Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Great Exchange: Jesus Redeems Our Painful Past into a Hope-filled Future

Last week I connected again with a friend who is a quadriplegic. Trevor Brown is an amazing guy. A botched surgical procedure almost a decade ago left him with what many would consider a blown future. His indomitable spirit has been an inspiration to many. His wife Charlene is just as remarkable as she has stood with Trevor through the thick and thin of discouragements as they sought help to regain movement in his limbs.

I first got to know Trevor and Charlene when I served as associate pastor in their church in Winkler. They were a vivacious couple with an expanding carpentry business operated out of their home place on a farm yard. Charlene continued to manage the business after Trevor became a quadriplegic. In spite of the very difficult circumstances they faced, their faith in Jesus Christ remained strong.

We talked about circumstances that come into our lives unexpectedly and that threaten to “do us in”. I shared how the mental illness of our son, Josh, and his suicide 13 years ago had been one of the most painful things that my wife and I and our family had experienced. Yet I also shared how the experience of Josh’s illness and death had also given me a greater empathy and courage to come alongside people struggling with mental health issues or families devastated by the loss of a loved one through suicide. I find joy in what I once feared – visiting and sharing with those who are experiencing painful circumstances.

Trevor’s response was: “I love how Jesus Christ redeems the most painful things in our lives and brings beauty and joy where there was only darkness and despair!” He went on to say, “I can now truly identify with life as a quadriplegic here on earth...... With that being what it is, it is In Christ alone I find my hope! It is never here but in the life to come, by His grace through faith in Him. So, in that I will never give up!”

That got me thinking of the Great Exchange that Jesus offers us. In Isaiah 61:1-3: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”

This past Sunday we viewed the film Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, a hard-hitting documentary that exposes the disturbing trends of modern day sex slavery – the human trafficking industry. It was a disturbing film to see as it exposed the nightmare of sex slavery experienced by hundreds of thousands daily. Benjamin Nolot, the director, writer and producer of the film, founded Exodus Cry, an international anti-trafficking organization committed to abolishing sex slavery through Christ-centered prevention, intervention and holistic restoration of trafficking victims. The film carried the testimonies of several of the women who had been hopelessly embroiled in the sex slavery industry as well as a former pimp and former “john”.  Their lives had been redeemed from the hopelessness, darkness and despair of a painful past with the new life and hope offered in Jesus Christ. Their story is a powerful witness to the life-changing effect that Jesus Christ offers to all who accept His gracious gift.
As we enter the Easter season we are reminded again of the One alone who can redeem us from our past and give us a glorious future. His offer still stands! His invitation is clear: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:29, The Message)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seeing the Best In Others

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who lives in Winkler. Curtis is a man with a huge heart for people, a love for his community and one of the friendliest guys I know. In 2008 he was honored as the Citizen of the Year for the city of Winkler.

I would never have guessed that Curtis would ever be the recipient of such an honor. I first got to know Curt in the late ‘70’s when I directed Winkler Bible Camp. Curt was one of our campers. To say that counselors were somewhat apprehensive about having Curtis in their cabin would be an understatement! Curtis was a counselor’s worst nightmare! He was constantly on the go, constantly challenging the status quo. Today we would probably classify such an individual as having a high attention deficit disorder.

Then Curtis joined the Battalion group of Christian Service Brigade program in our church. I was one of the leaders at the time. Well to say the least, we had some challenging times. And going on outings with the boys and having Curtis along stretched our patience and endurance to the limit. I don’t think any of us leaders believed that Curtis would be anything but a positive influence on others.

I moved North with my family in 1985 to pastor a small church in Cranberry Portage and direct Simonhouse Bible Camp and never really gave much thought to Curtis, except to occasionally use him as an example of challenges a counselor might face with a group of campers! Then in 1999 we moved back to Winkler where I assumed the role of associate pastor at Winkler Mennonite Brethren Church. It was then that I was reintroduced to Curtis. The guy was everywhere!! In some respects, nothing had changed! But I saw him at Winkler Bible Camp – helping out with a maintenance project. Then I saw him at Pembina Valley Bible Camp – again helping out on building construction or needed maintenance project. I would go to Salem Personal Care Home – and again there was Curtis taking time with his father-in-law – feeding him at meal times, engaging the older generation in conversation and laughter. Then I would see him at Eden Mental Health Centre – again visiting patients, bringing joy and hope into some very discouraged lives of people. Then there were the children with special needs or from dysfunctional families. Curtis would come by and give them rides on his motorcycle. Everywhere that Curtis was I saw people being cared for, loved for who they were. Everyone I talked to spoke highly of Curtis and his involvement as a volunteer in so many different areas of the community.

