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Archive for December, 2012

moneyIt’s a refrain many people have said (or thought) and it usually goes like this: “I’m a screw-up; God doesn’t want to bother with me.” Or how about this variation: “God doesn’t care about me ‘cause I’ve done way too much bad stuff.” And finally, this one: “I can’t do any of that religion stuff ’til I get my act together.”

To all these statements, I present this neat little story: the pastor stood before many hundreds of people and asked if anyone had a mint-condition 20-dollar bill he could borrow. Someone put up their hand and handed over the cash.

The pastor held up the money and asked how many people saw value in this piece of paper. Hands shot up from all around the church. Great. Then he scrunched up the 20-dollar bill, tossed it on the ground and vigorously stepped on it.

After that, he picked up the beaten-up bill, held it high and once again asked how many people saw value in it. The same number of hands shot up.

Well, how about that? In perfect shape or beaten up and tattered, the congregation still saw the money as having worth.

If that’s the case for people and 20 bucks, why wouldn’t it be the case for the creator of the universe and us incredibly imperfect humans?

Looking for evidence? If you give the Bible any credibility, consider this quote I found:  “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.

See? He didn’t hold back his compassion for us and His interest in every part of our lives until we cleaned up our act. God moved FIRST, knowing that we can never truly get our act together enough. God moved FIRST, knowing that something had to be done so people like me can have all our wrongs righted by believing in and following His son, Jesus.

I’m about as imperfect as the most tattered, dirty and beaten-up 20-dollar bill you’re ever going to see. But to the creator of all that is good and right, I’m as valuable as the newest, cleanest, most perfect piece of currency you could possibly find.

The same is true for YOU. He proved it through Jesus and offers YOU a place in eternity with Him. Interested in knowing more about this offer? Post your questions below and let’s have a conversation

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O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

I’ll bet you don’t have to think long to match the melody with the lyrics of this well-loved Christmas carol. I’ll also bet that like me, some of the subtleties of the words have passed right by unnoticed.

But someone brought up the verse above at work the other day and pondered the line “‘Til he appeared and the soul felt its worth”. Any idea what it means? I think I’ve figured it out. ‘He’ is Jesus Christ, whom serious Christians – and many others, too – believe is the son of God. The inference in this lyric is that His arrival, and all that it meant,  caused people to feel valued in a new way.

The lyric makes sense to me because according to the Bible, the birth of the son of God was first announced not to the Donald Trumps, Barack Obamas or Lady Gagas of that time, but to a group of smelly sheep herders. It was the first of many, many times when Jesus would level the playing field between the haves and have-nots of this world.

Some faiths adhere to a “caste” system that ranks people’s value. Others faiths advocate violence against those who do not agree with their beliefs.

Meanwhile, the Bible describes how Jesus casually did the unthinkable for a Jew in ancient Israel: he had a very public conversation with a non-Jewish woman, and she was of questionable repute, too. Because of what he did, her soul felt a new worth.

Is that model being carried out today by followers of Jesus? Yes. Consider that a majority of prison ministries are Christian. Why? Because the criminals we’ve locked away as dangerous and useless are of huge value to God. In fact, they have the same value as you and me. Looking for proof? In the Bible, a missionary in the early Christian church wrote this: “Because all people have sinned, they have fallen short of God’s glory.”

Notice how it doesn’t say criminals have sinned more? Notice how it doesn’t say religious leaders or Nobel Prize winners have sinned less? That statement is a great equalizer for all of us, just as it was a great equalizer for the woman Jesus encountered.

The good news that serious Christians celebrate at Christmas is God sent Jesus for all people. The evidence is this Bible excerpt: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost, but have eternal life.”

Again, notice there are no exceptions listed? That’s the unique thing about Christianity. Because our souls have equal worth to God (regardless of who we are or what we’ve done or haven’t done), we all have a chance to accept God’s extraordinary Christmas gift and find new meaning in our lives. So what’s holding you back?

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It was a media release from a Toronto radio station, issued more than a month before Christmas, that did it.

At the time, I was an assistant editor at a newspaper in the Toronto area when this came across my desk: “97.3 EZ Rock is thrilled today to announce they will be playing 100 percent holiday music up to and including Dec. 25,” it said.

Grrr….

I felt my back go up and my eyes roll in disgust.
“Well, that’s one radio station I won’t be listening to until January,” I immediately vowed.

At this point, I guess it’s no surprise to write that Christmas and I haven’t always been best friends. In fact, when that media release came out, Christmas and I were like North and South Korea. I wouldn’t even call it the Christmas season; I labelled it the shopping season.

Then as now, the mass consumption fun quietly kicks off the minute you close the door on your final trick-or-treater. If you have a Santa Clause parade where you live, that’s when the ribbon is officially cut.

