Shepherds, work, and the interruption of burning bushes.

I have it on good authority that farmers work hard and I’m sure shepherds are no different, which is what makes Moses’ story all the more interesting. Some say bushes that spontaneously burn aren’t all that rare in the Sinai area, although that appears to be debunked here. Regardless, the fact that another bush was burning was perhaps more of a distraction than an attraction for Moses.

I have limited experience with sheep. The farm where Eva and I are currently living has three sheep and last week, while the family was away on vacation, we had to take care of said sheep. It isn’t all that hard — we had to take them out to the pasture in the morning, move them around during the day, and return them to their pen at night. It sounds simple but it was a little more involved than that. We had to make sure the sheep made it to their mobile pen in the pasture, a process that involves dragging them past much more appealing foliage to the foliage that we had chosen for them. It also sometimes involves chasing and catching said sheep to make sure they go where we wanted them to go. We also had to carry a 5 gallon bucket of water out to them and make sure that they stayed watered. When the grass in their moveable pen was consumed we needed to move them to a new location, sometimes ensuring that they had some shade. Daniel usually brought them in at night and his technique was running as fast as possible beside them so that they remained focussed on the destination rather than all the sweet grasses along the way.

I also recently watched Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime. In the show, Jeremy Clarkson takes over his farm when his previous manager retired. The show follows him along as he learns the ropes on what it takes to run a farm in Britain. One aspect to Clarkson’s farm is sheep and there are several episodes devoted to what it means to farm sheep, including being up at all hours to birth them, making sure that the mothers and lambs are all caring for each other while in the pasture, and moving them to a new pasture without them getting into the neighbour’s fields.

It is a lot of work for those of us caring for just a few sheep. How much more a traditional shepherd with a full-size herd that she needs to keep track of? [Just as an aside, did you know that Rachel is one of the few named shepherds in the Bible? Check out her story in Genesis 29]

Which leads us to the question, “Why would a busy guy like Moses take the time to go see the burning bush?” What made him realise that it wasn’t merely a distraction and was something work making him take time out of his busy schedule? The Bible doesn’t say a lot about Moses’ thought process other than to say, “I must go over there and see this strange sight.” There was something strange that attracted his attention.

Moses’ situation reminds me to ask myself if I pay attention to “strange sights” in my day-to-day life that may be God’s attempts to get my attention. [Note that God will always eventually get my attention, as I have written about here.] In what ways does my busyness keep me from opportunities to encounter God? How do I distinguish distraction from a God-encounter? Are distractions in fact invitations from God?

I guess one type of distraction is internet use. But while some of the things that we encounter on the internet may be strange, this type of distraction can’t be labelled a “strange sight” in the way Moses labelled the burning bush. The burning bush got Moses’ attention while he was doing other things that he normally did. It pulled him away from the usual into the unusual. So sorry, we can’t use Moses as an excuse for always being on the internet.

Another type of distraction is escapist fiction. Who doesn’t love a great story that takes you away from your present life and allows you to live in a virtual world of adventure, excitement, and love? I am currently enjoying Burrough’s John Carter series. But yet again, this is a type of distraction that we bring upon ourselves and is not the type of distraction that God introduces into our loves for his purposes.

I suspect the kinds of distractions that God tries are things that distract us from our distractions. Some distractions are actually a call back to the real world. They interrupt our escapes and bring us back to reality. That’s what the burning bush did for Moses after all.

Once, many years ago, while I was talking to a friend, my daughter came up to me because she wanted to show me her new dress. Did I look at her new dress? No. I saw what she was doing as a distraction from what I was doing. If I had it to do over again I would say, Excuse me, to my friend and take a look at Emily’s new dress. Perhaps God was saying, “Pay attention to your family.”

What I my response when someone talks to me while I am watching a TV show? Do I see it as an interruption or a call to engage with someone in real life? What is my response when I and deeply thinking about the solution to a problem and my wife approaches me with a solution? Am I reminded that we are a team and can work things out together, or do I feel interrupted? What about when someone offers me constructive criticism? Do I see it as a change to improve or as a challenge to my abilities? I must confess that I often get these kinds of things wrong.

So what types of distractions have turned into God encounters for you?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image Sandeep Kr Yadev on Unsplash.

Of monuments and unmarked graves: Is it right to commemorate those responsible for the residential school system while ignoring its victims?

There have been many calls over the past years to either remove statues/honours or preserve them. Most recently in Canada these include people connected to the Indian Residential School System, including statues of Sir John A. MacDonald, the university named after Egerton Ryerson, and the honorary degree given to Bishop John O’Grady by the University of British Columbia. Those on social media who oppose removing memorials see them as a part of history that shouldn’t be changed.

