A Living Death: Dying While We’re Wide Awake

white-flowers-in-hands  Death.  It is the thing we fear the most.  The inevitable state that propels us to endlessly ponder life’s intrinsic meaning.  It is the event that creates the most unease for while we know there is no way to escape it, we somehow hope we will be the exception.  We regard death as the greatest enemy of the human soul – the one that snuffs out all we have lived and worked for and the great equalizer of persons.  Many of us view the dying process as being intensely lonely and marked with regret, pain, and suffering.  Yet, in some strange way, we are grotesquely enamoured by it.  We are intrigued by the unknowable and it has resulted in our cultural preoccupation with angels, demons, and all things other-worldly.  We are drawn to it at the same time as we are trying to hold it at a distance.  This strange dichotomy has existed since the beginning of time, yet, death has now found its market and its niche in the Western soul.  We have commercialized death in every way possible: large advertisements for funeral homes, expensive caskets, life memory boxes for those who live on.  We have turned death into a multiple million dollar industry that is sure to never go out of business.  All the while, one is forced to ask: why?  Are we doing this because psychologically we want to move on, spiritually we want to cling to some naïve hope that there is truly something beyond the grave, or because in some twisted way we see death as entertaining – something that is sure to happen to everyone else.  Except us?

Recently, I have come across many thought provoking articles on the issue of death, and as I am preparing to enter into a chaplaincy vocation, have been forced to compete with these many viewpoints for myself.  Two articles in particular have greatly influenced my thinking on this topic.  In the first article, the author whose name I presently cannot recall mentioned that death is the most recurring theme portrayed in the media.  It seems that every T.V. show and movie has some dark element of death attached to it.  Our culture is in love with Twilight, Murder Mysteries, and the Zombie Apocalypse.  Young adults are fascinated by vampires, ghosts, and the world of the undead.  This phenomena has piqued such interest that I have known a handful of graduate students who have written extensive academic papers on topics such as these.  Including yours truly.  Yet, the author in question believes that such preoccupation stems from the very fact that we see death only as something that takes place in the movies.  You see, movies are the place where fact and fiction come together in a convincing enough way, while still reminding the human soul that what is occurring on the screen is not truly happening.  This is why many of us are able to watch the most horrible tales of wars and brutal shootings, while remaining relatively emotionally detached.  We can recognize that such things ought not to happen, while at the same time reminding ourselves that they likely never will occur.  At least not to us.  It would be virtually impossible to find a mature, educated adult who still believes in Peter Pan or Mary Poppins.  In the same way, it is becoming increasingly harder to find anyone who still believes in the reality of death.

In the second article, “Is Hell Dead?”  Pastor Rob Bell spoke to Time Magazine and addressed the issue of whether or not there was really anything beyond this life.  The end result was that fewer and fewer North Americans believe in the reality of heaven or hell.  Most people today either believe that this life is all there is or else they believe that heaven exists but not hell.  They have a philosophy which says everyone will end up in heaven one day and those who have done terrible things will simply cease to be.  In a sense, it hardly seems fair.

Nevertheless, I find myself wrestling with this question of “is hell dead?” for there is a part of me that once again feels this is little more than a defence mechanism – a belief that we will live on forever.  After all, if there is nothing that will occur after this life, we need not fear or focus on anything but this present reality.  This can be beneficial in a way for it has the ability to propel us to reach our highest potential for good recognizing that since we will never have a second chance, we should at least impact the world in some great way.  However, this belief also comes at a dangerous cost.  It is a cost which fails to address the inevitable, so when death happens (even after years of illness), we are all struck blindsided by it.

Our culture is little more than a “Tuck Everlasting” culture.  A culture which tries to advance itself medically and ethically, though without ever finding a resolution for what is bound to occur.  The honest truth is that we are not in control, and that absolutely freaks us out.  We like to have our lives planned, but the reality is that none of us truly knows how much longer we have.  We can try to eat healthy, exercise, and treat people with kindness, but ultimately good health and karma can only get you so far.  And they can’t get you passed the inevitable threshold of this world to the next.

