For the past 6 months, I've been going to a new (new to me, and new as in only a year and a half old) church. I've really appreciated it, and for the first time in a long time I feel like I'm somewhere I belong. I respect the leaders and admire their integrity and vision; I deeply appreciate that the church is committed to biblical faithfulness, even on controversial social issues; I am grateful that people seem serious about obeying Jesus; etc.

So all that to say, whatever I say in this blog post, I am not knocking this church, at all. However, in the last few days, something has crystallized in my realization—something that's by no means particular to this church, but related to how we "do church" in general.

A couple of months after I started attending this church, I began attending a homegroup, which meets on the same night that I used to go to a language practice meetup. Although I miss the language group, I've chosen to be part of the homegroup because my spiritual life has priority. And I'm thankful I did.

I look forward every week to the homegroup. We eat together. We talk about each other's week. We laugh together. We play games together. We discuss important questions. We pray for each other. We know about each others' joys, struggles, and sorrows. We really relate.

In contrast, I realized that I go to the Sunday service mainly, if I'm honest, out of a sense of obligation. I don't mean that I dread it, or that it's terrible, or that I go reluctantly dragging my feet. I just mean I mostly go because I feel like I should. Not because I particularly enjoy it, or “get much” out of it. If I miss it for some reason, I don't really miss it, if you know what I mean.

(Again, these observations are not specific to this particular church. It's not really different to any church I've ever been part of in this sense.)

The worship is musically very well done. The sermons are quite decent. The church is very multicultural, and people are encouraged to stay and socialize by providing snacks and drinks. It's an informal and very friendly environment.

However, despite how well-crafted the sermons are, I'm rarely challenged or changed by them. Pastors, conscious that they're speaking to a very broad audience, and that there might be anybody in the room, from dedicated Christians to hardened atheists to people who are new to it all and not sure what to think, don't go very deep. Instead of preaching systematically through the Bible or the New Testament, relevant passages are picked based on what the pastor wants to talk about. The topics are mainly evangelistic, or fairly basic.

Then there's the social aspect. I'm single, so I go alone, and usually sit alone. In theory, I could sit with people from homegroup, but we arrive at different times, and they're often involved with worship or kids' ministry or greeting. I greet and talk with people, but they're usually people I've just met or barely know, and the conversations are shallow and awkward, as they necessarily are between new acquaintances. Of course I do talk to people from my homegroup, but we're rightly encouraged to welcome people we don't know and make new acquaintances, and they're doing that as well.

There's nothing wrong with meeting new people. That's how all friendships start. And perhaps if I were more extrovert, I'd enjoy it more. But the environment of Sundays doesn't foster deeper relationship, or conversation beyond the shallow and obvious “getting to know you” questions. I usually find it more exhausting than nurturing.

It sort of hit me last night that the homegroup acts and looks a lot more like church in the New Testament, than the Sunday service which is purportedly the main deal.

In the New Testament, believers met in homes. They ate together regularly. They shared their possessions. They listened to teaching, but they were also encouraged to contribute by praying, prophesying, or bringing a hymn. They collected money to help other Christians in need. Evangelism appears to have taken place largely by believers going out to where people were gathered, not by expecting them to come to gatherings of believers (though that seems to have sometimes happened as well, rf. 1 Corinthians 14:22-25).

In short, New Testament church life appears to have looked a lot more like a homegroup, with people sharing life together, than the Sunday service, with an audience anonymously facing the front where a few people put on a performance (worship, preaching) for them.

I'm not sure what the answer to this is. I don't think this model of church is likely to change, as it seems deeply embedded in the culture. I understand why some people decide to skip out on it altogether in favour of homechurch, although I think that can have its pitfalls as well. I understand the “traditional” church model may be more amenable to unbelievers attending. And I'm not even saying it's bad.

But if I had to pick one over the other, I'd go with the homegroup. In a choice between a venue that fosters deepening relationship, and one that doesn't, I'll go with the first. In a choice between somewhere where I'm known and can meaningfully contribute, and one where I'm largely anonymous, I'll pick the former.

The only really plausible answer that's occurred to me, is that the Sunday service is not really for believers, it's for unbelievers. It's not really for the members of the church, it's for visiting Christians who are looking for a church. It's not so much designed to nurture Christians, it's more a vehicle to attract, retain, and shuttle people into the homegroups, where the deeper life of the church happens. The Sunday service as evangelistic event makes much more sense of it than as a gathering of Christians. Worship is kept to a comfortable minimal length. Sermons are carefully tailored to appeal to seekers, not to expound “the meat of the word” to Christians. Everything is geared to the newcomer, not to the already faithful member.

Is that a good thing? A bad thing? An inevitable thing? I don't know. Would unbelievers go to homechurches? Is there a place for a venue that isn't really about discipling believers, but evangelism and attracting new members? Is that place the Sunday gathering of the church? Would we be more evangelistically effective if we simply preached the whole Bible, rather than only focusing on evangelistic or more basic topics? Should we have more in-depth Bible study in yet another meeting of the week, as some churches do?