By that time, the stores are decking the halls with balls of holly, Christmas commercials are flooding your TV, and obnoxious radio stations are assaulting your ears with insipid music.

In other words, the squeeze is on. Start buying. Start listening. Start watching. Start organizing your social schedule. And start feeling what our culture says you’re supposed to feel.

Shopping season continues to Dec. 25, which is the shopping holiday where we can all relax and look at everything we bought. Just a day later, shopping season resumes for a final, intense week of frantic consumption, followed by a thank-you card in the mail from the Retail Council of Canada.

I’m a passionate church-going man, but in this world, Christmas has so little to do with its real meaning (the birth of Jesus Christ, whom serious Christians believe is the son of God), I’ve sometimes found myself resenting the entire thing.

“I can empathize with your feeling,” says Allan Baker, pastor at a church in Ontario. “It’s similar to how I feel — ‘oh my goodness, here we go again’.”

Rev. Baker says ambivalence towards Christmas is not a rare condition.

“Maybe it’s because I’m older that I encounter more and more people disenchanted with the micro-thin depth of Christmas. That’s part of the reason me and my (pastoral) colleagues find more people in church this time of year.”

Rev. Baker notes he’s a citizen of this world and of the Christian world. “It’s a tension in one’s life — there’s all this pressure of the commercial world, but I need to remember there is a real God I’m devoted to. So I can go shopping and know there is a god higher than the marketplace.”

Even in December, many mainline Christian denominations (United, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) consider themselves not to be in the Christmas season at all. They’re in Advent, “the period of preparation for the celebration of the nativity [birth] of Christ”, according to Wikipedia.

In other words, it’s a time of waiting, generally stretching four Sundays.

“We try very hard to stay in the Advent season,” says Dawn Hutchings, pastor at a Lutheran church in Ontario. “It’s really about emptying oneself and realizing our need for God. We don’t sing Christmas carols in church until Dec. 24.”

Rev. Baker calls Advent a time of discipline. Could that be any more radical in a culture that, at this time of year, stresses the exact opposite in everything from gift-giving to office parties to your entire social schedule?

“When we tell a 2,000-year-old story of Christ’s birth and ministry, it’s sometimes a challenge for people to find it relevant,” admits Rob MacIntosh, another church pastor. “But it is. If we would live that part of Christianity — bringing (the Christmas message of) peace and relationship into our homes, then we could spread it to people around us. If we can get the love part working right, then we’ll have the authority to speak to people about our faith.

And doing that, in a way that emphasizes God’s equal love for every single human being on this planet, could bring us to a place of seeing Christmas as a life-changing light in the darkest season of the year.

What’s your story when it comes to Christmas? Do you struggle with the season? Or have you found what Christians might call a “peace that passes understanding”?

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Memorial candleAnother act of sickening horror. It seems like every six months or so, many of us are shaken to our cores as yet another crazed lunatic carries out an act of utter depravity.

The 2012 massacre in Connecticut (20 children and six adults shot to death at an elementary school) was all over TV, radio, newspapers and social media. We couldn’t escape it, even if we wanted to.

Indeed, one blogger, struggling to deal with the tsunami of emotions brought on by this slaughter, went so far as to ask “Is this what the end of the world feels like?”

Such questions were asked beyond U.S. borders, since mass shootings happen even in countries not known for violence. People in Norway are still haunted by the indiscriminate killing of more than 70 people in July 2011. And Canadians haven’t forgotten the 1989 murder of 14 women at a college in Montreal.

With each of these events, every news report brings with it the nagging question asked by everyone from angry atheists and normally indifferent agnostics to serious people of faith: where was God??

I would be a sheer idiot to attempt to provide an easy answer because it doesn’t exist.

But as a follower of Jesus Christ (whom serious Christians believe is the divine Son of God), I feel confident in writing two things:

1. Every deadly attack is just one more piece of proof that God’s gift of freewill is permanent and rock solid.

When humans betray each other, we often get angry and withdraw our trust or love or commitment. Connecticut, Montreal and Norway are glow-in-the-dark proof that God is different. No matter what we do (or don’t do) to spit on the gift of freewill, God simply WILL NOT take it back.

Indeed, a section of the Bible called ‘Isaiah’ states it this plainly: “I [God] don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work.” And as we all struggle with the deaths in Connecticut, I’m profoundly grateful for this truth.

2. God was ALL OVER this event.

For example, church pastors across North America dropped their planned sermons and turned all their skills and time to addressing the massacre, even if it was only to ask the same questions and pray for the families of the victims. That may not sound like much, but it can still bring comfort to suffering people.

In addition, faith organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association sent crisis-trained chaplains to Connecticut to help survivors, emergency responders and others deal with their emotional agony. As a serious Christian, I see these amazing people as the hands and feet of Jesus, in action where and when it matters most.

