Three Important Years and Five Important Lessons in My Faith Journey.

Rather than invite a guest speaker for our anniversary service, I invited two members to share about an important season of their journey of faith. The following is what I shared about an important season in mine.

Looking back there were five lessons in three years which set the course for my faith, but also my work as a pastor for the last twenty-four years.

You may assume I am referring to my three years at seminary. While my three years at McMaster Divinity College were indeed very important, I am actually referring to the three years prior in which I attended Trent University in pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts. Here are the five important lessons of faith impressed on me in those three years:

My Christian faith is about God’s grace, and not my attempts to impress God.

Two gentlemen from another faith tradition, which I’ll not name, knocked on our door. What followed was an interesting conversation, or rather a challenging conversation where one of the men in particular dismissed the Christian notion of grace. According to him, we had to earn a good standing before God. Immediately following that conversation I opened the Scriptures to Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians and began reading.

While the whole of Paul’s teaching in Romans was helpful, here is one quote to catch the gist of it:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.

Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)

While I already believed that our good standing before God was by God’s grace and not our effort, a deeper dive into Romans solidified this for me. Good teaching can help us learn things, but sometimes a challenge to what we are taught, or a seed of doubt, can really help us go deeper in our search for truth.

To some the teaching of God’s grace may seem like something that should be settled in Sunday school. However, I meet people, both within and beyond the Church, who think that Christianity is all about trying to impress God. When some people say “God is good,” they think mainly of God’s holiness. Grace is a very important part of God’s goodness, and holiness.

My Christian faith is about love, and I don’t mean love for rules.

One day while driving to Trent I was forced to take a detour because of a car accident. In turning back onto the street I saw the wrecked car and thought how tragic, that the driver was probably killed given the state of the car. I thought nothing more about it until I got home and discovered that the driver was my best friend from my last years at high school.

It is a normal response to the death of a loved one, especially an unexpected death, to consider your last words together, your last weeks, months, even years, and to reflect on your relationship. That evening, I’m not sure why, but I read 1st Corinthians, chapter 13. Let me quote a few verses:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NLT)

Prior to this moment I always thought of this famous chapter on love to be precisely that, a hymn about love. But this time in reading it, it became a chapter about me, about what I was, and what I wasn’t. By the normal Christian yardstick I was quite a righteous young man, not into drinking, pornography, drugs, and the like. But by the yardstick of love, I had a long way to go. Looking back, I hadn’t been the best of friends to someone who was the best of friends. This was the moment that my faith dropped from my head to my heart. Yes, I had known for a long time, or rather assented to the theological proposition that I had fallen short of the glory of God. But now I knew in a much deeper way that this was no mere thought, but a sad reality. While I was good at keeping rules, I was not doing so well with the greatest commandments which focus on love. Thankfully, there is grace and forgiveness and an experience of God’s love.

There was also a new way forward, of a life and faith focused on love. No longer would I would focus on keeping rules in order to be a good Christian. The focus was now on loving in order to be like Christ. The rules we tend to love so much in Baptist circles are not there to help us get to heaven, as some people suppose. The rules are there to help us express love.

My Christian faith makes sense, even when I can’t makes sense of everything.

While majoring in English Literature and Classical Studies, I took different kinds of courses and was exposed to challenges to religion in general, and my Christian faith specifically. What dawned on me, however, was how Christianity could stand up to scrutiny and critical inquiry. Christianity was reasonable and made sense.

This of course didn’t mean that I could make sense of everything. Who can really understand God? Who can really understand one’s loved ones? God is not an equation to be figured out, but a Person to be in relationship with. Sometimes it feels like God used artists, those familiar with mystery, to write the Scriptures, while we ask lawyers and engineers, those familiar with precision, to interpret them.

Yes, there are things best described as mystery, things hidden from our eyes and understanding. During those three years I learned that while there is mystery, there is nothing non-sensical or unreasonable about faith in Jesus.

In those three years I learned that I did not need to leave my faith in the parking lot of the university. Nor do I need to leave my brain at the door of the church.

My Christian faith leads to a mix of conviction about some things and humility about other things, but not certitude about everything.

The motto of Trent University is “nunc cognosco ex parte” which is a Latin translation from 1st Corinthians 13:9 meaning “now I know in part.” Here the apostle Paul demonstrates both conviction and humility. Paul came to know some very important things, but not everything. He knew that.