Another thought that strikes me is that it seems the church is often less focused on being the church, than on growing the church. Evangelism is obviously important, and should be happening in any healthy church, but should that be the main goal, or an outgrowth of a flourishing, well-nurtured church body?

I don't know. I don't have any answers, this blog post is just my rambling thoughts. I'm curious to know if anyone else feels the same?

Tags: church, homegroup, evangelism Comments: 0

There's a really common attitude in the church (and I know because I've held it) that says that if we're really godly and devoted to Jesus, God will give us the things that we want. We might not say, or think, that we “deserve” them (because we know it's all grace); but consciously or subconsciously, we believe that if we live a righteous, dedicated life, God will deliver them: a nice place to live, a job, a spouse, a baby, etc.

If we don't get those things, or if we do and they don't live up to our expectations, we question what we're doing wrong? We might think it's because we don't pray enough, or we haven't been able to overcome that nagging sin, or we don't serve in the church enough. We might think that if we tweak the formula a bit, if we put a bit more faith, prayer, and effort in, we'll finally achieve what we're looking for.

Most Christians, and most segments of the church, would not put this belief into words. But nonetheless, we live by it. We get angry with God when our “formula” isn't working. We think “how much more do I have to do?” We envy Christians who have what we want, and wonder how to emulate them. We try harder, working on fixing the areas in which we're “failing”.

One area in which this type of thinking very commonly manifests itself is marriage. Many, many Christians, myself included, have felt that a godly spouse is the reward of a godly life. You'll hear well-meaning Christians giving this type of advice: “Once you're fully content in the Lord, you'll find your spouse.” A prominent Christian dating website even has this verse as its tagline: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)

But what happens when this doesn't work? We all know godly singles in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, who would like to be married and can't. Or what about the couple who long for children and are unable to have them, despite the fact that they would make great parents? Are those people simply not godly enough? Do they need to find out where they're failing, so they can fix it? Did they not “delight in the Lord” enough?

The problem with this way of thinking is that a faulty belief underlies it.

This view of God says that he has promised or is obligated to provide us with the trappings of a comfortable and happy life, and that the outcome of the Christian life, lived right, is the achievement of our desires. It's basically a Christianized version of the world's vision of the good life: spouse, kids, nice house, car, fulfilling job.

The problem with this view is that when we don't get what we want—when despite our crying out, our longing, our striving, our pain, our waiting, we are left wanting—we are tempted in several ways:

  1. We are tempted to believe God isn't good
  2. We are tempted to believe God isn't sovereign (because if he was, he would have done this by now)
  3. We are tempted to believe we don't measure up
  4. We are tempted to “worship” and “serve” God not because he is worthy, but as a means of getting our desire
  5. We are tempted to abandon God, sin in order to get what we want, or resent him and withhold our whole-hearted worship and service.

But what if the whole premise underlying this is faulty?

Nowhere in the Bible are we promised that we will have the life we want if we are godly enough. True, in the Old Testament material blessings and prosperity, at least on a nation-wide basis, were connected with obedience to God's commands. But the New Testament doesn't promise certain earthly blessings to the followers of Jesus, beyond having our basic needs taken care of (Matthew 6:25-34). In fact, it promises that those who are faithful to Jesus can expect suffering and difficulty in this life (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble.”

Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles encouraged us to have an other-worldly focus that meant that the goods, pleasures, accomplishments, and relationships of this life take second place to God's eternal kingdom:

What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

Recently a radical shift in my thinking has taken place: maybe despite my desires for certain things, God has chosen not to give them to me, for his own reasons. A biblical metaphor came to mind that has been very pertinent:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. (2 Timothy 2:3-4)

We are not private citizens. Just as an enlisted soldier is not free to go where he wants and do what he wants, but is fully under the orders of his commanding officer, so are we with Jesus. I believe that's a concept that is very rare in the North American church. The Western secular “gospel” is self-fulfillment, and we often think that Jesus is just a means to that end. Why wouldn't God want to give me what I want?

We don't want to believe or do anything that may make us uncomfortable or cause suffering or loss. We don't actually believe Jesus is Lord over our lives, and that his will trumps ours. We don't believe he has the right to ask us to do anything we don't want to do, or to say “no” to anything we desire.

In short, we don't really believe God is God. We see him as a cosmic dispenser of the good stuff, the meeter of our needs. And to be sure, he does provide us with good things! He does delight to give to his children. But maybe, just maybe, sometimes he has different plans for your life than you have.

In thinking that the Christian life is a path to getting what we want, we turn things upside-down, putting ourselves and our desires in the place of God and making him servant to them rather than the other way around.

What if God may actually want you to be single because he wants you to be fully free to use your gifts to further his kingdom? What if God wants that couple to remain childless because he knows that it will spur them to become involved with inner-city children's ministry, something they might not otherwise have done? What if God may want to channel our grief, our longing, and our love into wider and deeper purposes than simply the satisfaction of our own personal needs? What if a grain of wheat, falling into the ground and dying, produces a much larger and beautiful harvest (John 12:24)?

What if it's about God and his kingdom, rather than our own personal one?

