Contagious courage

While we were in British Columbia this summer, my 10-year-old son and I hiked the Abby Grind. The trail begins a mile from my parents’ house at the base of Sumas Mountain and climbs 1,200 feet in just over a mile, making for some good exercise. It didn’t take long before we started huffing! Near the three-quarter mark, we were both tempted to just turn around, but then we knew we’d miss out on theAbby Grind lookout spectacular view at the lookout. So we encouraged each other on and both made it to the top.

On the one hand, we both needed to hike the trail ourselves. We propelled ourselves onward with our own legs, muscles, and willpower. But on the other hand, we needed each other’s encouragement to keep going, to cheer each other on. We were also encouraged by other hikers coming down the trail reminding us that the effort was worth it.

With satisfied smiles, we scrambled up around the last corner and saw the Fraser Valley spread out below us and Washington State beyond. If it had been a bit clearer, we might even have seen the ocean. A little later as we descended back down the trail, we encouraged other hikers making their way up.

Life sometimes feels like a serious hike in which we often deal with aches and pain. Sometimes we feel alone with our doubts and fears and secret desire to drop out. One of the reasons I think God places us in a Christian community is so that we can cheer one another on. Author Lewis Smedes once observed that “nobody else can have courage for us. But behind individual acts of courage there is usually a community. Courage is contagious. It spreads when we get close to each other.”

I see a church community as a place to experience the contagiousness of courage. Surrounded by fellow hikers on the path, we hear and see people cheering us on while we in turn do the same for others. Sometimes I’m the one reminding you that the effort of being a loyal spouse, a dependable parent, or a hard worker is worth it; sometimes you’re the one encouraging me.

This goes for faith as well: Sometimes I encourage you in your walk with Jesus and sometimes it’s me who needs your encouragement. Are you part of a community where you encourage others and other encourage you? Consider joining a church gathering this Sunday.

Yes, it’s possible that I could’ve conquered the Abby Grind on my own. But hiking it together with someone was not only more fun but also boosted the courage in both of us.

I suspect there’s someone with whom you’re hiking through life who could use a boost from you today.

I wrote this for the Rock Valley Bee a couple weeks ago
but kept forgetting to post it here!




When I come across a list of names in the Bible, it’s easy for me to just skip over it and get to the more exciting story that follows. Sometimes, however, there’s a message even in a seemingly boring list of names. Take Acts 13, for example. The people listed there are from different ethnicities – some Jewish, some Roman, and possibly even an African. Each person has a different history – one likely grew up in a palace like in the fairy tales, another murderously pursued people with beliefs different than his own. On top of that, the people listed there serve the early church in different roles – some are pastors and some are prophets.

Yet despite these differences, these people are united in Christ. They serve the one church together, blessing one another with their different backgrounds and perspectives, interests and gifts.

Multicultural graphic found via Google

I love how the church of Jesus is made up of so many different people, people who maybe would otherwise have nothing to do with each other, but in Christ they (we!) are united in a bond of love. The Good News of Jesus is that He reconciles us to God, but He also reconciles us to one another; one ought to lead to the other is how I see it.

I pray that the Holy Spirit reveals God’s grace to me so that I in turn may share it with others, no matter how similar or how different they may be from myself.

Welcoming guests

Each Sunday we welcome guests who are spending time with us at Trinity CRC. I prefer saying guests rather than visitors. (And don’t get me started about referring to new people as strangers as I once heard a pastor do!) You might be tempted to say this is just semantics – that we’re talking about the same thing, so don’t make a big deal about it. I disagree.

Although similar, the definitions of guest and visitor do have Beyond the First Visit by Gary L McIntoshsome differences. Gary McIntosh explains those differences in Beyond the First Visit:

Visitors are often unwanted; guests are expected. Visitors just show up; guests are invited. Visitors are expected to leave; guests are expected to stay. Visitors come one time; guests return again.

How many jokes are out there about your mother-in-law coming for a visit? The jokes don’t work (at least not as well) if you refer to the woman as a guest. (Just for the record and in case my wife’s mom is reading: I don’t get mother-in-law jokes.)

