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

I recently had a living lesson in the importance of forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn't just break the chain of past hurts and allow us to live free, it also breaks the chain of effect for our children and their children.

My grandmother on my mother's side is a beautiful person: strong, smart, and generous. I have great memories of her from childhood. She was a fun and loving, if tough, presence in our lives who had us over for sleepovers, took us on adventures, spoiled us with treats we didn't get at home, brought bags of Christmas and birthday presents, and hugged and kissed us. She would, and does, do anything to help those she loves.

She had to overcome a lot to become the person she is. My grandmother grew up in an alcoholic, loveless family. Both of her parents drank too much. Her mother eventually committed suicide. She began dating my grandfather at the age of 14, and at 18 married him although he had already cheated on her. After three children, she realized that his alcoholic abuse was affecting them, and left him when my mother, the youngest of three, was a small child.

Her younger sister, my great-aunt, was killed as a teenager by a drunk driver. Her second husband cheated on her, resulting in another divorce. More recently, her oldest son was killed in a tragic accident.

Thankfully, she's now married to a good man who treats her well, and has enjoyed a stable and happy life for many years. However, when we talk, the conversation always ends up turning to her parents, her first husband, and her son's widow. Over and over, I hear recounted the hurts and the wrongs done to her by these people. For her, those people and events aren't in the past; they're still very much present, even though most of them happened decades ago and most of the people involved are dead.

Recently I listened as my mother recounted her hurt and pain from the abandonment by her father. She grew up with him uninvolved in her life, focused on raising his second family with his new wife. She lamented how she wondered growing up “Why doesn't he love me?” and how she realized, in her early 30s, that he was never going to be the father she longed for him to be. Her son, my brother, has left his wife and two children for another woman, and for my mother the pain is particularly potent because it reminds her powerfully of what her father did.

Three generations. And who knows how many generations before that. Hurt and pain that are still alive. Events and people which are not in the past, although chronologically they are, but very much present and still affecting the lives of those who went through them. Events whose unresolved effects were propagated in turn on my generation.

It underlined for me personally the absolutely vitality of forgiveness. Despite how counterintuitive it is, it's literally the only way to break the chain of hurt, pain, and wrong, and live free of events and people of the past, not only for yourself but also for the next generation.

These people are long dead, these events long past. But their effects are just as strong for my grandmother and my mother. They speak of my grandfather, in particular, with a bitterness that remains fresh five decades after he left them.

My mother and grandmother, along with most of us who experience significant hurt, could not control what happened to them. The actions of others are never under our power. But the blessed news is that forgiveness is. We have the capability to choose it, and to experience its amazing healing power, no matter how terrible what was done to us was, nor how long ago. Forgiveness breaks the chain of past hurts. It sets you free from the people who hurt you, and their actions. It allows you to live in the present and hope for the future. And not only is it vitally important for you, it's absolutely vital for any children you may have. The hurts and resentments you carry, whether you intend them to or not, affect those small people as well, infecting the next generation like a vicious, contagious disease. And on and on it goes, until someone breaks the cycle.

We've all seen, or experienced, cycles of dysfunction being repeated generation after generation in the same family, like a tired, horrible film being looped again and again. Whether we like it or not, the pain that we carry ends up affecting the children under our care, unless it is dealt with. And the only way of truly resolving the pain of the past, of leaving it behind, and moving forward to health and wholeness, is forgiveness.

I'm not saying the person who forgives will end up completely unaffected by what happened to them. We are all shaped by our past. But those events and those people no longer need to have power over us. We can have the ability, by God's grace, to make better choices, to elect mercy, love, patience, and grace, in place of bitterness, anger, resentment, and revenge. We can break the cycle not only for ourselves, but for the next generation in our care.

Tags: forgiveness, healing 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 cultural change which has put 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.

This cultural change has had a lot of effects, but I believe one 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

Something I've come to realize recently is that a major characteristic of dysfunctional relationships is what I think of as “shame-throwing”. Shame-throwing is an effort, whether by anger, insults, accusations, shunning, or punishment, to try to make the other person feel bad about themselves. This might be to make them feel bad about who they are as a person, to feel shame or guilt for something you perceive they have done wrong, or to make yourself feel better by “dumping” your own internal shame on someone else and making them feel as bad as you do.

Shame-throwing takes place largely, I believe, when there's little to no trust between the members of the relationship. The person doing the shame-throwing doesn't trust the other to treat them kindly, fairly, or with respect, so he or she feels compelled to attack with whatever weapon they have on hand to fight for their rights and their territory.

The problem with shame-throwing, of course, is that it further erodes trust and destroys relationships. If both people engage in it, it results in a war with no end and/or a totally broken relationship.

The person on the receiving end of the shame-throwing may not actually be an untrustworthy person. He or she may actually be treating the shame-throwing person with kindness and respect. Because of past hurts in the shame-throwing person's life, they project those negative qualities onto the person they are doing battle with and feel they have to fight to get what they need and want. The irony is, of course, that those tactics don't actually work to achieve what the shame-throwing person wants and needs.

