Rejoice! The Law has been read!

Suicide is now one of the leading causes of death in North America. The figures are staggering — in 2016, more than twice as many people died by their own hand in the USA as were victims of homicide — and experts are calling it an “epidemic”. Suicides cross social and economic lines – from mixed-up kids, to poor people, to celebrities who seemed to “have it all”.

People wring their hands, trying to come up with solutions. I’m not an expert in this subject, but when you add in the trends in drug overdoses (another “epidemic”), one common thread becomes clear:

Loss of hope.

Intense sadness, depression, feelings of guilt, self-condemnation, inability to “measure up”; the overwhelming sense that there is no way out.

Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month.

Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand, and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Josabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place.

So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the meaning.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.

— Nehemiah 8:1-3, 7-9

When people are severely depressed, it’s like their lives have been gutted: like Jerusalem, their world has been sacked, burned, all the things they hold dear have been carried away and they are held captive by the forces we mentioned above.

The Word of God is a lifeline in times like that, especially the fact that Jesus Christ killed those same forces. Jesus restores Hope and helps us to focus our lives on something other than the world.

But somehow, what should be a source of Hope has been portrayed as a tool of oppression and no alternative at all. Secular humanists disparage people who believe in God (“talking to their ‘imaginary friend in the sky'”) and dismiss the Bible as “written by men to control others”. Many churches and religious zealots still speak words of condemnation on the less righteous and there are even some churches that preach some parts of the Bible but ignore or reject other parts because they “can’t believe God would say that”.

The Word itself, one way or another, gets left out in the cold, and it appears we’re now paying the price for letting that happen.

The people at Jerusalem heard the Word — many, for the first time — when Ezra and the priests and Levites read and explained it to them, and they wept. Why would they weep? Perhaps, for the same reason people break down, sobbing, when the Holy Spirit touches them; I’d also suggest they felt condemned and inadequate; but also because a missing piece had been restored to their lives.

Then [Nehemiah] said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.”

And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.

— Nehemiah 8:10-12

Let’s look at the parallels between the Ezra-Nehemiah account and our own lives. We are burnt-through and gutted; Jesus lays the foundation of our new temple; our friends and loved ones are there as our protective wall is rebuilt — ever watchful for those who would knock us off the track.

Now, the last piece of the puzzle is the Word of God, which we can read for ourselves, with solid teaching to help us understand it. And while it’s heavy in places, there’s cause to rejoice.

Why?

  • We now have direction
  • God loves us so much, He wants us to be clear on what’s right and what’s wrong
  • We understand that: what had been mysterious to us is a mystery no more
  • God promises to heal us so long as we keep His Commandments
  • God is there to protect us and give us strength to face what the world throws at us

And we have one more thing that the people at Jerusalem didn’t: redemption for our sins. We can thank Jesus Christ for washing away our sins with His blood and we can move forward, unshackled by the chains of our past and free to accept the life God wants for us!

In other words, we have Hope. We have a reason to keep living, even when everything seems to be falling apart around us, because we know God has something infinitely better in His plans for us — not just in the next life, but the one we’re in now. We have reason to REJOICE!

Lives are at stake: let’s share this good news with others!

Rebuilding against the odds

I really didn’t mean to get into a rut with Ezra and Nehemiah, but I’ve reached that point in the Bible and I keep seeing things that reflect the walk with Christ.

108.Nehemiah_Views_the_Ruins_of_Jerusalem's_Walls

Gustave Doré: Nehemiah Views the Ruins of Jerusalem’s Walls (1866)

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem after King Cyrus allowed him to go back and help rebuild the temple, he found the walls were destroyed and much of the city burned. But under him, the people rallied and everybody pitched in to rebuild the wall.

That’s everybody: priests and laypeople, rich and poor, women and men (Nehemiah 3:12) took a section of the wall and built it.

But as word got out to the Jews’ enemies, they started plotting to block the project, including sneaking in through the holes in the wall and killing everyone.

So Nehemiah set up defences, with people taking shifts building while others stood guard, and some even learning to work one-handed, so they could carry a sword.

And they got the job done. In a feat that could only be God At Work, they got the walls rebuilt in fifty-two days.

