Re-post: Reflections on Fatherhood

Photo credit: jonboy mitchell (via flickr.com)On Father’s Day, June 21, 2009, I preached at Wesley Chapel in Toronto. In the sermon I included a tribute to my father as follows:

It is now 42 years since my father died, but I still think of him every day. Sometimes when I’m shaving, I see a likeness to him in the mirror. Or in the flow of the day I’m reminded of some ways in which I’m like him by temperament.

What a potent force fatherhood is if a father’s influence can remain active in a son’s memory and make-up for nearly half a century after his death!

My father was a small man, 5’4” tall and no more than 125 pounds even into his old age. But he was every bit a man, physically strong, agile, and one who faced life as a warrior.

He was not refined or cultured and for good reasons. At 13 years of age back in Lancashire, England, his father took him into the coal mines to mine coal. Imagine, at that age having to get up early, walk a great distance above ground to the mine entrance, and then walk a further distance under ground to the active section of the mine, there to put in a full day’s work. In the winter months he saw daylight only on Sundays.

He didn’t fare much better in formal schooling. At five years of age he was sent to school, but after six weeks he contracted scarlet fever and was taken out. He was never sent back. The family does not know how he was taught to read and write but I remember that he could write an adequate letter with no more misspellings than an average high school student’s, and he was an avid reader of the editorial section of the daily paper — in spite of his educational deprivations.

In the first decade of the Twentieth Century he brought his young bride, my mother, to the sparsely settled prairies of southeastern Saskatchewan. He started work there as a coal miner in a place called Roche Percy, Saskatchewan, because coal mining was all he knew.

He soon had a government-awarded homestead three miles south of Estevan and began market gardening. Then, while continuing that, he also sold Watkins Products in the area and, as a third job, continued to take coal from a mine in the side of the hill on his property. He eventually built a small bakery in Estevan which later, under the management of my older brother, Wilfrid, became a Red and White grocery store on the main street, owned by my father. Later still he established a second-hand furniture store—what was then called a furniture exchange.

He obviously was ambitious and entrepreneurial and I think he passed a portion of those traits on to me. He also worked very hard right to the end of his life and I think I gained from his example. Most importantly, although he was not an active believer until late in his life, he went to church regularly with the family. This reflected a value he held and it was because of that value I was kept under the influence of the gospel while I was growing up. To this day I am a beneficiary of his decisions.

My father was obviously limited in certain ways because of the poverty and dearth of social niceties in his upbringing. But he also had admirable natural qualities that were God-given, and from those I have gained immeasurably. I know that what he had he gave me without reservation and for that I salute his memory.

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What Asaph Learned When He Went to Church

Asaph was a true worshiper of Israel’s God. He was likely a singer in the ancient temple and 12 psalms in the Psalter are attributed to him.

Once, in a creative moment he began writing as follows: Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart (Psalm 73:1). Call that his topic sentence.

But, in spite of this noble burst of faith, he has a problem that nearly sweeps him off his feet. He is envious over the successes of the wicked, and the wicked appeared to him to be everywhere.

They have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong (verse 4). (Yet) they are violent and prideful (verse 6); malicious (verse 8). And, in spite of it all, he says, They scoff and speak with malice (verse 8).

He says: They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by common ills (verse 5).

Add that Asaph’s own condition seems quite opposite to theirs. He says: Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued, I have been punished every morning (verse 13).

He complains of pain he has to endure every morning (verse 14). Was he suffering the aches and pains of the aged?

Suddenly the light goes on. When I tried to understand all this, he writes, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny (verses 16, 17).

We might say, Asaph went to church. It was where the law of God was read, psalms were sung, where God made himself known to the hearts of worshipers. Good things can happen when the tempted go to church.

There, in the light of the eternal he saw how unstable the life of the wicked really is, even when it seems indestructible. Surely you place them on slippery ground, you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! (verse 18).

It is not that God is presented as vengeful or vindictive; rather it is that any chosen style of life is judged by its end. Wickedness has consequences, not always at the moment, but sooner or later.

