Pastor John Van Sloten's Blog 2001-2007

John Van Sloten's Blog 2001 - 2007


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Book writing

Feb 08, 2007


Yesterday I had a meeting with a reporter from a local newspaper. He had recently written a book and I wanted to pick his brains re: how one gets that done. The conversation was good. Several times he re-iterated how he thought there would be a market for the stuff we do at New Hope. Throughout lunch he offered a lot of good advice, but the whole time we're talking I'm thinking that I'd like to write it with him.

About half way through the Wonton soup I suggested that maybe he could write the thing. At first he reacted in a way that communicated, "He really didn't just say that!" Then I said it again, "Maybe you should write this thing."...
Shocked he said, "But I'm an agnostic libertarian! I don't know what I believe about all this stuff. Why in the world would you want me to write this thing?"

My first response was, "You're a good writer." I then went on to explain how having the book written by an objective writer might be a good thing. Who's gonna buy a book on pop culture spirituality written by a pastor? Yeah, I could probably scribble something out were I wanting to preach to the choir (those who already espouse the faith), but to create a text for the masses, that's a little different.
"You already write for that audience," I said.

Over the years, as the media has reported on New Hope's sermon topics, the best articles have always been those written by the "secular" reporters. Whenever the religion writers did a piece, it was OK, but different. There was something very fresh about a 'third party' view.

As we talked more about the matter, part of me worried a bit, "am I crazy to be doing this?" Another part of me got even more excited. This reporter started to come up with all kinds of great ideas on how the book might look. With each new idea I thought, "This is why I can't do this on my own."

The biggest synergistic moment occurred when we both, coming from two totally different places, stated that we thought there was a lot more going on in pop culture that most people give it credit for.

It was a pretty cool moment. We'll see where this all ends up.




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Ever been rescued?

Jan 30, 2007


OK, I need some sermon research help for this Sunday. Have any of you ever been rescued before? Saved from some dire circumstance? I'm trying to better understand what a rescued person goes through. In particular I'm wondering about two things; What did the desperation feel like just before knowing you'd be saved, and how did you end up feeling toward your rescuer?

If you've got thoughts on this I'd love to hear them (you could help rescue me! :) )



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Brain Waves

Jan 29, 2007


I absolutely love living with the expectation that God is revealing himself everywhere.

Reading a TIME article this evening, I got to see his face in the very structures of the human brain. (No, not in a Mother Teresa in a danish kind of way!)

Earlier this evening I was talking to my wife about this faith based understanding that God chooses to see his followers through the lens of Jesus Christ. The idea is that even though we’re messed up human beings, because of Christ’s compassionate act, and because we’ve decided to bank our lives on that act, God now sees us as though we are clothed in Christ. When he looks at us, all he sees is the perfection of Jesus. Basic Christian theology, and yet it’s a truth that many of us struggle to live into. And yet we’re called to live into it. We’re called to believe it, imagine that it’s really true, take on this new worldview, think as though it were reality.

So what’s this have to do with your brain?...
Well, as I’m reading this article I come across a story on the topic of neuroplasticity (re: the brains ability to change and adapt; to expand certain capacities, to take over other parts of the brain when needed … old science had the brain tagged as a more of a hard wired, immutable reality… nowadays it’s all about plasticity!). The story spoke of how scientists are discovering that our thoughts can actually change our neuronal connection patterns. Essentially, they’ve measured our ability to think certain thoughts and actually have those thoughts change how our brains are structured/operate. Cool stuff. They’re hoping that these studies will lead to Cognitive Behaviour Therapies that will aid those with mental illnesses, brain injuries, etc. But they also dream of finding a way to improve the lives of the rest of the populace; especially in the area of increasing happiness.

Happiness is good, obviously, but the same kind of ‘thought changing reality’ math would also help with the spiritual challenge I mentioned above. To think, that God built the human brain with a physiology that would allow for the possibility of seeing your life with new eyes. Wow. Our brains have a built in malleability that is made for conversion to a new view.

And it gets better. The article went on to talk about another study that was done with Buddhist Monks. They wanted to measure the impact of meditation on levels of happiness. So they had these monks meditate inside an MRI machine. What they discovered was amazing. When they had the monks meditate on pure compassion (a standard Buddhist meditation technique) “brain regions that keep track of what is ‘self’ and what is ‘other’ became quieter, the FMRI showed, as if the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others…but perhaps the most striking [observation] was in an area in the left prefrontal cortex – the site of activity that marks happiness. While the monks where generating feelings of compassion, activity in the left prefrontal cortex swamped activity in the right frontal (associated with negative moods) to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity.”

My first thought in response to this is, “Compassion = Happiness, that works well with Jesus’ teachings; that we need to lay down our lives in order to find them, that we need to selflessly serve others to find real meaning, that we need to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, in order to be more like God!”

These aren’t just spiritual platitudes, they’re wired into our very brains! And science now offers the proof! When we focus on others, we’re more physiologically prone to being happy… it floods our brains, drowning out the negative.

Selfless love brings happiness, contentment, and joy. Very cool.