52, you say?

If Pentecost is traditionally placed 50 days after Easter Sunday, isn’t 52 the number of days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit?

Now, I may be stretching things to their elastic limit, but let me put this on the SkyTrain and see if it gets off at Metrotown:

When we come to Christ, our lives are pretty much shattered and burnt. That’s the way it is: very few people I know reach out to Jesus when everything seems to be going well for them (which pretty much mirrors the Jews at the time Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians in the first place). So we start the process of rebuilding, and we’re surrounded by a team.

Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?

— 1 Corinthians 6:19

Friends, relatives, priests, pastors, all appear and support you as best they can with the gifts they have. But there’s something else to bear in mind. You will face adversity. In the early going, people who had been allies in the past will try to subvert your conversion and undermine your newfound faith. There will be people who are jealous of the new joy you’ve found; others will be afraid that, in your new righteousness, you will turn against them and will try to pre-empt that by turning against you first.

That period of “newness” is the time you have to be on your guard. Stay close to Jesus, as He builds the foundation of your new Temple, and stay close to the friends who are helping rebuild your walls: they’ll have your back. And as you do so, you’ll find you reach the full revelation of God — your baptism in the Holy Spirit — faster than you could ever have thought possible.

One of the many things the Bible does for us, is give us illustrations of people facing similar situations to our own. This is just another such example, which gives us lessons to learn, encouragement for our own walk, and a reminder that, whatever we’re going through, others have gone through it before and are still going through it now.

Your place in the Plan

One of my favorite sermons is, “It Seemed Like a Bad Idea At The Time,” which looks at Jesus’ lineage and the various characters who, by rights, shouldn’t even have been born, according to God’s laws. It begins with the first sixteen verses of the Book of Matthew, which lists the genealogy leading to Joseph, husband of Mary, mother of Jesus, and points out many of the births which, by rights, “should not have happened”. There were births out of wedlock, there was incest, there were relationships with foreigners, and — in the case of David and Bathsheba — adultery and murder. Anywhere along the line, if someone had come down with a case of the righteousness, the lineage leading to the ideal man to be parent to the Son of God would have been broken.

Now, on Monday, I mentioned the long list of names in the Book of Chronicles and asked, rhetorically, why God would put all those names in there. You could say the same about any of the many such lists in the Bible.

And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel.

— Matthew 1:12

Zerubbabel. Is that someone we should know? Is he someone else on that list of People Who Shouldn’t Have Been Born?

No.

Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them.

So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem and the prophets of God were with them, helping them.

— Ezra 5:1-2

Recall: Ezra had been granted permission to lead a group from Babylon back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple.

Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying:

“The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; His hands shall also finish it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you.”

— Zechariah 4:8-9

(In fact, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.” That was a prophecy directed to Zerubbabel, as well. (Zechariah 4:6).)

So Jesus’ earthly lineage includes the man who laid the foundation for the temple, which had been destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar sacked it and carted most of the Jews off to Babylon.

Isn’t that what Jesus does in our lives? We’ve been sacked by the enemy: treasures that we had held dear have been taken away and we’re in captivity; and it’s Jesus who comes in — as a servant — and rebuilds it. It was already set up by God – engrained in the heritage of the Son of Man.

But this Biblical connection is about more than the “aha!” experience of seeing that Zerubbabel was part of Jesus’ lineage. It resonates in our own lives and the reality that God has a plan going down and each of us has a part in it. We may never know exactly what that part is, so it’s important to consider it and keep the Scriptural evidence in mind.

Zerubbabel had no way of knowing that his great-times-seven grandson would be the parent of the Son of God, who would lay the foundation to rebuild our spiritual temple, which many would have thought had been sacked beyond all recognition. He simply was put into a situation, presented his gifts to the Lord, and did what he had to do.

It’s the same with us. There are situations we find ourselves in, and have no idea why, what we’re doing there and what God’s playing at. That’s when we need to accept that it’s all part of a plan that may not come to fruition or make any kind of sense for generations to come. This we know: Zerubbabel was protected and God prospered him as he moved forward with the assignment, and God promises to do that for us, too. So when we say “Yes, Lord,” we’re not simply sacrificing ourselves for future generations. That’s already been done.