Just for the record and in case my wife’s mom is reading: I don’t get mother-in-law jokes.

Unless you specifically indicate otherwise by prefacing it with the adjective unwelcome, a guest is typically someone you’re happy to have in your home. Even if they arrive unexpectedly, we are happy to extend hospitality to guests.

If in the newspaper or on the sign out front or on our church’s website we invite people to check out our church, should anyone be seen as showing up unexpectedly? More to the point, if a new person shows up to a Sunday worship service, are we genuinely happy to see them? If not, then I suppose it doesn’t matter whether we think of them as visitors or even strangers.

Just don’t hold your breath for them to come back.

All this reminds me of how the word guest appears in a reading I sometimes use when leading a celebration of the Lord’s Supper:

[Jesus] was always the guest.
In the homes of Peter and Jairus,
Martha and Mary,
Joanna and Susanna,
he was always the guest.
At the meal tables of the wealthy
where he pled the case of the poor,
he was always the guest.
Upsetting polite company,
befriending isolated people,
welcoming the stranger,
he was always the guest.

But here, at this table,
he is the host.

Those who wish to serve him
must first be served by him;
those who want to follow him
must first be fed by him;
those who would wash his feet
must first let him make them clean.
For this is the table
where God intends us to be nourished;
this is the time
when Christ can make us new.

So come, you who hunger and thirst
for a deeper faith,
for a better life,
for a fairer world.
Jesus Christ,
who has sat at our tables,
now invites us to be guests at his.

In our churches on Sundays, we’re a bit like Jesus: We have the privilege to graciously and humbly serve as hosts for new people who walk through the door. Yet we are all guests, appearing at God’s gracious call to worship. And if each one of us is a guest on Sunday mornings, in a lot of ways it doesn’t make a big difference whether we’re showing up for the first or thousand-and-first time.

Lord's Supper

The quote from
Beyond the First Visit appears in this insightful blog. The Lord’s Supper reading originally appeared in A Wee Worship Book by the Wild Goose Resource Group; I found it in The Worship Sourcebook by Faith Alive Christian Resources (a second edition has just been published). I found the cartoon and Lord’s Supper graphic via Google.


“How was church today?” is a common question that will likely be asked many times by many people later on tomorrow.  What are the common answers?  Maybe “It was good” or perhaps “Not too bad.”

I wonder, do we gather for worship expecting those to be the sort of responses with which we’ll come home afterwards?  And then do our expectations of “mediocre” worship limit God’s ability to reveal Himself and powerfully work among us?

This past Sunday at Gateway Community Church in Abbotsford, Pastor Bert Slofstra preached on a time Jesus shows up a synagogue in Capernaum.  The service likely begins like usual, but it quickly becomes pretty exciting when Jesus casts a shrieking, violent demon out of a man.  The service has ceased to be predictable and safe.  Jesus has arrived.

Who at the time would have expected such a thing to happen in Capernaum?  Reflecting on that question led Pastor Bert to ask,

Do we ever come here with the expectation that we are headed for a real encounter with the living God?  Do we really expect anything to happen?

So, how are you and I expecting church to go tomorrow?  If you and I expect just another average day of clocking time in the pew or in the pulpit, maybe our eyes and ears, minds and hearts with their preconceived notions will be closed to God’s presence and activity in our very midst.

On the other hand, what if this evening and tomorrow morning we sincerely pray Worshipfor God to reveal Himself in our worship together?  What if we ask the Holy Spirit to tune our bodies and souls for an encounter with our mighty and loving God?  It’s quite possible that our time of worship will cease to be predictable and safe.  But that will be okay, because Jesus will have arrived.  Let’s not miss Him.

When going to church actually makes you a Christian

I’ve seen this posted on Facebook and tweeted one too many times: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”


Oh really?

