Author Archives: JVS

God’s just in time ‘Yes’ to my decision to leave

This past Sunday it was announced that I would no longer be senior pastor at New Hope Hillside Church. Tough decision. But definitely the right one. For years I’ve been struggling with the call to write, teach and speak more… to get the two-book vision out there more. Early last week it became clear that this decision needed to happen now (or never…  I’m turning 56 this year!). And so Sunday was now.

Here’s how it played out if you’re interested.

As you can imagine, I had a bit of anxiety heading to church that day; an anxiety that was met with three small providential words from God.

The first was an internal whisper that said, “Get over yourself”. It wasn’t a belittling or pejorative word… it was more of a ‘Hey, quit worrying about yourself so much… get over it… life is too short… and you’ve got stuff to do… and this is my church… and my calling for your life… and I’ve got you… so get on with it’ kind of realization. My immediate response was, “You’re right!”. It felt like a weight was lifted.

The second word was spoken right after I got into my car. Stopping at the intersection forty feet from my house, an older woman crossed the street in front of me. “That’s Colleen!” I said to myself (Colleen is the flyer delivery lady whose story opens chapter one of my book on work). I couldn’t believe it was her. It felt like God was pointing me back to my writing, and saying, “Your doing the right thing!”  Talking with Colleen she told me about the stress that she’s facing this week… moving to a seniors home… “so much change and uncertainly”… she talked about her anxiety in leaving all her neighbors and friends. Listening to her speak I couldn’t help but smile.

God’s third word was spoken as I crossed the Bow river on the Crowchild Trail bridge. I know this may sound a bit hokey…  but to me it was perfect. As I crossed the bridge, a holy trinity of Canadian geese flew right over my head. Twenty three years ago, when I was in my second year at seminary, and in a deep depression in response to Edward’s birth, and struggling with a new calling into the ministry, there was a moment where the clouds parted and my soul was lifted up. I was walking in the woods and three Canadian geese flew over my head, so confident of where they were headed. I asked myself, “How do they know where they are going?”  And in the questioning I knew that God knew… and then I knew that he knew the same for me.  And in that moment the depression began to lift and I knew where I had to go and who I needed to be.

Those three things all happened within a hour Sunday morning…. and God quieted my soul through them… and my sermon on forgiveness felt powerful and true… and the announcement felt peaceful and good. And now all is good.

Last night I layed awake for an hour praying, “So what’s next… where do you want me to go… I’ll do anything.”

(Re)sketching a Rembrandt

For the past month I’ve been scratching away at replicating Rembrandt’s etching, Christ at Emmaus (original above). This gospel story has always been deeply meaningful in relation to the vision God has given our church. The thought that Christ is with us – even when we have no idea that he is – is profound, compelling and a bit unsettling.

I started the project with Jesus’ face (figuring if I got that part wrong I wouldn’t have wasted too much time!). The eyes were so hard to get right. There was something about sketching them, and re-sketching them over and over that brought about a sense of intimacy – like he was near.

As I started to work on the hands, I had a moment where it felt as though he was actually passing the bread to me! Drawing his fingers I was drawn in.

Then yesterday, as I started in on the first of the three characters that surround Jesus (excluding the dog!), I had another epiphany moment. As I was drawing the character in the forefront – clearly not one of Jesus’ two disciples, perhaps a keeper of the house/inn they were staying at – I was struck by the fact that, while he was somewhat aware of what was happening in the room, he was still walking away from the scene!

Walking by and having no idea who he was looking at!

And it hit me… that here’s a moment where three people are all in the same room as Jesus, and still one of them appears to have had no idea who he was. Then I realized that this scene is a microcosm of reality in our world… so many people, caught by something that is going on, and yet seemingly not fully aware. This reality broke my heart. All I want is for people to know Jesus for who he really is… for where he really is!

In Rembrandt’s original it is hard to tell where Jesus is actually looking (it appears as though he’s staring into space), but in my attempted re-creation it’s like he’s looking at that man who’s walking away. A Freudian slip of the pen.

The Icon of Groundbreaking Technology

Just finished an article about the “IBM 5 in 5” – “an annual list of ground-breaking, scientific innovations with the potential to change the way people work, live and interact during the next five years.”