Is this a depressing blog post?  Perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be.  You see, death doesn’t have to be this pretend reality, this scary and lonely time, or this fearful event to be avoided.  However, it does have to be addressed.  We cannot continue to hide behind this cultural façade of avoidance.  If we truly want to heal and find hope, we need to believe in something more.  We need to believe that there is good and that there is even better.  We need to believe that there is life beyond the grave.  It is only in doing so that we can move from denial into a glorious hope which enables us to do great things, to reach our full potential, and then to encourage others to reach theirs.  It is only in doing so that death loses its sting and gains its respect.

 

A Facebook Type of Christianity

social-media-cube-1024x922On Facebook, I have over 800 friends.  At one point I had closer to 1,000 until I spent an afternoon going through my list with a fine-toothed comb and chucking off anyone who I hadn’t talked to in ages or didn’t really know.  That was about 2 years ago.  Since then, I have sadly reverted back to this fake mentality of having all these “friends” although in reality, I can’t say that I am really friends with 800 people.

Don’t get me wrong, there are multiple reasons why we would add someone to Facebook or Twitter.  In some cases I know them through other friends and we have connected over a mutual interest.  Sometimes I have met them through the blogging sphere, or through research efforts, or through church connections.  At other times, they are people I went to high school and university with who I no longer talk to, but who I still care about when they go through life transitions such as marriage and having children.  Occasionally these people I have never even met will offer profoundly deep insights about my life and I am glad for those exchanges.  I have friends from around the world – including places I have never been to and probably will never go to, yet somehow we find ourselves commenting on each other’s pictures and posts.

Some people in the older generation are sceptical of this and do not seem to understand the value of something like social media.  They grew up in a different generation and do not see why we should share so openly about our lives and our political and religious leanings.  However, I have a different opinion.  I believe Facebook is a wonderful tool for communicating and connecting with others.  It is a great way to get people involved in a particular cause, it is an effective and easy way to spread news about an event, and it is a helpful way to update many people at once about a trip or project without having to email each person individually.

Nevertheless, Facebook also comes at a steep price.  In many ways, Facebook has cheapened what intimacy and friendship should truly look like.  I have been in three dating relationships, all three started and ended on Facebook.  The actual deeds took place in person, but had it not been for hiding behind a keyboard, we would never have gotten to that phase.  I love Facebook for this – it has been a way shy guys have found the courage to ask me out, but I have also resented it at times.  Facebook has created a sense of community and that is wonderful, but it has done so at the expense of creating loneliness and apprehension of the future.  Although I can be happy for the many people I know who have gotten married and had children over the years (which is the majority of people on my News Feed), there is no denying that it also causes me a bit of bitterness.  Every time I scroll through these life events I wonder when my time will be and why they were so fortunate while I remain here single.  Articles have been written about how Facebook has turned into an addiction (of which I am certainly guilty), how marriages are generally stronger without it, and how it creates a sense of not really knowing who is truly a friend or not.  Let’s be honest, no one in this world has the emotional reserves to have an in-depth, living and breathing honest friendship with 800 people.  In fact, even having 80 people who you are truly that close to seems a bit far-fetched.  In reality, most counsellors would admit that the average person only has about 5-20 friends, and those who have closer to 20, are usually crazy extroverts (like myself) who would still tell you that even though they care deeply about 20 people in their lives, they would only really open up and share every nook and cranny of their being with perhaps 3 or 4.  That’s because although we are created for relationships, we are designed to give our all to them.  We cannot give our all to more than a certain number of people at one time while still being true to ourselves and fair to them.

While I have been reflected on this whole Facebook phenomenon, I couldn’t help but make the connection between this social media culture and the culture I find so prevalent within the present day Christian church.  Today over dinner, my co-worker and I were talking about the issue of faith.  What does it mean and what does it look like?  I have been lamenting this type of blasé Christianity I have been experiencing the last few months in Europe, but even before that in some of my Canadian friends.  I was getting frustrated that people still wanted to call themselves Christian, still baptised their babies, and still had church weddings, all the while, admitting to me that they don’t believe Mary was ever a Virgin, they don’t believe in a literal heaven and hell, and they don’t believe Jesus was the Son of God.  It was starting to truly irritate me that people were taking communion and telling me why I couldn’t take communion at their church because I am not Catholic or Baptist or Seventh Day Adventist or whatever, meanwhile Christmas was the first time of the year that they actually went to church.