How can we navigate issues like this? One good place to start is by understanding the difference between the Past and History — and no, they aren’t the same thing.

The events of the Past are unchangeable. The past rolls on continuously and inexorably. But there is no DVR or VHS for the past. The only thing that can be changed is the future. As Jose Rizal said, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.” [“Whoever doesn’t know how to look to where they came from will not arrive where they are going.”]

History, on the other hand, is different from the Past. History is the interpretation of the events of the past. Because it is interpretation it is subject to change and reassessment.

Now let’s apply these ideas to statues. Is a statue the past or is it history? It’s history because it is the commemoration of a person deemed significant in the past. As Charlottetown, PEI, Coun. Greg Rivard says, “I don’t think removing a statue erases any history. A statue is symbolic of something, and I don’t think right now that the statue is symbolic of the right things.”

What about a grave? Is a grave the past or is it history? Graves are the past. This is because in most cases, actual people are buried in a grave. There are of course many types of grave. There are marked graves, complete with gravestone and epitaph. There are commemorative graves — for example the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — where the person buried within is unknown but is representative all those who died for their countries but remain unidentified. Then there are mass graves or unmarked graves. Mass graves generally hold the bodies of those who have died in a tragedy.

Now what about when the victims of those memorialised and commemorated with statues are buried in unmarked graves? In May 2021, the unmarked graves of 215 First Nations children, whose deaths were undocumented, were discovered on the grounds of a former Residential School in Kamloops, BC. It doesn’t seem right to continue to commemorate or memorialise those responsible for the residential school system when these children have been abandoned and forgotten does it?

But it is one thing for this to be socially reprehensible. We also need to ask what the Bible says about stuff like this. I can think of two ideas in the Bible that apply here.

The Bible has a high regard for children:

Psalm 127:3 says, “Children are an inheritance from the Lord. They are a reward from him.”

Jesus had a high regard for children, even when society seemingly didn’t. We see this a couple of times, including Mark 10:13-16 that says, “Some people brought little children to Jesus to have him hold them. But the disciples told the people not to do that. When Jesus saw this, he became irritated. He told them, “Don’t stop the children from coming to me. Children like these are part of God’s kingdom. I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive God’s kingdom as a little child receives it will never enter it.” Jesus put his arms around the children and blessed them by placing his hands on them.”

Matthew 18:2-5 says, “I can guarantee this truth: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.”

Caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners is important to God:

James 1:27 says, “Pure, unstained religion, according to God our Father, is to take care of orphans and widows when they suffer and to remain uncorrupted by this world.”

The Bible even has harsh words for those who don’t treat children appropriately:

“These little ones believe in me. It would be best for the person who causes one of them to lose faith to be drowned in the sea with a large stone hung around his neck” (Matthew 18:6).

A millstone around the neck certainly isn’t commemoration is it?

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

Nightmares vs Daydreams: Which do you think are more dangerous?

People often said when I was younger that I lived in a dream world — and that was true. I did spend a lot of time dreaming of an imaginary world. It is strange, however, that daydreams are often thought of as being a trivial waste of time. “It’s better,” they say, “to live in the real world.” What is also interesting is that we often think of nightmares as dangerous We worry about nightmares. We try to stop nightmares. We even make movies about them that frighten us into even more nightmares!

In reality, we should really spend more time concentrating on daydreams. Nightmares, after all, only last for a few brief moments. It’s the dreams that we have while awake that are truly dangerous because we can dream them for a lifetime, and in the end make them come true. 

As TE Lawrence says, 

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

Here are my daydreams:

  • I dream of a world where the rule and leadership of Jesus makes the world a better place. A place where the poor hear good news, where prisoners are made free, where the blind can see, where the oppressed are set free, and where the Lord looks with favour on all people. 
  • I dream of a world where the values of the world are the values of God’s kingdom. 
  • I dream of a world where we love each other like we love ourselves. This is best expressed by the Tagalog word kapwa, or “shared being.” 
  • I dream of a world where the truths we shape is the Truth that is revealed to everyone by God, applied to our own cultural and local contexts. 

It is easy to dream such dreams. It is harder to make these dreams come true. But as the old saying goes, “Begin with the end is sight.” 

Keep on daydreaming!

Photo by Jonathan Mabey on Unsplash.

Anthony Bradley’s Functional church made practical –> On “loving the city” long-term

Functional church anyone? This guy (Anthony Bradley) has got the idea right. But not just the idea, the practice that goes with it! He doesn’t care about forms and appearances but is solely concerned with church engaging society. I like it a lot (even if it is scary).

