The awareness imperative

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.

Lately, it appears that our daily news is consumed with one issue in particular, namely the antics of the President of the United States. Before, during and after the release of the Mueller Report on Russian interference in the US election, it’s hard to switch on a news program without hearing some kind of discussion about it. This can have two results, neither of which is good:

  1. We become obsessed with the story, ourselves, almost to the exclusion of other events
  2. We switch off the news altogether.

But when an issue becomes as dominant as this one and others have been, there’s a question we need to ask ourselves and seek an answer:

What are we not hearing about?

There are humanitarian crises around the world, natural disasters that have killed tens of thousands of people and wiped out homes in poor countries, drug addiction, privacy issues brought on by digital media. And what is going on in governments that is not being exposed because people reporting on it are obsessed with this one story?

(In the overall scheme of things, is the Trump Thing really that important? Yeah, I know: threat to democracy, conspiring with a foreign power, subverting the electoral system, yadda-yadda-yadda … but really? In light of real issues of misery and despair, whether Trump is exonerated and canonized or run out of town, tarred and feathered, will one homeless person be housed, will one drug addict be healed, will one depressed person be comforted?)

That’s why it’s important to keep the “end-times checklist” in mind and focus not on what the media say we need to focus on, but obsess on spreading the Gospel – the good news of hope and redemption, as Jesus tells us we must do. We can’t let ourselves be distracted:

“Therefore you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.

“You shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess.”

— Deuteronomy 5:32-33

Jesus’ commandment to us is simple: love one another; preach the Gospel. And above all, be aware:

Then He also said to the multitudes, “Whenever you see a cloud rising out of the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it is.

“And when you see the south wind blow, you say, ‘There will be hot weather’; and there is.

“Hypocrites! You can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, but how is it you do not discern this time?”

— Luke 12:54-56

Jesus has told us the signs of the season that we’re in today. He’s told us what to do about them. Let that be our obsession.

Vengeance – God’s way

When someone harms us, whether physically or emotionally, it’s human nature that we want revenge. We sometimes fancy-up the concept by calling it “justice”, as if it’s every bit our right and entitlement that we see the other person get hurt just as much as they hurt us.

So why do you suppose we read this in the Bible?

O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongs—
O God, to whom vengeance belongs, shine forth!

Rise up, O Judge of the earth;
Render punishment to the proud.

— Psalm 94:1-2

The writer of that Psalm acknowledges that vengeance is God’s job — not his. Why can’t we take matters into our own hands and declare that God is using us to carry out His will? Because God sees the entire situation, and no matter how “objective” we try to be, at the end of the day, we still see things through our own eyes. The wrong someone does to us may seem perfectly right in the other person’s opinion; a third party might say we had it coming, or that we should have been more aware or better prepared.

And also, we’re lousy at vengeance. Jerry Savelle puts it this way: “Vengeance belongs to God, because He’s much better at it than us rank amateurs!”

See, when we try to take revenge on someone, we’re judging them. We’re declaring that they’re in the wrong and we’re in the right, and more than that’ we’re declaring that they are bad and we are good.

And since there is no one good, except God (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18), by the transitive property of equality (Math 11), that’s just made us God.

What’s more, God’s idea of “vengeance”, I believe, involves turning everything and everyone involved to His way. Rather than let anger and a desire to see the other person “get what’s coming to them”, we do what Jesus tells us to do:

… love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you …

— Matthew 5:44

… and then God teaches us what we need to learn from the experience and reveals Himself to our tormentor so that they are brought to repentance. We may never see that happen or hear an apology, but we are now comforted in knowing that God is in control.

Remember:

… all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

— Romans 8:28

Even the bad stuff works out in our favor, if we let it.

More than a meal …

Well, we knew this day was coming.

Gospel Mission will hold one more “Open Heaven” Night (something like an “Open Mike Night”, but with the Holy Spirit taking centre stage) on Thursday, May 2. And then, it will move from the building it’s occupied for over 70 years.

Gospel Mission has actually been serving the people on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side since 1929, the first “work” of the Apostolic Church of Pentecost.

Some have called the area “Canada’s Worst Postal Code”. I prefer “The Whitest Fields”.

Certainly, people will be concerned that another piece of Vancouver’s history will be lost — the building at 325/327/331 Carrall Street was built right after the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886. Others will bemoan the continuing gentrification of the DTES. But it’s important to remember that Gospel Mission — as with other “rescue” missions in the area — has provided basic human needs. One of those needs is food, of course: dinners are served on most nights of the week; and since 2008, The Lord’s Rain has provided showers for people.

