A Spiritual Anniversary

On March 5th 1972, at the age of 13, I made a decision to follow Jesus, and told him so. That wasn’t exactly the language I would have used at the time, but that’s what was happening. It was actually a rather low key event – there were no mystical firework – but it must have stuck, because it changed the course of my life.

Of course, I had no idea just how challenging or all- encompassing that commitment would be. I didn’t know myself very well and I didn’t know God very well. But everything has to start somewhere, and for me, that was the start of a life of conscious discipleship.

So thank you God for the past 45 years. Thank you also for my Dad whose gentle challenge brought me to that moment.

Nicole Cliffe: How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life

Nicole CliffeNicole Cliffe tells the story of the work of God in her life that resulted in her moving from atheism to Christianity:

I became a Christian on July 7, 2015, after a very pleasant adult life of firm atheism. I’ve found myself telling “the story” when people ask me about it—slightly tweaked for my audience, of course. When talking to non-theists, I do a lot of shrugging and “Crazy, right? Nothing has changed, though!” When talking to other Christians, it’s more, “Obviously it’s been very beautiful, and I am utterly changed by it.” But the story has gotten a little away from me in the telling.

As an atheist since college, I had already mellowed a bit over the previous two or three years, in the course of running a popular feminist website that publishes thoughtful pieces about religion. Like many atheists (who are generally lovely moral people like my father, who would refuse to enter heaven and instead wait outside with his Miles Davis LPs), I started out snarky and defensive about religion, but eventually came to think it was probably nice for people of faith to have faith. I held to that, even though the idea of a benign deity who created and loved us was obviously nonsense, and all that awaited us beyond the grave was joyful oblivion.

I know that sounds depressing, but I found the idea of life ending after death mildly reassuring in its finality. I had started to meet more people of faith, having moved to Utah from Manhattan, and thought them frequently charming in their sweet delusion. I did not wish to believe. I had no untapped, unanswered yearnings. All was well in the state of Denmark. And then it wasn’t.

Read the rest in Christianity Today magazine here.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ (book review)

51bca9zR2xL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An excellent book for the most part. Dave and Jon Ferguson focus on the parable of the Prodigal Son under five headings or ‘awakenings’ – the Awakening to Longing, to Regret, to Help, to Love, and to Life. Also running through the book is the idea of the Thirty Day Wager: the daily prayer ‘God, if you are real, make yourself real to me’.

The five sections of the book each include several chapters built around the theme of the five awakenings. But there are also daily resources – a question to ponder, guidelines for journaling, and a prayer based on variations on the wager. I understand there are also DVD resources available.

The book is enriched by many stories of people who have experienced God’s help in their lives. Refreshingly, not all of the stories have happy endings (a couple of the cancer patients died, for example). The book is also permeated throughout by a sense of God’s grace – reaching out to people in their brokenness and failure with the opportunity for a fresh start.

I think this would make a fine resource for people who are not yet believers, and also for Christians who long for a deeper sense of God’s presence in their lives.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ on Amazon.ca.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ web page.

Ruth, the Faithful Outsider

Not long after Marci and I were married we moved to a little town in northeastern Saskatchewan, where I worked as parish assistant in three little Anglican congregations – Arborfield, Red Earth, and Shoal Lake, one white community and two Cree reserves. In the little town in Ontario where I’d been living and working before we were married, we’d come across a little Gospel Hall with Sunday evening services, and since I didn’t work Sunday evenings and we liked to try different things, we went along to their services. We found them to be a warm and friendly little church and we went back to worship with them several times. So when we moved to Arborfield, we were pleased to discover that there was a Gospel Hall there too, and we looked forward to joining them from time to time.

That’s when we found out that not all Gospel Halls are the same! We went to a Wednesday evening prayer meeting that we saw advertised on their notice board, but we quickly discovered that they weren’t really expecting visitors from another church. At the front of their meeting hall the chairs were set around in a square, facing each other, and then the rest of the chairs at the back of the room were in rows facing the front like an ordinary church. When we walked in, the regulars were all sitting in the square at the front; they were surprised to see us, and when we told them who we were, we were quickly ushered into a seat in one of the rows, outside the square. We got the message loud and clear: we were outsiders, and they were suspicious of outsiders. Not surprisingly, we never went back.