Truth about the nature of life is revealed in worship. And with it often comes insight. Here, Asaph acknowledges his folly: When my heart was grieved / and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Call it not only insight but also repentance — a drastic change of mind.

He can find peace of mind and an action plan now: Those who are far from you will perish, you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. / But as for me, it is good to be near God. / I have made the sovereign Lord my refuge; / I will tell of all your deeds (verses 27, 28).

And his destructive envy evaporates. It is cleansed. He is free to renew the joy of his faith: But as for me, it is good to be near God. / I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds (verse 26).

Photo credit: eflon (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: How to Keep Focus When Praying

Photo credit: babasteve (via flickr.com)When you pray, do recent conversations intrude, insisting on being reviewed?  When you attempt to commune with God are you distracted by duties that demand attention?

Wandering thoughts – how exasperating! Most praying people are at times distracted by them.

And, because of the intense nature of modern life, we seem to function in a super-saturated environment with too much happening all the time.  Not to mention that the secularism of our times may seem to push God further to the margins of life.

Against all of this, we remember, however, that prayer is one of the most important things we can do with our time.

That is why I suggest you use the five elements of well-rounded prayer to help you remain focused.

ADORATION. Jesus said when you pray say, Our Father … Repeat until the vision is clear — Our Father; In other words, don’t rush into the heart of prayer. In adoration, we come before God with a keen sense of his majesty, his holiness, his infinite greatness – and his fatherly love.

Take a lesson from sacred history. The Virgin Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” What a way to start a prayer.

We may say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.” Or, “Hallowed be thy name.” Adoration gives us time to focus on God Himself.

CONFESSION. In a collection of prayers John Wesley published before he was 30 years of age he gave this helpful pattern for confession: “Heal, O Father of mercies, all my infirmities (_____), strengthen me against all my follies (_____), forgive me all my sins (_____).

Wesley left the blanks so that anyone using this prayer could personalize it.

Prayer should always have a place for self-examination, but examination must be made with full confidence in God’s forgiving and sustaining mercy.

PETITION. In petition we bring personal needs before our Father. This may develop naturally out of our confession. The Apostle John spoke to Christians when he said, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Our prayers of petition may naturally follow the confession of our infirmities, follies, or sins. Or they may arise out of daily needs, however large or small. George Buttrick wrote, “No situation remains the same when prayer is made about it.” But don’t let prayers bog down in petition.

INTERCESSION. This means “a coming between” or “to pray on behalf of others.” Intercession can be wide-ranging, including family, friends, enemies, associates, neighbors, church ministries, civic leaders. To intercede means we care beyond ourselves.

The efficacy of intercession is one of the profoundest mysteries of the spiritual life. God’s response to our prayers are sometimes nearly out of sight and sometimes can be perceived and understood only much later. Or, answers on occasion may be immediate and startlingly obvious.

Intercession saves our prayers from becoming merely “want” lists.

James Hastings wrote, “It would not be unfair to estimate a person’s religion by the earnestness by which he longs for the welfare of others.”

THANKSGIVING. This matches our beginning with adoration. That is, in adoration, we worship God for who he is; in thanksgiving we praise him for all his blessings.

Sometimes our prayers break forth in a burst of thanksgiving and, when they do it is good to let our spirits soar.

In our daily prayers we remember the smallest mercies, and give thanks. We recall the most incredible blessings, and give thanks. We give thanks especially for the gift of redemption through Jesus Christ — the greatest blessing of all — our salvation!

Our prayers, once ordered, may both begin and end, lingering at the cross of our Lord.

Photo credit: Steve Evans (via flickr.com)

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Do Adults Sometimes Get Stuck in Early Childhood?

Yesterday, a 30-year-old man, large and sturdy of build, bearded and with a shock of dark hair falling to his shoulders, was featured several times on TV News sources.

On one channel, he was with his parents, on another sitting on a recliner in the basement apartment of their home, and on yet another he appeared in a courtroom to receive  a ruling from a judge.