In 2008 the community recognized the substantial influence that Curtis has made on the life of people in their city and honored him as Citizen of the Year. When I congratulated Curtis on receiving this honor, he humbly dismissed the accolades and stated that what motivated him was his love for Jesus Christ who gave him a love for people and desire to serve and help others.

Thinking about Curtis reminds me about a biblical story. The Apostle Paul dismissed a young man, John Mark, as being unfit for ministry because earlier he had deserted Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey. Barnabas believed the best of John Mark and wanted to take him along with them. Paul refused and the disagreement was so sharp that it caused them to separate (Acts 13:36-41). Barnabas’ insight and encouragement prompted Mark to become a very helpful leader in the early church. Years later Paul requested Timothy to send Mark to come to Rome where Paul was imprisoned, because he recognized that Mark was helpful to him in his ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)

It was Mark who would later write the Gospel that bears his name. Had it not been for Barnabas’ encouragement Mark would likely never have risen to leadership and service in the early church and we would not have the gospel that gives us “snapshot” accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Curtis stands out for me as an example that we should always look for the best in people. Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Never give up hope – be an encourager to the one whom others dismiss as unruly or least likely to succeed.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

God's Promise for the New Year

Iron Shoes and Strength for the Journey

Each new year marks the beginning of a new journey. What will the road be like? Will our way be rough or smooth? How will we fare? I don’t know what the future holds but I know who holds the future. When I was growing up our church always held a New Year’s Eve service. We would reflect back on the year completed and thank God for His faithful care. We were encouraged to claim a promise from God’s Word that would serve as an encouragement in the year that stretched before us. There was one verse that was a favorite of several of our older church members who were facing some difficult days. As I grow older this verse holds special meaning for me as well. It is a promise of God to His people that He will provide just what we need for the road ahead. Here’s what it says: “Your shoes shall be iron and brass; and as your days, so shall your strength be.” (Deuteronomy 33:25 NKJV)
This verse was a prophecy given by Moses to the tribe of Asher just before his death. God had given this tribe land on the seacoast north of modern-day Haifa extending into what is today southern Lebanon. Asher’s land was fruitful and mountainous. To a people living in hilly terrain God promises “iron shoes/sandals” for the roads they must travel and strength for each day.
We may have some rough roads to travel before this year is done. If the road ahead is rough, we need good footwear and strength for the journey. God provides just what we need for whatever the path may be.
As the poet Annie Johnson Flint expresses so well in her poem What God Has Promised
God has not promised
Skies always blue,
Flower-strewn pathways
All our lives thro’;
God has not promised
Sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.
God has not promised
We shall not know
Toil and temptation,
Trouble and woe;
He has not told us
We shall not bear
Many a burden,
Many a care.
But God has promised
Strength for the day,
Rest for the laborer,
Light for the way,
Grace for the trials,
Help from above,
Unfailing sympathy,
Undying love.
God promises to give us “shoes that will be of iron and brass” to enable us to walk when the road is difficult, steep, and hard to climb. He also promises “as your days so shall your strength be.”
Note that it is “days” not “day.” This means three things. First, God will give strength for each individual day in the year ahead. Second, God will give strength for every kind of day we may face. Some days are filled with joy, light, and happiness; others with sadness, tears, frustration, pain, and heartache. Whatever each day brings, there will be strength enough to meet it. Third, God will give strength to all our days until the end of our days. We will run out of days before we run out of God’s strength.
No matter what you may face in 2013 God’s promise is that of great provision. When you face hard days, He promises strength. Whether we face uncertainty, sickness, disappointment, the death of a loved one God promises to give us strength to face whatever comes with courage and hope. No matter what happens, God’s strength will always equal the days that are ahead.
What does this suggest for us at the start of a new year? It means that God’s strength will be there when we need it—and not before. We will never find a day when God’s strength is lacking. We will have strength as long as our days last. Therefore, we need not look anxiously ahead. Walk in faith trusting Jesus who loves you with an everlasting love. And you will find that the divine reservoir is more than enough to meet your needs.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Gift of Bananas

