Wildfires

Our family had a great time reconnecting with our parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, and friends in British Columbia this past month. And, as always, I enjoyed being back in the mountains and made the most of opportunities to hike some trails, including the Abby Grind and the Othello Tunnels / Hope-Nicola Valley Trail.

For the last week or so of our vacation, however, the mountains were obscured by smoke of the wildfires still burning in BC. Instead of clear mountain vistas, we often awoke to hazy skies. The wildfires also closed several highways between Prince George and Abbotsford, forcing us to detour over the Yellowhead Highway from Prince George east to Tête Jaune Cache and then south to Kamloops, Hope, Cache Creek wildfire photo from CBCand Abbotsford. We drove past barricaded highways and towns on evacuation alert.

Ashcroft First Nation fire damage photo from CBC

 

 

 

 

 

 

As it so happened, Michael W. Smith’s CD Sovereign provided the soundtrack for part of the drive. As we were driving through Little Fort, a town where the residents had returned following an evacuation but remained on high alert, the song “Sovereign Over Us” started playing with its reminders of God’s strength in our sorrows. These lines were especially appropriate:

You’ve not forgotten us;
You’re with us through the fire and the flood.

The bridge helps us confess:

Even in the valley You are faithful,
You’re working for our good,
You’re working for our good and for Your glory.

Literally and figuratively, God is present with His people in hazy valleys and fiery circumstances. That doesn’t necessarily make traveling through those valleys or enduring the flames easy. But it does assure me that I’m not traveling through them alone.

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Not for ten million dollars

Anticipating the upcoming Rock Valley Volunteers Day in April,
the good people at
Justice for All and The Rock Valley Bee asked me to write an article about why we volunteer in the first place.
Volunteers respond during the 2014 Rock Valley floodThis was published in
this week’s Bee

One day as Mother Teresa was working in the slums of Calcutta dressing the wounds of a dying leper, a tourist asked permission to take a photograph. The tourist, observing the tenderness with which Mother Teresa dressed the leper’s wound, said, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!”

What is it that drives people to do something out of the goodness of their heart with no expectation of reward? Are they motivated by an altruistic desire to help others in need? Do they sometimes hope deep down that someone is watching and impressed? Do they see themselves as the only one who can fill a particular need that’s not otherwise being addressed? Do they think it will look good on their résumé? Do they hope it will help them grow in some way? Do they feel it will help them find discover meaning and purpose in their lives?

Without a doubt there are many benefits to volunteering: It’s a great way to meet new people. You can learn skills that you might later put to use in the workplace. It allows you to connect more with your local community. When and for how long you volunteer is probably more flexible than where you’re employed. You get the sense that you’re making a difference.

I believe there’s a deeper root to any inclination we have to serve others without expectation of repayment. It goes back to the creation account in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where God creates humanity in his image. In our appearance, reasoning, creativity, and compassion, we reflect something of God. Sin has certainly defaced God’s image in us, but it has not destroyed it. So if God is merciful and sacrificial, it stands to reason that beings created in his image also share these traits at least to some extent.

More than that, God is merciful and sacrificial without looking for repayment. Christians believe he offers us life through the death and resurrection of Jesus – the most wonderful gift which no one can ever repay. Yet he offers it freely. Therefore as God’s image-bearers, we are most fully human when we sacrifice without expecting something in return. I’d dare say it’s hardwired into us. We fight how God originally designed us when we are greedy, stingy, and selfish, first asking what’s in it for me.

Volunteering traces its roots back to that most ancient of commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” God gives us this command not just because he figures it’s good for us (which it is) but because through loving others in compassionate and sacrificial ways, we get at something central to what it means to be human.

The tourist remarked to Sister Teresa in Calcutta, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!” Sister Teresa replied, “Neither would I, my friend,” as she continued to tenderly dress the leper’s wounds.

