Archive for December, 2008

istock_000004142818xsmallEver since my accident a couple of months ago, I’ve been reminded again and again of how God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The most recent occasion was at my church’s Christmas eve service. I was scheduled to play “Silent Night” on guitar for the final song of the evening. I was certainly nervous beforehand, but as the service progressed I was flooded with joy and peace and began to relax. As the second-last number neared its end, I strapped my guitar on and got ready to walk on stage. I made my way into the spotlight, plugged in my guitar, took a deep breath and began to play. Suddenly I felt extremely vulnerable, the sound of my lone acoustic guitar coming through the speakers. My hands started to shake uncontrollably. It got so bad that I didn’t think I’d be able to finish. I silently begged God to help me, hoping my sudden case of the shakes wasn’t too obvious. He answered my cry for help and I made it through. I spoke to a close friend afterwards, and she said something that really stuck with me. When I told her I thought I wouldn’t make it, she said, “yes, but you did.” I saw in an instant how faithful God is when we step out and trust Him. It may have been a difficult experience for me, but it was an excellent example of what God said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It has taken a long time for me to see my frailty in a positive light. Until recently, the thought of my weaknesses and struggles being exposed evoked feelings of fear and shame. Fear of being seen as I really am – flawed, weak, broken. Shame about the fact that I’m not perfect, and that people might find out – and reject me.

You might laugh at that last sentence. After all, it’s ridiculous to suggest that I might be perfect or anywhere near it. Growing up, I absorbed the unspoken message that being loved and accepted depended on two things: performance and pretending. It was very important to behave well, to achieve high, and to be the best at everything. On top of that, unpleasant things were not acknowledged or discussed. Instead of facing conflict head on, we pretended everything was okay. I learned how to perform and pretend early on in life, and carried those skills with me into adulthood.

I was never very good at pretending. Something in me raged against it from a young age. I’ve always had this hunger for truth, to talk openly about what’s really going on inside, to connect with others in genuine, meaningful ways, to resolve conflict, to mend relationships. I tried to put 100% into everything, but the weight of perfectionism crushed me with its impossibly high standards. I wanted more than anything to be loved and accepted just for me, but I felt as though the real, flawed me was unacceptable, so I ambivalently tried to keep her hidden.

Have you ever had that experience of hearing how others perceive you and realizing that it’s nothing like how you see yourself? That’s a good sign that you have a carefully crafted “mask” to keep the real you hidden. I’ve had people describe me as confident, self-sufficient, very “together”, and so on. In a way I’m glad that’s how they see me, but that’s not how I feel about myself, or how I actually am. I have worked hard to conceal the truth because I’ve been ashamed of my weakness. Here’s the truth: I’m not confident, I’m insecure. I’m not self-sufficient, I’m needy. I don’t have it all together – I’m plagued by doubts and fears. I’ve had all sorts of private struggles that I’m embarrassed to admit because they seem so immature.

But I’ve realized, especially since my accident, that my weaknesses are an excellent opportunity to show God’s strength. Hiding and pretending are things we all do to some extent. God says that the truth will set us free – not the truth about someone else, the truth about me. What is the truth, from God’s vantage point? We are all flawed, broken, needy. Every one of us needs His grace, His mercy to get through every day of our life. I can be an instrument of hope and healing in God’s hands by acknowledging my weaknesses and letting Him work through them. If I submit my frailties and struggles to God, then He gets all the glory when I break free.

On Christmas Eve, when despite my shaking hands, I made it through “Silent Night”, I received such a precious gift from God. In the past, I would’ve been humiliated and ashamed at the fact that my hands were visibly shaking, whether I made it through the song or not. But this time, I came away being a little bit embarrassed, but mostly just thanking Him for standing by me in my time of need. It’s even possible that the song was better, not worse, because I had to depend on Him. It isn’t necessary to be a “superstar” to achieve something of lasting value in God’s Kingdom. What it takes is an attitude of radical reliance on Him, and the recognition that without Him, we can do nothing.