The issue was this: his parents wanted him to move out of their basement and get his own apartment, but they couldn’t dislodge him. Earlier he had lived away from them for more than a year-and-a-half, during which time he fathered a child. He had come back home to live, having been denied custody of the child.

His parents offered him $1100 to help him relocate and settle but he refused the offer.

As a last resort, the parents were asking for help from the law. The judge, while allowing a reasonable amount of time to make arrangements, ordered him: Move out!

I hold the dynamic view of human development — that life has stages. Nature itself decrees that each normal person must move through these stages. We are newborns, then infants, toddlers, and so forth, all the way to old age.  We develop in each stage for a time, and then must develop forward to the next. No stage is a stopping place.

And when we reach adulthood, as mature sailors on the sea of life we must pull our own oars even when it would be easier to lay back and depend on someone else’s energies. Taking responsibility for oneself is required in order to have meaning and joy in adulthood.

On yesterday’s television there was no obvious evidence of animosity between parents and son. In fact, one commentator spoke of the son’s love for his mother though it was not evident in the story. But one-sided conflict did appear evident in the man’s refusal to move out at her request.

It makes me reflect on Kathleen’s and my parental involvement at varying levels with three generations numbering 21 offspring. First it was four children, then seven grandchildren and now ten great-grandchildren.

Before they can talk or walk, little ones show on their faces and by their responses their typical reactions to people and their likes and dislikes. And if observed carefully from infancy onward, it has appeared to me that those traits tend to carry over to some degree when they arrive in adulthood.

Examples: One child has a sunny disposition from the start and this remains his or her nature growing up; another is unusually shy around all but close relatives. He or she learns excellent social skills yet remains an introvert.

One child is full of self-confidence; another takes considerable encouragement to embrace new challenges. One tends to be somewhat “contrary;” another is easier to convince to go along.

Whatever their other traits, they all seem to share to one degree or another the ability to manipulate, to deceive, even that nasty impulse to punish parents when their wishes are denied.

Likewise, they all, at a minimum, have flashes of warmth and generosity toward parents. In a word, their range of responses is wide. If development by the time of their arrival at young adulthood is as hoped, their loyalty to family should be firm.

These diverse elements seen in every child are manifestations of both the image of God in them, and the damage of the Fall of mankind.

Good parenting includes helping children to recognize and express their image-of-God traits but at the same time to recognize, acknowledge and restrain their traits bequeathed by the Fall.

Noting and coaching on the latter is sometimes quite neglected or overlooked — with consequences. God’s grace, however, when acknowledged and asked for, can harness good traits and mitigate the damage of the Fall.

One might guess that the apparent narcissism manifested by the thirty-year-old bearded man might have been in evidence early in childhood and through the teen years but was not adequately confronted by community and family, and worked with. Or that narcissism may have been so resistant that all efforts made to teach him to give others in his company their dignity had failed.

As for our growing family of 21 offspring, from infancy onward we have not only wanted them to be honest, respectful, obedient, and accountable. Even more, we wanted them all to know Christ as we have known him. We pray to this end every day.

None of this simply happens. Quality of character must be trained into children, and of course they must be introduced to the Lord Jesus and reminded of his call on their life to salvation and discipleship.

Let’s hope the thirty-year-old man being interviewed on television makes the move to his own apartment uneventfully and learns even yet how to work and otherwise navigate the rapids of life while giving others their dues — all as a mature adult.

Hope springs eternal and a loving God wants all humans to move through the seasons of life and in doing so properly to love themselves, and also to love others and contribute to their wellbeing.

On the horizontal plane it would appear this young man’s first step in that breakthrough might be a proper love and respect for his parents.


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Photo credit: Martyn Fletcher (via flickr.com)

Are We in an “Epidemic of Untruthfulness”?

In a commencement address at Rice University in Texas on May 8, 2018, the former NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg, told a graduating class that his nation is experiencing an “epidemic of untruthfulness.” He characterized what is happening in Washington and the countless evasions as “an endless barrage of lies.”

He reminded the graduates that they signed an honesty code when they enrolled in Rice University and had affirmed that code many times since. His concern was that they take the code with them into the workaday world.