Donovan, one of our church members, shared a story his family had experienced in the midst of last minute grocery shopping on the Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend. He and his wife had divvied up the shopping list and were waiting in the check-out line. Melissa noted that she had forgotten to pick-up bananas so quickly went to the fruit area to get some. She returned with the sad news that the bananas were all gone and no more were coming until the following week.
As they were wondering what they would substitute for their kids who loved bananas, the lady in front of them turned and handed them her bundle of bananas. “Here, take these – I don’t need them that badly. I can wait until next week.” Despite their protests, she insisted that they take her bananas. Her willing sacrifice became a “gift of bananas” for a family whose children would really appreciate them.

As Donovan related this story he was moved to tears. Gratitude welled up as he reflected on a God who cared so much for them that He had provided this “gift of bananas” through the kindness of a complete stranger. At this thanksgiving time of year it was a great story to remind us of God’s gracious provision and His desire for us to exercise a spirit of love and generosity in giving to meet the needs of people around us.

This kind act of a “gift of bananas” which this unnamed woman did for the Mercer family is what you and I can do each day for others. Keep your eyes and ears open to the opportunities to share God’s love in “random acts of kindness”.

My wife, Mary, and I were in the Morden Westside Community Church in mid October. The leadership of the church was encouraging their congregation to get involved in “Mission Possible”. The previous week congregants had been given an envelope with a $5 bill inside. Their mission (should they choose to accept) was to look for a creative way to use that $5 to bless someone else that week. One of the women shared that as she had observed volunteer staff working with immigrants and admired their patience and kindness as they dealt with each individual she felt God wanted her to bless them with coffee and donuts. She used the $5 bill plus more of her own money to bring them a refreshing break in the late morning during a lull in their meetings. She told them how impressed she was with the kind manner in which they treated each person and she wanted to bless them with the gift of coffee and donuts. She was amazed at the response – they were overwhelmed by this one act of kindness on her part. Several of the volunteers broke into tears and said that no one had ever acknowledged their work before. They were touched by the fact that she had observed and taken time to encourage them.

That following week the churches in Morden were encouraging their members to participate in  a “Love Morden Week”. People who are part of a small group in their church were to come up with an idea of how to love their city. Some suggestions were to bless a business with baking, doing yard work for some seniors, fill up windshield washer fluid for cars at a gas station. In their own way they are “giving the gift of bananas” and brightening someone else’s day.

The Bible often exhorts us to be kind, generous and gracious in our dealings with others. Proverbs 11:25 NLT says: “The generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.”

What “gift of bananas” can you give to someone today to brighten their day and encourage them? Your act of kindness may influence others to give thanks to God for you and remind them of God’s care for them. “For the Lord God is our sun and shield. He gives grace and glory. The Lord will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right.” (Psalm 84:11 NLT)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Remember...Remember Not...

My wife, Mary, does a great job on making a creative memory scrapbook for each of our children. She began this project 10 years ago after the death of our youngest son Joshua. Each of our children received an identical album and we have the original. My wife wanted to preserve the memory of our youngest son in a meaningful way and also for each of the siblings so they can share with their children about the uncle they never knew.

Mary is presently working on a creative memory scrapbook for our youngest daughter, Sara Joy. Our oldest son Jonathan received his creative memory album two years ago. This Christmas she gave our oldest daughter Jodine her creative memory album of her life. It includes pictures from birth, her school years, her marriage to Kimbal and concludes with a family picture of them with their 4 children. There were lots of laughter and comments of “Remember when…”

Ah, the memories. It’s good to look back and remember. Most often our albums include the happy moments of growing up. It isn't that we haven't had some not-so-great things happen - the painful injuries, the bouts with various sicknesses, the upheavals and conflicts that inevitably come to all families—but they just didn't make it into the memory book.