I can hardly wait for the next study, the one that connects that ‘quieted self/other’ place, mentioned above, with a person's perception of a spiritual experience with God.



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Sport illustrating life

Jan 23, 2007


Sport illustrating life; it’s an oft cited maxim, but who could ever imagine a Sunday night football game offering strategic insight onto a real life geo-political playing field?

Last night I was watching the NFL AFC playoff game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots. During commercial breaks I toggled over to Fox News and took in a panel discussion on the conundrum America now faces in its war in Iraq.

“Strange,” I thought, “Two different channels, two major American turf wars.”
After hearing one political commentator make the argument that US forces are losing the battle on the ground, and that they should retreat, another voice offered this paraphrased bit of war game wisdom, “Look at any war, there are always times when the winning side experiences setbacks and significant losses…”

“He has a point,” I thought, “How can anyone know how the current setbacks in Iraq fit into the larger context; a context, in part, made up of an unknowable future? Who has the omniscience to make that call?”

Like many hindsight wise Canadians I was convinced that the right way to win the anti-terror game was to get the heck out of Iraq; but now I honestly have to ask, “How can I know that for sure?”

Who ever gets a chance to run a double blind test with history?

Switching back to the football game those, more serious, questions continued to ruminate in my mind. By this time my team was already well into its disastrous first half. They were losing yards all over the place, the opposition seemed unstoppable, and their ‘long ball’ quick strike game plan was failing miserably. At the half the Colts were down 21-3.

At that point the odds seemed quite insurmountable; you could see the hopelessness on the players’ faces. I was ready to quickly give up and change channels, but then I noticed the Indianapolis coach’s face. He wasn’t showing any concern, not yet; the game wasn’t over.

I stuck around for the second half; a spectacular turnaround that few could have imagined. “The largest comeback ever in a conference game,” opined one announcer.

The Colts changed their game plan, stuck to their ‘we can win this thing’ guns, and secured victory on the final scoring run of the game, edging the Patriots 38-34.

Like all wars, the final battle was all that seemed to really matter in the end.

And now, this Tuesday, President Bush will make his State of the Union, half time speech to the nation. Some speech writing pundits are calling for yet more of the forceful approach. Others are recommending a more conciliatory tone. I’m wondering if the coach in George W. Bush needs to use Sunday’s national pastime sporting parable to his advantage, and be both brutally honest and steadfastly stalwart in this critical speech.

Imagine Bush holding those two values in tension and saying, “To be honest I can’t guarantee the final score in this battle, right now things do look bleak, and I’ve made many bad calls, but to leave the game at this point would most certainly be the worst decision we could make. This game is not over yet and there is a larger context that we cannot see and need to consider. I admit that I can’t fully see it, but leaving the region destabilized, and rife with the potential for more sectarian violence and civil war, is not an option I can live with.”

Who could?

I’m sure many a President, a Prime Minister, a general, and a coach have had to rally their troops in this way. And I know that there have been many times throughout history where a bleakness far greater than Iraq’s had to be overcome. Miraculous comebacks have happened before.

I’m also fervently hoping and praying that this President and his administration will find the wisdom to meet this challenge, and lead out with truly equitable global vision.

It’s a tough place for George W. Bush to be; a difficult game to play. Regardless of your political persuasion, you’ve got to feel for both the man and the country. How can anyone make a decision of such global weight and significance? How can he carry it all?

Last week I saw some close up news footage of Bush shedding a tear at a soldier’s memorial. It seemed to genuinely well up from his heart. How could it not?

Let’s hope he makes this next geo-political call from that heart this week.



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unabated joy

Jan 22, 2007


Last week, questions about life and death seemed to move to the front burner. A friend died, a relative died, and an inlaw had a stroke. All the while, my son Edward, was fully, and joyfully living life.





Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, January 25 2007 @ 08:10 AM PST
I have been thinking on this alot lately. I am working on my senior project for school 'the spirituality of suffering' and I find myself being thrown back and forth between two exteems.
1. how angry I am about what has happend to myself and other
2. joy over what God will do and is doing through those things.

Where is the ballance? I have no clue yet...I guess that is my life long lesson.

Faith




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Celebrity Voyeurism

Jan 17, 2007


Here's an editorial I wrote for the Herald on celebrity voyeurism. It was published last Sunday.

Last night I was watching an ABC news report on Prince William’s fiancée Kate Middleton. I had to change the channel. I didn’t want to be complicit in the assault; one of the millions of witnesses who just stand there while this young woman gets paparazzied to death.

She seems like a decent human being. I don’t really know that for sure, yet. But why would I want to hurt her? What has she ever done to me? And why would I make a media consumption choice whose underlying ethics I strongly disagree with?

Throughout ABC’s news coverage, this juicy story on a famous royal in waiting was used as a hook. “Coming up, a future Queen…” They always save the story we can’t resist until the end of the newscast.

And we can’t resist this one, can we?...
For some reason we find it very hard to quell the desire to sneak a peek into Kate Middleton’s life. Admit it, to some degree the problem might be ours. We’d prefer not to acknowledge it. We’d rather blame the photographers, or the media outlets that buy their images, or a more generic target like ‘people nowadays,’ but the truth is we the consumer are the bottom line of this problem.