He was concerned with good reason. When the moral standards of society sag, truthfulness sags too. It was in such a perilous time that the prophet Isaiah said to Judah, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness (Isaiah 5:20). His warning was that the nation’s moral compass was damaged.

Honesty is not required just randomly here and there, from time to time. Whatever our function in society, whether we are parents, administrators, salesmen, teachers, or ministers, the call for honesty confronts us daily. Honesty is a critical requirement woven into the warp and woof of human existence.

If a secular voice like Mayor Bloomberg’s acknowledges the low state of honesty in society and calls for an upgrade should the issue not be of special concern to Christians?

After all, we are followers of Jesus who is the embodiment of truth. Again and again he introduced his sayings with the declaration, “I tell you the truth.” He both was, and he spoke truth. Furthermore, our Scriptures call us incessantly to the practice of truth. Paul exhorts, You must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to (your) neighbor (Ephesians 4:25).

Truth is not always spoken in the same tone. It is sometimes spoken gently, as in the reporting of a death; sometimes firmly when checking a lad’s homework; and sometimes painfully when speaking of a child’s waywardness. But truth must be spoken. Untruthfulness breaks God’s law and eventually exacts its toll.

Moreover, the concept of truthfulness does not exist in isolation. A host of related words bring home to us both the force and the reach of this word — words like integrity, virtue, reliability, righteousness, uprightness.

Even if we are not dispensers of what Mayor Bloomberg called “an endless barrage of lies” there are many ways we might fall short of truthfulness — by remaining silent when we should speak up, by spinning half truths, by exaggerating for effect, by omission of nuance. We speak glibly of white lies and polite lies and evasive lies but in using them we play with fire.

Who of us will ponder deeply our truthfulness and the above companion words and with unblinking confidence say, “In every situation, that’s me”? Only when we commit ourselves seriously to truthfulness do we learn how difficult it is always to tell the truth. Even when we tell the truth we do so by the grace of God.

Mayor Bloomberg made a sorely needed point: we are living in times when honesty is not cherished and dishonesty is easily excused. The Scriptures alert us to this even among believers when they say, Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. (Proverbs 12:22)

I offer this further comment to the mayor’s excellent address: one can be committed to truthfulness without being Christian, but one cannot be Christian without cherishing truthfulness. The psalmist prayed, Lead me in your truth and teach me. (Psalm 25:5)


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Photo credit: Bloomberg Philanthropies, Public Domain (via flickr.com)

What to Do When We Feel Under Assault

In Psalm 42 a psalmist describes what it feels like to be robbed of the sense that God loves him.

This psalmist is running for his life. He captures in a word picture what that feels like: Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole soul craves you, God” (Psalm 42:1 Common English Bible).

A deer, after a long run to escape a mortal threat, and with flanks heaving, must above all find water. Only a person fleeing from peril and hiding in the wilds of nature, would come up with this analogy for his plight.

We can guess that King David wrote the psalm when his own son, Absalom, was driving him out of his palace in Jerusalem with murderous intent. Or was it from much earlier in David’s life when he was running from King Saul?

Whichever it was, it addresses the question: how do we talk to ourselves when life visits upon us such a swarm of perils? What if we felt deprived of the sense of God’s presence, isolated from our worshipping community, and wordlessly taunted by wrongdoers who might exult to know of our distress?

If a similar plight should burst upon us, this psalmist can help us regain perspective. The psalmist’s first strategy is to call up memory as an aid: These things I remember as I pour out my soul (verse 4)

That is, he reminds himself: I recall that in better days I went to the tabernacle where there were throngs of God’s people. I led the procession. I participated in the shouts of joy and thanksgiving. What memories! (Psalm 42:4).

The memories give his faith a momentary boost and he says to himself: Don’t be downcast; hope in God. He is my Savior and my God. In his time, again I will worship at the tabernacle as I long to do (Verse 5).

