Lessons Learned From Christmas Visits with the Elderly

Elderly ManEvery year at Advent I visit some of the ‘shut-ins’ of our church.  That is, members who are now physically unable to attend.  I bring them poinsettias and do my best to listen.  Here are four lessons I learned from the experience this year.

1) Life Is Short

You hear this all the time, but it really sinks in when you hear it again and again from people closer to the end. Almost everyone I visited this year expressed it. Time seems to speed up as you get older. It continues to speed up in old age.

2)  Some People Are Given Time To Reflect At The End Of Life

Many people are given a space at the end of their life where they have nothing to do.  They are no longer working, cooking or cleaning.  Their spouse has passed away along with many friends and relatives. The structures that gave shape to their life are gone.

There are two reactions to this empty time. Some people do nothing, give great importance to things that are trivial and often become depressed or at least bored.  Others seek God and truth in the stillness. They pray, drink in information about God, listen, watch and serve in all kinds of creative ways. These people experience spiritual growth even as their bodies fade.

I met a man who entered into a real, vital relationship with God at the age of 84, after a lifetime attending church. When the busyness of life faded he found God waiting for him in the quiet.

3) No One Cares About Their Job Or Their Money At The End

I can imagine there are cases where people do care about these things at the end, but I didn’t find any.  The elderly still have physical needs of course and that can be expensive, but no one talked to me about money or plans to get more. No one talked about the stock market or investments.  Even more striking, no one told me about their former job. The thing they spent most of their time doing in their life was not even mentioned.

What do they care about?  Four things: God, Family, Trivial Details or Nothing. Some talk about nothing but God and Family, others only talk about the minute details of their schedule.

4) Every Life Is Both Worse And Better Than It Appears

Many of the people I visited opened up to me. Some feel the need to share things with a pastor they have never told anyone before.

Every life is worse than it appears. Beneath the surface are deep wounds, anger, disappointment, depression and struggle. And yet, if you listen long enough you can get beyond this. At the deepest level and everywhere you find a God who is constantly watching, leading, calling and restoring. Take a ‘normal’, decent life.  Look deep enough and you will find vast evil.  But do not stop there.  Look even deeper and you will find God Himself doing amazing things that mostly go unnoticed.

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Staring at Your Hands – What We Can Learn from Babies this Christmas

Hand zeigt StopRecently while driving on a family trip I was telling my wife about my new habit of staring at my hands. She gave me a strange look and seemed a little embarrassed. But this new habit has had amazing benefits in my life.  Here is how it started and why I do it.

First, I have been reading the book ‘Kept For the Master’s Use’ by Frances Ridley Havergal.  Frances is the woman who wrote the hymn Take My Life and Let It Be. The book was written near the end of her life in 1895.  It goes through the different parts of a human being and imagines how these can be given entirely to God. It includes parts such as our will and mind, as well as our hands and feet. The book is not easy to read unless you are used to old churchy language, but it is well worth reading if you are up to the challenge.

In her chapter on hands Frances notes how amazing and miraculous our hands actually are. And it’s true!  We take so much for granted.  What would my life be like if I were often amazed, full of thanksgiving and joy over my hands? I am full of excitement over a new phone I get, but it is nothing compared to the fantastic miracle of the hands that hold it. So, I spent some time staring at and thinking deeply about my hands, trying to wake myself up to how great they are.

Second, I have been thinking deeply and reading about habits. I want to grow in Christ.  But how do I do it?  When I am full of thoughts of God and truth I have no problem doing many of the things Christ teaches.  When I forget and am distracted by other things then I fail and my life spirals down away from God. Habits must be a huge part of the solution to this problem. If what I automatically do leads my heart and mind toward God then it will be so much easier to imitate Him.

So, I thought, what habit could I build around my hands? They are always with meI decided that every time I washed my hands I would hold them up in front of me, flex them and stare at them like a little baby.   I spend about five or ten seconds doing this, remind myself how much I have been given and how well I am loved by God.  I do this EVERY time I wash my hands so that it has become automatic.

The results have been excellent. God is automatically in my mind more often and I am in a better mood every time I wash my hands. 

The one drawback is that my wife thinks I am weird. But as long as I don’t talk about it too much or tell the whole internet what I am doing I think she will be okay.