Some may assume that one attends a university to learn everything. Actually one attends university to learn how to learn, and the more you know the more you learn just how little you know! The same can be said of seminary. Some may assume that you go to seminary to learn everything there is to know about God, the Bible, and the life of faith. Rather seminary prepares one for a lifetime of learning, thinking, and rethinking. All theology is an exercise in deconstruction and reconstruction.

Sometimes Christianity is presented in a way that makes it seem that a Christian, especially a pastor, can and should have certitude about everything. Yet, if the Apostle Paul could say “now I know in part,” so can I. There are things to have conviction about. There are things it is better to have humility about. It takes wisdom and learning to know which is appropriate when.

My Christian faith is really about Jesus, and not Paul.

When choosing courses in my first year of Trent, one particular course struck me as particularly relevant: New Testament Greek. Problem was that I needed Classical Greek fist, so I ended up taking two courses in Classical Greek and one in New Testament Greek. This began a lifelong pursuit of, and love for, learning the Biblical languages. This also planted an important seed that would blossom later.

If you were to ask me in the early years of my growing faith what my favourite books of the Bible were, I would have said the letters of Paul. They seemed the most “theological” which appealed to me greatly. However, I had a problem; Paul’s letters are harder to read in Greek than the Gospels. So I began reading the Gospels more, which meant I was reading about the life and teaching of Jesus more. I came to realise that I had made Christianity about Paul when really it is about Jesus. I used to read Paul to understand Paul. I now read Paul to understand Jesus. This is a subtle, but important change.

Paul and the other apostles, in their letters, were working out the implications of the life, teaching, example, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the Christian communities of their day. We read them now to help us work out the implications of the life, teaching, example, death, and resurrection of Jesus for us in ours. It is about Jesus.

That Christianity is about Christ might seem like an obvious thing. However, I wonder if many Christians live a kind of Christian life that is really more about a certain expression of Christianity than about Jesus. I fear that some people live a kind of Christianity that is centred and focused on Paul, Luther, Calvin, Joel Olsteen, or anyone other than Jesus. My love of Greek brought me back to Jesus.

Conclusion

While my three years at McMaster Divinity College were very important for my growth as a Christian, God used the three years prior to help ground me in these five insights that set the course for my future. Have you had a similar season that has been significant in your growth as a person and Jesus follower? Perhaps this next season will be it!

Always Onwards and Upwards for the Christian, Right? (Thinking Through Abraham’s New Beginning)

Everything is always upwards and onwards for the Christian, right?

We experience a new beginning with Jesus, a new life with God! So everything in life will always work out better, right? We have God’s presence to direct in every decision, so no more bad decisions. We have God’s power to help with every struggle, so no more struggles. We have God’s provision to provide for every need, so no more needs. So it is always onward and upward, right?

Well maybe not.

Today we will think through the life of Abraham who was arguably one of the most God-connected persons on the planet in his day. He had the privilege of a great new beginning when God called him with an incredible calling. So let us see how life worked out for Abraham and if it was always onwards and upwards. Here are a few things of note:

First, Abraham’s call to go was also a call to leave.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.

Genesis 12:1,2 (NLT emphasis added)

Abraham was called to live out a big, unsettling change. There would have been the experience of grief and loss. There was not even a clear vision of what is coming up.

God’s call to a new beginning with Him is often a call to experience change, loss, and upheaval.

We may be called to let go of some old habits, some old ways of thinking, including favourite “security blankets.” We will soon discover that these were better left behind anyway. However, it can mean upheaval for a season of one’s life. For some, that may be a long season.

We may be called to let go of relationships. I remember a fellow seminarian sharing how receiving Jesus meant leaving his family, or rather being disowned by his family. While that happened to him in another culture in another place, even here in Canada following Jesus might mean losing respect from peers.

The experience of change, including loss, can be part of walking with God, and that can get messy and be difficult. In fact if we are never experiencing any kind of change, maybe we are not walking with Jesus, but just sitting with religion.

For Abraham, responding to God’s call did not mean that life was always upwards and onwards, indeed it began with loss, grief, and upheaval. It may not always be onwards and upwards for us either.

Second, Abraham waffled his way through life, quite a lot.

Geographically, Abraham did a lot of wandering about between Genesis chapter 12, where we first meet him, and chapter 25 where we learn of his death. He went to the promised land, but then he also did a stint in Egypt and upon return seemed to live here, there, and everywhere. Life was anything but straightforward.