I’m a hypocrite, too

As dozens of media outlets have reported, reality Photo of Josh Duggar from nypost.comTV star Josh Duggar has been outed as one of the 32 million people who used the cheating website Ashley Madison. Acknowledging the contradiction between adultery and the family values he espoused while part of the TV show 19 Kids and Counting and a director at the Family Research Council, Mr. Duggar declared, “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever.”

I’m not sure I entirely agree with his assessment. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he’s the hypocrite with the biggest spotlight on him right now.

Full disclosure: I have never watched 19 Kids and Counting. However, I suspect that if the Duggars are anything like me, they tried to show the best side of their large family, keeping dark secrets locked away from the public’s eye. That’s very understandable. But also unfortunate as it gave the impression that they – finally! – are the model Christian family everyone should imitate.

Well, that can only last so long. Although created in God’s image and filled with His Holy Spirit, I am tainted by sin. Sometimes sin sideswipes me in ways I didn’t see coming; sometimes I consciously choose to go down the wrong path. It’s the same with all the members of the Duggar family as well as everyone who professes Jesus as Lord.

I’m not saying this to justify a defeatist attitude, suggesting we may as well just give into to temptations to do things that hurt God, others, or ourselves. The apostle Paul pointedly said something about that. But I think it’s worth recognizing that to be a Christian simply means to be a hypocrite. On this side of the new heaven and new earth, I won’t follow Jesus perfectly. I’ll make mistakes and I’ll be impacted by others’ mistakes.

Does the media make a big deal about Christians caught in sin because Christians tend to put on a false front while the cameras are rolling? Do I think my message to the world must be that I’ve got it all together because I follow Jesus? If I was more humble and more quickly acknowledged my mistakes – while not ignoring the good things God is doing in and through me – perhaps people wouldn’t pounce all over me when one of those mistakes comes to light. Both Christians and non-Christians might say, “Yeah, he messed up. He warned us he would. Just like I do.”

Until Jesus returns, confession of sins and reaching out for forgiveness will be part of what it means to be human. Instead of pretending I’m something I’m not, my energy is better spent repenting and asking for forgiveness when I sin… as well as extending grace and forgiveness when the person next to me messes up, too.

It would be cool if the media caught some of that on camera once in a while.

The hard work of rest

Our family just returned from our vacation to British Columbia where we had a great time reconnecting with family and friends.

Part of our time away was spent at Purden Lake in northern BC.

Once again I experienced the irony of how resting can be hard work.  It does not come naturally to me. I might step out of the office and leave the building, but I’ll still take my work with me in my mind – thinking over sermons, wondering about particular people, planning meetings and ministries. My body might be out of town, but sometimes it takes two or three days before my brain begins its vacation. And often a day or two before our scheduled return, my brain already begins thinking it’s back in the office. Just because we say we’re resting or just because it looks like we’re resting, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are!

Taking a break is not easy. It means letting go, and I have a hard time doing that. I want to stay involved (read: I don’t want to be out of the loop and/or not in control). I want to be continually productive (read: I don’t want to disappoint people who might get the impression I’m lazy).

Nevertheless God tells me and you to take a break, to engage in Sabbath rest. In His mercy, He does not want to watch us burn out, even if it’s by doing good and worthwhile things. Our physical and emotional health is important to God.

But I think even more importantly, in telling me to rest, God is inviting me to trust. He reminds me that the world will not spin off its axis if I take a break. In her book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Marva Dawn speaks of God’s Sabbath invitation to rely on Him, to “let God be God in our lives” (p. 29). Sabbath rest teaches me to recognize when and where I am trying too hard on my own to secure my future without trusting God or sensing His presence. Rest keeps things in perspective.

I like Mark Buchanan’s double definition of Sabbath. In The Rest of God, he has the familiar definition that it is a day, typically Sunday in the Protestant tradition. But he also defines Sabbath as an attitude:

A Sabbath heart is restful even in the midst of unrest and upheaval.  It is attentive to the presence of God and others even in the welter of much coming and going, rising and falling.  It is still and knows God even when mountains fall into the sea.