I suspect that if you were a foreigner, moving to Israel in ancient times was a bit like us going to that Gospel Hall. Israel saw itself as a distinct society, worshipping the one true God while all its neighbours worshipped idols. And in the law of Israel there were strong statements about not marrying outsiders and keeping pure from their idolatry and sin. But in the story of Ruth we read about someone who bucked that trend, and, possibly to her surprise, she found a community that was willing to welcome her.

Historically this little story is set ‘In the days when the judges ruled’. In other words, we’re taking about the time after Moses and Joshua led the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, but before the days when there were kings like Saul and David to rule over them. The story starts in Bethlehem in Judea, with a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. There was a famine in the land, so Elimelech took his family to the neighbouring country of Moab to live. This would be rather adventurous for an Israelite, as the Moabites were traditional enemies of Israel. Elimelech died soon after the family arrived in Moab, but the two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth – another unusual thing for an Israelite family. They stayed in Moab for about ten years, and then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi all alone with her foreign daughters-in-law.

Naomi heard that the famine was over in Bethlehem, so she decided to go home to her own country, and her daughters-in-law began to go with her. But she tried to discourage them from doing so: ‘Go back to your own mothers’ houses’, she said, ‘and may the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt kindly with me. There’s no point in you coming along with me; even if I were to marry again and have sons, would you wait ‘til they were grown and marry them?’ This refers to a custom in ancient Israel: when a man died without children, his brother was to marry his widow and raise up children, who would then be counted as the dead man’s children so that his family line would continue. From this we can infer that both Mahlon and Chilion had died without producing heirs.

So Orpah turned back and returned to her own land, but Ruth would not. ‘Where you go, I will go’, she said to Naomi. ‘I’ll live where you live, your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and I’ll be buried with you’. And so Naomi accepted her company, and the two returned to Bethlehem together.

Of course in those days, two women living alone without a man to support them would have been in a vulnerable position. How would they earn a living? There was a requirement in the law of Moses that at the harvest time farmers should leave the wheat standing on the edges of their fields so that the poor and needy could ‘glean’ it, and workers who accidentally dropped stalks of wheat were not to pick them up again but leave them for the poor. So Naomi sent her daughter in law to glean in a nearby field; it happened to belong to a man named Boaz. When he heard who Ruth was – apparently her reputation of caring for her mother-in-law had gotten around – he instructed his workers to make it easy for her by intentionally dropping some wheat behind them, and he also invited her to eat with his workers when they took their lunch break. So Ruth did quite well that day, and at Boaz’ invitation she stayed in his fields and gleaned behind his workers all through harvest time.

We need a little background in Jewish law to understand what happened next. As we’ve already seen, there was a lot of concern for the continuation of family lines and family property. If a man died leaving a widow, the law required that a near relative should marry the widow, so that the man’s land would not pass outside the clan or tribe. The nearest relative, the one who had the obligation to marry the widow, was called in Hebrew the ‘goel’, which we could translate ‘kinsman-redeemer’; it was his job to ‘redeem’ the land if it was to be sold to support the widow, and to marry her as well.

It turned out that Boaz was a very close relative to Naomi’s late husband, and so Naomi’s next plan was to try to set him up with Ruth. She sent Ruth to the place where Boaz and his workers were winnowing barley at their threshing floor. ‘He’s going to sleep there tonight’, she said; ‘When he’s fallen asleep, lie down at his feet, and when he wakes, he’ll know what to do”.

Sure enough, Boaz woke up during the night and saw Ruth lying there. When he asked what she wanted, she replied, ‘Spread your cloak over your servant, because you are the goel’. Boaz was very pleased; apparently he was an older man, and she was a younger woman, and he was flattered that she had gone to him rather than someone younger. ‘I’ll do what you ask’, he said, ‘but we’ve got to do this right. It’s true that I’m a close relative, but there is someone who’s closer still, and he actually has the right to redeem your father-in-law’s land. If he’ll do it, fair enough; if not, I will’.