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istock_000005464814xsmallI remember my first love. I remember the ones after my first love, but not as vividly, as beautifully, as gut-wrenchingly. I was 18 and she was 16. Yes, I said “she”, because at that time I was exclusively attracted to women. My encounter with Jesus was still in the distant future. We met one summer at a camp where we were both working. Tess was animated, beautiful, smart, and she loved to laugh. She “made the first move”, and I was instantly smitten. I had never been with anyone before, male or female, and the desire in my heart to love and be loved was strong. I really didn’t know how strong it was until Tess came along. I could think of nothing and no one else. We continued to see each other in the city after summer ended. I lived to talk to her on the phone, to see her, to be with her. All the classic hallmarks of a “first love” were there. When she broke up with me I was completely shattered. My world literally fell apart.

Do you remember your first love? I think we all have a story something like mine. If you grew up in a Christian family, you may even have married your first love. Either way, there’s no forgetting the excitement, the hunger and the passion of your first romance.

I remember when I fell in love with Jesus, too. I was completely smitten. I couldn’t get enough of Him. The joy, the peace, the euphoria of His presence and His love made for a powerful, beautiful, almost sacred mix of emotions. My main desire was to spend time with Him and to read the Bible. I remember praying when I hardly understood what that meant. A friend of mine explained that praying was basically talking to Jesus. I talked to Him all the time. Sometimes He seemed so near that I was sure He was sitting beside me on the bed. The first year after I gave my heart to the Lord was in many ways the time when I felt closest to Him. I wasn’t going to church, but I read the bible voraciously, I talked to Jesus – I woke up every day excited about our deepening relationship.

The sense of euphoria and excitement that I had in my early walk with Jesus hasn’t been matched since then, and I have often wondered why. It could simply be that my relationship with Him has matured. I know He’s in it for the long haul, and so am I. Or maybe it’s similar to the process of weaning a baby, learning to walk by faith, not by sight. After all, if you give a baby everything they want every time they cry, they’ll never grow up. But I think there might be another explanation as well: In our culture, “Christianity” and “churchianity” are two different things, but they often get confused. Even in evangelical churches where a personal relationship with Christ is emphasized, it’s easy to get focused on church activities, on “doing” rather than “being”. I suppose the story of Mary and Martha is in the Bible for a reason. Martha was so busy doing things for God that she lost her focus on God. Jesus said Mary had made the better choice by sitting at His feet, listening to Him.

Obviously if we spent all our time sitting at Jesus’ feet and never “did” anything, the gospel wouldn’t have spread across the world like it has. It’s clear that Jesus told His disciples, and us by extension, to do many things – to go into all the world, to preach the gospel, to love one another, to pray, to care for orphans and widows. But I can’t overcome this strange feeling that a lot of what goes on at church isn’t about Jesus, it’s about tradition, it’s about church. I think maybe we’ve moved away from the simplicity of the gospel and made following Jesus into something more complicated than it is.

I know that some of you will not care for what I’m saying here. I happen to believe that asking questions is a good thing. Why do we do things the way we do them at church? I read a book this summer that really opened my eyes on this subject, Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, it is a fascinating book. I have no desire to “bash” institutional Christianity, but history tells us that in the past 2000 years, the church has undergone many seasons of reformation and it will probably continue to do so.

One aspect of institutional Christianity that I think is particularly damaging to the overall health of the Body is the professionalization of ministry. I don’t see this modeled in the early years of the church. It seems to me that it results in two things: first, money being poured into salaries and infrastructure that could be spent elsewhere (missions and outreach, for example); and second, the false notion that only “professionals” can be in ministry, leaving the majority of the Body passively watching from the sidelines, their natural and spiritual gifts undeveloped and unused.