Then it suddenly hit me: what these people are doing is really not that strange.  They are simply a by-product of this philosophy which has no idea what friendship means.  They are only mirroring the effects of a Facebook culture.

Yet, what these individuals are failing to realize is that a relationship with Jesus needs to be rooted in something much deeper than social media.  When Jesus calls us to follow Him, He demands our all.  He wants a full on, passionate, rich and deep relationship.  He doesn’t want a “like” once in a while or a quick comment on a status that you read in passing.

My co-worker asked the question: “how can you say you are friends with someone if you never even talk to them?”  But this is exactly what I do daily when I am on social media.  I refer to almost everyone in conversation as a friend.  My friend said such and such, my friend did such and such, today my friend posted such and such.  Wait a minute, have I even met this person?  Have I had at least 3 coffees with them in the past 6 months?  Have I emailed them or called them at least twice this year?  If not, how can I say they are truly on this deep level of friendship?

Somehow we think that belief in God is nothing more than fire insurance.  We think that if we are baptised and if we show up to church on Christmas and Easter that should be enough, but Jesus tells us it’s not.  In His Word, God illustrates what it means to be His friend.  It means that we spend time meditating on Scripture and praying often.  It means that He finds out about our issues from US rather than from our status updates.  It means we do things with Him, we don’t just tag Him in the photo afterwards with a little byline that reads something like “wish you were here.”

Social media is a wonderful invention and a wonderful tool.  It has revolutionized my life in so many ways.  It has enabled me to get my writing more widely spread and to share my opinions and thoughts with such a wide variety of people.  It has enabled me to meet people I never thought I would meet before, and to enter into other people’s lives.  Sometimes it has greatly encouraged me as I read the various Bible passages, hymns, prayers, and inspirational quotes which are daily added to my Newsfeed.  Sometimes it lightens the mood with humorous pictures and jokes.  But sometimes it also sucks me away from time I should spend with people who really matter – the people who are right in front of me and whom God has placed into my path.  Most of all, sometimes it distracts me from my one, true, love, the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself.  The point of this post is not to bemoan Facebook, but it is to remind us all of the true meaning of Christianity.  We do not ask Jesus into our hearts and lives just so that we can be friends with Him on Facebook, like His statues for the first few months, then ditch him when the next biggest follower comes up.  Instead, we enter into a relationship with Him in which we are constantly transformed and transforming.  We don’t just hang out with Him at a one off event that we heard about the night before when someone invited us, we hang out with Him daily.  We don’t even need to make the connection on Facebook, we just open up His Word and spend even 10 or 15 minutes soaking in His presence.  I hope that you are able to continue using social media in a way that pleases God and brings people together, but most of all, I pray that you do not abandon your faith in favour of this cheap version of “friendship” which never truly existed.  For there is so much more.

5 Benefits to Having a Christian Blog

In my last post, I addressed the five monsters a Christian blog can turn you into.  If you want to read that article, you can find it here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/5-people-you-dont-want-christian-blogging-to-turn-you-into/.  Now I’d like to share the good news with you: it isn’t all bad.  If taken too far, we can all get a bit carried away and egotistical, but Christian blogging also has the potential to do the complete opposite.  Here are five good reasons why you should have a Christian blog:

OPEN-MINDED-13338550227#1: Blogging Opens Your Perspective – I’m sure by now you are all aware of the fact that when there is a theological issue at stake there are thousands of different ways to respond to it.  You may always have just thought about the issue in one way.  Maybe you are a hardened Calvinist or a naïve Arminian.  Maybe you have always flocked to John Wimber or Martin Luther to fill all of your theological needs, yet now you suddenly find those needs being challenged.  Now you are forced to confront issues of poverty and racism in new ways.  You get the chance to read blogs from people who have really lived through abuse and violence.  You get to read testimonies by former gang members.  You are challenged to reconcile the various shades of Anabaptism – how on one hand someone says speaking in tongues is a necessary gift and on the other someone says Mennonites have nothing to do with the Charismatic movement (I know, sounds crazy, right?).  When you blog, it opens the gateway to read other blogs by other people with other perspectives.  I truly believe this helps make you a wiser and more mature disciple of Christ.