A functional church really has to get down to this level — the behind-the-scenes-not-pretty-but-really-where-the-problem-is kind of stuff.

It’s one thing to set up a place to get together and talk but it is quite another to take a stand and try to root out some really issues.

Here is the link to the article:

On “loving the city” long-term (in contrast to well-intentioned hipster, neo-paternalistic versions) – The Institute.

What things would you add to the list?

Sometimes I Wish I Had A Magic Wand

In the popular series of movies Harry Potter, I observed an interesting phenomenon. Every time a character wants to perform some mundane task, such as packing their clothes, closing curtains, etc., all they do is wave their magic wand and the task is instantly done. To be honest, this seems a little bit cool. I mean who wouldn’t want to be able to finish those tasks in such an easy and painless way? I would probably use it for washing dishes and washing the car.

But then I got to thinking about my own relationship with God. Why doesn’t he give me that power? Why can’t I, who have been a part of his family for my whole life, just wave a wand (or perhaps just say a prayer) and have whatever it is instantly done? Of course, some of us have experienced God’s power in this way but this experience is by no means universal.

There must be something in those little tasks that God still wants me to experience. There must be something about washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, packing my clothes, or washing my car that somehow helps me in my relationship with God.

It reminds me of a line in the Star Trek movie Insurrection where one of the characters says something like, “We believe that when you make a machine to do a man’s job, you take something away from that man.”

What do I take away from myself when I try to find the easy way out?

What times do you wish for a magic wand? How can doing that thing yourself help you relate to God in a richer way?

Questions Regarding Milk vs Meat

Sometimes the Bible talks about spirituality in terms of food. The idea is this: new Christians, like babies, need milk. Eventually, however, as they mature, they need meat. Take, for example, the following verses:

  • I Corinthians 3:2: I gave you milk to drink. I didn’t give you solid food because you weren’t ready for it. Even now you aren’t ready for it
  • Hebrews 5:12-14 By now you should be teachers. Instead, you still need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food. All those who live on milk lack the experience to talk about what is right. They are still babies. However, solid food is for mature people, whose minds are trained by practice to know the difference between good and evil.
  • I Peter 2:2: Desire God’s pure word as newborn babies desire milk. Then you will grow in your salvation.

Here is my question: When do we start feeding ourselves?

When a baby grows old enough to start eating meat, they put it into their mouths themselves. Is it the same with disciples? Do we eventually start feeding ourselves?

A few more questions: Is is proper to say “I’m not being fed by Sunday-morning sermons”? Is that what sermons are for? Erwin McManus made the statement: “My job isn’t to feed the Christians, so they can feed the sheep. My job is to make them hungry so they can feed themselves.” Does McManus accurately reflect the truths of milk vs meat?

So what if I am not being fed? Does that mean I need to feed myself — that I have graduated to the next level of maturity where I find my own food and feed others?

Does anyone have any answers for me?

The Church, the World, and the Kingdom of God

My favourite theological motif is derived from the story of the Loving Father (also known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son). It is in fact a story about the world, which is synonymous with the family of God. The story is about a Father with two sons. One son wanders off in search of his own joy in life (but ends up realizing that true joy only lies in his father’s household). The other stays at home and faithfully works for his father (but ends up developing a non-loving attitude toward his sibling). The father is very interested in both the return of his “lost” son, as well as the proper attitude of this other son.

This is a picture of God and his relationship with the world. Some people of the world have wandered off in search for joy. Many return to God. Others are safe in the church but sometimes end up having a dim view of those who are not yet there.

It reminds me of something I read from David Fitch over at Reclaiming the Mission. He made a statement about in March 2010 that has stuck in my head. Here it is:

“There is no dividing line between the church & the world. The church may precede the world today, yet it is only living today what the world itself is ultimately called to in the future. The church in essence bleeds into the world ever calling it to its true destiny. As a foretaste of the renewal of all creation, the church cannot be discontinuous with creation. It cannot be discontinuous with the world because the church is in the process of becoming that very world renewed in Christ. Neither can it merely blend into the world for then all Mission & renewal is lost. Its presence will be in, among & for the world even as it will be distinct from the world. This is what it means to take on the incarnational nature of Christ. It is this very incarnational nature that requires the church to be a discerning community which at times both refuses conformity with the world while at other times joining in (with what God is already at work doing).”

This resonates a lot with me because it is where I see the church’s role in the world right now. We can’t transform something if we are not involved in it. Note that the very concept of transformation implies that there is not a wholesale accommodation to the world, just a participation in what God is doing to enact that transformation.