When he says I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, from the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar (verse 6), we can imagine that he may be at the northern part of Israel, with Mount Herman nearby.  Even though so far from his worshipping community, he acknowledges that the omnipresent God is even there. How steadying to his faith!

But it does not remove the turbulence he feels. He still feels its buffeting effects, remarking that, just as they break at the base of thundering waterfalls, waves and breakers have swept over me (verse 7b)

Yet his faith again bursts forth momentarily and he sings: By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life (verse 8). In those special times when faith is a struggle of the soul, for us too there can be a surging back and forth between hope and dejection.

Just as he feels the back-and-forth of his feelings, so to the end of this psalm his question persists: I say to God my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’ (Verse 9). And yet again he addresses himself, Why are you downcast , O my soul? (verse 11).

But this backwards-and-forwards can’t go on forever in believers. So he brings his psalm to a close by exhorting himself to trust even though at the moment he can’t understand God’s ways: Put your hope in God, he prompts, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

In the life of authentic faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whatever the situation today, and whatever surprises may come tomorrow, we have David’s example. For us as well, authentic faith prompts us to say — whatever our feelings of the moment — “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him (Verse 11).


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Photo credit: Jereme Rauckman (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Reflections on God’s Marvelous City

Photo credit: blogmulo (via flickr.com)The following is a refreshed version of a piece I published in October 2009.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2 RSV).

The holy city referred to here is neither gleaming office towers nor decayed inner city. It doesn’t belong to the ancient world buried beneath sand dunes or to the modern world often clouded by the haze of pollution.

It isn’t marked by human genius nor scarred by human depravity. Its splendor owes nothing to man; it is The City of God.

Humans, wherever they have gone, have organized into communities. Their building and organizational skills have come to a peak in the building of modern cities.

Ancient Petra and Babylon, and modern San Francisco, Toronto, London, Atlanta — these highly developed communities proclaim across history the genius of their creators.

Yet ancient cities have fallen one-by-one, sacked by enemies, corrupted by inhabitants, or emptied by the vagaries of history. It is possible the same will happen to modern cities.

The Bible has a complex or complicated attitude toward cities. Jesus loved Jerusalem and also wept over it in great tenderness, then pronounced destruction upon it.

It was his city, the place of the patriarchs and prophets, and it had known great moments. But it was known as well for its stoning of the prophets.

Then this city that God had uniquely honoured, Jerusalem, had demonstrated the peak of human pride in rejecting his Son.

While the Bible begins its story of man in a garden, it ends in a city, “the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

The vision of this special holy city, given to John on the Isle of Patmos, is rapturous, and the Book of Revelation speaks of its splendor.

This last book of the Bible communicates in what some have called cartoon language. For example, in our times a cartoonist, to represent tensions between Russia and China, might simply sketch out a picture of a bear being threatened by a red dragon.

The Book of Revelation is filled with verbal pictures – four-headed beasts, angels with vials, and cities like the New Jerusalem.

The message we are intended to get is that in his time, God will provide the perfect community for those who belong to him. Paul calls it “the Jerusalem which is above” (Gal. 4:26), and “our commonwealth . . . in heaven” (Php. 3:20) RSV).

It is the city toward which Abraham was ultimately heading, “the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10 NEB). It represents the eternal dwelling place of God and His people.

Today, many cities of man are under a cloud, if not a cloud heavy with sulphur dioxide as in some cases, then a threatening cloud from a dirty bomb or even the death of throngs by a murderous truck driver.

To many “lost” people it’s a place of physical decay and human despair, or even a kind of hell without flames. Yet, many leaders keep a proud silence about God and grope only on the horizontal plane for solutions to their troubles.

Even so, Christ wept over a city ruled by such attitudes, and he healed people in its dirty streets. Will he do less for God’s people?  And they, in turn for others?

Everywhere there are needs that compassionate Christians can meet, despair they can work to relieve, boredom they can help to replace with meaning. In many decaying cities, small corps of Christians help relieve such problems.

But, here’s the paradox. Christians serve best with compassion in the city of man when we are convinced at every level of our beings that our true destination is the New Jerusalem, the eternal city of God.


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