Abraham also waffled about in life decisions. Twice Abraham got his wife to say she was his sister. Perhaps not the best thing to do? Abraham and his wife Sarah also tried to ensure a descendant through Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. While such arrangements were accepted within society in those days, that decision later led to great family dysfunction. Again, not the smartest idea, especially when God had a better plan.

If we feel like we are waffling about in life decisions, we are in good company. Abraham waffled about terribly also.

The Christian life is sometimes spoken of as if every day we can expect clear direction from the Lord in every decision. We are led to believe that there is always a clear path forward, a right path, and if you are a good Christian, you will see it, you will hear clearly from the Lord about it.

Reality is, life gets messy, even with God in it. We might need to adjust our expectations of ourselves and our ability to discern God’s will moment by moment. Abraham did not seem to have moment by moment direction from God. We might need to adjust our expectations of God.

If God made every decision for us, we would never learn to make a decision. We would never learn wisdom.

God, in his providence, worked it out for Abraham and his family despite the messiness of it all. God can work it out for us too. In the meantime it is not always onwards and upwards. Sometimes we waffle about.

Third, Abraham had questions for God.

So the LORD told Abraham, “I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is so flagrant. I am going down to see if their actions are as wicked as I have heard. If not, I want to know.”
The other men turned and headed toward Sodom, but the LORD remained with Abraham. Abraham approached him and said, “Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked? Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”

Genesis 18:20-25 (NLT)

Abraham was not afraid to question God when God’s ways seemed, well, . . . questionable. And it was entirely appropriate. A relationship with God is exactly that, a relationship, which can include conversation and questions.  

So when life gets messy and God’s ways seem questionable to us, shouldn’t our prayers get messy and honest? With God, life is not always onwards and upwards, with God’s ways always appearing to be crystal clear. Sometimes we have questions.

Fourth, it was never really about Abraham.

The call of God disrupted Abrahams’s life. But Abraham was not the one who would receive the greatest blessing from his obedience:

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:1-3 (NLT emphasis added)

Are we aware that the call of God is not really about us? Christianity can become quite self-centred, especially as it often starts out centred on ourselves, beginning with “how do I get to heaven?” This is often the starting point, then the next question becomes “how can I get God’s power to work in my life, for my benefit?”

Ironically, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves!

Are we willing to respond to that call, to make our connection with God through Jesus and His Spirit, be for the benefit of others? Are we leaving space for the generosity of God toward others in how our call plays out?

When we grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, others are blessed. When I respond to God’s call to be a good husband, my wife is blessed. When I respond to the call of God to be a good father, our sons are blessed.

If it was all about us, might we expect the perfect life? Now if God handed us the perfect life on a silver platter, would we grow? Would we ever really learn empathy and compassion? Might we not instead become even more self-centred?

The Christian life is not always onwards and upwards with respect to our feeling blessed. Sometimes it is about others being blessed through us and the changes God is bringing to us. Sometimes those changes come about precisely because it is not always onwards and upwards.

Fifth, Abraham was not in the driver’s seat.

There are moments where Abraham shows initiative and living with purpose. He did get up and move, he did show his willingness to do what God asked of him. But as for building a great nation through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed, only God could accomplish that! And it could only be done in God’s timing. There is no way Abraham could make it happen, no amount of effort, passion, or talent on Abraham’s part could bring it about.

We are called to walk with Jesus, not just now, but forevermore. Only God can make that happen, through Jesus, his death for our reconciliation, and through His Spirit.

The question is not “are we bringing about the call of God in our lives?”, as if it is something we can accomplish, but “are we cooperating with God in His call on our lives?”.

The Christian life is not always onwards and upwards as we do this, that, or the other brilliant thing, but sometimes it is resting in God, in His brilliance.

Conclusion

As we read through Genesis chapters 12-25, it becomes clear that for Abraham, life was not always onwards and upwards. However, it was a life of being faithful, and of depending on God to be faithful. Abraham is lifted up in Hebrews chapter 11 as an example of faith and faithfulness. The Book of Hebrews was originally written for a group of Christians facing persecution. Despite their new beginning with Jesus, life was not always onwards and upwards for them either! But it was a life of learning faithfulness to the God Who is faithful.

Let us remain faithful to and hopeful in the call of God, even when the path is anything but straightforward, even when life feels far from always onwards and upwards.

(You can watch the preaching of this sermon here)