The Lord’s Rain – showers, coffee and a place to go when the shelters kick you out

But during the years I was assistant pastor there, it became apparent that the Mission and others like it fulfill another basic human need: a desire to be right with God.

It’s human nature: we recognize we can’t control a lot of things, so we spend time and energy trying not to enrage a Higher Power. But with Christ, it’s different. With Jesus, it’s all about telling people how much God loves them, and when you’re dealing people who have hit rock bottom and even lower, surrounded by reminders of how bad things are and how, no matter how much they point fingers elsewhere, can’t shake that little voice that says, “You brought this on yourself!”, that becomes a Mission’s primary function.

God loves you, in spite of what you’ve done.

God has provided you with an “out”.

The Basic Human Need, then, is to know that no matter how someone has screwed-up in this life, God had not forsaken them.

That’s the basis of hope, and there’s no greater, more palpable need on the DTES than to know that.

I was struck by how many people I met on the DTES knew the Bible – particularly Indigenous people, even those who had suffered abuse “in the name of the Lord” in residential schools. They would talk about Jesus or ask for prayer. Through the darkness of their experience, they saw a nugget of truth to hold onto.

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things that are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

— James 2:15-17

The converse is also true: you can give someone a sandwich, or a cup of coffee and they’ll be fed for the moment, but then what? If you add a word that they have value in God’s eyes, they’ll still have that hope the next time they’re hungry and cold.

I’ve seen people whose lives have turned around, thanks to Gospel Mission. Some have gone on to “worldly” success; some go into ministry and lift up others; some may still have “issues”, but their lives have hope. When Barry Babcook, long-time pastor at Gospel Mission, died five years ago, one fellow, Bobby, told how he was on the verge of suicide and came to talk to Barry in his office. I don’t know what was said (although knowing Barry, it probably started with, “Jesus loves you”, and built on that), but Bobby found a new reason to stay alive.

That conversation involved trust – the result of relationship-building. Whether it’s a big operation like Union Gospel Mission or smaller places like Gospel Mission, Living Waters or Street Church/First Nations Bible College, the people who serve are in it for the long haul, earning people’s trust.

Gospel Mission itself has found temporary digs at The Door is Open, a ministry of the Catholic Church. How long that arrangement lasts is up to God, and this much I know: Gospel Mission’s history is a story of being in the right place, before the right time. It was founded in 1929, just before the Great Depression, and moved to bigger digs as World War Two was ending and more people would need it; the Lord’s Rain was funded and running just before the world economy tanked in 2008. Wherever it goes, it will be exactly where it’s supposed to be, providing that greatest of Basic Human Needs.

(As a reminder, the Mission still has a Basic Worldly Need: finances. ‘Twas ever thus, so I hope you’ll consider making a contribution. You can get more information here.)

“Unless you repent …”

There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?

“I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.

“Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?

“I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

— Luke 13:1-5

That passage was the third thing that came to mind when I heard about the terrorist attacks at churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. The first two were to pray and forgive, but then Jesus’ words came up.

We have to be careful here: this is not to sit smugly and say, “Well, those people obviously didn’t repent, so ….” That’s not what Jesus is saying. He’s using two examples of well-known, horrific incidents in which people died tragically and unjustly to warn us that we will also perish unjustly.

Again, He’s not judging the people who died: He’s warning us.

Something else to consider: the Greek word translated as “perish” doesn’t necessarily mean physical death, but to be destroyed or ruined. Think of that as referring to our soul, our spirit: refusing to repent — to turn towards God — leads to our own destruction and ruin, regardless of whether our hearts are beating and our lungs are taking air.

Forgive. Pray.

Those should be, for a Jesus Follower, the two operative words following the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. Some may call for blood vengeance; there will likely be far-right types who will use the attacks as another excuse for slamming the door on Muslims in other parts of the world.

But it’s important that we not lose sight of the principle of following Jesus’ example.

Forgive. That’s Job One. No matter how brutal or hateful the act, we have to rise above the level of our tormentors by forgiving them. As Jesus said on the Cross, “they know not what they do”. The terrorists, really, were not in command of their own minds or senses. We have to remind ourselves that they and their leaders are under the sway of the ultimate enemy, Satan. What’s more, if the terrorists thought they would break the faith of Christians and/or influence them to join their side, they really didn’t know what they were doing.