I just have a nagging question: What is the relationship between the church and the Kingdom of God? David points out that the church is a “foretaste of the renewal of all creation.” But if it is a “foretaste,” it can’t be the final product. In the following sentence we read, “the church is in the process of becoming that very world renewed in Christ.” Is it the church that is becoming the world renewed in Christ or is the renewed world the kingdom spoken of in Revelation 11:15 – “The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will rule as king forever and ever.”

I guess what it comes down to is this: Is it ok for me to work at building the church or should I instead work at building the kingdom? Or is to do one to do the other as well?

What is my White Picket Fence & Church with a Steeple?

I have been living in a culture that is not my own for almost 11 years. From the beginning, my wife and I resolved not only to follow God’s call to this place but to do so without imposing our passport-culture’s baggage in our host culture.

You see, when I was in high-school I saw part of a movie on TV that was based upon James Michener’s Hawaii. I now realise that the book and movie were based upon Michener’s own misunderstandings of the issues of cross-cultural workers and how they related to locals. However, the story of a missionary who isn’t willing to pass the baton to the locals when the time comes has stuck with me since then. Stories also abound of how people bringing God’s message of Good News also brought with them their own cultures and forced locals to wear clothes, build churches with nice steeples and white picket fences around them.
When my wife and I arrived here, we resolved to leave the cultural baggage behind, and instead just bring the message of God’s love.
Easier said than done.
I recently realised that I am a cultural imperialist! Of course, my version of imperialism doesn’t include clothing and white picket fences. It does, however, include an innate belief that the way I do things is better than the way things are done here. When people do things differently than I would and problems arise I have an immediate solution: Simply start doing things my way and all your problems will be solved! After all, isn’t that what transformation is all about?
If my goal as an agent of transformation is not to transform culture then what is it? My wife’s words were apropos: “You are here to glorify God.”
The realised that the problem is that I am assuming that transformation means that all must embrace my culture. Rather I should assume that all must embrace my God and let the culture sort itself out.
What is your white picket fence and church with a steeple?

How is God at work outside the church?

For the past few days I have been musing about the question “What is God doing in the world?” Ed Stetzer and others (here & here) have been writing about it on the Missional SyncBlog. The background of the question is a concept that is gaining momentum in the church based upon the role of the Church in the world and the role of God. For many years we in the church have thought that the church has a mission in the world. While there is no real problem with this there a little confusion seemed to develop along the way as to who was ultimately responsible for seeing this vision to fruition. Recently, as we began to ponder the work and mission of God, we realised that it is in fact God who is working in the world and we in the church must join him in his mission to the world. So that leads us to the question above as to what exactly God is doing in the world, more particularly, apart from the church? Meaning, what things to we need to look for as we try to let God set the agenda rather than we ourselves setting the agenda? More to the point, is God saving people outside of the church as well?

Then it came to me. Perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible can help us understand how God is at work in the world. John 3:16 says, “God loved the world in this way: he sent his only Son so that whoever believes in him will not die but will have life that lasts for ever.”

There seems to be two things that we learn from this verse:

1. God is actively involved in loving the world.
2. God active love of the world is shown to the world in a very specific way: through Jesus.

What are the implications of this?

1. God’s love for the world does not appear to hinge upon the world’s love for him.
2. Jesus is essential to this display and experience of love.
3. The church, as Christ’s body, must then actively showing God’s love to the world.
4. Wherever we go, whomever we meet, whatever we experience, we must remember that God is in love with that place, that person, us. Asking the question, “What/Who is God loving here?” will go a long way towards us understanding his work in the world. The Parable of the Family (Luke 15:11-32)

If we think of an example we can think of the parable of the loving father. God, of course, is the father, and he loves his children regardless of whether they stay with him or not. Much has been made of the fact that “while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him.” (v20) For the father, the son has never really left. He knows and waits for the day he will return. The Father also loves his older son saying, “you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours.”

The so-called prodigal son is one of those kids he loves. Who is the prodigal? He represents those who have chosen their own way over God’s way – even those who are the most offensive and hateful in our eyes.

The Father also loves the older son. Who is the older son? The older brother could be described as those who are in the kingdom but who are not appreciative of what the Father’s love means for them and for the world. They enjoy the fact that they are working hard for God but appear to be unwilling to enjoy their relationship with the Father nor to want to share the blessings with others.

The key is that the prodigal son has to return to his father’s house in order to be received by the Father. The irony is that the older son doesn’t really appreciate his own situation: he doesn’t enjoy his position in the household and he doesn’t let anyone else enjoy the goodness of the father’s home either.

