Definitions

I saw a post on the internet last week that really made me think. The poster talked about seeing posts from missionaries “bragging” about missionary trips. The poster said that missionary work was colonization, therefore nothing to be proud of, but instead, something to be embarrassed about. My first thought was, “Missionary work is not the same as colonization. You should know better.” My second thought was, “Also, the church needs to know better.”

There have been an embarrassing number of times, eras even, when the church has confused missionary work for colonization. What is missionary work? According to the Great Commission (or, the last directive we got from Jesus during his earthly ministry) we are to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and to teach them to obey Jesus’ commands (Matt. 28:19-20).

What are Jesus’ commands? To sum up, love God above all else, and with everything you have. Also, love your neighbour as you love yourself. In the words of Jesus, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:36-40) Yes, there are many more verses explaining things more fully. Yes, sometimes Jesus’ commandments clash with the values of other people. But are we called to force people to change?

This is where the church often struggles. No. We are not called to force people to change. How did Jesus make disciples? He called them to follow him (Matt. 4:18-22). If they refused to follow Jesus on his terms, he accepted that (Mark 10:17-22). If they chose to follow, he taught them (Mark 10:1). If they found his teaching too hard and left, he let them go (John 6:60-67). Jesus did not force people to follow his commandments. We shouldn’t try to force them either. After all, if living life with Jesus is about having a relationship him, we can’t force that. Either people want to follow Jesus, or they don’t. If he accepted that, we need to learn to accept it as well.

And if people choose to accept Jesus, do they need to accept the culture of the missionaries who reached out to them? No. We are not called to teach people a new language, or new songs, or new architectural preferences. We are not called to go overseas and instate our own government, or collect taxes. We’re not called change what people eat, or wear, or drink, or how they travel, or what artistic styles they use.

The early church struggled with this, and we struggle with it still. When several teachers went out missionary-style and tried to convert all new Christians to traditional Jewish ways of life, the disciples called a council and decided they were wrong. They laid out just a few rules to follow, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” (Acts 15: 29).

What do we do if others disagree with us on what to eat, what to drink, and how to worship? In Romans 14 we read that we will disagree, and we need to bear with each other. We are told to avoid letting our differences hurt each other, or hurt the unity of the church. It’s okay to serve the same God while being very different in how we do that.

There are missionaries who go to other countries, learn the language and culture, eat the traditional foods of the region, respect the customs of other nations, and are effective in teaching what Jesus taught to those who want to listen. That is good missionary work.

There are missionaries, past and present, who refuse to teach Jesus in a language other than their own, who refuse entry to a church if a person doesn’t conform to their ideas of respectable dress, and who call other lifestyles uncivilized and unchristian. That’s not what we’re called to do. We’re not called to judge our neighbours. We’re called to love them.

To sum up, the church has had a very rocky history of confusing missionary work and colonization. It’s really no wonder that people outside the church look at our history and can’t tell the difference either. But we can do better. We can get back to basics, remember what the Bible really says about Jesus, and about how to exist as a church, and teach those who want to be taught without alienating those who are different from us. Then we can truly show the world what a life lived with Jesus looks like, so that maybe they will choose to follow him.

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Making Peace

I recently tried to enter a poetry contest. The theme was, “the peace we make.” The contest had a wide open definition of making peace: finding peace in a literal war zone, making peace with a family member, finding inner peace etc. I started writing a very long poem. First, how to define peace? Second, how to make peace? The poem got too long. It’s now this blog post instead.

What is peace? We have to know what our goal is in order to achieve it. I usually see peace defined as an absence. Peace is not war. Peace is not arguing. Peace is a lack of conflict. Peace is a lack of tension.

When not defined by contrast, peace is often defined as harmony. One day in my high school music class, the music teacher had two of us play the same note. We were slightly out of tune. He asked the class who was right. Some said I was in tune. Some said the other flute-player was in tune. The teacher said that until we were in tune with each other, neither of us were in tune. Perhaps if peace is like harmony, we need to adjust to each other to find it.