Pray. These are children of God, made in His image, so we cannot curse them. We have to pray for their salvation and a revelation of Jesus. Of course, we pray for the victims and their families, but cursing the perpetrators only compounds the tragedy.

Welcome. What better way to demonstrate how different Jesus and His Followers are from others by opening our arms to people of that religion? They may be looking for an alternative, and we have to demonstrate that Jesus has everything they’re looking for. Remember: we are the new alternative lifestyle.

Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.

Therefore
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

— Romans 12:19-21

Otherwise, how different are we from others?

An Earth Day reminder: we are not left alone

Today is Earth Day, which happens to be Easter Monday, and that’s somewhat fitting. I’ll explain shortly.

This year’s edition comes with a couple of alarming news stories ringing in our ears. One is that an international panel of scientists has declared that in order to keep the rise in the atmosphere’s overall temperature to less than 1.5 Celsius degrees – regarded as a “tipping point” towards catastrophe – there has to be “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

Translation: change our ways, or change will be forced on us.

The other story is actually a bit easier for us plebeians to grasp: that of a dead whale, which was discovered to have 40 kilos of plastic in its stomach. The plastic – at least some of it, consisting of shopping bags — had prevented it from eating and it died malnourished and sick. It was reinforcement of warnings we’d been hearing for years, about “seas of plastic” in the oceans around the world. (Heck, when the ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl made his “Ra” expeditions in the late 1960s, he reported that there was not one part of the ocean where he did not see evidence of human-caused pollution.)

Add to that, the revelation that, in some parts of the United States, plastic that had been intended for recycling is going into landfills, because the recycling facilities are beyond capacity. China, which had been the biggest customer for recyclable plastic, has stopped taking it. Its facilities, too, can’t handle the amount.

The reports about the plastic should give us pause, because one of the very first things we humans tried to do back in the late 60s was recycle materials. We and our parents lobbied local governments to set up recycling programs, then diligently separated our glass, paper and plastic (making sure newsprint and “fine” paper were not mixed together) and sent them off to those programs.

I remember having to haul material several blocks to find a recycling bin when my own apartment complex didn’t have one, and expressing near-judgmental dismay when I learned that a community I was visiting didn’t have a program.

And now, despite fifty years of recycling, we still have seas of plastic, a whale, dying with plastic bags in its stomach, and even little bottom-feeding sea creatures with micro-bits of plastic in their tiny intestines.

Yes: even recycling, that most basic of grass-roots environmentalist actions, hasn’t helped.

Could it be that “our way” of saving the earth from humanity is not doing the job? But what else is there?

Well, now that you mention it …

In the Book of Genesis, we’re told that the purpose for which God created humans was to “tend the garden (of Eden) and keep it” (Genesis 2:15 NKJV). So if you’re wondering what the meaning of our existence is, here it is: to nurture God’s creation: “be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 KJV). And how well have we done that job? Not very. We have been, not to put too fine a point on it, disobedient. Disobedience to God is sin.

It’s fitting that Earth Day this year comes just after Easter, because for Christians, Easter is that annual reminder that, in His love for us, God has provided an “out”: a way to recognize our disobedience and move forward. The sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross and His subsequent resurrection give us the avenue to repent and start over, with a new commitment to taking care of God’s creation as He intended us to in the first place.

And God doesn’t leave us to work things out alone: He gives us instructions in His word (the Book of Leviticus is a great example) on how to manage the land. The instructions boil down to balance, nurturing, care, and the avoidance of greed; considering others more than yourself; looking up at Him, not down at the ground.

And even if we’re not tillers of soil, per se, ourselves, that really doesn’t matter, because God promises us “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14 NKJV)

Seek God’s face?

That’s it?

Yep.

Remember, as I’ve said before, Jesus “called it”. He told us we’d see this happen in the days before His return: the effects of climate change, other environmental destruction, along with disease, famine, divisions in society, a general loss of love for one another, increasing lawlessness (that same IPCC report also notes the impact climate change is having on human behaviour) and “earthquakes in diverse places”. It’s not all about climate change, but it is all about Jesus and our need for Him.

God promises that, if we turn to Him and truly listen to Him, He will tell us what we need to do, and He will pick up the slack from there.