So Ruth stayed the rest of the night, and in the morning Boaz gave her a sack of barley to take home for her and her mother. Then he went into town and took his seat at the gate, which was where business deals and legal matters were transacted in those days. Pretty soon the other man, the closer relative of whom Boaz had spoken, came by, and Boaz invited him to sit down. He then asked for ten elders of the town to sit there as witnesses, and they did so.

Boaz then said to the other man: ‘Our relative Naomi is going to sell the land that belonged to her late husband Elimelech. You’re the goel; you’ve got the right to redeem it. I need to know if you’re going to do so, because if not, I’m the next in line’. The man replied, ‘I’ll redeem it’. Boaz said, ‘The day you buy the field you also acquire the hand of Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite, to continue the dead man’s name on his inheritance’. The other man replied, ‘Then I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to damage my own inheritance’. So Boaz said to the people sitting around, ‘You are witnesses that I’ve acquired Elimelech’s land, and also the hand of his daughter-in-law Ruth’, and they agreed, ‘We’re witnesses’.

So Boaz married Ruth, and they had a son who they called Obed. What follows is remarkable: Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David, the shepherd boy who became the great king of Israel. So David’s great-grandma was a foreigner, a Moabite woman, an outsider. And not only that, but Jesus was a descendant of David, so Ruth took her place in the family tree of the Messiah.

On one level this becomes a lovely romantic story, a strong contrast to all the savagery and killing going on in the book of Judges which is set in the same time period in Israel’s history. But on another level there’s a lot going on theologically in this story.

In the Old Testament we see a discussion going on about what it means to be God’s faithful people. The Israelites saw idolatry as the basic sin. If you worship something that is not God, then you’ve taken the one true God and replaced him with a lie. And worshipping a lie, you then come to believe all sorts of other lies about the sort of life you ought to live. That’s why the Ten Commandments lay such strong emphasis on not worshipping false gods. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image’.

Most of the Old Testament authors believed that if you want to keep yourself free from idolatry, the best thing to do is to avoid idolaters. So keep strict boundaries for the people of Israel; don’t allow foreigners in, don’t trust them, and certainly don’t intermarry with them. We see this line taken in two books that were probably written at about the same time as Ruth – Ezra and Nehemiah. In those books, Israelites who have married outside of the ethnic boundaries of Israel have committed a grave sin; they’ve brought Israel into the danger of being tempted toward idolatry again. Ezra and Nehemiah and people like them could point to all sorts of evidence, too: ‘Don’t you remember the story of King Solomon? He started out good, but then he married a bunch of foreign women who worshipped false gods, and the next thing you know, he was worshipping their gods too!’

This disapproving stance toward outsiders is the dominant view in the Old Testament. But it’s not the only view. There’s another strand with a more positive attitude toward foreigners, and the story of Ruth is part of this strand. Here we don’t see any disapproval of Ruth’s status as a foreigner. No one accuses her of being an idol-worshipper who was trying to lead Israel astray. In fact, we’re told explicitly at the beginning of the story that she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, ‘Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God’. In other words, this foreigner, who had been raised to worship the Moabite gods, decided to become a worshipper of Yahweh, the God of Israel – and no one questioned that this was a perfectly right and proper thing for her to do.

But she needed someone to bring her into the family, and in the ancient world the only way this could happen would be if someone in the family married her. A woman couldn’t just up and change her religion without consulting her husband! And so Boaz acted as her goel, her kinsman-redeemer, marrying her and bringing her into the family of God’s people – and into a very privileged place in the family history, as the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king.

In New Testament terms, we Canadian Christians are like Ruth. In the Old Testament we would have been seen as Gentile outsiders; the Jews were in, but we were not. But we have a redeemer, a goel, who has brought us into the family. In the Bible the relationship between Jesus and his Church is often seen as a betrothal or a marriage: the Church is ‘the Bride of Christ’. He has extended the borders of the family of God’s people, and now we’re inside.