You will never enter the Sabbath day without a Sabbath heart.  (p. 4)

It doesn’t come naturally (spiritual disciplines typically don’t), but part of trusting God means resting, observing Sabbath – Sabbath moments, Sabbath days, Sabbath seasons. It lets God be God. And it helps me be better at being the me God wants me to be.

(I originally wrote and posted this in July 2010
and our recent vacation brought it to mind again.)

Praying after the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage

Supreme Court picture from Christianity Today

In Trinity CRC’s morning prayers yesterday, I prayed about the decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States that makes same-sex marriages legal in all 50 states. This is how it went…

::– –::– –::

Lord, you know how we believe that same-sex marriage “is incompatible with obedience to [Your] will … as revealed in Scripture.” It seems we have failed at convincing our culture that your design for marriage is best. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision this week, some of us are tempted to go off and sulk in our holy corner. Or to dig in our heels and fight harder. Or to lash out in anger. Or to despair. Help us do better.

Help us focus on You, convinced that Your Kingdom will come in fullness and that there remains much vital work for Your church to do in society until that day.

Help us repent for refusing to give “loving support and encouragement” to persons with same‑sex attraction. Forgive us for when our homophobia repelled people away from the Gospel. Forgive us for our hypocrisy – when we passionately try to root out sexual sins while remaining relatively indifferent to racism, gluttony, selfishness, and other sins.

Help us reach out to the gay community. Maybe now that they see the church as having lost on the issue of same-sex marriage, they won’t consider us as much of a threat and might be willing to build relationships with us. Give us the grace to welcome and even initiate those moments as opportunities to share the good and beautiful news of the Gospel like never before.

Acknowledgements:
This prayer is adapted from Mark Galli’s article at Christianity Today. Parts in “quotations marks” are from the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s position statement on homosexuality. I also found Steven Koster’s post at ThinkChristian helpful in reflecting on all this.

Storm

Flooding in Rock Valley photo by Bonita Van Otterloo Rock Valley is coming through a storm. It is hard to praise God in storms. But sometimes in a storm we hear God whisper “I’m with you.” The whisper comes in an unexplainable moment of calm, in the helping hand from a stranger, in a hope-filled word from a friend. Ironically, the whisper is sometimes clearest in storms.

 

A sense of belonging

I used to belong. But not anymore.

Abbotsford Christian School? I graduated nearly 20 years ago and don’t belong to that community anymore.

The King’s University College rez? I moved out in 1998.

The city of Abbotsford? I haven’t been a citizen since 2003 and don’t even live in the province anymore.

The Acts Bible study group at Smithville CRC? I don’t even know if the same group of people are still meeting.

The Bulkley Valley Ministerial Association? The last meeting I attended was over a year ago.

I used to belong in these places and to these groups. But as time moves on, I leave some places and find find myself belonging elsewhere. Where I belong today might be a happy memory tomorrow.

This is true for just about everything except one: I will forever belong to Jesus. He has made me part of the Father’s family. And that status can never change.

In a world where belonging has become elusive, in a world where kids cry when their friend has a sleepover and doesn’t invite them, in a world where Millennials can expect to hold 15-20 jobs over the course of their working lives, in a world where families are torn apart by divorce, in a world where church membership and recordkeeping sound like relics from the past, it is indeed Good News to hear there’s a place where I belong for good. Jesus does not abandon me. Jesus does not lose interest in me. Jesus does not replace me. Jesus does not forget about me.

This is the foundation on which the beloved Heidelberg Catechism is built. It’s celebrating its 450th birthday this year. I’m looking forward to upcoming worship services at Trinity CRC where we’ll be commemorating this milestone.

Heidelberg Catechism graphic from conference.myonlycomfort.org


Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,
but belong
body and soul, in life and in death –
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins
with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven;
in fact, all things must work together
for my salvation.
(Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 1)