Consider this: the IPCC report was commissioned in 2016 and completed two years later. Since the late 1980s, there have been myriad studies, international conferences, accords and agreements, and the situation keeps getting worse.

God has provided us with an “out” from our “original environmental sin”: a simple, personalized, inexpensive “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change in society”. Could it possibly be any less effective than what’s been tried so far?

HE IS RISEN!

Kick up your heels!

Raise a cheer!

Shout it out!

Clap your hands!

Sing like there’s just One listening!

Jesus Christ has beaten death and walked out of the tomb!

That’s what Easter is all about: the fact that Jesus Christ defeated death, and handed that same victory over to us. It’s not that we can die, then rise from the grave, ourselves; but that we now have proof that there is more than what we see around us. There is something beyond the grave and it’s worth changing our lives to achieve. Or, more to the point, it’s worth allowing Jesus, who has proven that He is just as alive today as He was 2,000 years ago, to make those changes in us.

Mind you, we do walk out of a different kind of grave when we say, “Yes, Lord!” We rise up from the muck of our own making, that landed us in a state from which there seemed to be no escape. We get a new crack at life: a chance to hit “reset” and start anew, with only the experience of the past to show for our previous life.

But most importantly, Jesus’ victory means the devil has lost his most effective weapon against us: fear.

Of hell and death, I have no fear:

My gracious Lord is ever near!

— from the Pilgrims’ Chorus in “Tannhäuser” by Richard Wagner, in translation

In my pre-saved days, a friend of mine planted this idea in my head: “What’s the worst that can happen? Can it kill me?” You’ve probably heard that one, too. Well, thanks to Jesus, we don’t even have to be afraid of that.

For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren,

saying:
“I will declare Your name to My brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.”

And again:
“I will put My trust in Him.”

And again:
“Here am I and the children whom God has given Me.”

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,

and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham.

— Hebrews 2:10-16

Fear God, Jesus says, the One who can destroy both our body and our soul in hell (Matthew 10:28), but when it comes to One who loves us and wants our company in Eternity, that should be an easy decision.

Happy Easter!

Pilate’s choice

If anyone could have spared Jesus’ life that night in Jerusalem, it was Pontius Pilate. He could have condemned Him to death or simply cut Him loose, but the religious leaders were demanding that Jesus be crucified.

And yet there was something about Jesus — more than the lack of a crime, as far as Pilate was concerned — that was troubling. He knew there was some reason the religious leaders wanted Jesus out of the way — Matthew says Pilate knew they envied Him, but why? He hadn’t committed any crime, as far as Pilate could tell.

Why would the religious leaders be so eager to declare that they had no king but Caesar, when all of the conquered Jewish people had been fighting for decades against the Romans? And what about that dream?

While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.”

== Matthew 27:19

Most troubling of all, was that Jesus didn’t directly answer or try to refute the claims, particularly that He said He was the Son of God and that He was a King.

Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

— John 18:37

And when Pilate threatens to use his power to have Jesus crucified,

Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”

— John 19:11

So Jesus didn’t beg for His life or mount a “vigorous defense”, as the lawyers would say, even against the charge that He claimed to be the Son of God. And that was probably the most troubling of all for the Roman proconsul.

Because Pilate would have been raised hearing the Roman myths, in which gods would take the form of humans and come to earth to stir things up — sometimes for their own amusement, and sometimes to teach us earthlings a lesson. He may have dismissed the myths as fairy tales, but suddenly, there he was, face to face with a Man who claimed to be just that: God come to earth.

So deep down, Pilate was terrified at the prospect of messing with a god. But on the other hand, the religious leaders were now making this a matter of Pilate’s own loyalty to Caesar. His own job — possibly his own life — was now on the line.

From then on Pilate sought to release Him, but the Jews cried out, saying, “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.”

== John 19:12

In the end, he chose to save his own worldly hide over letting Jesus go. After all, he was finally on good terms with Herod — it’s written that the two had been at odds until Herod’s “examination” of Jesus — and he was pleasing the religious leaders and the general public. He would have to deal with his wife, but she’ll get over it.

Pilate was by no means alone. The disciples cut and ran, lest they be arrested and crucified, too. Peter denied Jesus three times. The same people who had cried out “Hosanna!” days before were shouting “Crucify Him!”, according to the demands of the religious leaders.