All of us have an album of memories, stored away, not just in a book, but in the memory banks in our mind. And some of us think a lot about things in the past, and talk a lot about them, too. But which things? Well, God has something important, even liberating, to say about what's in your past, especially the things you keep bringing up again and again.

There is a time to look back and remember. In Isaiah 46:9 God calls on his people to “remember the former things of old; for I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me.” There are some things that God wants us to remember. But in Isaiah 43:18 He says, “Remember not the former things; do not dwell on the past.”  Is God contradicting Himself?
We need to read the context. Beginning at verse 16 of Isaiah 43 God is talking to people who have been through a lot of pain -- people who have lost a lot of things they care about. There are some parts of the past God says they need to remember, and some they need to forget. "This is what the Lord says, He who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters." God says remember that stuff  - when God led you, provided for you, the highlights of your life. There are some parts of the past you need to forget. "Forget the former things; and do not dwell on the past." In other words, don't keep your pictures of the ugly stuff.

He goes on to say, "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland." Don’t miss the glorious things God is about to do for you ... because you've got your nose buried in your pictures from the past!

Does your memory album have a lot of mental pictures of the painful moments in your life? Are some of the folks close to you tired of your going over, and over, the times you've been hurt and wronged. God's Word is clear -- forget that stuff. What kind of memory album is filled with pictures of the ugly times? If you dwell on the past -- if you live in the past, you may miss the new things God wants to do with your future.

There is one good reason to look back -- to relive those countless moments in your life for which you can praise God! What He has done in the past He will do again. The parted seas…the deliverances…the conquered obstacles…the divine interventions and the miraculous provisions ... ways in the desert ... streams where it looked like there would be nothing for your need.  In Isaiah 43:20-21, God says, "I provide water in the desert ... to give drink to My people, My chosen, the people I formed for Myself that they may proclaim My praise."

Remember…remember not! Which past are you going to dwell on? The painful past? That will just keep that pain alive right into your future. I encourage you to dwell on the praiseful past -- all the ways your loving God has been there for you over and over again. Those memories will get you ready for the next exciting chapter in your life with this awesome God of yours.

Our family albums aren't full of images of the bad times. The images we keep reviewing are the good times. That's how it needs to be in that photo album in your heart. The reason to remember is to relive your memories of life  and give thanks to your wonderful Heavenly Father who leads you.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lessons Learned While Flying A Kite

 My wife and I recently celebrated our 40th anniversary with our children and grandchildren. Our son-in-law Dave had purchased some neat kites and the grandkids were excited to try their hand at flying the kites. Occasionally someone would get careless and didn’t hold tightly to the string and a sudden gust of wind would dislodge the kite. The kite sailed along for a short while but then plummeted to earth. I was reminded of a time years earlier flying a kite with our oldest son, Jon. His kite, too, got away from him because he hadn’t held tightly to the string. I recalled how chagrined he was as we watched his kite sail away and then fall to the earth. Since it was at dusk we weren’t able to locate the kite that evening but I noted some reference points that helped us locate the kite the next morning.

There are some lessons of life we can learn from flying kites. First of all a kite needs an anchor to fly – without an anchor the kite will drift and then crash. This is true in life as well. A life without an anchor is one that is headed for disaster. The Bible instructs us that we need an anchor of faith that will hold us steady and allow us to sail freely through the winds of adversity. That anchor is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul says that “…we have fixed our hope on the living God who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10 NASB)

Eugene Peterson in The Message paraphrases Hebrews 6:18-19 this way: “We who have run for our very lives to God have every reason to grab the promised hope with both hands and never let go. It's an unbreakable spiritual lifeline, reaching past all appearances right to the very presence of God where Jesus, running on ahead of us, has taken up his permanent post as high priest for us… “

A faith that is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ will lead to a life of hope and assurance and true freedom. Some people think that freedom is freedom from restraint. But when the kite is “freed” from the restraining hand of the kite-flyer – the kite momentarily seems to be truly free – and does sail on for a short while, but without the restraining anchor the kite soon crashes to the ground. Rather than restricting me the anchor of faith is what holds me and guides me away from disaster. I have the reality and assurance of His presence and help. Our hope, the biblical writer says, is “sure and steadfast” allowing us to sail through the gusts of life.