That adjustment may look very different depending on why we’re not in tune. Sometimes making peace may mean adopting a humble attitude. We can’t live in peace if we’re too proud to admit we may be the problem. Sometimes peace may mean apologizing. If we’ve hurt someone, even accidentally, or in a way we don’t fully understand, we need to make it right instead of insisting they just “get over it” because it was unintentional. Sometimes peace may mean listening to someone we’ve long-since decided didn’t have a point. Sometimes peace may mean accepting an apology, even if it comes in the wrong words. Sometimes peace means accepting that we were both wrong. Sometimes peace means forgiving, and moving on.

Making peace can mean a variety of things, but it always means doing something. In the Bible, Psalm 34:14 says, “Turn away from evil and do what is good;/ seek peace and pursue it.” (HCSB) Peace isn’t often a matter of waiting for someone else to fix things. Peace isn’t hoping the other person will magically become easier to deal with. Peace is something we have to seek, and pursue. It’s a mission, and it takes work and determination.

Peace takes the right attitude. What does the Bible say about how to approach our pursuit for peace? “Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honourable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:16-18 HCSB)

Sometimes, peace is not attainable yet. “If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.” We can try to make peace with someone, but if they refuse it, we’ve done all we can. Until God changes their heart, or until they are ready to live in harmony with us, or until we find a new way to reach them, all we can do is love them. We don’t beat ourselves up for not making peace if we honestly tried our best. We don’t hold a grudge against them, and become bitter. We act in kindness, and accept that we’ve done our part. That way, we can have peace in our hearts about the situation.

What does peace look like, practically speaking? We see some conflicts in the Bible that can help us learn to make peace. When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he mentioned an argument between two women – Euodia and Syntyche. In Philippians chapter 4 he reminds them of their common goal, urges them the get along, and asks another church member to help them resolve their differences. That’s a solid way to make peace – remember why we used to get along, and if necessary, get help to get the relationship back on track. Admitting we need help can be hard, but it’s important to our pursuit of making peace.

In another famous Biblical conflict, Paul and Barnabas disagree about taking Mark on a missionary journey (Acts 15). Paul didn’t want to take Mark because Mark had deserted them on an earlier trip. Barnabas insisted on giving Mark a second chance. Unable to come to an agreement, Paul and Barnabas parted ways. Sometimes, if an agreement can’t be made, we can seek peace by giving each other some space. If we can acknowledge that we are still friends, and still respect each other, it’s okay to agree to disagree.

What happened with Paul and Mark? We see in later letters that Paul and Mark eventually did work together again, but for a time, Paul wasn’t ready to repair the relationship. The trust wasn’t there. Mark had to prove himself first, and Paul was ready to accept him again when he did. Sometimes making peace means realizing we need to take steps to assure someone we’ve changed before expecting them to trust us again.

Making peace is hard. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for how to do that. Conflict stems from many things, so peace has to adjust to each situation as it comes. Peace means being humble, listening, caring, acting in kindness when kindness feels undeserved, finding a trusted person to mediate an argument, talking out a problem, giving second chances, earning second chances, treating everyone with respect, and many more things. Peace can even be letting things go if we’ve tried our best and a situation remains unresolved for now. Peace is hard to define, because what we do to bring about peace can widely vary. If we want to live in peace, to pursue peace, and to do our best to live in peace with others, we have to be ready to evaluate each situation as it comes along, and be willing to do adjust until we are in tune with others.

Jar of Oil

We read the kids a Bible story tonight. It was a story found in 2 Kings chapter 4. A widow has two sons, and no money. A creditor demands that she pay him, or he’ll take her two sons as slaves to pay the debt. She asks the prophet Elisha for help. Elisha asks the widow if she owns anything.

She has some oil in a jar. That’s it. No property, no jewellery, no animals. She has a little bit of oil. Elisha tells her to ask all her neighbours for containers – as many as she can get. Then, she’s to go home, shut the door behind her, and pour the oil from her jar into all the containers she has. She did. God made the oil keep flowing, and she filled all the borrowed containers with oil. She sold the oil, and not only paid off her debt, but had enough left to support herself and her two sons.