So what do you think….do these two points make any sense? Do you believe in God any more or less as a result of tragedies in Connecticut, Montreal, Norway and so many other places? Post your thoughts below and let’s have a conversation.

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Are you holding out on considering spirituality because you figure you have plenty of time for that down the road?

A study out of the U.K. says yes.

According to a 2011 National Post article, the study suggests the decline of religion in developed nations can be linked, at least in part, to our ever-increasing life expectancy. It causes people to postpone any sort of faith life because they don’t sense any urgency to, as the National Post termed it, “secure a place in heaven”.

I can understand this because our culture insists that pursuing fame, saving money for a Caribbean cruise, advancing your career, and even gossiping over the UK royal family are more important than living a life of faith.

The way I see it – and this is backed up by conversations with non-Christian family members and friends – most people don’t see any benefit in considering spirituality because they have no concept that it’s about so, SO much more than the afterlife.

The media will never tell you this, but Christianity isn’t about religion. It’s about a here-and-now relationship with God, through Jesus, whom serious Christians believe to be His son.

Yes, what happens to us when we die is of infinite importance, but to ignore the benefits of knowing God and following Jesus NOW is like buying a cottage and never using it until you retire.

This leads me to the thoughts of Ross Carkner, a pastor friend who read the same National Post article: “What about retirement planning? Do people put off saving for retirement until they retire? What is it that you and I need to have ‘in the bank’ with God before we expire, let alone retire?”

I get what Ross is saying. If you have no relationship with God, if you don’t know who He is or have even a vague understand what Jesus has done for everyone who follows Him, then will you get much comfort from a last-minute deathbed “conversion”?

In the meantime, what happens if you lose your job or your house burns down or a loved one is hurt in a car accident? Challenges like these happen to everyone, but I’ve found that having a here-and-now relationship with God, through Jesus, makes them easier to bear. For one thing, as a regular church attendee, I’m part of a supportive community that’s based on something so much more important than a shared interest in extreme sports or wine tasting.

Here’s something else to ponder: Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney infamously spoke about “rolling the dice” during the early 1990s on constitutional negotiations with the country’s 10 provinces. His gamble failed and Canada’s constitution remains unsigned by Quebec.

Are you as brave – or as foolish – as Mr. Mulroney? Are you willing to risk “rolling the dice” that nothing will prevent you from sitting in a rocking chair, enjoying retirement and leisurely doing what it takes to  “secure a place in heaven”? Post an answer below and let’s have a conversation.

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I’ve never met Mike Treder. In fact, I’d never even heard of Mike Treder until finding this online ‘poster’ (billboard? graphic? What do you call these things that are all over Facebook and other websites??). But I’m very grateful for him.

The thoughts of Mr Treder  – a former managing director of the U.S.-based Institute for Emerging Ethics and Technologies – gives me a gift-wrapped opportunity to deal with so many charges made against people of faith. So let’s get to it:

  • I’m not the least bit offended by atheists. I respect many of them because they’ve gone against our culture and actually thought (usually long and hard) about what they do and don’t believe and why.
  • I oppose ALL religious wars, jihads, crusades and inquisitions. No exceptions. And I’ve never met a single Christian who thinks differently. In fact, Jesus Christ gave this advice to all of us who follow him: “If someone hits you on the side of your face, let them hit the other side too. If someone takes your coat, don’t stop them from taking your shirt, too.” Does that sound like someone who would ever advocate a holy war or inquisition?
  • I’m absolutely against censoring of free speech. That includes censoring people of faith. Are you that inclusive too, Mike?
  • Brainwashing of children is wrong. But denying information that would help children make their own decisions about something as important as faith is a form of brainwashing, in my opinion. And that’s equally wrong. So is brainwashing children to oppose faith. Where do you stand on this, Mike?
  • Murdering albinos?? Well, if there’s a wacko religious cult doing that somewhere, then I’m certainly as offended as you, Mike. In fact, ‘offended’ is too mild a word for how I would feel about something like this.
  • Forcing girls into underage marriages is demented, in my book, and no serious Christian would ever advocate it.
  • Male and female genital mutilation is barbaric. So is stoning anyone for any reason at any time. Serious Christians have nothing to do with either one.
  • I had to look up pederasty. Now that I know what it is (a homosexual relationship between a young man and a pubescent boy outside his immediate family, according to Wikipedia), I can say that I’m far more than “offended” by it, Mike.
  • Homophobia is definitely wrong and I’m always sorry and grieved when a fellow Christian strays into that territory.
  • Rejection of science and reason? I love science because it’s God’s way of showing me how He works, so I’m offended when anyone rejects it. And so are many other Christians. In fact, I wrote an essay about all the Christian scientists out there, Mike. Here’s a link to it: http://bit.ly/Tgrt9p

How about you…did you ever expect an atheist and a serious Christian to have so much in common? Post your response below and let’s have a conversation.

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