Let’s face it, if Kate Middleton didn’t sell papers, magazines and chinaware she would have had a pretty peaceful stroll to her car this morning.

So the bigger question then is, “What’s with us?” Why would Kate Middleton’s life so insatiably capture our hearts?

Yeah, celebrity worship is nothing new. It’s been part of the human condition for a long time. But given the haunting parallels of this story, given the fact that we seem to be heading down a sad and eerily familiar path, potentially jeopardizing yet another woman in Prince William’s life, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves, “Why?”

Is it because we don’t have a life? We’re so bored with our own personal existence, nothing really exciting is happening day to day, so why not live into someone else’s life; somebody’s larger than life life? Is this all about a vicarious thrill? Are we motivated by a sense of own personal meaninglessness?

Or maybe it’s more superficial than that; more sinister. Given the circumstances you’ve got to wonder if perhaps we’re just the kind of people that like to listen in, and see what we really shouldn’t be seeing. At best we’re a little snoopy, at worst we’re closet voyeurs.

Or is this more of a narcissistic thing. Might this be all about us? The proliferation of reality television in recent years seems to affirm one fact; we like to look at ourselves. What better way to look at ourselves than to intimately peer into the life of another? There’s something deeply self satisfying, scintillating, and self revealing in knowing the very personal business of another human being. We resonate with and recognize something in their reflection.

Or perhaps we’re being too hard on ourselves. Conceivably our motivations may come from a more noble place. Maybe this whole celebrity thing is about a genuine kind of longing. What young child at one time in their life doesn’t dream of being a prince or a princess? Who of us hasn’t imagined being part of an enchanted tale, a bigger story where we take on a more significant role, and make a real difference in this world?

It’s only human to want more, and to want to be more. There is something very right about the respect, acknowledgment, sense of purpose and glory that comes with that kind of life. That we would all be desperately searching for it, even vicariously, should be no surprise.

In a way we’re all made for that something more, to be a part of that something bigger.

Maybe that’s why we do it.

Whatever the reason, I think it’s important to stop and think before we take in that next Kate Middleton image. Is this an album we need to be compiling? Are our vicarious motivations really going to give us what we’re looking for; or what we need?

Let’s be honest, when we choose to vicariously live through others, our real lives run the risk of becoming even more impoverished, more emptied of meaning. The more we invest our time and energy, and project our hopes and our dreams into the lives of others, the less of those valuable resources we have left for ourselves.

Is this really the best way to live?

Let’s redeem the mistakes of the past and not participate this time… give the girl a break and find ourselves a real life instead.



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A Father in Law's stroke

Jan 15, 2007


“Of all the world’s wonders which is most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.”
From the Mahabharata; an ancient Hindu philosophical text.

This morning we got a phone call from out east. My wife’s seventy year old father had just suffered a stroke and was in the Niagara Falls hospital. Our sister in law, a nurse, said that he seems to be stable, and looks like he’ll recover. We hope and pray that he does.

Ever since his first heart attack, thirty years ago, the family has been living on pins and needles awaiting that next call. All I can think about now, in this intermediary time between getting the news and making the call to his hospital room later today, are questions, “What if he would have died? How would my wife take the tragic news? For my part, have I done and said everything that a son in law could and should have done and said?”
Often I live in denial of death; I forget to live with the end in mind.

My wife’s parents were just out for a visit before Christmas. We’ve got this deal worked out where we’ve agreed that four or five days are the optimal length of stay. All they really want is some time to enjoy and focus on the most valuable commodity in their lives; the relationship with us and their grandchildren. All I really want, it pathetically seems, is enough personal privacy and convenience. (I hide my selfishness under the guise of keeping healthy boundaries.)

Surprisingly, that visit ended up being the best ever. In part this was due to the fact that I, for some reason, was more aware of the impending reality of their death. My in-laws were not going to be around forever. They are slowing down and will eventually stop.

Coming to these realizations I caught myself experiencing a renewed sense of compassion and love for them; I was more willing to forgive and forget past shortfalls, more understanding of their humanity, and more appreciative of their goodness.

While I find it really tough to verbally express feelings like this, I did end up saying what needed to be said through, of all things, my camera.

Throughout their visit I took an inordinate number of photographs. My lens became my eyes; allowing me focus on them more clearly. It also allowed them to see me paying attention, showing them respect and saying, “I notice and appreciate you.”

Those photos still fill my mind; holding their youngest grand child in front of the living room window, standing in the pristine stillness of a wintered Lake Minnewanka, walking down the main stroll in Banff, exploring the rock and gems store as a family.

We were all alive; together alive.

I need to remember this fact. We do. In this intermediary time, between calls, living this frenetic, high speed life, we need to remember that we’re alive.

Every day people die all around us.

That one photo that I took of my father in law, as he stood there by that frozen mountain lake - his face old, wrinkled, fresh from the crisp air, knowingly aware of the meaning of life and death – looking back at me; maybe he was trying to tell me something.