I like that story. There’s a simple problem: no money. There’s a simple response: find a prophet and get help. There’s a simple reply: get a bunch of containers. There’s a miracle: the oil fills all the containers. There’s a simple resolution: debts paid, and then some.

I once heard a very lousy sermon preached on this passage. I can’t remember who preached it, but I have not forgotten how angry I was that someone was able to take such a simple story and mess it up. Some preachers are happy with a simple story. A person had a problem and God solved it. Praise the Lord, and let’s go home early!

Some preachers, it turns out, can’t preach a sermon without a villain. Some people might be inclined to paint the creditor as the villain. It might have been legal to take a widow’s sons to pay off a debt, but was that really necessary? There’s a good sermon on mercy.

No. That was not the sermon. The preacher decided the widow was the villain. Why? She didn’t have enough faith/follow-through. I mean, she did get enough containers filled and sold to save her sons, and to live on after that, but why didn’t she get more jars and bottles to fill? Seriously. That was the message. Why didn’t she do more?

We aren’t told how many containers she borrowed. I don’t know how much oil it took to pay her debts, or what the monthly budget for a widow with two sons would have been. The way I’ve always imagined the story, she got enough containers to fill the house, or at least as many as she was able to convince the neighbourhood to give her. The passage in no way indicates she was lazy, or timid, or doubtful. It sounds like she went out and got a lot of containers.

Why did she stop collecting containers? I don’t know. I suppose she could have asked the creditor for more time, travelled to the ends of the earth collecting containers from all around the globe, filled them all, started an international oil empire, and donated a new wing to the temple in thanks for her fortune. Seems a little far-fetched, but so does a preacher condemning a widow for following a prophet’s advice and receiving a miracle.

It’s a simple story with a happy ending. That should be a good enough sermon. God is good. Have some faith. God provides. There does not need to be a follow-up where the widow could have done better. In fact, telling everyone that active faith leading to a miracle is not good enough, seems like a very bad message for a religion based on the premise of grace. God shows us grace even when we do make mistakes. There is no need for us to tear each other, or ourselves, down when we’ve done just fine. We have problems. God helps us solve them when we call out to Him. If you don’t run an international oil empire, you’re still a good Christian. End of story.

He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands

The world is a very big place. It’s impossible to keep up with every news story that comes along. Every day there are hundreds of headlines about wars progressing, politicians arguing or campaigning, doctors changing recommendations, celebrities doing something philanthropic or scandalous, scientists making new discoveries and so much more. It’s impossible to keep tabs on everything.

It can be intimidating, or even frightening, trying to keep track of everything that has an impact on our daily lives. That list of things includes everything from a local coffee shop being closed when the factory night shift has its lunch break, to a war in Europe causing a rise in the cost of bread. With so many things to keep track of, it can feel like the world is just too big.

So many things over the past couple of years have had immediate global implications that it feels impossible to sort out what does and does not affect me and my family. Trying to read only the relevant headlines to limit stress isn’t working. I can decide that a headline has nothing to do with me, only to find out that a shipping container stuck in a canal on another continent will result in my grocery store having shortages for weeks. I tried to narrow my focus to make life manageable, but that did not work. Instead, I needed to widen the scope substantially.

I took a course in university on Medieval literature. One of the anthologies we studied had some writings by an anchoress named Julian of Norwich. She had sixteen visions when she was 30 years old, and devoted the rest of her life to meditating on those visions, helping others who had questions about their own religious experiences, and writing down what she felt God wanted her to share with others.

In one of Julian’s visions, the Lord shows her something small, the size of a hazelnut, lying in her hand. She wants to know what it is. She is told, “It is all that is made.”

Julian is holding the whole of creation in her hand, the size of a hazelnut. “I marvelled how it might last, for me thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness.” It’s so small she can’t imagine how it survives. Something so small doesn’t seem stable, or strong, or lasting.

Here is the answer she was given, “It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it; and so hath all thing being by the love of God.”