I love reading stuff like this… and more so when I engage it as ‘text’.  (So, before you continue reading here, read the article) Here are the five technologies that made the list (along with what they reminded/taught me anew about who God is):

  1. In five years, cognitive assistants and sensors in our smart phones could be “listening” out for us – recognizing patterns in our speech and writing as the first line of defense for protecting our well-being.” God is always “listening” out for us, recognizing everything that goes on in us as our first line of defense. In fact, God knows our words and actions before we even say them.  “Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.” Psalm 139:4
  2. “In five years, new affordable imaging devices using hyperimaging technology and artificial intelligence will be widely available, giving us the ability see through objects and opaque environmental conditions so superhero vision can be a part of our everyday experiences.” God sees everything perfectly. He sees our hearts. When humanity seeks to see more, we’re seeking to better image his all-seeing nature. “Does he who formed the eye not see?” Psalm 94:9, NIV.
  3. “In five years, machine learning algorithms and software will help us organize information about the physical world to bring data gathered by billions of devices within the range of our vision and understanding. The “macroscope” will organize all this information through a system of software and algorithms that analyzes all of Earth’s data by space and time for meaning.”  “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” declares the Lord. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” Jeremiah 23:24, NIV. There isn’t a place we can go where God isn’t. Everything that fills the cosmos was a thought in God’s mind before it came to be. God’s Spirit organized and holds all things. Software systems and algorithms are cultural products that we create in out attempts to more fully image and glimpse the mind of God.
  4. In five years, new medical labs-on-a-chip will serve as nanotechnology health ‘detectives’ and could ultimately be packaged in a handheld device so people can scan themselves and combine the results with other data like sleep monitors and smart watches to help let us know immediately if we need to see a doctor. “God knows what’s going on.
 He takes the measure of everything that happens.” (Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:3, MSG). “The LORD’s eyes scan the whole world to find those whose hearts are committed to him and to strengthen them.” 2 Chronicles 16:9. “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, 
and his ears are attentive to their cry; The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:15,17-18, NIV.  All attempts to maintain human health, that aim to help us flourish, image a God who seeks restoration and fullness for all that fill his world. Labs on a chip are like all of the self-repairing mechanisms God has already built into our bodies (our immune systems, how DNA self repairs, etc.). They’re being developed now in large part as a response to Jesus’ call to heal the sick (the church responded and took in the sick, leading to hospitals providentially developing in recent centuries).
  5. “In five years, environmental pollutants won’t be able to hide thanks to new affordable sensing technologies. Together with analytics techniques driven by artificial intelligence, these technologies will unlock insights to help us prevent pollution and fully harness the promise of cleaner fuels, like natural gas.”  “You spread out our [environmental] sins before you–our secret sins–and you see them all.” Psalm 90:8, NLT  “When [the all seeing Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of its [eco-abusive] sin…” John 16:8, NLT. I think, deep down inside, we all know that things are offside, broken, falling short, not the way they are supposed to be! We can feel it in the air. The corrupting influence of unseen pollutants. A century ago, we could be forgiven for not seeing what we were doing. But even then, the maker of all ecological systems saw and knew. Increasingly humanity now images a God who sees what our polluting hands have done (and are doing); seeing the sin of pollution for what it really is, and offering us a way out.

All of these new technologies point to the heart and mind of God. The God who knows all and sees all perfectly. When we seek to see reality for what it is (the good and the bad), we’re yearning to see the way God does.  And when we get a glimpse of the truth, it can often feel like an epiphany… like we’re getting a glimpse of him. “You are the God who sees me… I have now seen the One who sees me.”  Genesis 16:13, NIV

image – DARPA, wikicommons

Edward’s End of the Day Prayer

IMG_2536Every night I say the same prayer with Edward as I tuck him in to bed. While he hasn’t memorized all of the words yet, he does say the word ‘you’ with me each time I say it;

“The Lord bless you (YOU) and keep you (YOU), the Lord make his face shine on you (YOU) and be gracious to you (YOU); the Lord turn his face toward you (YOU), and give you (YOU) peace.” Numbers 6:24-26

(I can see his pursed lips now.)

Reading this passage in my devotions this morning, the verse that follows this blessing struck me. Referencing the priests who were commanded by God to say these words to his people, the writer writes; “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” Numbers 6:27

Every night I put God’s name on my son. And every night he puts God’s name on me.

