Conditional Love

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Here is the awkward truth of my life, and likely yours…

I talk a lot about the unconditional love of God, and showing it to others, but mostly the love I show is conditional.

This was recently pointed out to me in and through the writings of Thomas Merton. If you’ve never read him, I encourage you to do so. But, beware, it’s likely to challenge you. So, you’ve been warned.

He says this…

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbours worthy.” – Thomas Merton

There is more depth in that one paragraph then in pretty much all I’ve ever written combined. Because, the truth is, when I reflect on it, I realize that when it comes to love, I far too often first assess whether or not someone is worthy of my love.

Before I give love, I try to see if the person meets my requirements or conditions first. Sometimes this doesn’t happen, and sometimes it happens in a split second, but this assessment of another’s worthiness does seem to happen way too much.

What I’m drawn to in Christianity, and in the quote by Merton, is that when Jesus died for all of us, He didn’t think about who was worthy or not. He didn’t just give His love to the ones who earned it. He didn’t just give His love to the ones who deserved it.

Jesus didn’t just give His love to others with conditions.

Rather, He gave His reckless, unconditional, everlasting love to the whole world. To ALL of us.

And, while I’m far from loving at that depth, that is the call upon me.

As I seek to follow Jesus, I want to learn to love like Jesus. To love without conditions. To love without first judging if someone is worthy, but rather to realize that in loving others truly, deeply, and from my heart and actions, I find the kind of worthy actions to which we are called.

Because, they are Jesus’ actions.
 
So, I write all this to remind myself of something I know, that might be the same for you. That often my love has too many limits and conditions.

But, as I learn to follow Jesus, I need to learn to love more like Him. Not first asking if someone is worthy, but first stepping out with love, being obedient and being changed in the process.

Worthiness is God’s business, not ours. Our business is to love.

And, I know I need that challenge, and that reminder.

Repentance

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“The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” – Jesus (Mark 1:15)

“Repentance is not an emotion. It is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god; it is deciding that you were wrong in thinking that you had, or could get, the strength, education, and training to make it on your own; it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbors and your world. And, it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth. Repentance is a realization that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts.”

“Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.”

– Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

In this quote, Peterson really gets at what repentance truly is, and what it looks like: It looks like making a decision to live differently.

Repentance is to exchange the ways of the world, for the ways of Christ; to say that following the path of guilt, shame, judgment, power, and fighting for meaning isn’t the path you are called to walk. Instead, you are called to walk a path of peace, life, grace, holiness, and love. 

Repentance is making a decision to live differently, not just feel differently.

So, with all that, ask yourself, “Are there any decisions you need to make today?

Because, you can choose to live differently, starting today.

Can we be brutally honest about something?

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After seeing all that’s happened in the past year, we can honestly say this:
Hate seems to be alive and well in our world.

For all the progress we have made as a society in so many areas, hate has not been eradicated. In some ways, it’s still growing – in our culture, in our politics, in our lives, and even in our churches.

And, this is problem. Because, there is almost nothing more antithetical to Christianity than hate.

More and more, in the political process, in conversations, and even across pews, hate is pouring forth. And, it’s no longer enough to simply “call out” hate as wrong – we definitely need to do that – but, we also need to change this reality.

As Christians, we need to be partnering with the Spirit to rid our world of hate. Because, hate is toxic, it is infectious, and it spreads. Hate is insidious on the left and the right, and it is a problem.

So, what do we do? How do we rid our world of hate?

Well, the answer is to love those who hate. But, that is a real challenge. Because, loving hateful people is just plain hard.

Recently, I read something by James A. Baldwin that I believe is both true and helpful. He writes,

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

I think this is insightful, true, and also helpful.

As Christians, we are called to love others. We are called to make the world a better place. But, in a world of shouting, anger, and hate, it can be hard to love others.

What Baldwin is getting at is that often hate gets attached to pain. And, perhaps that’s where we need to focus. To not just focus in on changing people’s hate, but also on the pain underneath the hate. To hear, listen, care, and, yes, at times even challenge the pain, if necessary.

We need to see others not just as their hate, but rather as a people who might have pain as well.

This has been helpful for me. Because, now when I hear a hate-filled speech, I also hear pain attached to lost jobs, fear-filled futures, and uncertainty and lies. Of course, this pain never excuses the hate, but it does help me to love those who hate.

It also helps me to be part of changing the hate around me, as well as the hate that is within me.