… and not like the scribes

So yesterday, I was talking about the role bureaucrats play in God’s plan: how they’re the ones who keep the records, archive them, and have a pretty good idea where the records are and what they mean.

That’s been really important on a number of occasions in the Bible. There was the time when Josiah, King of Judah, sent Shaphan, the scribe, and Hilkiah, the high priest, to get the money to pay the workers for repairing the house of the Lord, and Shaphan found the Book of the Law. He read it to the King, and the King tore his clothes, realized his people’s disobedience to God was responsible for their current sorry state, and turned the people around.

Generations later, it was a bureaucrat who dug up King Cyrus’ decree that the Jews should be allowed to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the Temple, which Nebuchadnezzar had sacked.

The bureaucrats played a vital role. but when it comes to Jesus, something’s different.

Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught.

And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

— Mark 1:21-22

What does that mean, “not as the scribes”?

Simply put, I believe it’s the difference between someone reading Scripture with more emphasis on how they sound than on what they say — rather like the way the humorist, Michael Green, described the Standard Shakespearean Delivery in his book, The Art of Coarse Acting: “similar to hailing a ship in a fog.” (With all respect to Alexander Scourby, whose audio-book rendition of the King James Bible sets the gold standard, his delivery does remind me of that. I had to suppress a serious fit of the giggles the first time I heard him read, “Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smoooooth man.” (Genesis 27:11). Had to be there.)

But a couple of other sources suggest the difference is more obvious than that. Scribes, one points out, tended to attribute what they said or taught to other teachers or begin with “Thus saith the Lord”, while Jesus said “But I say to you ….” And the confidence with which He said it, gave the people new eyes to see and ears to hear.

Of course, Jesus is the Word of God, so it stands to reason He would speak the Word of God. It’s similar today. Some preachers like to impress with scholarship and quotes; some preachers go up there with just the Bible and a few notes, and speak from the heart.  Whatever the style, if the Holy Spirit is at work in him or her, you’ll find “takeaways” that speak into a situation you’re going through or answer a question you’d been wrestling with; you’ll come closer to God, and you’ll know that your preacher is “speaking with authority.”

And God made bureaucrats …

… and God saw that it was good!

bureaucrat-22678401In my radio news days, I had a colleague who insisted that bureaucrats got a bad rap. Frank showed me the merits of a good filing system, and I … well, I still have trouble organizing a sock drawer that stays organized past the next laundry day.

God is a God of order. There are ten Commandments — one for each finger most of us have.* Those commandments are etched in stone tablets, and when Moses shattered the first pair in his rage, God provided him with another set of the Commandments on stone tablets. No need to work off memory.

His Word is not an “oral legend”, relying on minstrels, scops and spoken-word performance artists to pass along, with slight alterations from generation to generation. The prophets wrote down what they heard and saw in the Spirit. And the scribes — the bureaucrats — kept them, and archived them, even when one might have thought it wasn’t relevant.

That becomes extremely important when it comes time to remember what God said. Take, for example, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon, after the Hebrews were allowed to go home from Babylon. The Jews’ enemies wrote to King Artaxerxes, king of Persia, claiming that the Jews were re-building the city in order to rebel against Persia and stop paying tax, tribute or custom (Ezra 4:13). Rehum, the commander, told Artaxerxes, basically, “you can look it up” and see what the Jews’ history was.

Which is what he did, and he wrote back to Rehum,

… a search has been made, and it was found that this city in former times has revolted against kings, and rebellion and sedition have been fostered in it. There have also been mighty kings over Jerusalem, who have ruled over all the region beyond the River; and tax, tribute and custom were paid to them.

— Ezra 4:19-20

So Artaxerxes slapped a “stop work” order on the project. But Artaxerxes died, Darius became king, and the Jews resumed work. When the enemies complained, Zerubbabel, the leader of the builders, wrote to Darius, saying King Cyrus, in his day, had given them permission.

Now it was the Jews’ turn to say, “You can look it up.”