Later that night my wife commented on my excess picture taking, especially as it related to her dad. I told her that I felt like I was capturing these images knowing that time with him was limited. Not so oddly, she knew that was the case.

When we dropped them off at the airport on day five, there were big hugs all around, and I knew that I had to say it. All morning long it had hounded me. All my attempts to duck the words, to say all kinds of other nice things about the visit in lieu, were not enough.

With my arms briefly wrapped around my father in law, my face near his, my mouth inches away from his ear, I told him that I loved him. He immediately reciprocated.

Then he flew home.

“The thing we desperately need is to face the way it is.”
Theresa Mancuso, New York Hermit



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Praying and Seeing

Jan 13, 2007


“Prayer is not only about our asking God to intervene in our lives; it is also, and perhaps more essentially, about our entering into and aligning ourselves with the work that God is already doing in his creation.” Lauren Winner, in a ‘Books and Culture’ book review of Philip Yancey’s “Prayer, does it make a Difference?”

I guess I’ve always believed this to be true, but for some reason the connection between prayer and the idea of seeing God already at work in the world hit me afresh when I read Lauren Winner’s insightful words.

In praying we come along side (know, meet, experience, and, I trust, follow the lead of) a God who’s moving. Sure we can pray that God give us eyes to see his Spirit’s movements in creation, as though for some future time or event in life. But in the act of praying itself the ‘seeing’ can also happen.
It’s like the communal act of prayer enabling us to hitch our wagon onto the Divine’s activity, to catch his providential wave. Prayerful living (praying throughout the course of a day/life… doing life as a prayer) then becomes a pre-requisite for any person wanting to see and follow the Spirit of Christ’s parable like revelations in the story of their life.

Just as the knowledge of the Bible, and a heart of faith can act like lenses, enabling us to see God worldly activity, so too can a prayerful disposition. Prayer orients our hearts; creating a humble, dependent, more attuned stance.

Good reminder.




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Chapter Seven - Seeds of Religion

Jan 08, 2007


Is it possible that Jesus is still preaching parables today?

Sometimes I wonder if all of the creational, cultural, ‘God-truth’ filled stories that we’ve tripped upon at our church over the past few years aren’t exactly that; the Spirit of the resurrected Christ continuing to speak in the same way it always has!

Through real life historic events (circumstantial evidence of the like that we find in the Old Testament)… through the everyday occurrences and experiences of humanity… through the lives and times of ordinary people, God speaking.

Throughout the gospels Jesus demonstrated this amazing ability to make connections between inexplicable spiritual realities and the ‘not so ordinary,’ everyday, occurrences of life. Eternal truths regarding concepts like the Kingdom of God were communicated via elements of creational media as miraculously mundane as seeds.

Did he create seeds with this future parabolic application in mind? Did he plant the mysteries of the kingdom there ahead of time; on purpose?

Did he do the same when, through a created, image bearing, human race, he came up with the concepts of architecture, quantum physics, chiaroscuro, cycling, fashion and design, film making and hockey?

Ah hockey… God’s greatest gift to this planet!

Two years ago I thought I heard God parabolically speaking through the game. It was a heady time in Calgary. The Flames were heading deep into an NHL play off run. This product of human culture, this modern day creational phenomenon, the game of hockey was having a huge impact on the soul of our city. Never before had I seen the people of this community so unified, so focused on one thing, so excited about the ‘next playoff round’ future.

Watching this historic event play out, I found myself asking, “What are you saying here God? Through this event, in this city, right here and now, what are you trying to tell us?”

I asked this question believing two things; one, that all of creation belongs to God; our city, our people and even our hockey team, and two, that God does not allow anything in his creation to play out outside of his greater divine purpose. I remember making this ‘hockey belongs to God’ point to a writer for a national Canadian magazine called Macleans, when he called to interview me on my take on the playoff run story. His incredulous response, “Are you serious? You really believe that?”

The reporter called after reading this editorial in the Calgary Herald…
Flames bring Calgary to life

Prior to the puck drop at each of the last three Flames home games, as Don and Ron were doing their pre game schtick, Saddledome DJ’s have been faithfully playing an Evanescence song entitled, ‘Bring me to Life.’ Its lyrics could be the mantra for a city that’s experiencing, what can only be described as, a sporting revival!

Wake me up inside…
Wake me up inside
call my name and save me from the dark
bid my blood to run…
before I come undone
save me from the nothing I’ve become…
…breathe into me and make me real
bring me to life

Well our blood is running now and this is real! It’s been 15 long years since Calgary has felt this alive inside. For many long winters we’ve been yearning for that bygone playoff era to make the scene, for things to be the way they once were, to be ‘made real and brought back to life.’

And now, it seems, our time has come. Salvation is at hand… this is the day when Calgary goes for the glory… four more wins… if we can just believe.

It’s amazing to consider the impact a hockey team can have on a community. It seems that sport, in general, has increasingly wielded this kind of influence over our culture in recent decades. Many a sporting scribe has likened this phenomenon to our innately human pursuit of spiritual things. Some even surmise that sport has become the new religion.