So, how does this relate to the church?

First of all it is important to see that God loves everyone, both inside and outside the church. He loves those who give their lives to him. He loves those who have chosen following him as a career-path. He loves those who are seeking to destroy the church. He loves those who haven’t yet heard about him. He loves those who have chosen to live their lives in opposition to him. He loves corrupt politicians. He loves abusive parents. He loves prisoners, criminals, gang members, hockey moms, blue-collar workers, management, employees, unions, scabs, parents, teens, kids, teachers, administrators, predators, stalkers, etc. If God loves these people then we need to join him on his mission of loving them. If I want to know where God is working in the world I just need to find someone whom the world doesn’t love and start loving them.

Of course we can’t equate the love God has for the world with his condoning the practices of the world. Certainly God created everything good, but we, in our sinful state, have turned the good into the bad. We (& the world) must return to God in order to receive the benefit of salvation. God’s promise to us is that creation will not have to groan anymore as he restores everything to its original holiness.

How then does it inform us as to what God’s work is outside the church?

Without Jesus, there is no salvation. The Bible also says that unless we repent, we will not be able to share in the salvation Jesus gives. But, the Bible is also clear that God does love the world. The church as Christ’s body is the representation of God’s love in the world and is tasked with showing that love to the world.

Why Anonymous Letters Don’t Work Among Jesus’ Followers

I thought about beginning this blog with a scenario where a person might be led to write an anonymous letter complaining about their church but to be honest I just couldn’t figure out what the motivations might be. Regardless of that, it is a topic that we do need to discuss from time to time. Anonymous letters are part and parcel of a life in ministry. I don’t know anyone in ministry who hasn’t sometime received anonymous advice or an anonymous letter. So how do we deal with them?

All throughout my life I have heard from people in all walks of life – Pastors, District Ministers, Seminary Presidents, and even missionaries – what I should do if I receive an anonymous letter. The answers are all surprisingly unanimous: “Throw all anonymous letters in the garbage and forget about them!” This is very easy to say but very hard to do. There is something that keeps drawing us back to the words on the page over and over again to the point where we are carried off in despair or self-pity.

I was pondering this advice the past week and began to wonder why anonymous letters do not work in the church. Here is my list (not sure I’ll get to 10 so I can’t really call it a Top-10 List):

1. The Church is Community. I know the people I worship and minister with personally. I may see them everyday or even every week. We attend worship services, cell groups, seminars, and classes together. We interact. We play. We love. We share. We know each other. There is that mutual give and take that goes with any good relationship.

Enter the “Anonymous Letter.” All of a sudden that relationship is broken. There is no more trust. Instead there is shame. Someone is too ashamed of the situation to make himself/herself known. Someone is too ashamed of what they are saying that they don’t want to take ownership of their words. Someone doesn’t care about community enough to keep it intact and loving.

2. The Bible tells us to confront in a personal way. Of course, in many cases your culture will determine how you confront or approach someone, but it is still in a personal way. In Galatians, Paul tells us, “Brothers, if someone is caught in sin you who are spiritual need to restore him gently …” The term brothers (or sisters) denotes relationship that leads to restoration. I approach my brother or sister (in a culturally relevant way) and work with him/her to improve. We work through our struggles together.

Enter the “Anonymous Letter.” Now all of a sudden there is no personality to the relationship. “Who is the one who is correcting me? Who knows because it’s anonymous. I guess if no one cares about me enough to help me move through my struggles then I don’t need to change.”

3. Legitimate Questions Deserve Answers (Perhaps even illegitimate questions do as well). If you want an answer for a question you ask, it is vital that the person answering knows who is asking. How can I answer you unless I know who you are? What if I give the answer to someone who isn’t asking. I have wasted my time and you still don’t have your answer! Not all questions need to be answered in a public forum.

Anonymous letters don’t allow us to give the answers to those who are asking them. The writer assumes everyone has the same question and therefore needs to know the answer and so their should be a public declaration of the answer. A public declaration of the answer could even lead to embarrassment for the writer (see #4 below).

4. Anonymous letter writers don’t necessarily have enough info to ask the questions. Their questions may arise because of misinformation, incomplete information, or erroneous information. There may be significant misunderstanding on the part of the writer to the facts of the matter. Just because a letter is anonymous doesn’t mean that it is based upon fact.

The best option is to follow the biblical pattern for resolving conflict and asking questions – namely, the two parties need to communicate in an open and honest way with each other. Not only will this allow the right issues to be addressed but will also foster true community and unity.