Then King Darius issued a decree, and a search was made in the archives, where the treasures were stored in Babylon. And at Achmetha, in the palace that is in the province of Media, a scroll was found, and in it a record was written thus:

In the first year of King Cyrus, King Cyrus issued a decree concerning the house of God at Jerusalem. “Let the house be rebuilt, the place where they offered sacrifices; and let the foundations of it be firmly laid, its height sixty cubits and its width sixty cubits …

— Ezra 6:1-3

So the bureaucrats saved the day! Presumably, no one told them why Artaxerxes wanted information on the history of the Hebrews in the first place, because if they’d known it was to shut down work on the temple and the city, someone would probably have said, “Just a sec’ – King Cyrus gave them permission, and it’s for their God – the one and true God.

That’s not the only time.

Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.

So Shaphan the scribe went to the king [Josiah], bringing the king word, saying, “Your servants have gathered the money that was found in the house and have delivered it into the hand of those who do the work, who oversee the house of the Lord.”

Then Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shapan read it before the king.

Now it happened, when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, that he tore his clothes.

Then the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam the son of Shaphan, Achbor the son of Michaiah, Shaphan the scribe and Asaiah a servant of the king saying, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is aroused against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

—  2 Kings 22:8-14

And with that, Josiah got Judah back on track. Some bureaucrat, a scribe, had filed the Book of the Law generations before, and it took another scribe to find it — and a godly king to receive, read and repent.

The beginning of the book of Chronicles contains the genealogy of God’s people, stretching right back to Adam: meticulously compiled and recorded. Why? Because we already know many of those characters — or are about to meet them — and we need to know where they came from.

The beginning of Matthew’s Gospel spells out Jesus’ earthly lineage, and many of the names we recognize from the Old Testament accounts. When we refer back to those older accounts, we get a picture of Jesus’ character as the Son of Man.

So for God, order and records are vital. So are the people who know where papers are filed and how important they are. That’s especially so today, when we need to remember what’s in the Book of the Law, and be prepared to tear our clothes when we find out what It says.


*I realize a generalization like that can get me in trouble: “Dear Mr Snider, I represent the Hendecadigital Support Society: we advocate for the eleven-fingered among us …” **
** Hendecadigital = Having 11 fingers or toes. I coined it myself. You’re welcome to it.

How does He love us? (Cover the children’s ears!)

Sometimes, when we talk of God’s love for us, it can be easy to slip into the theme that His unconditional love is in spite of the things we do to hurt or offend Him. We get the feeling that for Him, loving us is a chore that He has to “get through”, because He said He would and He’s not a man, that He should lie, etc., etc.

That, of course, leads us to guilt and shame on our part. We might even harbour a perverse desire to “test” His love and “fall back on Grace” when we knowingly do wrong.

But is that the only way that He loves us?

How fair and how pleasant you are,

O love, with your delights!

This stature of yours is like a palm tree,

And your breasts like its clusters.

I said, “I will go up to the palm tree,

I will take hold of its branches.”

Let now your breasts be like clusters of the vine,

The fragrance of your breath like apples,

And the roof of your mouth like the best wine.

— Song of Solomon 7:6-9

A woman once told me that the Song of Solomon was “pure porn”. She was a non-believer, but her assessment drew me to take another look at that Old Testament book. Sure, it’s a love poem about — and possibly by — King Solomon and one of his wives, and it does get a bit graphic. So why is it in the Holiest Canon?

Because it’s not just about Solomon and the Shulamite (the girl).

This is an illustration of God’s love for His people! The Song of Solomon (or “Song of Songs,” or “The Best Song”) is filled with images of pure physical love, in all its romance and erotica. There is foreplay, there are searches through the streets, one lover looking for the other; there is a chorus that rejoices in the love of the couple. There isn’t really talk of sex or the consummation of the love: it’s playful, as the lovers enjoy each other.

This.

Is.

How.

God.

Loves.

Us.

In the same way, God searches for us, desperately reaching out to find us; He anticipates being with us and enjoys us when we find Him.

The wine goes down smoothly for my beloved,

Moving gently the lips of sleepers.

I am my beloved’s,

And his desire is toward me.

Come, my beloved,

Let us go forth to the field;

Let us lodge in the villages,

Let us get up early to the vineyards;

Let us see if the vine has budded,

Whether the grape blossoms are open,

And the pomegranates are i bloom.