But you can get too comfortable inside, and forget what it’s like for people who are still on the outside. That’s not a good place to be for followers of Jesus, who was constantly on the lookout for outsiders who he could bring in. And like ancient Israel, we have a choice about this. We live in a culture that is becoming less and less friendly to organized religion. Our society used to be thought of as Christian, but now it definitely isn’t. So what are we going to do? Are we going to circle the wagons, concentrate on our own little religious club, and assume that everyone out there has no interest in God and Christ at all? Or are we going to go out confidently into a world that belongs to God, whether it acknowledges the fact or not, with the message that Jesus gave us: that everyone who is carrying a heavy load is invited to come to him and find rest, that all people are invited to become his disciples?

This, of course, is a very important thing for us to keep in mind as we observe Remembrance Day this week. One of the insidious things about war is that it divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – ‘us’, who are on the inside, the good people, and ‘them’, the outsiders, the evil people. So the foreigner, the person who is different, becomes an object of fear, and we circle the wagons to keep them out. We might even demonize them, see them as somehow less than human, to make it easier for us to kill them. The tragic story of the twentieth century should have given us an object lesson into where that attitude leads.

The story of Ruth tells us that, to God, there are no outsiders – there are only people made in the image of God, loved by God, people who God wants to draw into the community called by his name. But we need to remember one thing – and I’m going to leave you with this thought. Would Ruth have come into the family of Israel without Naomi and Boaz to bring her in? I suspect not. No matter how interested she was in the God of Israel, the boundaries would have been just too great. And outside the borders of organized religion there are many people like Ruth – people of good will, people who are wanting to know God, people who are curious about Jesus. I suspect that you know some of those people; I know for sure that I know some of them. Are you going to be a Naomi or a Boaz for them – the one who will invite them to come in, the one who will introduce them to Jesus their redeemer?

Pink is the New Black

81DRGrhffKLOver the past few years I’ve accompanied quite a few people – friends, relatives and parishioners – on the journey of cancer. My observation is that although some have survived it and some have succumbed to it, none have emerged from it unchanged. I’ve actually become quite interested in the stories of people who have taken the cancer journey, and when I see a book about it, I tend to pick it up.

I was recently pointed in the direction of Sarah McLean’s book ‘Pink is the New Black: Healing the Hidden Scars of Breast Cancer – a Journey from Grief to Grace‘. I started it last night, and I found it so compelling that I read it in one go, from nine until about twelve forty five.

In brief, Sarah’s story (you can read part of it here) is that she was in her mid-twenties and only recently married when she discovered that she had breast cancer. A preliminary lumpectomy proved inadequate, and was followed very quickly by a very invasive double mastectomy. In the book she deals very honestly with her reaction to this, the effect it had on her marriage to her husband Steve, and her gradual journey through counselling to a point where she was able to accept what was happening to her and grow through it.

Eight years later, despite having had a double mastectomy, her cancer returned and she had to go through not only surgery but also weeks of radiation therapy. She also experienced a problem with one of her breast implants that led to more painful surgery.

Sarah writes as a devout Christian of the evangelical persuasion, and her relationship with God is right at the heart of her response to cancer – whether it be questioning, ranting, crying out for help, learning to trust, or receiving comfort and strength. Her approach to the suffering is very much like that of C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (although she doesn’t mention the book or give any indication of having read it) – faith in the sovereignty of God, and a consequent belief that God had a purpose in allowing her to go through it. Not every Christian can follow her in that approach, and I personally have some problems with it, but there is no doubt that it has enabled her to come to terms with the painful reality of her cancer and find a way through it, to the point that she now runs a ministry called Project31 which reaches out to others who have made, or are making, the breast cancer journey.

Some people who write stories like this or run ministries like Sarah’s come across as saying ‘I used to really struggle with this, but I’ve come through it now, and I want to help you do the same’. That’s not Sarah’s approach. She acknowledges that she is still very much a work in progress, and if she can help others, she does it by coming alongside them, not by trying to lead them to a place she’s already reached.