To me, the world seems overwhelmingly big. In Julian’s vision, the world was concerningly small. To God, size is irrelevant. What’s most important is that God takes care of the world because he loves it, and so gives it being. He loves us and so gives us being as well.

The world feels very big to me right now, and somehow events from every corner of it seem to affect me in unpredictable ways. But when I’m overwhelmed, I can remember that while the world is big, God is bigger, and he’s got the whole world in his hands.

All quotes taken from The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. Eighth Edition, Volume A.

Anxious Shepherds, Anxious Sheep

I read a book earlier this year about a young boy growing up in Africa. He lived in a small village, a long time ago. When he was old enough, he was sent to help take care of the goats. He, and the other young boys his age, were to keep the goats from wandering off into the bush where they could be attacked by larger animals.

It was a rough transition for the boys, and the goats. They boys panicked every time the goats went in the direction of the edge of their pasture, because they were all afraid of losing precious family resources. They would run over and chase each goat back to the herd, even if the goat hadn’t strayed very far from the rest. The goats could never settle into grazing because the worried boys didn’t let them find a spot to graze peacefully. The new, anxious shepherds had to learn what was safe and what wasn’t, what was straying and what was just finding a new spot nearby. Until the boys learned to be calm, the goats were stressed and had trouble relaxing enough to eat a proper amount of food. In trying to protect the goats, the young boys actually made life unnecessarily hard and distressing for their goats.

This story works as a metaphor for the church. The early church, and our current church, actually. In Acts 15 we read about an early church dispute. Some Jewish Christians started telling non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians that in order to be saved, they must also be circumcised and follow the law of Moses. These Jewish Christians believed in Jesus, but they couldn’t believe that his death and resurrection were enough unless a person became Jewish as well as Christian. They had followed to law of Moses for generations. Skipping over it seemed like missing something very important. Gentile Christians weren’t circumcised, didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays, didn’t follow the law of Moses on sacrifices, or letting the land lie fallow every seven years. They may have worn linen and wool together, and cut their beards differently. They were far from the Jewish idea of righteous, godly living.

These men took it upon themselves, without the blessing of the apostles, to go out and tell the non-Jewish Christians to change. They saw Gentile Christians as stray sheep, far from the flock and in danger. So they tried to add unnecessary boundaries to keep the flock as close together as possible. What was the result? Troubled believers with unsettled hearts, according to verse 24.

Jesus promised an easy burden and a light yoke. He promised rest (Matthew 11:28-30). Instead, these new, self-appointed assistant shepherds were making people anxious by anxiously seeing danger everywhere, even when the sheep were perfectly safe. The new Gentile believers were not bound by Mosaic law, but the lack of traditional boundaries made some of the Jewish Christians uneasy, and in turn they made others uneasy. If they had talked to the apostles, who had received word from God on how to accept people from different backgrounds to Christianity (Acts 10), they could have understood God’s relationship to the Gentiles, and not caused anxiety for people who were not straying at all from what they’d been taught.

We read that, and we study that, and we think we’re better. We don’t tell anyone that they have to follow Mosaic law to be Christians. We live in the freedom of Christ crucified, right? And yet, how many churches have, or have had, rules on skirt length, hair length, style of worship music, if women must wear hats, where you can work, what you can eat or drink, who you can spend time with, how many times a week you must attend a service, if you can replace a pew with a chair, how many times a week you must pray, if playing cards or dice are permissible, if dancing is permissible, if you can have non-Christian music on your iPod, or how many times a week you must go door-to-door evangelizing your neighbourhood?

These are extra rules. They are meant to keep people from straying into dangerous territory. But adding so many rules to keep people tightly controlled is not good for people, any more then constantly disturbing grazing goats was good for the goats. I think often it starts innocently enough. Shepherds fear losing flocks to dangers that lurk in the bush, away from the safety of the herd. So every time a goat looks at the bush, a shepherd jumps “to the rescue.” But if no one can make a move without being yelled at and sent back to a group so tightly packed that no one has adequate space to rest and graze, the flock suffers.