I know that this can't fully assuage the aching heart of the single person who longs to be married, or the infertile person who longs for a child, or the sick person who can't find a cure. Trusting Jesus doesn't mean we'll never struggle, get sad or angry, or long for what we don't have. It doesn't mean we don't wrestle with God over unanswered prayer. But I believe the aches and pains and frustrations and unfulfilled longings of this life are meant to drive us to seek the One who loves us perfectly, is always with us, and has promised to make all things new, not in this life but the next. Frustrated desires remind us that this life isn't the final destination, and compel us to seek the eternal Kingdom.

Tags: suffering, Lordship, singleness Comments: 0

Recently I found myself in a very interesting conversation with a former Jehovah's Witness. He had left the church after a period of doubting and questioning, which resulted in his family and all his former friends shunning him. He had had to begin an entirely new life, and had swung to the opposite end of the pendulum faith-wise. Feeling betrayed by having given unquestioning faith to the organization that let him down, he had become extremely cynical and skeptical, trusting only in science. He seemed to be searching for God, or have some desire for God, but he told me that to believe in God, he would need definitive physical proof of God, something he couldn't deny or explain away.

I told him many things. Among them was that if you're determined not to believe, you can see all the physical proof you want and still reject it. Many people saw Jesus' miracles, including raising Lazarus from the dead, and refused to believe. In fact, it only made them more determined to kill him. If you don't want to believe, you can always find an alternate explanation: something, in fact, that this fellow did. I told him my story of faith, which includes some supernatural occurences. He was intrigued, but replied that they could be purely psychological. I told him that I was not normally at the gathering where I met him, and hadn't gone for months, but that day had a strong feeling that I was supposed to go and meet a particular person, and that perhaps it was him. “But it could be a coincidence,” he replied.

There's a big difference between arrogant demands that God prove himself to you, or you will not believe, and the kind of faith that approaches God humbly, with open hands, asking him to reveal himself to you however he wants to. It's ok to not be sure. It's ok to not know who God is, or even if he exists. It's ok to tell him that. God loves to reveal himself to those who genuinely seek him, and in fact, has promised to do so: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) I am firmly convinced that anyone who is genuinely seeking God and comes before him with humility, will be rewarded.

God says so again in so many words:

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Hebrews 11:6

People demand proof so that they will believe. God says, on the other hand, that to find him you must have a little bit of faith to begin with. Faith that he exists, and that you'll find him if you look for him. If you don't feel you have even that, the fact that you are seeking God and genuinely want to know who he is and how to know him, is proof that you do.

However, the arrogant who demand that God perform like a trick pony so that they will believe in him, and that he act according to their standards of proof, will never see God. God is God. He's not a piece of material in a test tube. He's God. We're not. We come before him humbly, or not at all. We seek him on his terms, or we never find him. But if we want him, we can be sure that he wants us even more; and if we seek him, it's because he's already seeking us.

Tags: God, science, faith Comments: 0

I've written and thought about this before, but I continue to be amazed at the misuse of the word “love”. When most people use the word “love”, particularly in a romantic context, what they usually mean isn't actually love for the other person at all.

What they actually mean is “I want you. I want you to meet my needs, I want you to complete me, make me whole and happy, and I'm convinced that you will do that. And I'm going to suck you dry in the attempt to do so, without any actual concern or regard for you or your wellbeing, as long as I'm getting my needs met. I will run roughshod over you and your own needs and preferences, if I notice them at all, in an attempt to get you to give me what I want.”

Of course, not all people are like that (at least not to that extreme) or mean that when they say the word “love”. And as we're imperfect human beings, I believe even “true love” can be tainted by that type of selfishness. We're selfish beings by nature, and we're all prone to be more willing to get our own needs met than to seek to meet the needs of others.

But nevertheless, that idea is out there, and there are a lot of people who mean that when they say the word “love”. The irony is that it's such a parody of real love, which is basically the opposite of trying to get your needs met using another person. It's giving of yourself for the good of the other person (NOT in an unhealthy, codependent way, which is another way of using them). It's a committed bent toward understanding the other person and their needs, and attempting to do them good insofar as you are able (within proper boundaries), even when it's inconvenient, painful, difficult, or you just don't feel like it.

How do we know what real love is? The pattern is Jesus, the God of love who lived among us and showed us what it means to love:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

If someone tells you they “love” you, but their actions toward you don't demonstrate this type of character, it's not love. Use it as a checklist.

If someone tells you they “love” you, but after years together they decide they don't “love” you anymore, they didn't love you. They mean that they no longer feel like you're meeting their needs and they want to go elsewhere to find someone who will.

Real love persists through difficulty, boredom, and even undesirable behaviour on the part of the other person (note I am NOT talking about putting up with abuse or disrespect, particularly if you're dating someone; get out fast if that's going on, because a real relationship involves real love on both sides). Real love commits to act lovingly because that is the character of God, even when the other person isn't particularly lovable. Real love knows that the only One who can fully meet our needs is Jesus, and goes to him for that filling so that we're able to love those around us even when it's tough and we don't feel like it.

Tags: love, relationships, Jesus Comments: 0

Should a Christian meditate? For most of my life, I would have said the answer was no. The answer I had always heard, and probably would have repeated, was this: meditation seeks to empty your mind to achieve enlightenment, whereas the Bible encourages the Christian to fill his mind with the truths of God's word to grow spiritually.