images#2: Blogging is a Great Way to Network with Others – In that same vein, blogging also opens the doors for friendships to be forged.  When I started blogging, I almost immediately joined a collective called the “MennoNerds.”  This group of fine women and men have truly taught me so much about life and the Christian message.  I have several people from our collective on Facebook and Twitter and it is an excellent way to keep up with each other.  Even though I haven’t met most of these people face-to-face, I still rejoice with them in their daily victories and milestones.  Being part of a collective also allows you the chance to become up-to-date with other happenings: for example, interesting Podcasts or upcoming conferences.  It takes a bit more work to be part of a group like this, but it is a very special and meaningful community so I highly recommend if you have the time to join an online collective like this.

download#3: Blogging Lets You Write on Topics You Never Would Have Considered Before – After I joined the MennoNerds we started having a few projects.  Sometimes there is a certain issue that is currently in the news and media.  We occasionally do Syncroblogs on those topics.  In a Syncroblog, we all commit to writing an article or two for general circulation.  This has caused me to think about many topics that I previously did not hold a vested interest in.  Also, our Vlogging project is another good way to have conversations with the other MennoNerds.  Even though I likely will never have a face-to-face discussion with some of them, through our Podcasts and Vlogs, we enter into dialogues, debates, and friendly banter.  We address issues to each other and we get to hear how other vloggers feel about those same topics.

Man-Megaphone-3#4: Blogging is a Great Way for Your Voice to Be Heard – Ever since I was seven, I have always wanted to be a writer.  I had my first article published in the Canadian Mennonite when I was 15, and ever since then I have counted it a victory whenever someone finds my ramblings good enough to replicate.  However, in our current society it is quite difficult to get your name out there.  Thankfully, if you truly feel like writing is your calling, online blogs can be a great way of making your name known.  Now be careful here because you don’t want to become that egotistical maniac I spoke of in my first post; but within reason, you will suddenly find invites to write on other blogs, do book reviews, write for magazines and more.  You may even have the opportunity to co-author a book with your fellow collective members such as I did with the “Living Alternative” book.

encourage-cut-songs#5: Blogging Can Encourage Others – I count it a great blessing and encouragement when I hear back from others who have read my blog.  Whenever I blog I try to remind myself why I am doing it.  I always pray and ask God for the words and to make sure my heart is in the right place.  I want all the glory to go to God – not to myself.  Sometimes I feel God asking me to write on deeply challenging and somewhat personal issues.  When this happens I like to resist Him, but ultimately I am reminded that He is the One who has given me the ability to write and therefore if my blog can impact even one person then it is totally worth it.  When someone writes to tell me that my blog helped them overcome a difficulty or challenged their way of thinking, I am humbly touched.  It’s what I like to hear – not because it gives me an ego rush, but because it reminds me that God is in control of all areas of my life (including the blogosphere) and that His Will is being done.  In the same way as He constantly shapes and refines me, He is also working in the lives of those who read my blogs.  Which is completely incredible.

Having a blog can be one of the greatest ways to express yourself.  It has its challenges, but if you are committed to writing, you will soon find that the blessings make it completely worthwhile.  Thank you for your faithful readership to Z&P over the years and I pray that it continues to be a ministry to you. Thank you also for ministering to me with your kind words, curious questions, and insightful responses.

 

5 People You Don’t Want Christian Blogging to Turn You Into

165759214  I started my first blog “Zweibach and Peace” nearly 3 years ago.  At that time, my concept was simple: write on whatever I felt like writing about, for myself.  If other people liked it, then fine.  If they didn’t… oh well, at least I had my laptop as my captive audience.  Yet it didn’t take long for my blog to morph into many other things.  I began getting requests to join other blogging communities, to periodically write for magazines, to do book reviews, and most recently to do Vlogs.  These requests have often been quite flattering for me because it shows that people actually read (and like) my stuff.  Yet, it is because of these very requests that I have had to learn to exercise caution.  I have had to be careful to ensure that my writing is primarily a ministry.  That what I write is for God, not for myself.  I have to constantly remind myself that the purpose of any blogging effort is to raise awareness and start or continue important conversations.  It is about engaging people.  It’s not simply about sharing my own opinions and experiences, but also being part of an online community where I read and learn from what other people have written.  Including and perhaps especially when I disagree with almost every single thing they write.  Blogging should be a way to open up your mind to new possibilities, but unfortunately, it  can also be a way to become quite an egotistical megalomaniac.  Below I would like to highlight the five WORST things creating a Christian blog can turn you into.  In another post I will be addressing the five BEST things a Christian blog can create for you, but for now, in typical Canadian fashion let’s just focus on the negatives.  Here are five things that can happen if you leave your attitude towards the blogosphere unchecked:

download#1: The Ignorant Jabberer – This is the person who likes to pick arguments with people even though they have not done a significant amount of research.  They will go on for pages about female submission, pneumatology, and evangelism as if they were an expert on the topic, but all they really have to go off of is the fact that they know a handful of Scripture verses.  I’m not saying that you need to spend hours on every single post you write.  That would be far too much to ask unless the purpose of your blog was to be heartily intellectual; however, you end up doing your audience a disservice when you jump on a trending bandwagon without even knowing the trends.  Good blogging requires research.  If you want to be a good blogger you have to be curious.  You have to ask questions, try new experiences, read books, and realize that your opinion is not the only one that matters.  If you have online opponents, you need to enter into their mind and ask yourself why they believe as they do.  You need to come up with good reasons to counter their theology rather than just stating that you “disagree.”  In fact, I would go so far as to say you should make it your aim to get to know your opponent’s theology even better than you know your own.  This will really add some fresh and invigorating insight into your blog and make your readers keen on what you have to say.

download (1)#2: The Haughty Intellectual – The opposite of the ignorant jabberer, but just as dangerous is the haughty intellectual.  This is someone who has done a lot of research, but frequently misuses their authority.  They write at a level that is inaccessible for the general public because they are only interested in certain people being able to read their blog.  The point of having a blog should be to help the general public engage in topics of interest and concern.  It should propel commoners to action, not just people sitting in ivory towers.  So when you write, don’t use big words unnecessarily when the idea could just as easily have been conveyed using modern language.  Mix it up a little – quote from Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller, but also quote from Harry Potter and the Simpsons.  Write in a way that makes it interesting to everyone.  That way people will constantly come back to your blog posts and it won’t just be a “one-off” where a prof. from Yale happens to stumble upon your page, is unimpressed and never returns again.

deadwood_arguer#3: The Overly Persuasive Zealot – I’ve met a few of these during my short blogging career and in my opinion, they are the worst of all bloggers.  These are people who love picking online fights for no other reason than that they get a kick out of arguing.  They thrive on conflict.  They may word their first post in such a way that makes it sound as if they are interested in having a conversation, but in reality they know what their opinion is and they aren’t going to budge.  Sometimes these people have continually spammed my blog sending me multiple messages in one day before I have even had a chance to review the first one.  I always try to be respectful when I answer anyone’s comments and I believe that part of the beauty of a blog is the ability to disagree.  In fact, I can often learn a lot from someone who has come to an educated opinion that is quite different than mine.  However, when these people stoop to the level of name-calling or insulting myself or other users, I have no choice but to remove their obnoxious and offensive posts.  In short, don’t be like them.  If you want to have a brawl, then go to your local bar, kick back a few beers and enjoy a classic flight there.  Don’t bring it into the blogging world where people who read your stuff may be struggling, hurting, or confused enough as it is.

Apr23_2014_50009445_CancerCell_AssayLitRevTagYoureIt1488731451#4: The Narrow-Minded Single Celled Brain – This category is reserved for the select few who only have one area of interest.  They may constantly blog about homosexuality, marriage, or singleness.  They may constantly post cookie recipes or travelogues.  There is nothing wrong with having a general focus to your blog, but it is also nice to have a bit of variety.  We all have our favourite “pet” topics.  There will always be categories you naturally flock to and others you want to run from and avoid.  Sometimes because of our own experiences we can speak with great authority on certain issues (and we most certainly do), but other issues make us uneasy because we have never encountered those situations before.  The best remedy for this is to find different places to write.  I always try to throw myself into new experiences because I know it can produce interesting ideas for my writing.  Occasionally I will go to a Christian conference and this will change my thinking on a number of topics (look up my IHOPKC blogs).  I also have done some of my best writing at L’Arche because the experience was so different than anything else I have ever come across.  Reading other people’s blogs is also a great way to come up with new ideas.  There are usually patterns in the blogging world – most derived from the news and media.  Read up on what people are currently interested in.  Interests are constantly changing, so it’s important to try to write frequently.  Don’t let several months pass without people hearing your voice because by the time you finally get around to writing that blog post on the stock market, the world will be caring about something else and you will have missed the boat.