What Does Mike Frost Have to Say?

mike-frostMike Frost is a writer, speaker and generally cool guy you would want to have a beer with.  He talks about something called Missional Church.  If you are part of certain church circles you feel like everyone is talking about Missional Church and you either hate it or love it.  If you aren’t then you have no idea what it is. Mike was in Vancouver last week and so a bunch of pastors and church leaders got together to listen to him. Here’s what he said.

He gave a very clear definition of Mission Church.  he drew a diagram like this.

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Pretty cool eh?  W = Worship  D = Discipleship  C = Community and M = Mission  The diagram represents the functions of a church.  If you do these things then you are a church.

Missional Church, according to Mike Frost, is a church in which all these functions are shaped and catalyzed by Mission.

This is different than most churches, where Mike says all these functions are shaped and catalyzed by Worship. What does he mean?

Imagine you go to a typical church every Sunday.  You feel part of the community. What is it that makes you part of the community?  It’s the fact that you show up for worship on Sunday morning.  If you stopped showing up people would think something was wrong and (hopefully) call you.  If you continued not showing up soon you would not be part of the community.  Simple. So community is shaped and catalyzed by Worship.

This is the same for discipleship and mission.  Discipleship is the process of bringing people closer to God and deepening their faith.  A typical church does this through the Sunday morning worship service.  People come, pray, sing and listen to a sermon.  The idea is that this will help them grow in faith.   Many churches have small groups and bible studies, but these are often secondary.  We put far more energy into Sunday morning.  If you had to quit bible study or Sunday morning which would you quit first?

And how do we do Mission?  We send money to foreign missionaries, run church programs and sometimes talk to our friends. We collect the money to send during our worship services.  The programs that we run and even talking to friends about Jesus are often intended to bring people into church on Sunday.  Imagine your Vacation Bible School or youth outreach program went exactly the way you would want it to. What would that look like?  People would become Christians and then they would come to church on Sunday morning.  If a friend is interested in Jesus we invite them to church. So mission is shaped by worship.

Mike suggests that instead of Worship, Mission should be the shaping and catalyzing force in the church.  Mission should be the goal that everything else is structured around.

Can you see what a dramatic change Mike and all these Missional Church guys are really pushing for.  A church where the members no longer see attending Sunday morning worship as the center? To make this kind of change would feel like your church, as an organization, was dying and starting all over.  How many churches will realistically be able to do this?  Is it even right?

by Isaac Whiting

If you have heard anything about the Missional Church, or even if you just go to church please comment and tell me what you think.

Church Experiments: The Awakening Part 2

alarm clock…this is part two in a series.  Click here for part 1.

Staff Awakening

December, 2008. There were seven adults and six children involved.  All seven committed to the practices in Part 1 and the kids participated in limited ways.  Each person also gave up something they enjoy for the entire 29 days.

During this time we became like a family. Particularly important were the daily phone calls and the shared meals. Conflicts arose after a couple of weeks between people who had never been in conflict before. This was good. In every case it led to deeper relationship. Almost every member of the group commented on personal problems they usually had that were not present during the Awakening. The experience was a mountaintop and spiritual high point.

At the end most of the group was excited to continue in some way. We decided to have meals together once a month and to call each other occasionally. We all agreed to this, but it never happened. Our relationships went back from being like family to friends and co-workers. Once the required discipline and commitment was taken away, all the shared practices and the community that was formed by them evaporated.

Youth Awakening

February, 2009. Seven youth and five leaders committed to do the awakening.

As with the staff the experience created a sense of unity, purpose and seeking after God together. It took longer for this to happen, but by the third week and especially after the retreat everyone in the group felt a real sense of belonging.

This Awakening was much more work for the leaders than the first had been. By the end almost everyone was excited and positive about the experience, including parents. However, before it began there was resistance both from parents and youth over the idea. This was overcome through prayer, listening and explanation.

During the awakening there were amazing changes in many of the youth. Some who had discipline problems and trouble paying attention became helpful and engaged. Some who were shy became excited and involved. Some who prayed only when I made them began to pray on their own. Some read more Bible than required. The three who were baptized were very excited.

Overall, it was a difficult but hugely rewarding experience. I felt as if I had entered the battle instead of sitting on the sidelines. The fight was hard, but things happened. The changes that occurred in this one month were greater than the changes I had seen in three years prior.

Final Thoughts

Our hope was that the Awakening would create a core membership of the youth group that would be united, seek God together and that this core would then draw in others. Over time it succeeded. This group became the core around which a whole new youth group was formed. The new group is larger and much more focused on Christ. Amazingly, Jesus’ strategy of starting with a deep, committed core of people actually works.