However, more and more lately I have been reading articles about the scientifically proven benefits of “mindfulness meditation”. I was intrigued, because I am a naturally very high-stress person. I've also been reading about how stress predisposes toward all kinds of diseases, and so have been searching for ways to deal with it and become more tranquil.

I am very firmly of the belief that all truth is God's truth. I believe that science, properly interpreted, points us toward the laws of the universe that God put in place and that if something works, it is because it is tapping into God's design. So if meditation genuinely helps people, I believe that it is worth pursuing. (This is a helpful article on what meditation is and how it works.)

When I began investigating meditation, I quickly discovered there is nothing inherently religious about it at all. Practiced the way it is usually prescribed, it is nothing more than sitting upright and relaxed for at least 5 minutes with your hands in your lap and your eyes closed, breathing slowly and deeply and focusing on your breathing. The goal is to focus on nothing more than the present moment, breaking you out of your normal pattern of racing thoughts and feelings which contribute to tension, anxiety and stress. Over time, it actually changes your brain so this becomes more of a default way of operating.

I've only been doing this for a week or so, but I have found it revolutionary. It made me realize just how high-stress I am, and how I get into a frantic pattern of “doing” things to feel like I'm in control. Much of my thinking is negative, fearful, or judgmental, stressing over events from the past or worrying about the future. Meditation allows you to slow down, jump off that mental hamster wheel, and relax into a calm, clear, centered state of thinking.

What could be more biblical than that? We are constantly admonished not to worry. We are told that God is in control. We are told to “be still and know that I am God”. Instead of thoughts polluted by negativity and anxiety, we want to have a clear mind of confident trust and hope.

Although meditation is not inherently religious, it can be practiced in a “Christian” way. I often put worship music on in the background. Choosing songs that add up to the length of time you want to meditate is a good way of keeping yourself on track. I consciously relax in the presence of Jesus and breathe prayers of worship. I surrender myself completely to him, admit my absolute need of him, and instead of trying to “perform” for him or praying out of a position of worry, simply allow myself to be in his presence.

I find it quite ironic, because I was part of a church that encouraged “soaking”: relaxing quietly in the presence of God to soothing worship music, while freeing your mind of thinking about what you had to do. Although I always felt like it was something I “should” do, it took reading about the scientifically-proven benefits to give me the impulse to finally put it into practice.

If you have a problem with the term “meditation”, call it something else. Relaxation. Focus. Time in God's presence (as long as you don't turn it into performance and worry-type striving prayer). There is time to pray for your and others' needs, and to read the Bible. But I believe you will find, as I have, prayer flowing much more naturally and powerfully when it comes from a place of relaxation and trust.

Tags: meditation, worship, stress, relaxation Comments: 0

In high school, as nearly everyone does, I took 2 years of a second language, Spanish. I loved the language and wanted to continue studying it, but also, as nearly everyone does, I didn't. And, as is the case with nearly everyone, years after my high school studies, I retained only a smattering of vocabulary.

Throughout the years it remained something I “someday” wanted to do. I'd always mention it when I met a Spanish-speaking person, but my intentions remained just that. Until last year, I decided I was going to start making some of my long-term dreams a reality, starting with Spanish.

I enrolled in a Spanish school in Toronto and began all over again, with the alphabet. My teacher was warm, funny, engaging, and explained grammatical concepts clearly. I took classes there for 4 months, then continued my grammatical studies with books. I signed up for a website that connected conversation partners and made friends from all over the Spanish-speaking world, from Chile to Spain. Although in the beginning I had to Google translate a large percentage of their chats, I persisted. One conversation partner in Bogota requested a voice call, only for me to remain silent and baffled in front of his onslaught of rapid Spanish. He later confessed to me frustration, but today we can have a normal conversation.

I made lists of irregular verbs and memorized conjugations. I puzzled over where to use certain pronouns. The subjunctive tense nearly gave me hysterics. I laboriously waded through BBC news articles, translating every other word. Like a badly-tuned radio gradually coming in clearer and clearer, I started to understand more and more conversational Spanish and have to ask people to repeat themselves less. Little by little, I began to be able to express myself without having to resort to English or Google translate.

It was a frustrating process at times. I sometimes wondered whether I should give it up, and whether I'd ever be able to achieve any degree of fluency. I had good days and bad days, days when I felt like I could tackle Spanish and was making progress, and days when I couldn't manage it. But I persisted.

Little by little, it became more natural. A year and a half later, I can watch the news in Spanish or have a conversation and understand basically 100%. I can read news articles and books; my reading speed has considerably improved, though it's not to the level of my English reading speed (which is probably a good thing). I can hold a conversation and explain pretty much any concept I want to, although it's sometimes a struggle.

And yet the more I learn, the more, paradoxically, I'm confronted with my limitations, which, like an iron wall, loom impassably in front of me. I'll never be as comfortable or capable in the language as someone who was born in a Spanish environment or who began to learn as a child. The more I progress, the more I'm confronted with the “thus far, no farther” limitations of my own adult neurobiology. I may be able to understand the news anchor's fluent native Spanish, but I'll never be able to reproduce it.