This saying gets a lot of mileage (“kilometerage” as my mom encourages us to say in Metricland) in North American evangelical Christian circles where it’s okay for one’s faith to be private and individualistic:  Faith is between you and God.  Period.  This mentality fits well into a larger culture that pushes us to do whatever we like (so long as we’re not not hurting anyone):  You want to be a Christian?  Go for it, if that’s what powers your warp drive.  Just do it on your own time and don’t let it interfere with the rest of us.”  And off one goes to explore one’s personal spirituality.

Doesn’t it occur to anyone how preposterous this is?  How anti-biblical this is?

Nowhere in the New Testament will you find a churchless Christianity.  Consider the example of the apostle Paul in Acts 20-21:  Here we find the trailblazing missionary “in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost” (20:16).  Paul badly wants to meet and worship with the elders and other people of Jerusalem.  You’d think that after years in the church-planting and church-discipling business, Paul would appreciate some time alone at a private retreat somewhere secluded along the Mediterranean.  Had you suggested it to him, he probably would have looked at you with a look of complete incomprehension.

As Monica and I read a while ago in our devotions,

Paul knew the strength of his ministry depended on his coming together with the disciples.  It was in coming together for worship and the common meal (Eucharist) that the disciples gathered strength and courage to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to a hostile world.

When we are in Christ, we are part of something that’s much bigger than what (Who!) is in our heart.  Whether we realize it or not, we’re connected with sisters and brothers who span all time and space.  This is the “invisible church.”

Yet the invisible church is never sufficient.  How do we connect with invisible people?  How are we discipled, encouraged, helped, challenged, cared for by “something out there somewhere?”  Jesus’ intention is to place us in the “visible church.”  Among fellow flesh-and-blood, fallen yet imagebearing people of God, we are the words and hands and feet of Jesus for others as others are for us, which in turn trains us to be the words and hands and feet of Jesus for people who don’t know Him yet.

Understanding what the apostle Paul knew, John Stott gets it right when he writes:

The Lord … didn’t add [people] to the church without saving them, and he didn’t save them without adding them to the church.  Salvation and church membership went together; they still do.  (John Stott, The Living Church, p. 32)

Redefining family

At the end of Mark 3, Jesus dramatically redefines family:  People who follow Jesus become sisters and brothers, and the relationships we have with Jesus (our older Brother) and with each other take precedence over all other relationships.

How often, though, don’t we focus on our own little biological families to the detriment of sisters and brothers in Christ?  What would happen if we begin redefining family as Jesus does, sharing our lives not only with blood relatives, but increasingly deeply with our sisters and brothers in Christ, too?

A few weeks ago we talked about this at Telkwa CRC’s Monday morning Mark Bible study, and these reflections by Curt Gesch stem from that conversation.

A typical family. Let’s call the parents Bob and Alice. They have several children, but we’re going to talk about a daughter named Kim.

Kim is a handful. Bob and Alice noticed that she was getting picked on in school. They met with the teacher, who hinted that maybe things weren’t exactly as Kim told her parents. In grade 3, Kim was disciplined, and it turned out that Kim was the one doing the persecuting of fellow students. Kim, in short, demonstrated that she was able to manipulate her parents and teachers.

When Kim got a bit older she began to travel a path that – though perhaps familiar – was no less painful for her parents. She skipped school, dabbled with alcohol and tobacco and, Bob and Alice suspected, with marijuana.

Bob and Alice tried everything from Dobson to counselling to tough love. Nothing seemed to work, and Kim’s life was developing in a dangerous way.

Meanwhile, people in Bob’s and Alice’s church talked very little about Kim. When Kim lost her driver’s license, people whispered about things, but nothing was done “out loud.” Bob and Alice didn’t say much when Kim didn’t show up in church; they said even less when Kim disappeared. Some people (and all the younger people on Facebook) knew that Kim had moved into an apartment in a nearby city with her boyfriend.


There was a time when church members would have made it clear that they thought something was wrong with Bob’s and Alice’s parenting. There was a time when Kim may even have been cornered by the elders and given a talking to.

There was a time when other Bobs and Alices would have tried to use the same child-rearing practices they had experienced.