However, the Awakening did not work for everyone. Some people who were very committed during the experience could not maintain their commitment to Christ without that community and slowly drifted away.

What’s Your Story? Here’s Mine.

Corridor SkyEaster is a time to remind each other of what Jesus did.  What he did then and what he’s done now.  Here’s my story.  What’s yours?

I didn’t grow up in the church. I was given a lot of freedom when I was young and as a fairly shy person didn’t know what to do with it. I experienced serious depression as a teenager. I was always good in school and used success to build up my ego. I decided I was “the smartest person who has ever lived”. In college I devoted myself to philosophy. I thought if anyone could figure out the meaning of life just by thinking about it surely that person was me. The more I studied the less I knew and the more depressed I became.

        One sunny day while walking under my dark cloud I realized that there was one thing I had never truly doubted. I had pretended to doubt it, but deep down I had always known that everything we see around us came from somewhere. I had always known there was some kind of God. Not a weird spirit-being out there, but something that created all this. That day began my search into what people thought about God and why. I studied Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Hinduism. I took classes, read books and talked with people. I also began reading a bible someone gave me in grade one.

        I used to be a very ‘logical’ person. I always had to ‘prove’ everything. By the summer of 2000 my bible reading had brought me to the gospel of Luke, which my ‘logical’ mind could not comprehend. Jesus simply commands and tells. He rarely explains and never proves anything. As I read, however, I experienced something entirely new. Something entered my mind that was not me. In fact, it was very different from me. It was a voice, it was very loud and this is what it said, “THESE ARE THE WORDS OF MY SON. LISTEN TO HIM!” You may think that I am lying or crazy, but I am neither. This happened and I can remember it as well as I remember eating breakfast this morning. I stood up and it stopped. It returned every time I sat down to read for about five minutes.

        That experience became my proof. I became more certain that Jesus Christ is the Son of God than I have ever been of anything else. I was and am willing to bet my life on it.

Book Review: Crazy Love by Francis Chan

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I am disappointed by this book and confused by its popularity.

The book boils down to “love God with your whole life”. But it is delivered in a boring, frustrating way.

Good Stuff:  This book is clearly popular and lots of people online say it changed their life or their thinking.

Complaints: I agree with all of Chan’s main points. It is the message of the New Testament and the most important message in the world. But hundreds of others have written on the same subject and done a better job.

Much of the book is Chan quoting the bible and saying, “I know you’ve heard this before, but have you really THOUGHT about it. Stop reading right now and think about it.” Come on.

A book on the primary message of the bible should do the work of bringing this message to life for me in a new way. This book did NOT do that.

Bottom Line:

I have heard a lot about Francis Chan and was excited to read his most popular book. I can’t think of when I have been so disappointed. I cannot understand why so many people have reviewed it so positively. Are we all just writing nice Christian reviews?

Stop Putting Dresses on the Heavenly Host

no angels

Most modern translations of the New Testament are excellent.  There are however a few places where you are completely surprised if you read the text in the original Greek.  Several of those places have to do with the Christmas story.  The verses that tell this story are so well known that many translations have chosen to keep old words that most people don’t understand, even if they think they doThe worst offender of all is the first half of Luke chapter two, the story of the Shepherds and the Angels.

The New International Version reads in verses 13 -14: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

A “heavenly host” appears and they say something that looks like a poem or song lyrics. Notice it doesn’t actually say they sing.

Christmas cards, songs, movies and virtually everyone imagines in this verse a magnificent heavenly choir, arrayed in their glowing robes and singing four part harmony while floating in the sky. That is ABSOLUTELY NOT what Luke is describing.   

The Shepherds are Terrified

The first clue is the reaction of the shepherds to the angel that appears in verse nine. The NIV says ‘they were terrified’.  The old King James calls them ‘sore afraid’.  The Greek literally says, ‘they were terrified with a great terror’.  They aren’t just surprised.  They are scared out of their minds. This is always the reaction when people in the Bible see an angel. Maybe they aren’t so friendly looking?

What exactly is a ‘host’?

Many people would say a host is a large number of people, or angels. But in that case Luke would be repeating himself when he says there was a ‘great company’ of the heavenly host. In fact, the word host has a very specific meaning.

The Greek word translated host is the word stratia. It is where we get our word strategy. It has only one basic meaning in New Testament Greek.  It means AN ARMY. Not a choir. It means soldiers in full battle gear formed up for war.