I think many shepherds are anxious. Anxious shepherds lead to anxious goats and anxious sheep. It can be hard to tell what’s necessary intervention, and what’s needless interrupting. But it’s a lesson I think we really need to work hard to learn. Otherwise we miss out on the peace and rest Jesus promised, and live in the anxiety that Jesus told us to give up when we put our faith in him.

Faith

I want both my feet firmly planted
on familiar ground. I don't
like leaping into unknowns.
But life is all unknowns.
It's necessary,
but difficult,
to have a 
little
faith - 

faith
that things
will be fine.
Things will improve
eventually.
When facing the unknown
it's okay to trust in God
to keep my steps from faltering.
For Him this is familiar ground.

Sure Feet on Difficult Paths

We often pray for God to make our lives easy, our paths straight. We like to memorize comforting Bible verses like Prov 3:5-6 ,

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart

and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways submit to him,

and he will make your paths straight.” (NIV)

If only we trust and obey, our ways will be straight – no blind curves, no steep climbs or sudden drops, no speed bumps or potholes. If we trust, we have smooth, carefree driving ahead. That’s what we’d like life to be, isn’t it?

After all, the Bible says in Psalm 23:1-3,

“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet water,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.” (NIV)

See? If the Lord is my shepherd, I get green pastures, quiet waters, and refreshment. If we just follow where God leads, we get to live an easy life, right? No. Any Christian can tell you of rough patches in their lives, despite trusting God and trying to follow him. Christians can go through job losses, illnesses, years living next to difficult neighbours and all sorts of other difficult times.

If the Bible talks about God making our paths straight and our waters quiet, what do we do when our roads are winding, our waters are rushing, and our paths seem impossible to traverse?

It’s important to remember that God is still with us, walking every path right beside us, even when we have difficult paths to walk. He doesn’t always make our paths easy, but the Bible tells us that he does make walking those difficult paths possible.

In Habakkuk 3:19 we read,

“The Sovereign LORD is my strength;

he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

he enables me to tread on the heights.”

Sometimes our paths remain difficult, so our feet are made steady. We also see this in Psalm 18:32-33 (HCSB),

“God – He clothes me with strength

and makes my way perfect.

He makes my feet like the feet of a deer

and sets me securely on the heights.”

Sometimes our paths are perfect, but they’re only perfect because God enables us to walk a path that is steep, hard, and normally impossible.

And the still waters? Sometimes Jesus calms the waters for us. When Jesus and the disciples were crossing the sea and a storm came up, the disciples were afraid of drowning as the boat took on water. Then Jesus calmed the waves and the wind and they sailed on in peace. This story in Mark 4:35-41 is a comforting story. If we hit a storm too big to navigate, we call out to Jesus and he makes our circumstances manageable. We like calm waters.

Sometimes, though, Jesus decides not to calm the waters right away. In Matthew 14:22-23 we read about another storm. Jesus wasn’t with the disciples when they ran into trouble at sea this time. He had stayed behind to pray, while they got in the boat and headed across the lake. The storm hit, with huge waves and strong winds. The disciples were struggling to keep the boat upright. What did Jesus do? Jesus came strolling across the water to meet them.

At first the disciples thought they’d seen a ghost, but Jesus insisted he was really there. So Peter climbed out of the boat to go walk through the storm to Jesus. While the boat was rocked by the waves, Peter was not. While the boat was struggling to make headway, Peter walked through the wind just fine. When Peter doubted, he started to sink. While he kept his eyes on Jesus, though, he did what no human could ordinarily do. He walked on water, which is impossible enough on still waters, never mind in life-threatening storm conditions.

We like green pastures, still waters, and calm seas. But sometimes we walk through difficult circumstances with inexplicably sure feet. God does not always make the way easy, but he always makes it possible. With God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26, Philippians 4:13), so even the hardest, most inaccessible paths are open to us when we’re following God, so long as we keep our eyes on Jesus and trust that he has things under control.

Functional Faith

I recently came across a term in the book “Tranquility” by David W. Henderson. The term is “functional atheism,” which Henderson defines as, “professing faith in the risen Lord but living as though God were altogether absent and uninvolved.”