There I will give you my love.

— Song of Solomon 7:9-12

Song of Solomon is right bang in the middle of the Bible. We’ve come through the histories with their heavy action and descriptions of God’s wrath; then we’ve had the “worship section” — the Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Still to come are the prophecies: more descriptions of how ticked-off God is getting with us, although they all end with a note of hope. But before we get into the prophecies, there is this amazing, intense, almost-too-personal love letter to tell us that God is not just Abba Father and Jesus Friend, but the greatest, most passionate, most faithful LOVER.

Four Words to Avoid in a Debate

As you probably know, we were in Utah a couple of weeks ago, partly for work and partly to see another part of the USA (my mother was born there and I had never been). We talked with some of the locals, and when they heard we were from Canada, they would express shame about President Trump.

That’s a sad state of affairs, to begin with. The concept of “my country, right or wrong” seems to have evaporated in the Trump administration: I can’t think of any other instance where people from a country have apologized to people from other countries for their leader.

Now, admittedly, the people we talked with were either friends whom we knew to be political “progressives”, or people like artists and gallery staff , who were already unlikely to be Trumpites:  but something one of these people said really struck a chord.

“I have relatives who like Trump, and I want to shake them and say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

What’s wrong with you?

Therein, lies a key to the current division in society: contending that there is something “wrong” with someone because they disagree with us. If we treat someone as wrong because they don’t see things our way, that does three things: it puts them in the position of having to defend themselves; we set ourselves up as their judge because we’re “right” and they’re “wrong”; and we neglect this key piece of Scripture …

Give no offence, either to the Jews, or to the Gentiles, or to the church of God: just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.

— 1 Corinthians 10:32-33

According to Paul, who had a pretty fair track record with such things, the way to lead someone to your point of view — in his case, turning people towards Christ, but the principle applies anywhere — is DON’T OFFEND THEM.
And really, is there anything more offensive than taking the standpoint that the other person is wrong? 
For another thing, thinking of someone as wrong is only a short step away from deciding that they are evil, while you are good.

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me ‘good’? No one is good but One, that is, God.”
— Mark 10:17-18
Well, that let’s you and me out, doesn’t it?
The thing we need to understand — and is incredibly hard to understand — is that by and large, everyone thinks that the things they do, think and say are right. Some might see that through the filter of serving God, and some might see it through the filter of “what works for me” (a definition of being a psychopath), some might believe they’re doing it to defend their country; but basically, they’re not ill-intentioned.
Am I saying that “right and wrong” is fluid?
Not at all: “right and wrong” is spelled out by God and very much an “either/or” thing. So by accepting that people might think they’re right, but come at the question from different points of view, we can move the conversation forward. Ideally, the conversation should go along these lines:
Here’s how I see it.
How do you see it?
What does the Word of God have to say about it? Let’s find out together.
(Pause to flip through the Bible and concordance.)
NOW … here’s how I see it.
What do you see?
It’s not for us to determine whether another person is right or wrong; good or evil. If “no one is good but One, that is, God,” doesn’t it stand to reason that no one is evil, except Satan?* People can be influenced by the serpent, and some more than others; but we don’t get to determine how much they’re influenced and whether we’re not influenced in some way, ourselves.
Of course, it helps if we have at least that common point of reference — the Bible — with our opponent, and that we’re both willing to defer to The Great Arbitrator to reach the truth. But as I’ve said before, in this post-Christian era, we may not even have that.
And, mirabile dictu, that opens up a whole other conversation and opportunity to spread the Word.
But frankly, asking someone “What’s wrong with you?” ain’t gonna do it.

*No, I’m not saying Satan is an opposite-and-equal to God: God created him, God bats last and we already know that God wins.

Hang in there!

Every day, things seem to get worse.

I’ve just been reading the latest report on the horrors people on the island of Hawai’i are experiencing because of the continuing eruption of Kilauea. Before that, there have been reports of the thousands of children being separated from their parents as they try to cross the border from Mexico into the USA. Suicide has become one of the leading causes of death in North America. Big, wealthy Arab countries are besieging and starving a tiny, economically-depressed Arab country because …… um, why was that again? Civil wars have raged for years, and you can’t tell who the good guys and bad guys are. Drug abuse is rampant, with lives destroyed on a daily basis.