So, I write all this because I think in our world full of sound bytes, talking points, yelling, name calling, and hate-filled speeches, we can find a better way. It begins by healing deep pain, not just seeking to stop hate. Maybe one way to live in this world of hate is to focus on its healing.

Because, hate will truly be stopped when healing happens.

Death and Suffering are Weird Things

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Death and suffering are weird things.

Because, they are awful, wrong, and even evil things, but, they are also the things out of which meaning, beauty, and strength can grow.

This is the strangeness of death, suffering, and difficulty. It’s both terribly awful, and also the place of some of the deepest transformation I’ve ever seen.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is one of the best known writers on the subject of death, suffering, and grief. In fact, she was the one who made known the “Five Stages of Grief.” She writes this…

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

I love that last line: “Beautiful people do not just happen.”

So often, beautiful people, with strength, sensitivity, and compassion, have gone through the crucible of suffering. They have faced hurt, suffering, and evil, and have not let it turn them bitter, but rather let it turn them into someone better.

And, to say this isn’t to make light of the suffering people face. Instead, it’s to realize that suffering doesn’t have the last word.

Because, what Kubler-Ross is getting at is something that is actually biblical. We read this in Romans 8:28…

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God.”

We should be clear with something: The text does not say everything we go through is good. Some things are evil. Some things are hellish. Some things are so full or darkness and difficulty that we yearn to be free.

What this verse is promising is that evil, suffering, and even death do not get the last word. That God works all the evil we go through toward good. That even the worst parts of our lives don’t get the final say.

That, in the words of Kubler-Ross, beautiful people don’t just happen, but rather they are made.

I saw this especially with my dad.

He suffered in pain with cancer for years and years. I saw him struggle, and walked with him as his health slid and pain increased. My dad always said that cancer had made him a better pastor, but was quick to add that he would have been fine remaining a mediocre pastor without the cancer.

So, death and suffering are wrong. They are to be fought against. And, they are an enemy. But, as Paul says, they also don’t get the last word.

Because, out of the ashes of death, suffering, and hurt, goodness can grow. In the end, grace, life, and God get the last word, not the difficulties we face. The question is…

Will we trust in a God who is working things toward good, even in the midst of the darkness of our lives?

When Your Kids are Better Than You

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Have you ever had a moment when you realize your kids are learning things, without you even realizing it?

This happened quite a while back at Christmas.

We had a busy day trying to get the kids out for school, catching buses and drop-offs. And, I had an early breakfast meeting, only to come home and realize everyone was still sleeping and we are now late.

And by late, I mean late.

It’s at this time that my son, Hudson, starts to ask about his allowance. About how much he has, how much he gets and if he can have it all now.

Like, right now. Like, “I need cash, dad.”

I respond like any parent would with a “No, go get your stuff on” and proceed to run around like madman trying to get things ready.

We make it out and I give Hudson $5 reluctantly, because apparently it’s a day when they can buy presents at school that they will wrap for them. And, he wants to spend his allowance money (hence the “How much do you owe me dad?” conversation).

That’s all I thought of it, until I picked up Hudson after school and he walks in with a wrapped gift. And, he’s proud, excited and shows me what he’s bought. On it, in big bold letters, it says, “Asher, Merry Christmas, from Hudson.”

He used his allowance money to buy a gift for his brother. His brother he often wrestles. His brother he often fights with like any child. His brother whom he loves and showed it with a gift.

Ever feel like your kids are teaching you?

Here I was all mad about giving him his allowance, and all he wanted to do was buy something for his brother. Because, as he told me, “That’s what we do at Christmas.” (He also told me that if I’d given him more of his allowance, he could have bought Eden something too.)

So, I write all this to remind you that sometimes your kids are picking up more than you realize.

And I think we need to pay attention to them and what they are learning, because truth be told they learn faster than we often do. I should have learned to trust my son 6 months ago, but I didn’t. And this last week the exact same dynamic played out again. He asked for money, needing his allowance, this time though it was so he could buy food for kids in Africa.

So I write all this because, while you think they are not listening at all, as you are just trying to get them to school, hockey or piano, they are paying attention.

And, sometimes, if you are paying attention, they have something to teach you.

Like how my first response when Hudson asks for his allowance should be “what for” 🙂

Consuming Church

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We live in a Western consumeristic world.