I grew up in a major shame-throwing environment. The constant fight was to make everyone else around you feel as bad as you did. Battles were fought which had no end and no purpose. Everyone was miserable. Nobody extended grace, kindness, or forgiveness to anyone else. It was a constant war that nobody won and everybody lost.

The result of that kind of upbringing is a constant, profound, debilitating sense of shame, guilt, and worthlessness as a person. Severe enough, it drives people to mental illness and suicide. It's a long story that wouldn't fit here to recount how I've moved from incredible darkness to a place of healing and hope.

Suffice to say, these days, I don't live in shame and guilt. The gospel of Jesus Christ has set me free from that. I recognize that in Jesus and through his death and resurrection, I have been completely forgiven. I am no longer under condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). It's a beautiful feeling! Even when I make a mistake and sin, I do not wallow in shame or guilt. I recognize that God's acceptance of me doesn't change and his love for me doesn't go away. This in turn frees me to recognize when I've done wrong, repent of it, seek to make it right, and seek change. But I understand I am not fundamentally rejected as a person. My acceptance in Christ frees me to seek to live like him, outside of the weight of condemnation and guilt.

Forgiveness is a huge factor in this. When someone tries to throw shame and guilt at me or “punish” me for something they perceive I've done wrong, recognition of God's forgiveness of me frees me to in turn forgive them and release me from the pain and anger of the shame-bomb.

Recently I've gone through a difficult situation with a person. I misguidedly attempted to speak into their life without the relational foundation to do so. It wasn't received well, unsurprisingly. Attempts to rectify the situation went south and negotiation proved impossible. The other person ended up cutting off relationship with me out of anger over a completely unrelated incident.

Suffice to say, I was feeling an incredible amount of hurt and anger over this. I'm much quicker these days to remember that the solution is forgiveness. I prayed and “tried” to forgive, and did feel some release, but heading to church the morning after the final discussion, I was still feeling hurt and angry. I was having the imaginary arguments with the person in my head that we have when we feel wronged and want to justify ourselves.

In church, we took the Lord's Supper. During the prior song, which was about Jesus' death on the cross, I was struck with a divine, grace-filled revelation. Jesus has completely forgiven me. His work on the cross left nothing lacking. He has paid for all my sins. I am completely accepted. There is no longer any condemnation for me in him. No matter who is angry with me about what, Jesus doesn't condemn me. The other person may never extend me grace. But I stand free in him.

In that instant, the realization of my own complete forgiveness freed me. I was able to instantly and completely forgive the other person. The weight of anger and pain lifted totally. I can't say that I'm not still grieved over the situation, but the toxic mixture of pain and shame has gone away.

I hope and pray for reconciliation with the other person. But in the meantime, I walk in freedom. I forgive them, and I don't carry the shame that was being thrown at me. This is what Jesus' work on the cross accomplished: forgiveness and freedom, and the grace and the power to be able to extend that same forgiveness and freedom to those who have hurt us. It's the most beautiful way to live!

Tags: shame, condemnation, forgiveness, freedom in Christ, relationships 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

One of the worst feelings in the world is that of being scammed or robbed. It's a sickening feeling of violation, betrayal, and helplessness, especially when the robbery is beyond the capability to recover. You fight to make things right, but your efforts are futile. The thief is never found. There's no proof. The item is gone. The person refuses to make things right.

I've recently had a few experiences of this nature, the frustration and futility of it reminding me that there is evil in the world, that people can't always be trusted, that despite your best efforts others don't always play by the rules and that there are some losses that can't be recovered. The best you can do is pick yourself up and move on, learning a lesson for another day, and being thankful the loss wasn't worse.

In Mexico last summer, I had my wallet stolen the first day I was there on a mission trip. The gullible, trusting Canadian, I left my bag unattended as I would here in Canada. Except it wasn't Canada. One of the poor, desperate, addicted men I had gone there to serve took the opportunity and filched it.

I was deeply thrown, extremely upset. For a few days I struggled to regain equilibrium. It felt like I'd been robbed of life itself. I'd gone trustingly into a situation many people had warned me was dangerous, and their predictions had been right. I was extremely angry at myself for being so careless, and even questioned whether I had made a mistake in going. I had come to serve and to be a blessing, and instead I had become a liability, the naive Canadian tripping thoughtlessly into a situation she knew nothing about.

Thank God he enabled me to recover; I remembered Jesus' words about our life not consisting of our possessions and his commands to forgive those who rob us. I came to a point where I was able to pray for the man who had robbed me. I was able to carry out the rest of my time in Mexico joyfully, and to continue to serve the men, including the one I suspected of being the thief. Faith in the Gospel buoyed me up in a dark situation.

More recently, I was scammed on Ebay. A kind friend gifted me his old DSLR camera, a newer and better model than the one I had. I rejoiced at this gift and immediately put the old camera on Ebay. I was especially thankful as it came during a time of unemployment; the sale of the old camera would provide a nice little boost to my personal finances. And then, I was expertly scammed by some of the typical tricks people use, which I was naive to. The buyer claimed not to have received the item, there was no proof either way, and I was forced to refund the price of the camera and the shipping. I lost my camera, and the money for it, effectively paying to gift some anonymous Vietnamese scammer with my beloved camera.