Think about it. What’s the one thing that has received the most focus and devotion in the hearts of Calgarians in recent weeks? God or Jerome Iginla? Where have the majority of us found our sense of community lately? At a church potluck, or at a jammed pub on a Wednesday night? Where have we gone when we wanted to experience a sense of awe, transcendence or victory? To a third row pew near the stained glass window, or to a lower bowl seat at an electrifying game six, ecstatically screaming with 20,000 others, the heat wave from the Flames fire pot washing over us, as Conroy roofs yet another one?

The parallels go on. Where do we celebrate the gift of our amazing human bodies or the experience the passionate joy of play? Where do we learn how to persevere and work through our losses, or how to finish well? At what venues do we most often express emotions like hope, faith and worship?

Maybe we’re reading a little bit too much into it all… maybe not. While the fact that sport has supplanted church in these many ways is undeniable, perhaps there’s another way to understand what’s going on.

Theology coach John Calvin once wrote of a spiritual reality called the ‘sensus divinitatis;’ an inner awareness and compulsion toward God, a sacred homing device implanted in the soul of every human being, including Flames fans. This sense of God runs in us like a river, even though we often divert it toward other things. The thinking is that we want God even when we think we want the acrobatic beauty of a Kiprusoff save, an extraordinary team effort by a bunch of ordinary guys, or the vicarious thrill of hoisting a Stanley Cup trophy. Could it be that our expression of these desires is really just a pointer to our more eternal yearnings, part of an even bigger game that’s being played out?

Conceivably all that’s right about this exciting playoff run is indicative of an even greater Rightness we’re all meant to know. We’re made to experience the elation and deep soul satisfaction of a sixth game victory; made to have heroes who bring us to our feet screaming, ‘Yes!’; made to live with a sense of hope and anticipation about the future, with a passionate joie de vivre coursing through our veins; made to live in real community where a honking horn is seen as a sign of camaraderie instead of antagonism, where total strangers share ‘high fives’ as we all share in the pursuit of a common goal; made to fully engage in and enjoy this amazing game of life we’re all playing.

And as for that distant memory we so deeply long for, that former time we all want to re-experience, maybe it goes back beyond 1989? Maybe we’re all just yearning for things to be the way the Maker always meant them to be, life as this amazing game lived out before and with God.”

..............................................................


I remember how excited I was when I first read about Calvin’s concept of the sensus divinitatus; the seed of religion that he believed God had planted into every single human soul. I thought, “If you really look at our world, you can see evidence of these seeds growing everywhere, in all that we do and pursue as human beings!”

“Thus confronted with the ‘signs of divinity’ and ‘sparks of glory’ everywhere on display in this ‘dazzling theatre’ of creation, and with the ‘seed of religion’ and ‘sense of divinity [sensus divinitatis]’ engraven indelibly on our very way of human being, ‘men cannot open their eyes with being compelled to see him.” John Calvin, Institutes, 1,5,1

Dr. Neal Plantinga once wrote, “We human beings want God even when we think that what we really want is a green valley, or a good time from our past, or a loved one.”

This idea inspires me to no end.

Why? Well, if all of our yearnings and desires are God implanted, then they must have a lot to teach us about, not only who we are, but also about who God is! If all of these driving forces in our lives, are indeed homing beacons - if they are put there on purpose, by a Being that wants nothing more than for us than to find and know him more - then by recognizing and understanding them… aren’t we going to recognize and understand God more? Could it be that every facet of every yearning has its ultimate answer in the multi-faceted person, character and being of God?

I’m beginning to think so.

I’ve often had the thought that I could spend years exploring the various human expressions of this sensus divinitatis concept. At times I wonder if there are as many different ways to express it as there are human beings. While on one hand, all of these desires were ultimately created to focus on one simple thing (knowing God), the possible variations in these yearnings seem limitless. God is, after all, very multi-faceted, and very mysteriously everything. Maybe it’s better to say that we can know God in an infinite number of ways. So far, wherever I’ve looked I’ve seen Him there.

The world of fashion taught me about our human desire to be seen, recognized, and noticed for our beauty. God sees, recognizes and notices our beauty, in a deep, unconditional, non-superficial way. God is a god who’s like this! The phenomenon of sport has, again and again, taught me how I’m made for an endgame victory; for glory. To know Jesus Christ is to know that victory and glory. God is glory! The realm of science has opened my eyes to my deep yearnings for the infinite, in both directions – in the infinitesimally small world of quantum physics, and in the unimaginably immense world of astronomy. God is infinite beyond either of these directions. Bach’s magnificent use of the strings in his Credo from the Mass in B minor has exposed deep desires within my heart for both love and beauty. The Spirit of Christ, resonating in me like a major chord, affirms his authorship of both Bach’s amazing gift and my searching soul.

I could go on and on and on… architecture teaching me about our yearning for that perfect space and place; our longing to remember Eden and to, one day, experience heaven. The movie Crash so poignantly pointing to my desperate desire for redemption; a redemption that can only be found providentially in Him. Metallica teaching me about the God who made me with the capacity and desire to forgive others, even as I’ve been forgiven; because God is forgiving. Van Gogh’s life and works, a children’s book like, “Are you my Mother?” (asking the two ultimate existential questions, “Who am I?” and “Are you my Mother?”, countless Hollywood films, Grammy award winning songs, Elm trees, immune systems, our work, technology, literature and World Cup soccer events.