ideas#5: The Ideas Monster – Christian blogging is a great way to think about many topics you never would have considered before.  Through blogging I have been able to explore areas as diverse as an Evangelical response to biodiversity, the Black Lives Matter Campaign, feminism, and healthy living.  The more you expose yourself to ideas, the more ideas will come.  This has happened to me countless times.  I may be walking to church when all of a sudden, a brilliant idea comes.  Then I can’t concentrate for the rest of the service because all the words start flowing to me.  Or I may be in the middle of my shift at work and I can’t wait to be done to start typing up my thoughts.  Having ideas is great – they are what make up the basis of your blog, however, you need to be careful.  Don’t let the idea’s monster distract you from your present reality.  Don’t sacrifice friendships and relationships for the sake of a blog.  Don’t constantly look for sermon illustrations under every rock.  And remember: only blog if you think it’s going to add something to the blogosphere.  You may be an expert on the topic, but if everything that could possibly be said about the issue has already been said, best to stay away or write on something completely new.  People usually get hung up on certain topics at certain times, however, they can only handle so much.  If you are the 1005th person to write on Paris, people will probably not give your blog a second look even though you may have some really important things to say.  Lastly, remember: some ideas are meant to stay ideas – not everything sounds as good on paper as it did in your head.

I hope these pointers help you to remember the purpose of your writing and to reclaim the joy of blogging.  I know that it is easy to fall prey to all of these scenarios.  I, personally, have ended up in all five of these categories (likely multiple times) over the past three years.  Nevertheless, by remembering the authority you have as a blogger and by trying to use that authority and leadership in good ways rather than for an egotistical boost, it is entirely possible to make a huge difference through your writing.  I hope you will be able to do just that.

Calling, Conviction, and Charlie Brown: Confessions of a Chaplain who Likes the Letter “C”

downloadIn the recent Peanut’s Movie, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, Sally, remarks that she has completed her last day of school forever.  Her jubilation is short lived when Charlie reminds her that while school is done for this year, she still has 8 more years of grammar school, 4 more years of high school, then 4 more years of college.  In dismay, Sally retorts, “that’s 37 years!”  Her math may have been slightly off, but Sally has a valid point.  Our society has gradually demanded more education than in previous generations for the majority of jobs, resulting in many being overqualified.  Yet even with all these additional years of school, many young adults still seem unable to become settled in their professions.  We can speculate why this is and comment on the dangers and opportunities this new environment provides, but that is not necessarily the point of this blog.

What I am really interested in is the issue of calling.  How is that some know instinctively which profession to enter from a young age while others spend years of time and money pursuing a degree which they later decide they have no real interest in?  Who has the authority to determine whether or not someone is called to a religious life?  To what extent does the responsibility lie with the school and to what extent is the calling owned by the individual and the faith community of which they are a part?

These are just a cross section of the questions I have been wrestling with now that I have completed my MDiv and am considering what comes next.  I am in the midst of determining whether I will go for more schooling or try to settle vocationally.  With so many dreams and aspirations it can be difficult to prioritize what comes next and, of course, there is the question of how a future family will also enrich or else complicate these academic and religious pursuits.

In the midst of such questioning, I have decided to apply for my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE/chaplaincy) units. The application for this program is quite intense and requires a keen self-awareness and sense of calling.  The questions on the form require me to intentionally think about what my long-term goals are, how ordination is going to fit into this entire process, and whether or not my denomination is supportive of my future plans.

Truthfully, there is no easy way to answer these questions.  It requires much soul searching and moments of both clarity and confusion.  There are many voices convincing me to go in multiple directions and it can be challenging to determine which voice to listen to.  Yet ultimately there is only one voice that truly matters: the voice of truth.

So in the midst of trying to determine what type of ministry I will be entering, how do I discover what my true path is?  Here is my game plan:

Back in 2008, I did an academic study on the issue of calling.  For my research I read a profound book called Sorting it All Out: Discerning God’s Call to Ministry By: Alice Cullinan. In this book, Cullinan states that a sense of calling is comprised of three parts: an inward call, an outward call, and a sense of need.