As I was thinking about it, I realized that this feeling is much the same as falling into a bad romantic relationship. You trustingly gift the person with your time, energy, affection, and love, believing that they are a good, trustworthy individual who will treat you honourably. Then the relationship ends and they do their best to wound you to the maximum extent possible. Then they decide to give up and run off with another person, with no more thought or care for you or the pain they've inflicted on you, completely reneging the promises they made to you. The pain is the same, except deeper, involving a loss far more precious than material possessions: your heart. You trusted them with your deepest feelings, your commitment, your body, your love, your time. When they leave, you're left with nothing, and worse than nothing: a nuclear-explosion-sized hole that can take months or years to heal and always leaves a scar.

This world is an evil place. There are people out there whose highest goal and motivation is their own gain, and who don't have scruples about lying, stealing, cheating, and violence to get what they want. We may assume that because we are committed to playing by the rules and being honest that others are the same; however, that's not a safe assumption to make. We sometimes learn that lesson at great cost. Often being honest, generous, and kind-hearted simply marks us out as an easy target.

What's the answer? I suppose one response would be to become hard-hearted and cynical. Certainly we need to be aware of the dangers and take appropriate measures to protect ourselves. But faced with a loss we didn't foresee and can't recover, what can we do?

If I didn't believe in a God of justice who sees, marks, and will punish injustice, I would despair, grow angry and bitter, and perhaps even stoop to the same sort of underhanded techniques to get what I want. There's no answer to the tears that fall in response to the evil of this world, except a God who cares. A God who will repay in kind, and from whom no evil ever finally escapes.

That's my hope, and why I can let these things go, forgive, and move on. That may take time and come at great cost, but it's the only way to freedom. It's also my hope for the greater injustices of the world, like a friend's sister who was murdered this week in Central America after wandering off her resort. The world weeps and groans under evil and violence. But there is a God who sees and does not forget, and according to my gospel there is a day coming when everyone will give account to him. That doesn't negate our efforts to fight injustice: instead, it ought to animate them. But it reminds us of where our ultimate hope lies.

Tags: evil, injustice, forgiveness, judgement Comments: 0

(Full disclosure: I was sent a free copy of this book by the author to review)

Despite the title, this book isn't so much a “guide” as a very personal and devotional exploration of the author's own struggle with unwanted singleness in her mid-thirties. The author does not attempt to offer formulas or pat answers; her exploration of faith demolishes such attempts at false comfort.

The strengths of this book are twofold, in my opinion: first, allowing those who may be struggling with singleness the permission to grieve and to be honest about the difficulty of their situation and their negative feelings. Secondly, despite giving permission to grieve and to wrestle with God, Kate constantly directs the reader back to the place where she herself returns: trust and confidence in a God who loves her and whom she chooses to believe is working all things out for her good, despite not understanding why he doesn't grant her the deepest desire of her heart.

This book is extremely personal. Kate is very honest and open about her struggles and frustration. Much of the book consists of stories from her own life and her fight to trust God with disappointed expectation. This part of the book may be harder to relate to for those whose experience of singleness is different; however, what it does do is brilliantly highlight the author's beautiful heart of faith in God despite her circumstances. It's a lovely portrait of someone who has come to know God as good and to trust him deeply despite going through perhaps the deepest disappointment she could suffer. For that alone, the book is worth it, even for those who are not single.

Despite the author's honest exploration of her own pain, the tone is quite funny at times. A treat for me were the beautiful lyrics of Kate's songs scattered throughout. She enjoys a very intimate and loving relationship with God which admittedly I found myself envying. The candid tone makes her feel a bit like a big sister or a friend, someone you'd like to hang out with and talk about life.

Kate does offer a few chapters of advice in the middle of the book, most of which is sensible if not revolutionary. Many will find the chapter with advice from married people on how to prepare for marriage while you are single useful. I particularly appreciated the fact that she cautions readers against having overly-high expectations of marriage: i.e., believing that marriage will somehow be the answer to all of your problems and that you'll never struggle again.

The most useful pieces of advice for me were her chapters on giving yourself to others and living in intentional community. Kate rightly cautions that the independence of singleness can cause one to become self-focused and isolated, and calls us to the beauty of a life given up for others and lived with others.

The book ends (spoiler alert!) with a beautiful retelling of the love story throughout the ages between God and his people, and a look ahead to the day when the Bride of Christ is finally united with him forever. On that day, it won't matter whether we were married or single, parents or childless; all that will matter is that we are his. It's this perspective that allows us to walk through this life joyfully and bear the difficulty of living in a fallen world, whether for us that's singleness or something else.

To read some of Kate's thoughts on singleness, visit her blog: The Sexy Celibate. To learn more about her and listen to her music, go to

Tags: review, book, singleness, Kate Hurley Comments: 0