I have to stop now, because it’s just too overwhelming.

We’re crying out for God all over the place! And God is the answer all over the place! It’s just too much to hold in one person’s heart.


This morning I started off my day by reading of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13. In that one chapter alone Christ spoke of God’s truth through a farmer, seed, weeds, gravel, a bad neighbour, soil, trees, yeast, buried treasure, trespassers, jewel merchants, fishnets, and a general store owner. "Why all the stories?," his disciples asked. Jesus responded,

"You've been given insight into God's kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn't been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That's why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they're blue in the face and not get it. I don't want Isaiah's forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don't hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don't see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won't have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won't have to look,
so they won't have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.
"But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear! A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but never had the chance.”
Matthew 13:11-17, The Message

“Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
Jesus in Matthew 13:43, The Message

“Are you starting to get a handle on all of this?”
Jesus in Matthew 13:51, The Message

Could it be that Jesus, through a world full of modern day creational parables, is “nudging us toward receptive insight?”



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Kind Words

Jan 06, 2007


A couple of weeks ago a Calgary Herald reporter called asking for a few comments on the power of words. She was interested in what difference a person could make just by saying something nice to another once a day. I had lots of time to mull over her question as I painted that day (my house). Words are powerful. They can either bless or curse; create or destroy. And when we do words right we bring life to both the person we address and to ourselves. Speaking kindly to another humanizes us, articulates what it means to live in wholesome relationship. For example, if you thank another person, not only do they feel appreciated, you feel more content. Gratitude expressed garners benefits in two directions. Anyways, I won’t go on about the theory of good words. Better to describe how I experienced them two days ago…
Thursday afternoon I entered my living room to see Edward sitting in my chair shaking a stuffed animal. 14 years old, nothing to do, bored stiff. My heart went out to him and I decided to see if he wanted to play a game or something. Rushing upstairs he got his new Kerplunk game and we sat down to play. Five minutes into our interaction something very strange happened to me. Looking at his Downy face I started to wonder about his future again. Will he ever have a job or friends? Then, abruptly, and from a very deep place within me I started to cry. Not just a few tears, I began to totally lose it. I had to go upstairs and lock myself in my room. I can’t recall the last time I grieved like that, from deep, deep inside of me, like an eruption of sorts, unstoppable. A bit like the night he was born.

After a few minutes I capped it, but barely. For two hours it just sat there at the surface. Where in the world did this come from? Some latent form of grief; an expression of pain that comes at the 14 year stage of the 'parenting a disabled child' cycle? It totally blind sided me and I felt as though a depressive spiral might easily begin at any moment.

I decided to take Edward swimming instead. Therapy for both of us. Seeing his wet, joy filled face was renewing. More so was the comment an anonymous 40 year old man made as he was entering the pool near where Edward and I were floating. Looking at Edward, and then over toward me he says, “He’s a great boy.” Then locking his eyes on mine, as though to add the proper emphasis, he says again, “He really is a great boy!” Then the guy swims off.

I just stood there stunned.

The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.

Kind Words
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, January 08 2007 @ 12:13 PM PST
Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you.

Kind Words
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, January 13 2007 @ 05:12 PM PST
That's a wonderul story. Sometimes I think of saying things like that to people,
but I'm afraid the person will just think I'm making a stupid comment or it won't
make sense to them. But in the moment he said that he could have no idea of
the power of what he was saying, but he took the chance anyway. It's a
powerful reminder of what simple kindnesses can do. Like a word directly from
God.

Kind Words
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, January 20 2007 @ 01:35 PM PST
My wife just left me 2hrs ago. Before she left, she made sure that I heard a piece of her mind. She pulled out every degrading descriptive word that she could think of in her anger and let me have it. Even though she tried hard to make me feel low and worthless I try to not take it to heart. Words can hurt deeply and even now those words seem to be breaking through the barrier I put-up. I bit my tongue and did not retaliate.

Kind Words
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, January 21 2007 @ 12:57 PM PST
wow...

are you OK?

john



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New Year's Resolutions

Jan 04, 2007


How in the world do bloggers find the time? Over the past five days I've done a wedding, a church service, a funeral and spoke at a day long conference. So much for the idea of a Christmas break. And yet, overall, things feel pretty balanced and strong. And the vision of this church continues to grow.

Yesterday's conference was an interesting one. I spoke at a BGEA event - Billy Graham Evangelical Association - really! When they first asked me I asked them if they knew anything about what we were about...
I ended up having coffee with their representative and he said they needed to hear some new perspectives and wanted me to attend. So I did.

And while there were moments where I wanted to bolt, for the most part, it was very good to be there. How many times do I have to learn that people are more than the stereotype I prescribe to them? Yeah, I saw and heard a lot of what I expected. But I also experienced a whole bunch of love, understanding and community. Good people through and through. I felt it in one leader's prayer for me... in another's encouraging comment... in several nodding heads during my talks.