In my first year after giving my heart and life to Jesus, I came to know Him intimately through reading the Bible, talking to Him and hearing His voice through the Holy Spirit. When I began to attend church, I learned all the rules and customs that we associate with Sunday services – how to greet people, how to dress and act, when to sit, when to stand, when to give your tithes & how much to give, when to clap and when not to, how to worship (I went to churches of various denominations in the first few years, so this was a real learning curve!) – and of course I came into contact with fellow Christians, which was a good thing, for the most part. I fully believe that we need each other and that God molds us in and through relationships. It’s not the meeting together part of church that concerns me; it’s how we meet and what we claim our gatherings are. If we call something a “worship service”, we’d better be sure we’re worshiping Jesus, not something or someone else – including ourselves.

I don’t think anyone who truly loves the Lord and wants to glorify Him with their life will find my words offensive. We should continually examine our hearts to make sure we’re seeking to do God’s will, to the best of our ability, with the right motives. Read the words that Jesus spoke to the church at Ephesus in the book of Revelation:

“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”

The Christians in first century Ephesus were doing all the right things, but they seem to have lost sight of why they were doing them and for whom. Does this sound familiar at all? I may be an exceptional case, but I often question what motivates me to do “good” things. I’d like to believe that everything I do is done in the service of God, to bring Him glory, to “be Jesus” to a dying world. I think the truth is that we all have mixed motives, whether we realize it or not.

When my life on earth is over and I stand before Jesus, I hope to hear Him say, “well done, good and faithful servant”. The last thing I want is for Jesus to tell me that I missed the mark, I was so busy doing “good deeds” that I lost my connection with Him. Without Him we can do nothing, at least nothing of eternal value. If Jesus visited your church next Sunday, would He say, “well done”, or would He say, “I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love”?

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istock_000007202737xsmall1Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to play and sing some of my songs at a ladies’ ministry event at church. Music has been my passion for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of hearing a Burt Bacharach song, “This Guy’s In Love”, on the car radio while out shopping with my mom. What I remember was how it made me feel – the emotion that welled up in my five-year-old heart was powerful, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling.

When I was about nine, mom “forced me” to take piano lessons. I laugh as I type these words, because the story has become part of our family lore. I was a tomboy, and to me, playing piano was a very “girly” thing, so I didn’t want anything to do with it. I guess mom, in her wisdom and foresight, knew that being able to play the piano and read music was a good thing, so she devised a plan. My passion at that point was hockey and I played in a girls’ league. Mom said, “if you want to play hockey, you have to take piano lessons!” So I did. I am eternally grateful to her!

In my teen years I began to play the guitar. I guess in some ways I was trying to forge my own path, to differentiate myself from what I thought mom wanted for me. Playing guitar struck me as being decidedly more “cool” than playing piano. For one thing, most rock stars played guitar. Before long I set my sights on becoming a rock star. Music was the one thing in life that I really loved doing, so this seemed like a reasonable goal to me. My parents were naturally horrified. They wanted their children to attend university and have stable, middle-class careers – and I don’t blame them now. I can completely understand. The trouble was, I felt like a square peg being forced into a round hole. My passion, the thing that made my heart beat, was music – playing, singing, songwriting.

I think you could argue that frequently, people who are drawn to performing are unconsciously trying to meet a need for acceptance, approval, and love. I know this was true in my case. Insecurity was a big part of what drove me to pursue rock stardom. At a very basic level, I was hungering for love and acceptance. This can create big problems, because audiences don’t always respond positively to what you’re doing. It’s almost like giving someone your heart and having them crush it underfoot. Through my teens and twenties I pursued my goal, playing in a variety of bands on the “Queen St. West” circuit in Toronto. I even had my own band at one point. In the late 1980’s I became disillusioned and decided pursue a “real” career. I never did become a rock star.