This Bob and Alice, however, belong to a church that doesn’t send the disciplinary police after children and teens. This Bob and Alice tried special programs, esteem-building activities, Christian counselling, medical and educational initiatives and programs.

This Bob and Alice cannot complain that they have been condemned “out loud” for presumed errors in child-rearing. Yet what appears to be missing from our Bob and Alice is a community willing to do or say something. Perhaps the “failure” (insofar as is humanly discernable) in Kim’s upbringing rises from the failure of church people to see their community as something larger than the nuclear family.

Bob and Alice could not do much more except for one thing: They could have accepted help from church members who were not related to them.

Kim could have had a mentor, a big brother or sister, an honorary uncle or aunt. She could have had an adult sponsor, a god-parent. She could have benefitted from a home that acted as refuge from confusion and confrontation; a short-term “cooling off” home.


If there is “failure” in Kim’s life (and it not sure that we can know for certain what went wrong and what is on its way towards adjustment and “success”), it is a failure of her family and church to understand that community is not biologically determined. The nuclear family (related by fostering, adoption, or biology) is not what Jesus emphasized. He spoke of having “mothers and brothers” (and didn’t mention Joseph at all, which makes me rather sad) based upon shared conformity to the heavenly Father’s will.

Kim needs a bigger family. Bob and Alice need to accept that there are absolutely no parents who are able to raise a child alone.

Jesus Christ brought a kingdom. He also brought a new idea of family, based upon common humanity and a spiritual relationship. Biology is not destiny. Freud and Darwin were wrong.

© Copyright 2010 by Curt Gesch. Used with permission.


Last year I posted this video, “What If Starbucks Marketed Like a Church?”

It made me squirm uncomfortably.  How many things does the church – do I – do that unnecessarily alienates people rather than welcomes and enfolds them?  This movie clip challenges me to make God and church accessible and relevant.

Unfortunately, the temptation is to become so relevant to the culture that the church’s identity is compromised.  Kevin Flatt recently wrote an article in Christian Courier that counters the advice churches explicitly and implicitly receive to accommodate to cultural and/or other pressures lest they die in obscurity.  Based on his research into various traditions, he concludes:

Not only does accommodation fail to save churches, it hurries the very decline that it is supposed to prevent.  A growing body of sociological and historical research into church membership and commitment over the past 50 years has concluded that the strongest churches are those that are serious about what they believe, maintain clear boundaries [against false teaching], and expect sacrifice from their members.  Churches that water down their beliefs and lower their standards lose members. (Flatt’s article appears in the 23 Aug 2010 issue, p. 2)

David F. Wells echoes this in his book The Courage to Be Protestant, arguing that becoming too relevant to the culture may make us irrelevant to God!  In an article in The New York Times, this quote from Wells appears:

The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations.  What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God…

The further irony is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

I wonder: What are things we do as church in an attempt to be relevant that actually undermines our identity and mission?  What things appear irrelevant or unintelligible to people on the outside but are nevertheless simply part of who – and whose – we are?  I’ve heard of churches that do away with calling people to confess their sins because talking about sin makes them uncomfortable.  Old hymns have been put aside to make way for upbeat contemporary songs, even though many of the hymns are more theologically sound.  It’s tempting for preachers to avoid parts of Scripture that may sound politically incorrect.

In some of these ways, we may simply have to choose to appear irrelevant: Confess our sins (and receive the assurance of God’s forgiveness!); choose songs on criteria other than their popularity; preach both the comforting and challenging parts of the Bible.  Having said this, however, we cannot create an environment where irrelevance is pursued as a virtue in and of itself (as is parodied in the coffee shop video clip).  Irrelevance should not be a goal, though sometimes it may be a result of obedience to God’s Word and Spirit.

I guess it feels a bit like a tightrope for me.  I want to make the Gospel appealing – a “pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.”  But I cannot make it so pleasing, so relevant that people can’t tell the difference between it and everything else with which our culture entices them.

Do you have any thoughts or success stories about balancing on this tightrope?