God was reminding me of the breadth and variation of his church; convicting me of my sometimes/often judgmental outlook. Good new year's lessons all around.

I'm not sure what's going to come out of this connection to the BGEA, but I'm convinced that this happened for a reason; a good reason. We'll see.


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Chapter Six - God's wisdom in writing two books

Dec 20, 2006


When Vincent Van Gogh painted his family bible next to Emile Zola’s book, “La Joie de Vivre,” he was trying to tell us something. Among other things, this juxtaposition is meant to ask the viewer a question, “Might the truths found in Zola’s writings be connected in some way to the truths found in Isaiah’s?” (the bible is opened to Isaiah 53). Van Gogh’s very pious parents would have sternly answered, “No!” But for Vincent the answer was not so clear. He couldn’t help but see beauty and truth in Zola’s writings and he saw no problem in attributing them to God.

Surely the truth of both Emile and Isaiah could be understood to be authored by God. But what about the possibility of a truth that transcends both texts; a truth that needs both texts in order to be fully understood? Is it possible that these two books are incomplete without one another and open to misinterpretation apart from each other? Could it be that God designed them to inform one another; that God’s revelation in the world helps us better understand his revelation in the word, and vice versa? Might the mystery of his organizing revelation in this ‘two text’ way be one very important way of protecting us from ourselves?...

Protection

One of the great benefits of preaching from both of God’s texts (the Bible and creation) is the protection from idolatry(worshipping things instead of God) this approach provides. Finding God’s truth in both books… through both books… somewhere in between both books… or above both books, helps keep the believer from falling into either of the extremes of naturalism (worshipping nature as God) or bibliolatry (worshipping the Bible as God).

Yeah, I know it sounds weird using the word bibliolatry. The Bible is God’s word isn’t it? Aren’t we demeaning God when we attach the ‘…olatry’ suffix to anything of his? We’re talking the Holy Writ here aren’t we?

Yeah we are. The bible is God’s revelation to humanity; his inspired word, his authoritative truth, infallible, trustworthy; I believe this with all of my heart. Countless times God has revealed himself to me through this book. Again and again I’ve seen his face, felt his touch and been embraced by his Spirit as I’ve engaged the text (more correctly as the text has engaged me!). I believe in the Bible. But I don’t believe that it is God.

God can’t fit into a book. If everything that God is, was written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that could be written.

The bible is a book that leads us to God, through which God pulls us toward himself. Pointers to God can be found all over its pages but God himself - he is quite outside of the book.

Seems obvious I know, but sometimes I wonder if those of the faith really live knowing this fact. Sometimes in the classes I teach I’ll parrot Dr. Neil Plantinga and say, “The Spirit of God is at work both inside and outside of the church.” Often the comment will elicit a suspicious look that says, “What are you crazy?” It’s like I’ve somehow opened a Pandora’s Box, or let God out of the box.

Let God out of a box?

The risk in having an ‘only the bible can teach me about who God is’ worldview is that we might fall into the trap of thinking we’ve got him figured out once we know the bible’s contents. Because we can quote enough scripture, or live by enough biblical principles, we fool ourselves into thinking we know God; know him in his fullness that is, know all that he is.

God becomes the subject; we become the objective ones. God is limited; and the bible becomes an idol.

Since when does one conversation with another person become everything that that person is? Since when does a small part of a person’s life become all that they are? How can one word of God (the bible) be all that God is?

When we begin to think in these terms, or even lean in their direction, God becomes a stereotype… a caricature of himself.

We can’t hold God in our hands.

That’s where having this ‘other revelatory text’ is such a wonderful, protective, and balancing thing. The Spirit at work in all of creation is totally out of control. We can never get what that means, how that works, how big that is. And that’s good; that’s very good.

The God who speaks through creation is the same God who inspired the writing of the bible, who is its main protagonist. Knowing both those things at the same time keeps us in a wonderful, hands off, wholly dependent tension. We can’t swing too far into the perils of bibliolatry because this other book won’t let us. Nor can we fall into the worship of nature (naturalism) were that our propensity. God as the creator of all things, the one who stands apart from his creation as it’s Maker, is the one who made it all to glorify him, the one who revealed himself most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who revealed all kinds of truth through Christ and the Patriarchs and the judges and the prophets. That very personal understanding of God can only be known through the bible. There is a revelatory specificity that only the scriptures can bring. The gospel side of who God is, is most clear, and most near in scripture’s pages.

See how it works here? The bible is unique in how it offers a perspicuous, personal presentation of God; brings God close, gives God a name. We cannot find life without the truth it brings. Creation, on the other hand, is unique in terms of how it reveals God’s breadth and enormity. All of God’s omni’s - omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence - are talked about in the written word. But in creation they’re observed, felt and experienced. In the pages of the bible God is certainly more immanent. In creation he is unquestionably more transcendent. To know God in both senses we need both reading glasses and a telescope.

Living in the tension that exists between these two realities keeps us spiritually grounded; it helps us know our place beneath the mystery that is God. It keeps us depending on him for revelatory understanding.