This, in turn, has led me to appreciate, for the first time in my life, the true marvel of language. It's incredible that every person born into this world, save those with severe disabilities or poor neglected unfortunates, receive a language at minimum, as a gift, a birthright. What I struggle to achieve through hard work and drills as an adult, every child absorbs naturally, and the level of fluency that I'll never reach is theirs from an early age. If they're truly lucky, they grow up bilingual, or trilingual, or more. I've met people, often from Africa, who speak as many as 9 languages.

To me, the gift of language is one of the most incredible and powerful evidences of the existence of God. This innate, inborn ability to absorb a language, the fluent capacity for thought and expression that is hard-wired into every child, developed not by hard work nor classroom drills but simply by being born and socialized, is a miracle. My poor efforts to replicate this process as an adult have only served to underline for me how truly miraculous it is. Perhaps only those who have made the same effort to cram a second language into their brain can truly appreciate this.

It's made me more aware of what a gift my own first language, English, is. In this increasingly global world, it may be a disadvantage to speak only one language, but nevertheless, it remains a gift, one that allows us to communicate and function and relate to others. Learning a second language, or a third, or a fourth, expands that ability, but even if we live and die with only one language, we're not normally prohibited from functioning (unless we move to an environment where our language isn't spoken). However, another language serves to expand and enrich our world by that much more.

Before I started learning Spanish, I had very little awareness of the Spanish-speaking world. I like to think of myself as a relatively global-minded, world-aware citizen (ha!), but learning another language opened up an entire continent to me and made me aware of just how very unaware I was. We have no idea, if we speak only one language, how limited our perspective is to the world of that language. We read the literature of that language, interact with the culture(s) that speak that language, hear the news in that language, are friends with people who speak that language. For English speakers, as English is rapidly becoming the lingua franca of our day, that may be perceived as less of a disadvantage, but I'd contend it still flattens our world out, and prohibits access to a vast and rich variety of cultural treasure.

I've learned more about the geography, social problems, current events, mindset, popular culture, and history of Latin America than I ever would have if I'd never learned Spanish. I became aware that there's a pretty huge landmass “down there”, occupied by dozens of countries and a vast array of cultures and peoples, with their own achievements, art, design, literature, cinema, and practices. Without speaking the language, I'd be exposed to at most the tip of that enormous iceberg. My world has been enriched and broadened immensely.

So those are some of my rambling thoughts on learning a second language as an adult. But as a bottom line, if you've been thinking about it and putting it off, don't. Just do it. After the blood, struggle, sweat, and tears, you'll achieve a level of ease and competency that will make you proud. Just as your recognition of how far you will likely never go, will keep you humble and a lifelong learner.

Tags: language, learning, Spanish Comments: 0

Can men and women ever really be “just friends”? It's a never-ending question, one that I'd like to consider in light of living as a Christian single.

If you poll most of the world, the answer to that question would be “no”. A friend of the opposite sex, if you believe pop culture, is someone you have slept with, will sleep with, want to sleep with, or will end up in a romantic relationship with once something happens to make you realize you're meant to be together. Real friendship with someone of the opposite sex is only possible if one of you is gay. Otherwise, friendship is simply romance disguised.

In Christian culture, due to the emphasis on marriage, it's not much different. It's generally assumed that if a single man and woman spend time together and enjoy each others' company, they must be (or should be) romantically interested. (I should note that I'm speaking in this post mainly about opposite-sex friendships between singles, not between marrieds or marrieds and singles).

I believe this attitude, both in the church and in the world, rises from a culture which puts romantic relationships in primary place, and devalued “mere” friendship. Romances are more exciting, more valuable, more worthwhile. Friendship is the inferior second prize if you can't achieve romance. However, the friendship can become really valuable if and when it translates itself to romance.

I believe a result of this attitude is that we've largely lost the concept of platonic, affectionate, supportive friendships between men and women.

In the world outside the church, this confusion came as a result of the sexual revolution. Instead of clearly delineated markers between friends and romantic partners/spouses, anyone became a potential sexual partner, muddying the waters significantly. After all, if you can have sex with your friend, why settle for less?

I recently was confused by a conversation with a non-Christian friend. He was relating to me how he'd been taking a “friend” out, hoping the relationship would turn into something more. One day, he told me they had finally kissed. “So is she your girlfriend now?” I asked him. He was astonished and amused. No, he didn't want a “relationship”. He just wanted someone to go out with and be intimate with, without any of the bother of a serious relationship or labelling her his girlfriend. Unsurprisingly, they parted ways not long after. She wanted an actual relationship, not to be called a friend while being asked to give the benefits of a girlfriend.

In the church, as I said before, it's not much different. When was the last time you heard a sermon on friendship? If I tell you that my pastor preached a sermon on relationships, what would you immediately think? Marriage or dating, of course.

Marriage is the norm, and it's expected that if a single man and woman get along well, they are or should be considering marriage. Please note that I am in no way saying that they should not. Friendship is the best way to start a marriage relationship. If you find yourself enjoying someone's company, you're compatible in your faith, personalities, and goals, and there are no obstacles, then by all means pursue God and the counsel of others to begin a relationship if you both desire.