It’s painful to hear about.

Hang in there.

Why?

A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come, but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”

— John 16:20

This world’s pain is reaching the point of climax before the “delivery” is complete. None of us can say how much further we have to go to reach that climax, but Jesus tells us it’s going to happen, it’s going to be excruciatingly painful, but it will pass and there will be something so glorious, so joy-producing, that we’ll quickly forget the pain.

That is the hope in our world today: that Jesus told us, 2,000 years ago, that we would see horrible things, head-spinning changes in society, widespread hatred and events that would make us want to “check out”; but something infinitely better is on the way.

We just have to hang in there, because it’s not just going to get tough: it’s going to get personal.

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair on your head shall be lost.

“By your patience possess your souls.

— Luke 21:16-19

Patience is the key.

But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

— James 1:4

We have to hang in there. Jesus says it will be worth it.

And consider the word “possess”, connoting a very deliberate action on one’s own part;  actively, decisively and even aggressively, taking possession of something and then holding onto it. We accomplish that with our souls through patience.

The pain will end. The joy will come and be so magnificent that we’ll forget all about the pain. We don’t know exactly when, but we are assured that it will happen.

But beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

— 2 Peter 3:8-9

We just have to hang in there.

Candy – another Victory in Jesus

When people learn that I used to pastor on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, they ask what it was like. Usually, I’ll start by talking about the heart-rending sadness of seeing wonderful people — formerly beautiful girls, sharp, brilliant minds, older people who’d been dealt a bad hand — whose lives had been destroyed by drugs, despair and society’s laissez-faire attitude. Anyone can talk about that, really: it’s the classic description of the Downtown East Side and tends to reinforce the concept that it’s a land of no hope. But there are stories of victory, of people who found the strength, through Jesus, to overcome their obstacles and move forward, and those are the stories I like to tell in as much detail as possible. I told one such story a few weeks ago about my friend Ken. The story of Candy Girard is another. (This was originally written August 24, 2009.)


My friend Candy died this morning.

There was a moment, around 10 past 1 this morning (nearly 8 hours before she finally breathed her last), when I realized, “my God, this is it” … turning back to the bed to say goodbye one last time. Like the late Larry Norman in his last week a year ago, it was party time in the hospice room when Amelia and I arrived. Some techno-music was blasting away on the stereo (apparently, two of the girls there — with whose family Candy had lived, off and on, for a few years — believed it was a “totally Candy” song), and we all knew that everything that could be said had been said, and as she was leaving this chapter of Eternity with no regrets, we were letting her go with no regrets.

Just last Wednesday, Amelia and I had wheeled her out into the garden at St Michael’s hospice in Burnaby. She couldn’t talk, but her grip on our hands was tight, and she could still crack a smile and manipulate one eyebrow. So we sat there, reading the Bible, singing worship songs, and breathing in the fresh air of the garden and looking at the flowers. Heather joined us and we spent this beautiful evening — the 4 of us — chatting and praying and loving our friend.

Now, here we were, the time closing in on midnight, watching our friend. She was already in the arms of Jesus … breathing on her own, but irreversibly asleep and gradually growing colder from the extremities inward … already gone, and “they” were just turning out the lights. I bent over her to kiss her forehead, and in a moment of selfishness, I realized that this was It: the last time I’d see her alive … and that that raucous laugh, her whoops of joy, her shouts of “Hallelujah!” and her sudden, unprovoked utterance, “thank you, Jesus!” would not be heard again at Westpointe.

Who was I kidding? They hadn’t been heard in about 2 months, since just before she had yet another seizure and was bunged into Burnaby General Hospital to wait for a palliative bed … and then space in the hospice. But saying that last goodbye was, to me, like hearing the cell door clang shut.

I remember first meeting her. Who could forget first meeting Candy? I’d decided to stop driving past Westpointe Christian Church, near the rooming house I lived in for about a year, and actually go in. There she was, this 50-something woman with ever-changing hair colour and a demeanour closer to an 8-year-old … utterly delighting in praising the Lord, serving the Lord, and testifying about the Lord.

