyness but I’m getting to old for that, so I missed my usual blog deadline.

It was a good week, with a wide range of experiences. I had a wonderful time of fellowship with my friends from Christ Church in Penfield, as I preached there and I look forward to a reprise this Sunday. I experienced disappointment when a workshop we had planned for ‘church leaders’, to help them be effective in ministry to those struggling with addiction, failed to draw even one person. We are determined that this is important and feel God’s call to do this so we will be looking for other ways to engage church folk in ministry to this vulnerable and searching segment of our community.

We are in the midst of the workshop we host for those struggling with addictions. Thursday night’s topic was “turning over to God’s care our will and our lives”. This is where ‘the rubber meets the road’. It is at this step that recovery can begin. It is always exciting to see who picks up the challenge of this step and then to witness the dramatic changes that inevitably ensue.

I decided to sign up to audit a course on “The Acts of the Apostles”, this week. In all my studies I had never taken a formal course on this book. I think I learned a lot, though I still have to process much. One personal and powerful take away is that I should make the practice of praying for people normative in my life. In law there is an axiom that extraordinary cases make for bad law. Making laws for the exceptional does a disservice to the ordinary or regular. It is the same with my prayer life. If I only pray for God’s healing for those who are in extraordinary circumstances my expectations and practise become skewed. I develop ‘laws’ for how God works by my experiences only with the most dire of cases.

I am convinced though if I pray regularly for those things that routinely present themselves, that I will be better equipped to pray and more open to God’s direction in the more difficult of circumstances.

Last night (Friday) we held a memorial for Donnie. We had an ‘open mic’ time for folks to share and person after person gave testimony of the big hearted kindness of our dear friend. We are left wondering how God will fill a “Big Donnie” sized hole in our community and in our lives. We were reminded though that we do not mourn as those without hope! It is our wish that this loss draws us ever closer to the Saviour, with whom our friend now resides.

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Authority: Someone who knows what they are talking about.

He had taught about: how to lead a happy and blessed life, how to live a life of rich relationship with God and man, how to actively love, how to pray, how to live unburdened by care, how to live a life of freedom and forgiveness, and how to live a life that makes a difference. He packed a lot into the 3 chapters we call the Sermon on the Mount.

This week we studied the final section of this power packed sermon. Jesus says those who “do” these things are like ‘wise builders’. James in his letter reiterates what Jesus says here, “Be doers of the word not hearers only”. Jesus has explained how to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God and now says that if we follow his prescription for citizenship we will be like ‘wise builders’.

He also makes clear that storms will come and assail us. The southern United States has experienced wave after wave of storms. Sometimes life can be like that. Recently I’ve been in the midst of storms with death upon death and sadness upon sadness. Jesus does not say that there will not be storms, in fact he indicates that they will inevitable come into our lives. No one lives an unscathed life! He does promise that if we practise the behaviours of citizenship, we place ourselves in the position to weather the storm. Our active participation in these Kingdom activities are signs of wisdom.

He goes on to say that those who hear but do not do these things are foolish. A careful reading shows that he is not addressing those who do not hear. The thrust of this warning is to those of us who have heard but chose to live by our own set of values.

The people marvelled “He speaks like someone who knows what he is talking about!” This is often translated “He speaks with authority.” This does not mean he has a stern style that commands obedience but rather that it was apparent to his hearers that he knew what he was talking about. He was ‘Exhibit A’ for the sermon. He lived it and he spoke it! He was able to weather the storms because he practised what he preached.

Lots of us read the Beatitudes as a set of ideals too lofty for us but Jesus intended that they be lived out so that we and all creation might be “blessed”. That they are too lofty for me, alone, may be the point. I need the help of God to live as a citizen of his Kingdom. The sermon tells me that our Father will not withhold any such help.

Our little Street Hope community is littler today. We are going through a storm as we deal with our grief at the loss of our dear friend who was at the heart of our community. A week from tomorrow we will gather to remember and laugh and cry as we celebrate the life of ‘Big Donnie.’


“I’m a Big Man”

“I’m a big man”, he used to say, and I agree. He was big in a number of ways. My friend and a very real partner in ministry Big Donnie died this past week. Anyone who visits our Street Hope Saint John Facebook page will see Donnie there in almost every montage.

I first met Donnie 17 years ago. He took a course I was teaching at Taylor College, on Romans. Over the years we discussed Romans often and Don would remark that while I liked Romans with all its density and depth, he loved James with its simplicity and practicality. Donnie believed in being “a doer of the word not just a hearer.”

About 6 years ago Donnie needed some housing and I was able to get him into an apartment in our college residence. He and three other guys in similar circumstances became their own little religious community.

Donnie had a big heart. Probably his most often used phrase was “I love you.” He said it all the time to almost everyone he met, and you always felt he meant it! Though he had little he was always generous with what he had. His days were filled with helping people.

He had the biggest laugh. When Big Donnie entered a room it wasn’t long before everyone knew it as peals of his laughter would reverberate.