However, whether or not we eventually marry, the vast majority of people we relate to, both in and outside the church, are not going to become our spouse. We usually know people of the opposite sex with whom we get along well and whose company we enjoy, but for one reason or another a more-than-friends relationship is not possible. Singleness is the reality for many in the church, and increasingly, those who do marry do so later in life. We miss out on a huge potential for spiritual and emotional support, enjoyment, and personal growth if we are only able to see members of the opposite sex as potential or rejected romantic partners, rather than as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Paul's pastoral counsel to Timothy was to treat “the younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2). I believe this is a good guideline for all of us, both men and women.

Personally speaking, for a long time I viewed single Christian males that I was interested in purely as romantic prospects. I was fine being friends with those I wasn't interested in (although some of them were interested in me). But I fell into a series of unrequited, and sometimes quite painful, crushes on men who didn't return my feelings.

As I've gotten older and none of those crushes materialized into something substantial, as I've realized singleness may well be for a lifetime, and as I've (hopefully) matured, I've come to see the very real beauty in being able to see, value, and appreciate someone simply for who they are, rather than as a romantic prospect. I've come to understand the joy of being able to be grateful for the positive blessing of their friendship, rather than being bitter and disappointed about something I don't have with them.

One of those attitudes looks at the other person primarily for how they could benefit me. The other loves them for exactly who they are. One thinks about how they could change to fit me, or to want me. The other gives thanks for their unique beauty and accepts them where they are. One robs from my life in disappointment over what I lack. The other adds to my life immensely as I enjoy the loveliness of each different personality, each different set of experiences, each unique way my life is enriched by each person. Instead of expecting one person to be “everything” to me, I enjoy the myriad of ways each friendship contributes to my life, without needing it to be more.

I may never marry. Or I may. Only God knows. But either way, my life will have been infinitely the richer for the very precious gift of friendship. I believe friendships with the opposite sex can benefit us in ways friendship with the same sex can't. God created man and woman to complement one another, and we're enriched by the differences between us in every relationship, not just marriage. The platonic affection and positive regard of our male friends can be a needed emotional support for those who don't have a spouse to lean on.

Obviously there are potential pitfalls to friendships between men and women, which are beyond the scope of this blog post. However, if we can begin by viewing our brothers and sisters in Christ primarily as that, and secondarily, if at all, as potential romantic partners; if we can honour one another and relate to one another in purity and affection; if we can provide friendship and support without secretly expecting something more; I believe we'll be well on our way to healthier, more God-honouring relationships and the surprising blessing of friendship.

Tags: men, women, friendship, relationships, singleness Comments: 0

Lately I have been thinking about just how quickly life passes. Days seem to fly by in the blink of an eye. It feels like I have scarcely gotten up in the morning when I am lying down again to sleep at night. Apparently, our perception of time speeds up as we get older, and this is certainly true for me. It feels like life is a roller coaster which has been gradually building speed and is now rocketing down hills and around turns at whiplash-inducing velocity.

In your childhood, teens, and 20s, life is something you look forward to. You look forward to learning to drive, leaving home, going to university, graduating, getting married, finding a job, having kids—whatever. Life is a grand adventure that lies before you, and anything is possible. As you move past some of these milestones (or remain waiting for some of them); as life throws you curveballs you didn't expect; as you didn't turn out to be the world-changer you thought you'd be: you start to realize: this is it. Life is not something that lies ahead, it's happening every moment. Every day. Each choice, each action, each moment forms part of your life, which increasingly lies behind rather than ahead.

It can be a bit frightening. I don't know how people without Jesus and without the hope of eternal life cope with it. All that's left is to seek to forget the reality of your own mortality, and to squeeze out of life every ounce of enjoyment you can. Plastic surgery, food and drink, relationships, vacations, alcohol, workaholism—whatever your pleasure of choice is, you seek to extract the maximum out of it in a bid to ignore the rapid passing of time, the inevitability of death, and the frightening uncertainty of what awaits beyond. After all, if this life is all there is, why not “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?”

The writers of the Old Testament well understood the brief and fleeting nature of human life. It's a theme that crops up over and over again:

“The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10)

Job laments it in a beautifully unforgettable image:

My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle
and come to their end without hope. (Job 7:6)

And a poetic image from another psalm:

As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16)

In the face of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death, how should we live? That's a question I've increasingly thought about in the past couple of years or so. I'm relatively young, but at the same time, I recognize I have to make life count. It's the only one I'll get. I can't start to think about death and how I want to live in light of it someday: this is my someday.

This is the question that preoccupied the writer of Ecclesiastes. Every time I read Ecclesiastes, I am astonished by its relevance, although it was written thousands of years ago. The writer struggled with what I suppose today would be called existential angst: if we're all going to die anyway, isn't everything futile? What's the point of pleasure or of wisdom, if life just ends up the same? How best to live in the light of death?