We all make mistakes. We all stumble in our Christian walk. A huge part of our faith is trusting in the grace of God, which we all need, because “all we like sheep have gone astray,” Isaiah 53:6 (NKJV). But overall, we should be trending in the direction of becoming more Christ-like. We should be following his directions on how to live our lives, and on how to interact with the people around us. It’s a problem if we say we follow Jesus, but the choices we make take us farther and farther from our shepherd’s intentions.

I’m writing about this now because my province is less than a week away from an election. Every election the same thing happens: People start saying, “If you’re a Christian, you have to vote for (insert political party here).” No, that wasn’t an editing mistake. I’ve heard that argument made about more than one party. It’s a hurtful and divisive comment, especially since Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” John 18:36 (NIV).

Who should Christians vote for in an election? I think we should vote for a leader, or party, who endorses Biblical values in the way we build our communities.

Which values am I talking about? Well, the Bible gives us many instructions on how to live with each other in a community. For example, in Matthew 25 we read that Jesus will accept those who helped those who were hungry and thirsty, who showed hospitality to strangers, who clothed those without clothing, who looked after the sick, and who visited those in prison.

In Leviticus 23 we read that when God gave rules to the new nation of Israel, he told them to respect their parents, to intentionally leave some of their harvest for the poor and the foreigner, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t do things to hurt or insult the blind or deaf, make sure judges treat the poor and the rich the same, don’t slander each other, and don’t endanger the life of your neighbour.

In Acts 4 we read that no one in the group of believers thought of their possessions as their own, instead giving generously to each other. And similarly in Hebrews 13 we read that we should not forget to do good things, and share with others. God is pleased with that kind of sacrifice.

So what do we look for in a leader? Well, if we’re going to claim to be Christ-followers, we need to vote for leaders who endorse godly values, like those above. If we want to live what we believe instead of saying one thing and doing another, we need to vote for leaders who care about justice, the poor, the foreigners, the truth, the disabled, the older generations, and protecting others from harm. We need leaders who say the right things, and then follow through on them.

I started this post with the idea of “functional atheism.” How does that connect to voting choices? It connects because if we say we follow God, we need to vote like he’s real and watching. If we say we’re godly people, but vote for someone who doesn’t care about the elderly, the disabled and the poor, are we sure our hearts are in the right place? If we say we follow God, but vote for the tax policy that nets us the most monetary gain, instead of voting for policies that gain everyone a healthier and safer society, can we really say we acted like Christians?

People have to consider a lot things while voting. Every party has a platform with many promises and stated core values. No party is perfectly godly. No party is the party of Jesus Christ our lord. Remember, he didn’t come to set up an earthly kingdom. He came to seek the lost, heal the sick, forgive sins, and reconcile a fallen people to a righteous God. He didn’t come to win elections. He didn’t come to make us rich, or comfortable, or influential.

If the party you’re planning to vote for gives you earthly benefits, but ignores the things we are called to care about, it’s time to revisit your political alliances. Again, no party is perfect. Every party has values that we agree with, and other values that make us cringe. But as long as we vote our conscience, and our conscience is aligned with God’s values, then we can say we’re voting like functional Christians – people who believe in a God who is personally interested and involved in our lives.

Assurance

A few years ago I went to a church service during Lent. The pastor started the sermon, and I winced. It was the sermon. I don’t know why, but for a long while it seemed that many pastors only preached this one sermon, and I heard it so many times. I heard it at Christian camps, at youth events, at my Christian university. And here it was again. That horrible, horrible sermon that wouldn’t stop playing on repeat.

“You’re not saved,” they’d say. “You think you are, but you only think that because you pray, read the Bible, go to church, sing the songs, do good things, and said a prayer asking Jesus into your life when you were little. You’re not really saved. I know that, because I used to pray, read the Bible, go to church, sing the songs, do the good things and I said a prayer of salvation, but I wasn’t saved. I didn’t believe. I didn’t know what it all meant. I didn’t put my active trust in Jesus, but instead I trusted in checking off all the ‘Christian boxes’. Therefore, you’re not saved either.”