Such a beautiful blessing.

God Working Though Hitler’s Legacy?

A Christmas tree stands in front of the Brandenburg Gate which is illuminated in the colors of the German flag in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, the day after a truck ran into a crowded Christmas market and killed several people. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Responding to the recent terrorist attack in Berlin, a local newspaper ran a front-page photograph of a Christmas tree standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the image inscribed with three timely and heartening words, “Be not afraid” Luke 2:10, ASV

Many in Europe are afraid right now. With terror attacks playing out in more and more cities, with xenophobia and racism on the rise, and centrist politicians being booted from office in several recent elections, many are wondering if Europe can even hold it together.

Some are losing hope.

In a faith saturated Globe and Mail editorial this morning, Timothy Garton Ash wrote of how he still has hope, and how he bases that hope on the strength of German society; Europe’s economic, geographic and social center.

“The deeper challenge is whether German society has the strength to live up to the liberal ideal that [Chancellor] Merkel evoked in her initial, restrained and dignified remarks [to the terrorist act], defending “the life that we want to live in Germany: free, together and open.”, Garton Ash writes.

And then he states three reasons why he thinks the liberal ideals of Germany will hold. First, a strong economy leaves a lot of economic room for the integration of the other. Second, a responsible local press protects the populace from unmerited fear as it refuses to give voice to enflamed rhetoric. And third, the memory of Germany’s painful World War II history is now its greatest strength.

“And that brings us to probably the most important reason [for hope] of all: Adolf Hitler. Precisely because Germany once had the diabolic epitome of populist xenophobia, it is now most resistant to it. Pray to God that taboo holds, for if it doesn’t, heaven help us all.”

Pray to God indeed.

As Christians we often talk about how God transforms broken circumstances for good. To now see this truth (hopefully) playing out, over a 70 year swath of European history, is deeply compelling. How beautiful that God would use one of the most heinous chapters of human history to restrain and compel a people to do the right thing now, to choose to not live in fear, to choose to continue to be “free, together and open”.

Talk about re-deeming a nation, and making the crooked straight, and shining a light in the darkness!

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11, ASV

On that first Christmas Eve, heaven and earth came together to proclaim the most hopeful news imaginable – that God sees our plight and that he has come to save us; God is with us and we are not alone.

Thankfully, the God who makes all thing new isn’t done with his world.

Brandenburg image – Daily Mail

Two Weddings and a Funeral

img_7944“Where would we be if you two didn’t connect last year?”

(words spoken to me in a hospital emergency room this morning, re: my connection with her husband, by a woman who is dying of cancer)

I asked myself the same question two days ago; after praying with them in their Glenbrook living room, opening my tear filled eyes to see  the two of them holding hands, weeping.

They don’t go to church. But God comes to them.

It was probably 18 months ago when I first met Ray. I was taking macro photos of tree buds in his neighbor’s front yard and he thought I was some kind of creep. “I’m taking pictures for a sermon this weekend”, I said. He laughed and I quickly moved on.

Several months later he called out to me as I walked by his house, and told me about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. “If you could pray…”

A month or so after that I saw his wife tending her front garden and introduced myself. We talked a bit about her upcoming radiation treatments. And about church. She’d gone once, with her sister when they were 7 and 8. The Sunday school kids laughed at them because they didn’t know the bible. “Never been back since.”

A few months later, both she and her husband were sitting on their front patio. I walked up and asked how things were. “Not good.” So I sat down for a few minutes to talk. Before leaving I asked if I could say a prayer. “Yes…  please.”

Three months ago, it was just Ray sitting on their patio. She was in the hospital.

“Could you keep her in your prayers?”

“I am…  I pray for you two every time I walk by your house, five times a week.”

Three weeks later I learned that the cancer was terminal. We met and talked and prayed some more. Big hugs to end that visit. “I don’t trust people”, he said. “But I trust you”.

This Wednesday night I opened our church leadership team meeting by telling the story of my providential connection with this couple. “Who would be there if I wasn’t?” Driving home from that meeting I saw an ambulance parked in front of Ray’s house, lights flashing. “They’re taking her to the hospital… she’s in so much pain”.  As the EMS workers were helping her to the ambulance, she stopped and gave me a 10 second hug.