I recommend you read the book if you haven't already, but his conclusion is this:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

As a summary, I think that's a pretty apt one. I want to look back on my life with no regrets. I'm far from living life to the maximum I should, but here are some thoughts I'm increasingly realizing can guide me:

This moment, right now, this hour, this day, this week: this is what you've got. This IS your life. Don't wait for some point in the future or some thing to happen to begin living life the way you know that you should. Each moment, each hour, each choice of how to spend time: these are the bricks that make up the building of your life. Choose wisely now.

In light of the brevity of life and of God's judgement, don't put off dealing with sin or the damage of your past. Don't think that “someday” you'll change or “someday” you'll seek healing. Do it now. You don't know how much time you have left. You are building your life, for good or for bad, right now.

Mend relationships. Forgive people. Seek forgiveness from those you've wronged. Put things right. Pick up that phone and call. Tell that person that you love how much they mean to you, and why. Share the gospel with that friend you've been praying for. You don't know when they'll be gone, or you will, and it will be too late. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)

Love extravagantly. Live generously. Don't hoard time, compliments, resources, money, effort. Don't make comfort and well-being your primary goal. Take that mission trip. Give time and money to causes you care about, sacrificially if necessary.

Do you really need to buy that new piece of clothing or game or whatever? You can't take it with you. Don't be fooled into thinking that the abundance of your possessions indicates the quality of your life (Luke 12:15). Live simply and freely and have more to share with those in need.

If you know God is calling you to something, do it. Don't hesitate. Don't put it off.

Take risks. Be bold. Step out in faith. If there's something God has put in your heart, take the steps to do it, even if it seems risky. Trust that the “everlasting arms” will be there to hold you.

Don't live with regret for what you don't have. Don't wait for something to arrive in your life to begin really living. You are living now. Do you want to look back at months and years wasted living in discontentment over something you had no control over? Be joyful knowing that your real inheritance is in heaven and that this life, and what you didn't have, is only for a brief moment.

What are some thoughts you have about how to live life well in the face of death?

Tags: life, death, Ecclesiastes, Psalms Comments: 0

Recently I came across a very interesting blog called “A Skeptic's Journey Through the Bible”. The author's mission statement is this: “Growing up a believer, I left my faith in my teens. Now that I’m at the age of starting a family of my own, I need to know in which direction to guide them. I’ve decided to document my journey through the entire Bible with my own questions and commentary in order to decide once and for all if this is for me.”

It's an interesting concept, and I'm curious to see where he ends up when he's done. One post on the blog particularly intrigued me. It's a response to a question from a reader which asks:

“Did you just realize the flaws in religion when you read the bible or did you just ignore them as a Christian?”

The author's answer:

My doubts mostly floated to the surface when I began reading the Bible. While I was a genuine believer, I thought it was so hypocritical that so many millions of people claim Christianity as their religion (and allow what they think it is to affect their decision making in a lot of serious ways) when a lot of them have never read more than a few verses in the book which they believe their God wrote for them. I decided I wanted to have a closer relationship with God by reading the Bible, and when I did, I immediately began seeing a lot of things that I didn’t agree with. I realized that God is not the sugarcoated god they teach you about in Church. I think that would be when the real veil came off my eyes as far as the flaws in religion go.

This struck me as profoundly true, although he's coming from a sceptical, and I from a believing, standpoint. It fits perfectly with my experience of many churches and many Christians.

Churches rarely preach through the entire Bible. Instead, pastors tend to focus on verses that they like. Instead of getting “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) believers get a limited selection of the passages that appeal to the particular personality, interests, and hobby horses of their pastor or leadership. Certain denominations and movements have particular focuses that they home in on to the exclusion of others. Pastors often don't preach on topics they fear will alienate people.

In many churches I've attended the subject preached on, week in and week out, is the grace and the love of God. Difficult passages of Scripture, and subjects such as sin, judgement, hell, and repentance, are avoided almost completely. The message ends up being: no matter what you do, God accepts you anyway. That's dangerous because it's only partially true. In my observation, it produces a weak group of “Christians” who look almost exactly like the world. For example, it's more common for the young Christians I know to have sex outside of marriage than follow the biblical standard of celibacy. Christians' viewpoints on many topics seem to be shaped more by the culture around them than by God's word.

What struck me most strongly is this sentence: “I realized that God is not the sugarcoated god they teach you about in Church.” I could not agree more. When you actually read the Bible, God is awe-inspiring. He promises he will judge sin, including that of those inside the church. He issues strong warnings to repent. He disciplines us. He allows people to get sick and even die in response to their sin. He says certain behaviours mean that someone is outside of the kingdom of God. None of these things negate the grace and love of God, thankfully. But they're part of the whole picture. He's the kind of God who, if he were to show up in church, would probably make many of us uncomfortable.

Timothy Keller says it brilliantly: “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”

I believe the danger is that many, many people who sit in church week in and week out and never hear anything which challenges or offends them, who say they are Christians but live almost exactly like the world, are likely deceived. When confronted with some of the more challenging teachings of Scripture, particularly those that speak against sins in their own life, they are offended.