Early on, I learned that she’d been a drug addict … hooked on heroin for the most part … abandoned by her family and raised by bikers in Montreal from age 11. And saved by Jesus when she was about 53, and aside from letting out a loud whoop if she saw or heard a Harley-Davidson go by (she had no time or patience for “rice rockets” — Japanese motorbikes — especially the ones that tried to masquerade as Harleys) … but that was pretty much the only link with her past that she maintained …

I asked her early on if she’d give her testimony at Gospel Mission. “No way, man,” she said. “I’m never going back down there!” She was afraid she’d fall … or run into someone she knew. I told her the invitation would always be open. Almost a year ago, the son of Pastor Cal, spoke a prophecy over her that she would return to the DTES and give her testimony.

About four months ago, she did just that. Heather, Cal’s wife, called to ask if they could come down for a Saturday night service. They sat at the back (and no, Candy didn’t meet anyone she knew) and finally, I asked if she’d come up and share her experience with the others. A very nervous Candy stepped forward and took the mike; and after almost drying solid (and if you knew Candy, you’d understand how rare an occurrence that would be!), she started telling her story.

She told of the bikers and the drugs and the abandonment as a child. She told of living on the streets and hanging out on Granville Mall, which was the “heroin district” — compared with the “crack district” on the DTES. She told of Heather and Cal ministering to her and preaching Jesus. And she told of the night two hoods burst into her dingy apartment and stuck a gun to her head.

“They were looking for a guy and thought I knew him and knew where he was,” she said. “I didn’t, but they didn’t believe me. One of the guys cocked the gun and I said, ‘Jesus, if You get me out of this, I’ll give my life to You.'”

The hood pulled the trigger.

The gun jammed.

Twice.

The hoods ran off, and Candy was out the door as soon as it was safe. To hear her tell it, her feet hardly touched ground as she raced over to Cal and Heather’s and – even though it was very late at night – received Jesus at last.

Some might question whether we can make a deal with God like that: promise to serve Him if He gets you out of a jam. But God knows our hearts — whether we genuinely have made a commitment or whether we’re just trying to say anything to get out of a pickle. He knew Candy’s. She became the fiercest, loudest, most joyful enemy of the enemy you ever saw. Living is the best revenge, and she took her revenge on the devil for all those locust-devoured years by living for Jesus and doing her touchdown dance on Satan’s face at every opportunity.

She was already ravaged by Hepatitis-C, acquired through intravenous drug use, and she had good days and bad days, but she never let on. Even when the radiation and chemotherapy were draining her and the steroids were making her puff up like that marshmallow guy she rarely gave in to the pain and discomfort. And she wouldn’t let us feel sorry for her.

At Amelia’s baptism at Locarno Beach, Vancouver: the water is so shallow, even a quarter-mile out, Pastor Jon Boyd said beforehand, “We might have to roll you over a few times to get you wet enough!”

There are so many images of Candy. One that stands out in my mind was her unbridled joy when Amelia was baptized. The picture tells the story.

One that I never saw, but she described to me, was how she would sit on the floor of SkyTrain as it travelled over SkyBridge — the bridge over the Fraser River between New Westminster and Surrey — because she was to deathly afraid of heights. She’d take SkyTrain practically anywhere — usually to Surrey — and talk to people, tell them about Jesus, and pray for them. People actually would seek her out, to get more prayer.

Candys bday 2Then there was the time when she was clearly in pain one Sunday morning. A friend of ours came in and sat beside Amelia and me … terribly despondent … and put her head in her hands. Candy came over and sat in the row in front, turned around, laid a hand on our friend’s shoulders and started praying for her. I remembered that scene — someone in pain, reaching out to pray for someone else. I remembered that when I landed in hospital earlier this year: get your head out of yourself and find someone else to pray for.

Who knows what seeds Candy has sown in her brief but intense walk with God? The good farmer plants the seed, then moves on to a new furrow. He doesn’t stand over it and watch it come up. Sometimes, he’s blessed to see the finished product when it’s ready for harvest.