I found this book inspiring and challenging, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to find out more about what it is like to go through breast cancer. I’m obviously not a breast cancer survivor myself, so can’t say with any certainty whether or not a survivor would find it helpful, but my guess is that they would.

A Word of Encouragement

Thursday is the day I prepare my Sunday sermon, but it begins at 7 a.m. with our weekly Men’s Bible Study group at the Bogani Café. I was driving one of the men home this morning after the study, and as I dropped him off he said, “I’m praying for your sermon preparation today”.

What an encouraging moment! I know that he values the preaching ministry, and he is joining me in prayer that God will help me with the preparation process today. Thank you God for a word of encouragement this morning.

Why am I a Christian – Part 2

Yesterday I answered the question ‘Why am I a Christian?’ in terms of the process by which I became a Christian, outlining very briefly the story of my conversion as a young teenager. This is a very important story to me and I have no doubt that without it my life would have taken a radically different course.

But why am I still a Christian today? Why don’t I find the arguments of the new atheists persuasive? Why aren’t I so discouraged by the imperfections of the church that I follow the lead of many others of my generation and drop out altogether?

Quite simply, the most important answer is ‘Jesus’. It is the person of Jesus who is the centre of my Christian life, and it is the story of his life and teaching that keeps me in the faith today.

I find his vision of the Kingdom, or Reign, of God compelling. It’s so much more attractive to me than the Kingdom of the American empire, of the Kingdom of Google, or the Kingdom of Big Oil, of the Kingdom of ‘Whatever makes you feel good…’ The idea that the world is broken by evil but still loved by God, and that God is quietly working through individuals to spread his reign of justice and love, inspires me and gives me hope. And it makes perfect sense to me that this Kingdom is about love, justice, compassion and community, not about profits or power or ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’.

Jesus has such a knack for getting right to the heart of the issue. When he asks, “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36), we know instinctively that he’s right. Ditto, when he says, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 13:15), or “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 13:25). The way he sums up God’s commandments in terms of our primary relationships – ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself’ – is so profound and yet so challenging (‘all my heart?’ ‘as myself?’).

I love the fact that Jesus walks around quietly ignoring the power structures and authorities of his day. His contemporaries assumed that the best place to meet God was the Temple in Jerusalem, but Jesus seems to assume that he is the Temple: if you want to meet God, be forgiven, be healed, come to him and ask! He reaches out to outcasts and ‘sinners’, heals even the servants of enemy soldiers, and forgives those who crucify him. He’s not above speaking harsh words to hypocrites and he’s not afraid to make it hard for people to follow him.

Jesus defies categories. He’s not conservative and he’s not liberal; he’s not capitalist, but he’s not socialist either. He’s not judgemental (except when he is), but he’s not a wishy-washy ‘come to me and carry on living just the way you were’ kind of guy either. Conservatives like to paint Christianity as being all about family, but in fact Jesus doesn’t have much to say on that subject (although what he does say is challenging, especially about divorce). Liberals like to paint him as all about inclusivity, and it’s true that he reaches out to people seen as ‘beyond the pale’ by the respectable, but he sets the bar pretty high for his followers too. He annoys me as well as inspiring me, and I like that. After all, if I think I agree with everything he says, then I’m probably following me, not him, right?

Quite simply, when I look around at the world today, I can’t seen anyone else who seems to understand the root causes of its problems the way Jesus does. I can’t see anyone else who has as compelling a vision for the transformation of the world as Jesus does. Deep down in my heart, I know instinctively that if there is a God, he has to be like Jesus. ‘Like Father, like Son’ makes sense to me; I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, because I believe the vision of God that Jesus gives me, and Jesus himself reminds me of that vision.

Why am I a Christian today? Because of Jesus. I believe that following him is the best way of being human and the best way of knowing God. And I have to say that every day I continue to live serves only to strengthen that belief in me.