While accepting these three components, we must constantly be vigilant of our own ego and the expectations society and our families have placed on us.  We must own the calling for ourselves and come to know the unique sense of mission and vision God has given to us personally.

Yet although personal calling is the basis for our sense of wanting to enter vocational ministry it is not enough to sustain us.  We must rely on the support and guidance of others who know us well.  This, of course, has its challenges.  Sometimes we may face discouragement due to parents who wished a different professional path for us, denominational structures which preclude women from certain roles, doctors who advise against certain positions due to our own ill health, or others who do not understand our vision for creating something that never existed before.  It is important that we cling to our internal vision, yet it is equally important to have support during times of stress and burn out.  Therefore, without at least a few supporters who truly share in our sense of calling, it will be very challenging to maintain our vision on our own.

Next, there must be a need for what we are doing.  This is not as difficult as it sounds because there is always need in our world.  We need pastoral hearts in our parishes and in our prisons, in the inner city and the suburbs.  We need missionaries, but we also need doctors, lawyers, and engineers who have strong moral values and convictions.  Basically if you are looking for a need, you will find it – you simply have to be open-minded.

Lastly, there is no need to become anxious as we discover our calling.  One of my professors once said, “God is more concerned with you being in His will than you are.”  This has proven to be sound counsel.  It is easy to become preoccupied with a sense of calling to the point of scrutinizing every single aspect rather than seeing the big picture.  Instead, we must trust that God has the final outcome in His hands and believe that He will provide us with the right opportunities, while guarding us from the places we are not meant to be.  Through spending time in prayer, Scripture reading, and having conversations with others around us, it will eventually become clear to us which path we should take.  In the interim, we must be proactive rather than fixating on fear.

Following God’s Will for our lives is difficult.  We must surrender our lack of control and replace it with trust.  Nevertheless, by following our inner calling, seeking the counsel of others, and increasing our local and global awareness, it will become clear where we are meant to be and that knowledge can result in us helping to shape the world.

 

 

The Heart of the Matter: Listening, Learning, and Looking to God through the Psalms

psalms.jpg  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[1]  “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, and His love endures for ever.”[2]  “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”[3]  Never have we experienced such memorable, diverse, and poetic lines in all of Christian Scripture than we find most readily through the Psalms.  These lines have inspired poets, artists, writers, and hymnodists throughout the centuries to create and re-create pastoral images of comfort, hope, and peace.  Yet, sadly, over the years, the Psalms have decreased in their importance to the life of the Christian church.  No longer are they the pillars and cornerstones of jubilation, but they have been relegated to canned expressions of the Christian faith – no more than rote memorization.

Since I study theology and am a very strong practising Christian, I find myself being asked quite frequently, “what is your favourite book of the Bible?  What is your favourite passage?  What is your life verse?”  When I share that all three of these answers come from the Psalms, people often seem surprised.  They generally make comments such as “well, I guess the Psalms are good for praying” or “yes, the Psalms sound nice” however, few theologians (whether academic or lay) truly give the Psalms the attention and prominence they deserve.  The Psalms are read as part of virtually every liturgical service, but less than 10% of the sermons I have ever heard relate to this book.  We prefer to find shelter in the Gospels, or even better in one of Paul’s many letters.  We prefer to touch on issues of life, morality, and Christian practice, but we shy away from discussing emotions and life transitions.  We have become a culture too closely tied to the head and less in tune with the heart of the matter.

Yet, the Psalms provide not only wonderful imagery, but also a rich and vibrant theological awareness keenly rooted in love and endurance.  In the Psalms we journey with David and many others both as they experience the depths of depression “My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?”,[4] the seeming injustice of the wicked thriving while the good are passed over “fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!”[5], and the brilliance of complete trust in God “All you people: Trust in him at all times! Pour out your hearts before him! God is our refuge!”[6]  We experience a sense of real closeness to God “But as for me, I get as close to him as I can! I have chosen him, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful ways he rescues me”[7] but also an utter sense of hopelessness and belief that God has abandoned us during the times in our lives when we felt we needed Him the most “Long enough, God—you’ve ignored me long enough.”[8]  We discover magnificent terms for referencing God “I love you, God—you make me strong.  God is bedrock under my feet, the castle in which I live, my rescuing knight.  My God—the high crag where I run for dear life, hiding behind the boulders, safe in the granite hideout,”[9] but we also experience a certain sense of let down and disbelief “Will the Lord cast off forever? and will he be favourable no more?   Is his mercy gone forever? Does his word fail from generation to generation?  Has God forgotten to have mercy? Has he in anger shut up his tender mercies?”[10]