This is something I’ve written about before, but it’s still true. And, what matters most isn’t to lament this, but rather to recognize it and “call it out” when we see it. Because, what can (and does) subtly happen is that this Western consumeristic world starts to infect and affect the church.

One way that often happens is through this idea of the church “providing religious experiences” for people. That the goal of coming to church is to have “an experience” in which people encounter God. And, on the surface, there isn’t anything wrong with this. Because, in many ways, that is what I hope happens during our weekend services.

But, when you peel back the layers, you can see how quickly that goes off course. Because, the church doesn’t exist so you can have “an experience.” Church isn’t about you in the first place, and it’s not about me either.

Church is about Jesus calling us to be faithful in His mission in the world.

But, it quickly slides into consumerism when we show up to “experience something” and then rate our experience based on what we were offered, rather than what we brought to it. We talk about what we receive, rather than what expectations and openness we brought with us.

I write all this because it is subtle and dangerous.

And, I know it’s me. I’m more likely to enjoy something that makes me feel good, rather than something that invites me into the hard process of being an apprentice of Jesus.

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

“There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”

Now, I’m not bemoaning the current state of Christianity. Instead, I’m bemoaning the state of my own soul. Because, I’m shaped by this culture, just like everyone else. And, because of this, I’m tempted to ask, “How was church this week?” – as if I’m somehow outside of it, divorced from it and a spectator, rather than part of it.

Instead, I should be asking different questions, such as:

. “How was I a part of church?” 
. “Did I give, participate and open myself up to being found by Jesus?”

Different questions, but question that I think matter.

Because, it’s so easy to seek a little religious, uplifting experiencing, rather than choose the long road, pursuing holiness in an apprenticeship to Jesus.

So, this post isn’t to “call out” anything else other than to remind us that the temptation to consume church is always there, and it needs to be recognized and, most of all, resisted.

The Power of Routines

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A week a bit ago, we ended up cancelling our services because of the bad weather, and the forecast of freezing rain. What this meant was that I was up much earlier than the rest of my family, looking at the forecast, and talking with my team and other churches, in order to make the best decision.

So, when my kids came down, I was already on my second cup of coffee. And when I told them that we had a snow day and we weren’t going to church, they all promptly started crying…

Hudson cried, “Dad, I want to learn about Jesus!” To which I assured him I could teach him about Jesus, but he said I wasn’t as good as his teacher (never mind that I teach people about Jesus for a living).

Asher cried, “Dad, my craft! I won’t make my craft!” To which I assured him I could do a craft with him, but he also said I wasn’t as good as his teacher.

And, Eden? Well, when I asked her, she was just crying because the other two were.

Now, in some ways, I know this story sounds like a made-up pastor’s story. You know, the kind that embellishes the spiritual connections of the family of the pastor. But, let me be up-front about something:

My kids are normal kids, and my family is a normal family.

We are not the rock-star, spiritual all-star family who have quiet, daily devotions with long prayers. We are a regular family who struggles, just like everyone else.

I share this story to point out, not the amazingness of my family, but rather the power of tradition, rituals and rhythms. Because, what gets repeated often gets missed. What I think this little anomaly of a story demonstrates is how good rhythms, rituals and traditions are missed when they don’t happen.

That’s what happened on Sunday. My kids missed our normal routine. They missed our regular rhythm. Because, routines, rhythms and rituals create huge impact over the long-term.

So, my question is this: What routines, rhythms or rituals do you have in your family? Which ones really matter? Which ones should you add?

Because, we tend to have family traditions around things like Christmas, holidays and Easter. But, what about weekly habits that draw your family closer? Is church a habit? What about Friday night game/movie night as a family? Or, saying one thing you love about your child or spouse each night before bed?

I write all this because very early on Sunday, I was reminded about the power of routines, and how they build good things within us. So, take some time to make sure you are intentionally creating the right ones.

People of the Second Chance

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A little while ago, I was reading the book, People of the Second Chance by Mike Foster. In it, he lists what he calls “The Five Condemnments”:

1. “I don’t deserve a second chance.”
2. “I am my shame. I am my secrets.”
3. “I will always feel and be this way.”
4. “I am defined by my worst moments.”
5. “My life, my dreams, my hopes no longer matter.”

As I interact with people, I see so many who live under these condemnments. That somehow a second chance is for others, not for them. That somehow what defines them most is their shame, failure and worst moments. They feel trapped in a cycle of no hope because yesterday was bad, so tomorrow will be bad, and they feel they deserve it. In essence, they start listening to the lies other people say about them, rather than what the Gospel says about them.