He had a big faith. I remember a time when I was moaning that we had lost a sponsor for our trip to Deer Island. Donnie piped up “You don’t have a money problem. You have a faith problem!” With that he dug in his wallet and gave me what was probably his last twenty dollars. “Here this will get you started!”

We spent hours with me leaning in his driver’s window and him parked in the driveway or on a street. We talked mostly about Jesus. Don saved his biggest love for Jesus.

We did many things together but I especially remember when we went to Crandall University to teach a class on Mission. He was so tickled to be Professor Big Donnie.

This post is a bit shorter than usual. Linda and I are wending our way home from the funeral of my dear sister-in-law and I am banging this out before we hop in the car to begin our trek home. We have experienced a lot of death lately and I admit to feeling pretty sad, but we do not mourn as those who have no hope. I can hear Big Donnie telling me “You don’t have a death problem you have a faith problem!”

I’ll miss my friend.

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Prayer & the Golden Rule

`”Why does it end like that?” We were reading Matthew 6:7-12. It is a familiar passage about prayer; “Ask”, “Seek”, and “Knock”. We have often heard it taught as being persistent in prayer but the question about why this passage ends with “The Golden Rule” seems alien to this usual interpretation.

I never ask inanimate objects for help or for answers. I want to ask a person! I get frustrated when a telephone inquiry winds up in looped conversation with an answering machine. When I want to look for help or answers I seek out a person. When I knock on a door I am hoping a person answers (except for my days doing ‘cold calls’ when I always hoped that no one was home).

The passage isn’t really about prayer but about its object. The person we are asking, seeking, and knocking for is the Good, Good, Father. That’s who he is. He does not withhold those good things from his children.

The ending with the ‘Golden Rule” is a reminder that we are to become like the one we worship. We are to become people who dole out to others the grace, mercy, and kindness we expect from our Father. When we enter his presence through asking, seeking and knocking we are to be transformed into his likeness and so treat others as we have been treated. In his epistle John puts it this way, “We love because he first loved us.”

I got a call this morning from a Street Hope friend. He has long been a part of our circle but fallen away several times. He called to tell me that he had prayed with a friend and asked Jesus to be his Lord and manager. I rejoiced with him! He has real hope that things will be different for him this time. I am so glad that he wanted to let me know of his decision.

Hope is our business and it is a joy to see embers of hope fanned into flame. We need most of all to be rescued from our seemingly hopeless state.

Last Saturday we had our Shalom Saturday. It was not as well attended as others but it was marked by the depth and intimacy of the sharing. One member commented afterward that it was the best one so far.

No two weeks are the same but we see the Good, Good, Father at work in our midst each day. We are loved by him, that’s who we are. So let’s share the love. That’s why the passage ends with the Golden Rule!



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Which Kingdom?

“What chance do we have, then?” This was an apt question I was asked. My friend had just been to a worship service where folks recited the 95th Psalm.  The psalm ends with God stating that the people who constantly grumbled in the wilderness wanderings would not enter into God’s rest. My friend was self-aware enough to identify himself and our culture as grumbling. If God could exclude these people of biblical history from his rest then what were our chances?

I don’t think God excludes anyone from his rest or any of his blessings. John 3:16 tells us God loves the whole world. This is the revealed character of God and we need to read the scriptures in the light that the scriptures, and particularly the Gospels, provide. So if God does not exclude people how do they wind up outside his rest? The answer would seem to be that we exclude ourselves.

Jesus came to declare that the Kingdom was here and invite us to participate and abide in that Kingdom. Through the cross he made a way for all who are weary and heavy laden to enter into his rest. The choice remains mine and yours to accept and participate. Moses set before the people a choice of life and death, and recommended life. Jesus the one Hebrews reminds us is greater than Moses makes a similar yet greater offer.

There is something about grumbling that indicates a poor choice. The marks of Kingdom citizenship are “love of God” and “love of neighbour”. Grumbling is a blatant symbol of self-involvement. The Fruit of the Spirit are: peace, joy, love patience …. Grumbling exhibits none of these! Thankfulness and worship are the natural posture of the Kingdom and grumbling is the exact opposite!

When we enter the ‘Kingdom of Grumble’ we may be assured that we are leaving behind the Kingdom of God. God takes this kind of departure very seriously and so we have dire warnings against opting to abide in the ‘Kingdom of Grumble’.

This does not mean that we ought to always be comfortable with the way things are. Until the time that God’s will is done on Earth as it is in Heaven, we chafe. Injustice in any form fills us with a ‘holy discontent’ which expresses itself not in grumbling but in prayer and loving action.

My friend, though, is right. We too often and too easily slip into the Kingdom of Grumble. This is a serious thing and we ought to deal with it ruthlessly when we notice. The antidote is repentance and thankfulness. Ignoring our disloyalty is not a good option. Ignorance is not bliss! The things that God seriously warns about need to be taken seriously.

This effort leaves me humbled, as I realize my frailty. It leaves me dependent on the Holy Spirit to keep me sensitive and on Christ to forgive. Grumbling will wear me out, but God alone invites me to abide in his rest.

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