I brought my dreams of rock stardom with me when I became a follower of Christ in 1995. I don’t mean that I tried to become a Christian rock star, but I had no other way to “frame” music, and I came to Jesus in my broken state – insecure, unsure of who I was, hungry for love – not even sure what “love” meant. My pursuit of love and acceptance was tightly bound up with music and performance. I “got” the concept that our gifts are from God and we are to use them to bring Him glory, but intellectual understanding wasn’t what I needed. What I needed was heart surgery. The cure for my broken, desperate heart could never be found in the approval of others. Even if my pursuit of stardom all those years ago had been successful, it wouldn’t have made any difference. The more I looked to God for my sense of value and worth, the more sure of this I became.

Yesterday morning when I played my songs at church, I felt so thankful for the opportunity to share what God has given me. Without His intervention in my life, I would never even have been there. I sat on the stage with my guitar, closed my eyes, and sang to and about my beautiful Jesus. It wasn’t a perfect “performance”; I was nervous; I’m not a professional worship leader or a trained public speaker – but somehow the Lord took my imperfect offering and used it to bless the women there. I think that’s the essence of how God accomplishes His goals and plans. He prompts us to “step out of the boat” when we feel unsure, when we don’t have it all together, when we know we’re going to fall flat on our faces if He doesn’t show up – and He works through our weakness. That’s why God said to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Even though it’s nice to be praised and appreciated by others for our talents, the issue of motivation is key. If my aim yesterday was to build myself up, to impress everyone with my music so that they’d compliment me, to make me feel “okay” about myself, that would’ve been sort of like an addict looking for their next “fix” – not that another hit of approval would make any difference in that case. If my aim was to share with others what God has given to me in order to bless them and bring Him glory, then I’m on the right track. I am learning more and more that it’s God’s approval I need. I’m learning, with His help, to live before an audience of One.

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istock_000006957977xsmall2When I was growing up, the weeks leading to Christmas were some of the most exciting in the whole year. The ritual of buying and decorating a tree, making my Christmas list, shopping for gifts, eating all kinds of yummy food – it truly was “the most wonderful time of the year.” But it had nothing to do with Jesus. I didn’t grow up in a family of atheists or anything, but we weren’t churchgoers. I knew about Jesus, I knew that Christmas was a holiday celebrating his birth, but that’s not what it meant to me. What it meant, mainly, was that I would get all kinds of new toys – pretty much everything I asked for. It was great, but I always felt a sense of disappointment after all our gifts were unwrapped. The anticipation was so huge that perhaps feeling let down was inevitable – even though my parents were very generous. Many people would say I was spoiled, and that’s probably not too far off.

The feeling of disappointment always bothered me. I couldn’t understand why I felt that way. But from where I stand now, I think I’m starting to understand. I met Jesus in 1995 when I was almost 33. I’m deliberately avoiding phrases such as, “I became a Christian” or “I became a believer”. What happened was that the deep well of loneliness, of sadness – of need – in my heart finally encountered the one thing that could fill it – a relationship with Jesus Christ. I fell in love with Him and I fell hard. I accepted His free gift of salvation, the thing that cost Him his life. Following Him cost me something, too. I walked away from a lifestyle of sin, unsure of where I was headed – but I knew I was making the right choice. I felt almost compelled to do it – not by any human agent, but by God’s spirit. I have never regretted my decision.

Looking back on the girl who felt empty and disappointed after all the Christmas gifts were unwrapped, I realize that even then I was searching for something to soothe my sadness. I didn’t know it, but my heart was crying out for a saviour, someone who would never abandon or reject me – someone who truly loved me, for me, no matter what. Like other false sources of comfort, the Christmas gifts provided temporary pleasure, a distraction from the pain – but they couldn’t heal my heart. Only Jesus could do that.

It’s a bit ironic that Christmas was one of the times that I felt my need of a saviour most keenly, not that I understood it that way at the time. As I focused on unwrapping gifts, the real meaning of Christmas eluded me – that the gift I really needed was freely available to me. I thank God that He continued to pursue me for all those years.

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