But, Jesus has a radically different promise and pronouncement for all of us. Here’s what He has to say about you:

1. “You do deserve a second chance, because I died to secure that for everyone.” (John 3:16)

2. “You aren’t your shame and secrets. You are forgiven and free.” (John 8:1-11, when Jesus encounters the woman caught in adultery).

3. “Your future isn’t full of darkness and repeats of defeat. If you believe in Me, you will have full and abundant life today.” (John 10:10)

4. “You are not defined by your worst moments, but rather by My calling on your life.” (John 21, when Jesus restores Peter after his worst moment).

5. “Your dreams do matter, because I, the Good Shepherd, know you and all that you need.” (John 10:14) – In fact, the first words of Jesus in the book of John are, “What do you want?” (John 1:38). So, your wants, dreams and desires do matter to God.

I write all this to remind you of something: The Gospel of Jesus Christ is freeing, transforming and totally life giving. The condemnments we so often live under aren’t part of living under God’s reign, love and grace.

So, today I want to remind you that if you feel like you don’t deserve a second chance – that shame owns you, that your past failures define you, that life can’t change, that your wants and desires don’t matter – than, well, Jesus begs to differ. Come and experience Him, and find that difference in your life.

There Is No Love Which Does Not Become Help

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There is a beautiful quote from theologian, Paul Tillich, about the relationship between love and help. He writes this:

“There is no love which does not become help.”

I find this immensely helpful. Because, in my world (and probably yours too), the situations around me are complex. Sometimes I see the struggles in the lives around me, both locally and globally, and I can feel stuck. I mean, I want to help that neighbour who is struggling; I want to help that co-worker with a broken relationship; I want to change some of the global realities around me. The problem is, I just don’t know how.

Have you ever been there before?

Sadly, since we don’t know what to do, we just don’t act. We end up having loving intentions that don’t lead to helping actions. And, if the love isn’t there and you just focus on the helping part, it will often come off in the wrong way.

This is why I love Paul Tillich’s quote. Because he gets the focus right.

If you want to help someone, the focus should be on loving that person. And, if that focus is there, as Tillich says, it will turn out to be helping. When you focus on loving someone first, it always turns into helping them in the best way possible.

Love turns into love-filled actions, which turns out to be help. Because, help without love isn’t charity; rather, it’s empty actions.

So, I write all this to say something simple: If you see someone and you want to help, but don’t know how, start by loving them, and the rest will come.

“There is no love which does not become help.”

 

What’s Killing the Church

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Today, I want to talk about what’s killing the church and its witness. And no, it’s not what you’d expect – it’s not sin. It’s not a lack of discipline. It’s not weak or lukewarm Christians, or whatever else is lamented in today’s world.

I think what’s killing the church is busyness.

And, I say this as an incredibly busy person. This is snapshot of what a recent day looked like for me…

  • Meeting starting at 6 AM.
  • Back to the house to get kids and drop them off to school.
  • Meetings and sermon writing throughout the day.
  • Volunteering in Asher’s school.
  • Hockey in the evening for the boys.
  • Followed by school (I had an exam).
  • Followed by prepping for a large NGO Board that I sit on.
  • Followed by cleaning the house and talking with Krista.

And, I say this not to be like, “Look at how busy I am! I must be awesome!” I say this because I think the drive to get more stuff done each and every day is what is killing the church. Where do you and my neighbours show up? Where is whitespace for God opportunities and interruptions?

Where am I even giving God space to move in my day?

I bring this all up because I bet your life isn’t all that different. Sure, the pieces might be different. Sure, some of what you do might be different. But, I bet the first thing you’d say when I ask how your week is, “Busy.”

And, that’s what needs to change.

Because, busyness doesn’t expand God’s kingdom.

And, I’m not talking about being lazy, rather I’m talking about being available. Available to God. Available to interruptions and those around you. Available to meet and connect with others.

Doug Fields writes, “Busy is the enemy of neighbourly.”

That is so simple, and true.

As Christians, we are called to be neighbourly because we are called to change neighbourhoods.

I write this as a challenge today. Cut some things out of your schedule to make space for God’s schedule. Busy is the enemy of neighbourly, and busy is the enemy of a whole life. So, make some changes.

That’s what I am going to do today.