Battle Cry

If this is an army then why are they singing a song?  The answer is they aren’t. Luke doesn’t say they are singing.  They recite a kind of poem together. Did armies do that?  Yes and they still do. ‘One, Two, Three, Four, I love the Marine Corps!  The angel army is chanting a battle cry.  The battle cry is simple. We can paraphrase it like this, “Glory to God in Heaven.  Peace here on the earth to those who are His friends.  The war is about to end. The Enemy is going to die.”

Why is the war over?  Because a baby is born.  The army marches behind its most powerful weapon, its First Soldier, the death blow to Satan and the enemies of God, the baby of Bethlehem.

Isaac Whiting

Leave me a comment and tell me what you think.

Made in China

                                                                                                                                                                                      November 5, 2009

Things are cheaper than ever before. We complain about rising prices and the great recession, but the fact is that at no point in history has as much cheap stuff been available as right now in North America. We are so awash in it that it has become part of the landscape, part of the culture, something that is virtually invisible to us. At the same time, we are producing less than ever before. Who among us creates anything tangible in his or her work?  We have what economists call a ‘service economy’. This means that our economy is driven and based upon services that we do for each other, not on goods that we produce. What are our best professions? Doctor, Lawyer, Businessman, Real Estate Agent, Computer Programmer, etc.  Our teenagers find their first jobs in retail sales or the hospitality industry. None of these jobs produce anything tangible. They are all services.

The obvious question then is, ‘Where does all this stuff come from?’   The answer, of course, is China and a handful of other far-away countries; Malaysia, India, Thailand, Honduras, etc.  Our massive material stockpile is produced in these countries because it is cheap. Labor in these countries is inexpensive and environmental and safety regulations are not as strict as in North America. This enables corporations to produce the things we buy for much less than if they were made here. Is this a good thing?  No, and it cannot possibly be so.
In the fifth chapter of the book of James, the brother of Jesus writes the following:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.

These verses must have been bold and offensive to whomever the Church Father was writing. However, he did not write these words to pagans or evil godless men. He wrote them to Christians.

There are several things we should understand from James’ letter. First is the idea that being rich very often involves oppression of others, even if we do not realize it. Second, it is possible, even likely, that those who are rich will not realize they are rich and those who are oppressing the poor will not think they are doing so. Third, the fact that we do not know when we do this does not make us innocent before God.

The words of James are desperately needed today.  Are you oppressing the poor?  ‘Of course not’, you say. In fact we don’t even know any poor people. How can we be oppressing them? This is the problem.  Take off your shirt. Where was it made? Honduras?  It is very likely that the people who made your shirt have terrible lives, living in semi-slavery conditions and oppressed constantly by their employers. What about your shoes? China?  It is likely that the factory that made them employs children, has a record of many injuries, and greatly pollutes the environment, ruining life for thousands in the surrounding areas. Of course, the things you are wearing might have been made in decent factories in these countries, but the odds are against it and you have absolutely no way of knowing.   What if the very clothes that you wear, the things you buy every day and the items all over your home are stained with blood and oppression?  They are.
The problem here is not simply that these countries need better oversight and to improve working conditions. They do, but that is not the point. If they had proper regulation and working conditions our stuff would not be cheap. If every country in the world put into place fair wages, safety and environmental regulations on the North American scale then everything we buy would be very expensive, perhaps double or triple what it costs now. It would in fact be cheaper in such a world, because of shipping costs, to make things here at home.
The bible is clear that to deal with and defeat evil it must first be brought into the light. The current world economic system has conspired to export the results of our lifestyles to the other side of the world, where we cannot see them. There has always been oppression of the poor, but at least in the past it was near to us, a short walk or drive from home. Now it is nowhere visible. Show me a poor person in our midst. Are they really poor? Do they have clothes and food to eat?  They are poor compared to most of us perhaps, but they are not the poor of the earth. These are very rare here. The system has a vested interest in not letting us, the rich of the world, see the poor. As long as we do not see them we cannot cry out against their oppression. Yes, we know that there are a billion people starving and living in squalor, but it does not impact us. We do not see it.   If one person without food showed up on your doorstep you would do more for him than you do now for the billion you do not see.
We must therefore work in the name of Jesus to remove ourselves from this system that makes evil invisible and clothes us all in blood.  We must buy things made here, the few that are left, even though this means we will not have as much money or stuff as we have now.  We must do this not because it is good for our local economy, but because purchasing things made on the other side of the world involves us in one of the greatest evils of our day.