Co-Illumination

But don’t think for a second that this ‘idolatry avoiding’ facet of the “two book” approach is its greatest gift to the faithful follower. In the middle of the paradox that exists between these two texts there is an even more profound truth. One that, once you’ve experienced its beauty, richness and deep revelatory power, will not only protect you from the idolatrous extremes, but will inspire you to know God more in the mysterious middle.

This truth has probably been the most exciting part of our church’s journey so far.

It’s all about the concept of what I call co-illumination. What does this term mean? The way I see it and have experienced it, each book is best understood when it’s illumined by the other. I understand God’s truth in the bible better when I know God’s truth in creation; and vice versa.

For example, there’s this biblical concept called the wrath of God. I remember reading one commentator’s take on the original Hebrew word that is translated as wrath. He defined the concept of ‘wrath’ as having a very passionate, emotional, “snorting” kind of feel to it. Powerful imagery indeed! And I can read words about it, understand definitions of Hebrew terminology relative to the term, and then, were I so inclined, try to imagine what wrath as expressed by God might be like. I can do all of that and only get so far in my understanding of the concept. But were I to go to a Metallica concert and hear wrath, at 130 db, standing right in front of a stack of speakers, in a stadium filled with 17,000 angry souls, looking straight into the eyes of a raging James Hetfield (a man who I knew was mad at the manipulative, unjust, hypocritical actions of both the church and society… a man who was often mad at the same things God was mad at…); in that kind of creational place, I might understand the scope and scale of God’s wrath even better. At that concert I felt the enormity of what God’s wrath might feel like. It relentlessly washed over me.

The creational text helped me understand the biblical text. I now better understand what wrath feels like. God’s just, biblical wrath hits me at a higher volume and resonates more deeply. That’s a good thing. And on the other side of the equation, I can’t help but ask this question every time I see a person expressing wrath at the world’s injustice; “Is that your heart at work God…your Spirit?”

See what’s happening here? Co-illumination. Plus there’s another huge benefit; I’ve now got a world full of reminders of this one attribute of God. Every time I see one, I’m reminded.

Every time I see a sparrow I think of Jesus’ words about how much God cares for our ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ souls (Matthew 6:26). Every time I see the moon I recall the psalmist’s words likening it to a witness of God’s faithful keeping of his covenant promises, “[the covenant] will be established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky." Psalm 89:37 When I preach about the outer reaches of the cosmos, the solar system and galaxies I am reminded of omniscience and omnipotence in the greatest possible way. What better way to understand these divine concepts? When I study geology and come to truly appreciate the age of this earth, God’s deep wisdom and eternality makes a bit more sense. When I study the anatomy of an oil industry entrepreneur, and watch him talk about his newest project/creation, and how he, like all entrepreneurs created something out of nothing, I better understand the entrepreneurial heart and passion of a God who created ex nihilo (out of nothing). When I feel what human depravity feels like in the academy award winning movie Crash, I better understand the apostle Paul’s words on the state of the human soul in Romans 3. When I witness the wholly unmerited grace that happens to human beings despite their depraved propensities -as it presents itself at the end of the film - I more deeply know the grace that God has extended to me. I’ve seen it, felt it, tasted it via this other revelatory story!

I could go on and on and on.

And in some authoritative precedent for reading God this way, Jesus used this same ‘two book’ technique in his truth telling. He often used agricultural/ naturally revelatory things like birds, flowers, vineyards and seeds to make his point. He also used products of the culture of his day – wine, wedding feasts, and stories about notorious Jerusalem to Jericho roads (ie: The story of the Good Samaritan). Christ’s two text truth weavings would have left this ubiquitous impression on his listener’s lives. Every time one of his disciples would have taken a sip of wine, witnessed a nuptial, or walked near that road, they would have been reminded of Jesus’ words. God’s truthful revelations in creation would have pointed them back to God’s truthful revelations in his word (and vice versa). And the reminders were everywhere!

Get how this is all working? All of a sudden all of life is permeated with his Presence. There’s so much of his truth out there that soon we find that we really don’t have an excuse for not recognizing God. (Romans 1:20)

By reading both books I can know God more. By understanding both as authoritatively revelatory I can see and understand in a much more comprehensive way. By believing that God’s Spirit is authoring both texts, I come to both with huge expectation.

The more I live into this worldview, the more I’m coming to believe that every single scriptural text has its creational corollary (and vice versa… am I getting sick of saying that yet?). At first I wondered about this possibility, but then we preached the World Cup and its truth led us to the book of Revelation (of all places!) – the whole world gathered around one throne (Rev. 5), the glory of the nations coming into God’s heavenly stadium (Rev 20). I never imagined creation would get us to Revelation. Preaching the local Children’s Hospital a month ago, I found truthful connections to God’s healthy hospitable heart in the laws of the book of Leviticus. Green Day’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ brought me to Psalm 88’s concept of death being my only friend. The list goes on and on.

And my view of God gets bigger and bigger. Could it be that God really is this mysteriously present; that all of creation can’t help but end up repeating the truth of the Bible? (And vice versa?)



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