They’d spend 20 minutes telling us that we were living a lie, and then there would be an altar call. “If you’re ready to really be saved, to really know Jesus as your personal lord and saviour, to trust in Jesus instead of trusting in doing all the right things, raise your hand and pray along with me.”

They’d end the sermon the same way, “Unless you have the assurance of God’s salvation in your heart, you’re not saved. Don’t leave today unless you’re sure.”

There were times I was sure I was saved. Then I’d hear this sermon again. After 20 minutes of a pastor telling me I was at best deceived and ignorant, and at worst a liar and a hypocrite, I wasn’t sure anymore. And if I wasn’t sure, I supposed I wasn’t really saved, after all. So every time I heard the sermon preached, I asked Jesus into my heart again.

In the book of Revelation, salvation is compared to hearing Jesus knocking at our door, and opening the door to him. Imagine how that metaphor plays out in the situation I just described.

Jesus: Knock, knock

Me: “Come in Jesus.”

Jesus: “I’d love to come in, thanks!”

Pastor: “Are you really sure Jesus came in? You might just think he did.”

Me, looking nervously at Jesus who is currently sitting at my kitchen table: “I think Jesus is here.”

Pastor: “I used to think so, too.”

Me, walking over to the door and opening it again: “You can come in Jesus, for real this time.”

Jesus, already making himself comfortable: “I did, thanks. You should come sit over with with me and talk.”

Pastor: “Are you sure Jesus is with you? Sometimes we think he is, but he isn’t.”

Me, nervously looking at Jesus, who has pulled out a chair for me and is motioning to it: “I’m pretty sure this time.”

Pastor: “If you don’t have absolute assurance, you’re wrong.”

Me, still standing at the open door: “Hey Jesus, in case it was unclear, you’re welcome to come in. You knew that, right?”

Jesus, looking concerned from over in my kitchen, where he’s decided to make himself a cup of tea while I stand in the doorway, confused: “I’m already here. You can stop letting me in now. Come have a cup of tea with me.”

Pastor: “Are you willing to stake your salvation on having that cup of tea with a Jesus whose presence you’ve doubted three times already? Clearly you’re not sure, and not saved. Go invite Jesus into your heart before it’s too late!”

Me, walking out the door and looking for Jesus in the bushes outside: “Jesus, if you’re here, you’re invited in! You can come in! For really, really real this time!”

Jesus, standing in the doorway looking out at me, two cups of tea in hand: “I’ll hang onto this for you. You’ll figure it out and be back eventually.”

And I did figure it out eventually. The last time I heard this sermon, I stubbornly clung to my assurance and sat in the pew thinking, “This isn’t about me. It’s not about me. I’m having my cup of tea with Jesus. I’m saved.”

I know it sounds ridiculous, but these pastors had me worried. They’d convince me I wasn’t sure I knew Jesus, then convince me that my doubt meant I wasn’t saved. I got the idea in my head that any time I doubted any part of my relationship with Jesus, I had to start over from the beginning. That’s not a healthy view of faith, but for a while, it was my view of faith.

I know these pastor were trying to be helpful. There are people who said a prayer of salvation when they were too young to know what it meant, and have religious habits without a heart of faith. But I think it would have been helpful to address what a heart of faith is.

We read in the Bible that, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9 (HCSB). All those preachers told us that memorizing scripture didn’t save you, and praying didn’t save you. They were very concerned about what wouldn’t save us, but they didn’t ask if we could honestly say that Jesus is Lord, or what we believed about his resurrection.

As for figuring out what a relationship with Jesus really looks like, he himself said “If you love Me, you will keep My commands.” John 14:15 (HCSB)

What are Jesus commands? Well, when questioned about the two greatest commandments, he said, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40. (NIV)

If the sermon had been followed up with those verses, maybe I would have been less confused as a teenager. There is plenty in the Bible about what being saved really looks like. It would have been helpful to go over those verses instead of just telling us how we’re probably all unsaved church-goers instead of actual Christians.