Seeing her this morning I could tell by the color of her skin that death was near. I asked if it would be okay if I read something from the bible. “Yes… please do.” I read Psalm 23.

“That’s a good one,” the woman whispered.

Then we prayed – she, her husband, their daughter and I. After the prayer they asked if I could formally marry them, tomorrow morning, in that hospital room. They’ve been living common-law for 28 years, and wanted to “make it right”. They’re daughter then jumped in and said that she wanted to push her wedding date up to tomorrow morning as well.

So… tomorrow morning I’m doing two weddings in the emergency room of the Rockyview hospital… and then, soon after I’m thinking, I’ll be doing a funeral.

 

 

 

 

When God uses a Pastor with Advanced Parkinsons to get you back to work

fullsizerender-9Two weeks ago, while on leave from work, I dropped in on a former mentor – Pastor Mike Reitsma. I was out for a walk in my old neighborhood and ended up walking by the long term care institution where Mike now lived (with his advanced Parkinsons).

“I should visit.”

Looking into his darkened room I couldn’t tell if he was there. All I saw were some rumpled blankets on his bed… until I realized they were him.

“He’s asleep. I’ll come back later.”

But then a staff member came into the room and woke him up, telling him he had a guest.

“Well, well, well…” Mike said, regaining consciousness. He had a huge smile on his face and immediately knew who I was. More than that, for our entire visit, he knew who he was; as a pastor, leader, visionary and mentor. Which was encouraging given what I’d heard about the ongoing ravages of Parkinsons on his life. There are good days and bad.

But on this day, he was good! For 45 minutes he mentored me, corrected me, joked around with me, shared his frustrations with me, pondered the future of the church with me, and prayed for me. Our time together was such a gift (for both of us). I could tell that Mike needed to lead and care for someone, and I needed to be led and cared for. It was beautiful.

Yes there were times when the Parkinsons derailed the conversation, but even then there was beauty. At one down point Mike tried to open a devotional he’d been reading, wanting to point me to a lesson he’d learned. I could tell that his focus was lost as he could barely page through the book (his hands were shaking badly). Eventually he just randomly ended up on a page and pointed and slowly said, “This is what keeps me going.” At that moment I don’t think he had any idea what he was pointing to;

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:12-13

I read the passage back to him. Even though Mike had just told me that he can’t do “anything” any more, he could, and was doing something…. something that was so timely and important for both of us.

After telling him about my stress leave, he then turned to me and leaned in. I could feel the strength of his love. Then he said, “You can take a break… that’s okay. But you can’t stop. You can’t do nothing. You need to keep going. You need to do something!”

Coming from a friend who wants nothing more than to do something himself, and can’t; his words were cutting. In his weakness Mike reminded me that I still have strength in me, and passion, and capacity and ability, and I need to steward these gifts well. God isn’t done with his call on my life (even as he’s not done with Mike’s).

 

How Would Jesus Respond to Trump?

president-elect

Seems to me (as someone who is very politically left of Donald Trump, and can’t believe what’s happened) that the only way forward in this very fractured time is for the offended part of me to respond in a selfless, humble, loving, peace-making, forgiving, and very counter-intuitive way. Sure I can be afraid, judge, double down, condemn, blame, ridicule, and strike back, or I can take a different path and take these very unsettling words of Jesus to heart;

Do unto Donald Trump as you would have him do unto you (Matthew 7:12)

Love Donald Trump as you love yourself (Matthew 19:19)

If you hold anything against Donald Trump, forgive him (Mark 11:25)

Forgive him up to 77 times if necessary (Matthew 18:21)

Because if you forgive Donald Trump, God will forgive you (Matthew 6:14-15)

Bless Donald Trump if he has cursed you (Luke 6:28)

Pray for Donald Trump if he has mistreated you (Luke 6:28)

Love Donald Trump and do good to him (Luke 6:35)

Don’t condemn Donald Trump or you will be condemned (Luke 6:37)

Only if you’re perfect, throw the first stone at Donald Trump (John 8:7)

I know this sounds incredibly naïve, but I really do believe that the only cure for fear is love (1 John 4:18). When I love, respect and honor the ‘other’ in this kind of insanely gracious way, I create the best (and perhaps only) circumstance possible for that love to take root and grow.

“The practice of love is the most powerful antidote to the politics of domination” Bell Hooks, American Feminist and Social Activist