A second lesson I learned while flying a kite is that reference points are important. Without a reference point I have no sense of direction. I’m lost. Reference points help to chart the correct path. God’s Word promises to be “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” (Psalm 119:105) God’s Word gives us direction helping us to live right, talk right and behave right.

A third lesson I learned while flying a kite was that spending time doing things with your children and grandchildren and listening to them is important. Children long to do things with their parents and especially with their dads. It’s a sad commentary on our society that so few dads care to spend time with their children. You can learn a lot from children when you spend time with them and listen to them.

Our grandson Luke is 8 years old. As he watched the kite being lifted up by the wind and sail merrily in the breeze he remarked: “That’s sort of like the Holy Spirit in our lives who lifts us up and carries us along and helps us. We get to see things we couldn’t see when we were on the ground.” I gained another valuable insight while flying a kite.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Resurrection Gives Hope and Joy

Easter and Hope are synonymous. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the king-pin upon which Christianity stands or crumbles. If Christ has not been raised from the dead then life is futile, our faith is futile. But the ringing message of the gospel is that Christ has been raised from death, just as He said He would.  The Resurrection substantiates Christ’s claim that He is the Son of God.  No other prophet of any religion has come back from the dead.

The implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ must be considered honestly.  The Apostle Paul states in Acts 17:30, 31: “God commands all men everywhere to repent because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained.  He has given assurance of this by raising Him from the dead.”

Michael Green, British theologian, Anglican priest, Christian apologist and author states: “If Jesus is, as the resurrection asserts, God Himself who has come to our rescue, then to reject Him, or even to neglect Him, is sheer folly.  That is why Jesus is not, never has been, & never can be just one among the religious leaders of mankind.”

The Gospels assert that the people who met the living resurrected Christ were profoundly changed in their lives. That is what the Christian life is all about. Real Christianity is friendship with the risen Jesus. It is knowing this vibrant, living Person for yourself. It turns your whole life sunny side up.

Getting to know Jesus changes a person.  The gospel writers tell the story of those who first encountered the living Christ and became transformed people. Mary and the other women who came to the tomb and the disciples all were surprised by joy! The experience of the women upon hearing the Good News that Jesus was alive - Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, Joanna (Mark includes Salome) was that they were afraid, yet filled with joy!” (Matthew 28:8)

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were facing an uncertain and bleak future (Luke 24:13-49). Their hopes were dashed. They had heard from the women that Jesus was alive, but they hadn’t seen him. It seemed a cruel hoax. But Jesus came to them and they were transformed in their behaviour and attitude. The disciples were “filled with joy and amazement” (Luke 24:41). “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:20) They were filled with joy, hope and excitement because Jesus is alive!

Just like the discouraged disciples on road to Emmaus we need to encounter the risen, living Saviour, Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to us in our hurts, disappointments and pain and brings us hope and joy! In Jesus we experience the joy of sins forgiven, the assurance of being loved with an everlasting love; a joy that rises even in the midst of pain, sorrow, suffering and misunderstanding. When we know Jesus, our illnesses don’t seem as serious; our fears fade and lose their grip; our grief over those who’ve gone on is diminished; our desire to press on in spite of difficulty is renewed.

A dear friend from Cranberry Portage is dying of cancer. She has battled cancer twice before but this time the dreaded disease is winning. When doctors informed her that she had only several weeks to live her response was: “Just think, in just a few short weeks I get to see Jesus and be with Him forever!” That is what the power of the risen Christ in a believer does – it transforms a person from despair and hopelessness to joy and hope in the promise of the Risen Lord who declared, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; the one who believes in Me shall live even if he dies…” (John 12:25)

In my own battle with cancer I find great comfort and strength in the promises of God’s Word and the power of Christ’s presence in my life. This month marks the 10 anniversary of the loss of a beloved son to suicide after an agonizing battle with schizophrenia. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead and His promise of eternal life give us comfort and hope of being reunited with him and courage to face each new day with confidence.

Have you met the living, Christ? You do so by faith. Jesus said: “Blessed are those who did not see, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) John wrote his gospel so that we might know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31) His death and resurrection has made possible a relationship with God, forgiveness of sin and a certain future - an inheritance which can never spoil or fade away. Because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead we have hope and joy in our lives!