The pastors preached the sermon about how most of us thought we were saved, but without that assurance, we were lost. They never went on to discuss how to tackle moments of doubt or spiritual setbacks. They tore down what they thought was a faulty foundation of faith, but never replaced it with a solid foundation. If I could redo parts of my life, I’d like to explain that to each and every pastor who preached that sermon. I can’t have been the only one who was sent into a spiritual tailspin by a group of pastors actively trying to convince me that my faith was based on self-deception. I certainly hope I’m not the only one who figured out that a moment of doubt isn’t the same thing as a lack of salvation.

It’s good to make sure we’re making clear the difference between religious activity, and a saving faith in Christ. But if you’re telling someone they need faith, don’t erode the faith they have, and then condemn them for it. We’re called to encourage each other, and build each other up (1 Thes. 5:11) Surely we can point others toward a saving faith in Christ without simultaneously providing a stumbling block for people who are already on that journey.

Infections

A week ago my son got a scrape on his toe while playing barefoot outside. He showed us right away where he was hurt. I got a wet paper towel to clean the injured toe. He didn’t want me to touch it. He pulled away and started to cry, afraid that cleaning it might hurt.

My husband told him that we had to clean the toe, or it might get infected. Immediately our son stopped crying and let me clean up his toe. We’ve talked to him about what infections are, and why it’s important to properly clean a cut or a bad scrape. He understands the importance of taking care of an injury right away. He knows that if “a boo boo gets sick” it can make the whole body sick, and then you need a doctor.

I’ve learned that the same principle is true for mental health. I mentioned in a blog post a long while ago about how I deal badly with stress. I’ve been getting some help with that lately. One thing I’ve been taught is to catch negative thinking before it takes hold – like cleaning a scraped toe before it gets infected.

I’ve been learning about cognitive distortions lately. That’s when someone sees the world in an irrational way. Everyone does it sometimes. If it takes hold though, and becomes a habit, or a pattern of thinking, it can take root and cause harm.

One example of this is called emotional reasoning. That’s when we trust that an emotional reaction is a factual interpretation of events. For example, “I made a mistake, and now I feel dumb. I feel dumb, therefore I am dumb person.”

We all have moments like that. Some people can shrug that off and move on. The next time they do something clever, they don’t feel dumb anymore. Some of us struggle to keep negative emotions from clouding our self-view. That “I’m dumb,” thought goes unchecked, and takes root. “I made a mistake, so I’m dumb. I made some mistakes yesterday, too. I’m consistently dumb. Every time I make a mistake, it just keeps proving that I’m dumb. I’ve always been dumb. I’ll always be dumb. When I do something right, it’s a fluke, because I’m dumb.”

Very quickly, that kind of thinking starts to do damage to our mental health. It needs to be cleaned out right away, just like an injured toe. And just like a young child with an injured toe, sometimes we need help to make sure our thoughts are heading in a healthy direction.

I’ve often struggled with self-esteem. When someone would compliment me, I’d have a hard time accepting the compliment. I didn’t see myself the way other people saw me. Finally, enough people said positive things about me that I started to wonder if I was in the wrong, since they all disagreed with the way I saw myself.

We can get wrapped up in our own mistaken view of things very easily. It’s a simple but powerful thing to tell someone when you see the good in them. “You’re always there when I need help. You’re a good listener. You know how to make me laugh. You’re the one who makes things run smoothly around here. I wouldn’t like coming to work as much if you didn’t work here, too. I love to hear your opinions, because you always find the good in others.”

Changing an ingrained thought pattern is hard. Sometimes we need help – sometimes from a friend, or maybe even from a professional. But we can start to help each other, even without a degree in psychology. Don’t be afraid to tell someone what you like about them. It might mean the world to someone to hear your point of view if they only see the negative parts of themselves. And learning to focus on the positive might help us to look for the good in ourselves, too, and keep us from getting stuck in a habit of putting ourselves down. We all have good traits and bad traits, good days and bad days, talents and areas where we struggle. That’s normal. What’s unhealthy is letting only the negative parts define how we see things.