What I love about the Psalms is that they so accurately display a wide range of human thoughts, emotions, and attitudes towards life.  Often in our churches, certain attitudes are encouraged while certain others show a seeming lack of faith.  Many churches thrive on what is known as “happy clappy” worship.  They love to sing upbeat songs and want us to talk about rainbows and unicorns.  They present a type of belief that faith in God cures all ills and solves all worldly woes.  This is great so long as you aren’t in the process of getting a divorce, your love one has not recently passed away, you have not been diagnosed with a terminal illness, you are not battling with dark depression, or you are not wondering how you are going to pay off your student loan – you know, stuff that really happens in everyday life.

This type of belief system is faulty, and not at all what we see displayed in Scripture.  Instead we see no better example of deep depression, no more accurate description of bitterness, and no more acute sense of loss as what we read and experience through the Psalms.  Here we are forced to wrestle with the meaning of life, death, and everything in between.  I do not think it would be an over exaggeration to say that there is no life query, problem, demand, or situation that the Psalms do not address, and moreover, well to the point of descriptive and gut wrenching honest reactions.

This is why the Psalms should not just be read at weddings and funerals, but throughout our lives.  I have read at least one Psalm every day since I was a child, and this is a practice I will continue throughout my life.  The Psalms have such a profound place in my heart and life that they are the passages I turn to the most when all other strength is gone, when I am facing trials and tribulations, and when I am questioning my faith.  In Romans 8:26 the Apostle Paul writes, “when we cannot pray as we ought, the Holy Spirit intercedes with grunts and groans which words cannot comprehend.”[11]  While I believe this largely means through tongues and the heavenly language, I also believe that God has given us the best prayer book available: the Psalms.  When words fail us, we simply have to read out what already has been written.  Often times, there need be nothing more to add than what is already there.

The Psalms have not only had an impact in my own life, but also the life of my Grandmother who was a strong and valiant woman of God.  Her life was so deeply entrenched in prayer that she had sticky notes around her apartment on her radio and television with questions such as “Lord, have I remembered to thank You today?”  I do not doubt for an instant, that her prayer life developed as a result of years reading and praying through the Psalms.  It was for this reason that even as she lay dying, she constantly called her family to her side, asking them to read to her from the Bible, but in particular, the Psalms.  She loved the Psalms so deeply, that the last passage she would hear on this earth came from this glorious book.

If you have never developed this close relationship and friendship with the Psalms, then I ask you to consider doing so.  Use them as a way to call out to God and also to hear from Him.  Use them as your comfort and strength.  Best of all, use them to gain wisdom and to glorify God.  Once you start reading the Psalms on a regular basis, I guarantee that you will not be disappointed.  In fact, you probably will never be able to stop studying them.

P.S. Are you interested in starting your study of the Psalms?  What better resource than http://biblegateway.com/.  I have used this resource on many occasions to read various versions of the Psalms.  One of my favourites is Eugene Peterson’s The Message which helps put the Psalms into modern day language and context: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+1&version=MSG.  Through this interactive website you can also read from the traditional King James Version (which undoubtedly has the best lyrical writing): https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+1&version=KJV and even listen to the Psalms through a dramatic reading of the text: https://www.biblegateway.com/audio/dramatized/niv/Ps.1 or https://www.biblegateway.com/audio/dramatized/kjv/Ps.1.

[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+22%3A1&version=ESV

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+107%3A1&version=ESV

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+23%3A1&version=ESV

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+42&version=KJV

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+37%3A7&version=ESV

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+62&version=CEB

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+73%3A28&version=TLB

[8] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+13&version=MSG

[9] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+18%3A2&version=MSG

[10] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+77&version=JUB

[11] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A26&version=ESV