Going to church is easy. Following Jesus is hard. A shallow, anti-intellectual Christianity that ignores difficult swathes of the Bible may appeal to people initially. But in the end, it doesn't produce real disciples. The mark of a true Christian is one who believes and obeys even when it's costly; who is eager to understand and do the will of God, even when it challenges his preconceived ideas; who searches the Bible and believes and lives accordingly. These people are not perfect. But they are fundamentally submitted to the Lordship of Jesus and committed to change in belief or behaviour where they realize Scripture calls for it.

How can we, as individual Christians, avoid self-deceit and believing in our own version of God?

  • Read the Bible regularly, all the way through. There are online plans that allow you to read the whole Bible in one year. I like the ESV Study Bible, which includes a portion from the Wisdom Literature, Old Testament history, prophets, and New Testament.
  • Engage with what you read in Scripture. When you come across something challenging, seek answers. Ask mature Christians. Read Bible commentaries. Ask God for understanding. There's nothing wrong with questioning—that's the mark of robust faith. If you don't own it and haven't wrestled with it, it's not yours.
  • Recognize that none of us have perfect understanding, and that we're more bound by our culture, experiences, and presuppositions than we think.
  • Be humble and open. Where the Scriptures challenge your thinking or behaviour, be shaped by what they say. Don't twist Scripture to fit your personal inclinations. Be ruthlessly honest. Submit yourself to the Spirit of God for change, and grace to obey.
  • Be in community. We all have blind spots. We are all prone to being deceived (Hebrews 10:24-25). We all need to be challenged in love by our brothers and sisters, and to hear other points of view.

These are just a few ideas; I welcome you to share yours in the comments!

Tags: Bible, Christianity Comments: 0

Recently I watched the film Ida with a movie buddy. It's artistically an extremely beautiful film, perfectly shot in black and white.

The film tells the story of a young Polish novitiate nun who, on the verge of taking her vows, is told by her Mother Superior that she must first go and visit her only living relative, her Aunt Wanda. When she arrives, she receives the shocking revelation that she is actually a Jew and that her family was killed during the war. She and her aunt go on a journey to try to uncover the truth of how they died and where they are buried, and in the process, young Ida also discovers herself.

The aunt and the would-be nun are a study in contrasts. Jaded, cynical, and bitter, Wanda has a series of one-night stands, drinks too much, smokes incessantly, and mocks her niece's religious commitment. Ida wears the nun's habit, prays faithfully, and tries to keep her distance from her aunt, by whom she is clearly shocked. In one climactic scene, a drunken Wanda protests that her niece's Jesus “loved people like me” and that she feels judged by Ida.

But the niece's severe modesty soon proves to be a thin cover for more worldly desires. Liberated from the convent atmosphere, she eventually sheds her piety and religious rituals to embrace the vices she has seen in her aunt: drinking, smoking, and illicit sex. Will she continue on that way, or will she return to the convent and take her vows? The film leaves us in ambiguity.

This dynamic of the film was what struck me most strongly. It reflects the popular view that there are basically two ways to live: repressive, rigid, unthinking, judgemental religious morality; or a life of unbridled “freedom” that embraces following one's desires, whatever they might be. The film (and society at large) clearly favours the latter. Ida, who was brought up in the convent and knows nothing else, is “liberated” from the shackles of her religion to do whatever she pleases.

Those of us who have been in both camps often discover that neither is ultimately satisfying and that there is a third and better way to live.

This way of life involves discovering an allegiance to a Person who liberates us both from mechanical, formal religion offered from an empty heart; and from blind enslavement to our bodily desires which only bring emptiness and destruction in the end.

That Person's name is Jesus, and that liberation to follow him is exactly what he offered when here on earth, and still offers.

Jesus offered this way both to notorious sinners, and to the highly religious. However, he showed the most compassion to the “sinners”, because they were the ones most likely to recognize and admit their need. Blinded by their “goodness”, the religious people could not see their moral emptiness, their judgementalism, their lack of love, and their distance from God. The “sinners”, people like Wanda who did not hide their emptiness and pain and who knew they didn't have it together, were the ones who joyfully accepted Jesus' forgiveness and healing. As he himself said, those who have been forgiven much, love much.

Jesus offered a notorious social outcast, the woman of Samaria, the “living water” that would satisfy all her needs. She no longer needed to look to serial romantic relationships to try to fill the void. She, and so many others who met Jesus, went away changed. They discovered there was something far better than the things they had been using to try to numb their pain and give their lives meaning. They discovered Someone who loved them and who was worth living for and leaving those things behind.

Sadly, most of the religious leaders never recognized their need. They had too much to lose and nothing to gain, or so they thought. They were the ones who, as a whole, rejected Jesus and eventually crucified him.

Ida is caught between her dutiful commitment to her religion, and her natural desires to experience the pleasures of life. For her aunt, those pleasures become a trap which destroy her. Both of them are desperately in need of a third way: living, loving relationship with a Saviour whose grace and goodness are so compelling and unparalleled that they cause us to leave everything behind to follow him, whether our “thing” is duty-bound religion or unbridled hedonism. In this third way, obedience becomes a joyful offering of gratitude to the one who's liberated us from things we could not liberate ourselves and given us a life we couldn't have imagined.

Tags: film, Ida, review Comments: 0

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