Here’s another memory: just before Amelia’s and my wedding, Jon and I were in the prayer room at Westpointe. He went out. I followed him a couple of minutes later, suddenly paranoid that Amelia and the others wouldn’t think to look for me in the prayer room to tell me they were ready and so they’d be waiting out in the fellowship hall or (worse) start without me. A strange, First Night At The Theatre hush sat over the church as I sat down next to dad. Suddenly, a loud “WHOOOOO!” came from a few rows back. And there ended the hush.

Even when you’re reading the Word and walking in the Word and trying to live the Word, you still get brought up short by situations like Candy’s. Why would God let her drag through 40 years of drugs and bikers and street life, then save her in spectacular fashion, turn her loose on an unsuspecting world of sinners, only to let her contract brain cancer and die? Where’s the justice in that?

Sunday morning at Westpointe, the Lord started giving an answer. He told me that what’s important is that Candy ran her race, and ran it hard and well since the day she leapt off the wrong track she’d been on and got onto the right track.

But why would He take her? I believe it’s because we needed to see a woman who could face adversity and refuse to curse God and die. We needed to see the power of redemption and renewal in Christ — and Candy’s was an electrifying testimony.

We needed to see someone totally uninhibited when it came to witnessing Christ and unconditional in her commitment. We needed to see that, no matter who we are and what we think we’re supposed to be doing, God has the timetable in His hands and we can’t assume we have any more or less time than any others. What we choose to do with that time is what’s important.

And possibly above all, we needed to see — while so many of us are at an age when we can understand it — what it looks like for someone to face the end of this life fearlessly, in the confidence of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Candy defanged death: it has no sting, it shall have no dominion.

May we all have that same confidence when it comes our turn.

Jesus and the “gig economy”

You may have heard this term: the “gig economy”.

Or maybe not … it came up on “Jeopardy!” the other night, and no one got it.

It’s borrowed from the music business: an economic system where people tend to rove from job to job — working one “gig” after another, and often more than one at a time.

More and more people are doing it, as companies opt to hire contractors rather than full-time employees (less requirement to pay benefits like health care, retirement funds or employment insurance), out-source to other countries or jettison long-time workers.

For a worker, the gig economy promises the freedom be your own boss, set your own hours and be responsible to no one but yourself. You are FREE TO BE YOU!

If you peel the onion a little bit further, you find this is all an outgrowth of a general decline in loyalty, both by the individual workers to a company and by the company to the worker. After all, if there’s an alternative to paying high wages and benefits, what company wouldn’t take it? And if a company isn’t going to be loyal to you, why should you be loyal to the company?

Such a far cry from my parents’ generation — coming out of the Depression, followed by WW2, where you got a job and stuck with it: your company may have sucked at times and you may have been surrounded by jackasses, but there was still a sense of security. If you weren’t naturally predisposed to self-promotion — you know, the meek, subservient type — you needed that security.

That lasted into my generation, and now I’m seeing people around my age getting unceremoniously dumped from long-held jobs (two in the past month), leaving them (us, actually, because it happened to me, too) having to adapt to the new reality.

But to return to the gig economy theme, we need to consider this:

AREN’T YOU GLAD JESUS WASN’T INTO THE GIG ECONOMY?

Think about it.

When He was in the temple at age 12, He might have been tempted to push Himself forward as a boy wonder Talmudic scholar and become a Pharisee.

“Being about His father’s business” would have meant taking up carpentry, “because that’s where the money is,” with maybe a “side-hustle” making swords and armor.

He would have been easy pickings for Satan in the wilderness. After all, Satan did pitch some REALLY SWEET gigs!

He would have commanded a personality cult, telling people to spread the word about Who had healed them.

And of course, in Gethsemane, “not My will, but Thy will be done” would have been a total non-starter.

Where would we be now?

But instead:

This is My commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.”

— John 15:12-14

The danger of the gig economy is that, if doing whatever it takes to keep body and soul together, feed our families, etc., etc., becomes our #1 priority, we become so self-focused that we drift away from God.

No one can serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

— Matthew 6:24

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

— Philippians 2:3-4

The gig economy is a reality of our world today, but we need to remember that Jesus has overcome the world and handed that authority to us.

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’, for after all those things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

— Matthew 6:31-34

 

If we ever needed to remember that, it’s now.