We’re not much different, ourselves. Even with 2,000 years of witness and the knowledge that Jesus does rise again — both out of the tomb and walking into our own lives when we let Him — we still have to fight the urge to reject Jesus in favor of the approval of the world. Like Pilate, we know, deep down, the choice we should make — but it’s still the toughest call.

Sing to an Audience of One

Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth!

Sing out the honor of His name;
Make His praise glorious.

Say to God,
“How awesome are Your works!
Through the greatness of Your power
Your enemies shall submit themselves to You.

“All the earth shall worship You
And sing praises to You;
They shall sing praises to Your name.” Selah

— Psalm 66:1b-4

Lately, the Lord has blessed me with a remarkable assignment: producing an audiobook. It’s called Deep Worship in Heaven — Moments in Heaven, Vol. 8 — by Dean A. Braxton, who died for an hour and 45 minutes. He describes what he experienced during that time.

I won’t go into a book review, save to say that the more I read it, the more I think to myself, “You can’t make this stuff up!”. It’s worth reading, and reading with a mind open to imagine and receive concepts that are nearly impossible to put into words. But one thing I do want to share is that reading this has given me a completely different perspective on Worship.

Now, I’ve been part of Worship teams at church and have filled in as Worship leader on occasion. I’ve worked alongside some pretty amazing Worship leaders — the ones who know how to choose music that jibes with the theme of the day and/or lifts people’s spirits and breaks through any worldly barriers to an offering of praise.

A recurring idea in Deep Worship is that the songs of praise we offer to the Lord are deeply personal, coming from whatever physical thing we’re doing, when we are in a state of gratitude to Him. Simply put, it’s not a show.

That last observation cuts two ways. We don’t have to have a voice like Francesca Battistelli or Mac Powell; we need to remember that Worship does not depend on a fancy light show or guitar-hero poses. On the other hand, if showmanship is your gift, then of course, the show is your gift to the Lord.

But the bottom line of all this is that Worship is an intensely personal thing between you and God, and it doesn’t matter if your voice is more suited to hog-calling or frightening small children than headlining at Carnegie Hall, or if a church choir sounds more like the worst night of karaoke than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; God hears your heart — and “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45).

Besides, have you ever taken a moment and listened to a congregation singing? When they’re all singing to the Lord, it just plain works!

So sing out! Cut loose! Bring it from the heart, soul and spirit! Don’t worry about how you think you sound or how others think you sound: you’re playing to an Audience of One!

Just … get in the game!

Put me in, Coach! I’m ready to play!

Put me in, Coach! I’m ready to play – today!

Look at me: I can be

Centerfield!

— John Fogerty, “Centerfield”

Some people mistakenly think that song is about baseball, but it’s really about the joy and exuberance of discovering redemption and new life in Christ.

I’m born again, there’s new grass on the field!

That’s kind of how I felt, when the significance of the encounter with Jesus that I told you about the other day sank in: I wanted to rush into ministry and preach and host a talk-show and write books …… but there was a lot I needed to learn, not least being that I could not impose my ambitions on God’s will.

Oh sure: He let me see some of the things I had thought of for the next stage of my life — just enough for me to develop a distaste for them and to realize that it not a good fit for me, nor I for it. Eventually, I dropped the ambitions I had, except to say, “Whatever … whenever … wherever.”

Not that I don’t still have ambitions. I’m grateful for the experience of preaching two sermons a week at Rainbow Mission, and weekly services at Gospel Mission, learning how to deliver a message that people can relate to and gain hope in a situation that others would say was hopeless. I relish the times when a lead Pastor will ask me to fill in, even for a one-off sermon. And interesting things have been happening, that I could never have imagined. (I’ll tell you about one of those “interesting things” tomorrow.)

Getting into the game — stepping up to play once you’ve had your revelation of newness and life in Jesus Christ — is a glorious partnership with God. You don’t just lie back with your paws in the air and expect you’ll be magically transported into His Will; nor do you leap in with both feet, convinced (as I was for a time) that because you’re Born Again, filled with the Holy Spirit and walking in God’s ways, that the course of action you’re taking is automatically God’s will. Trust me: it probably ain’t.

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!

Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God;

and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

— Philippians 4:4-7

God knows you want to get into the game and that you figure you can play centerfield. Don’t be afraid to let Him know, by prayer and supplication, what you aspire to: just don’t be discouraged if he makes you warm the bench in Class-A Short Season. He knows when we’re ready and what we’re ready for, a lot better than we do.