God, Keep Making Me Strange

I (Michael) have been thinking about evolution a lot lately. Not the kind that gets PTA meetings all in a tizzy over what should or shouldn’t be taught in schools; I am referring to personal evolution. For me, this means that though in many ways I am similar to the person who graduated from Banting Memorial High School and who practiced massage therapy for over a decade, in many other ways I am a stranger to that person. While this idea of personal evolution hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind, I see it weaving itself through a number of events and occurrences that have happened as of late.

It started with a brief reconnection with a high school friend through the infamous 21st century means of Facebook. Actually, that started with my mom running into someone I knew from high school and my post-college years, who had nothing but fond memories of me. I don’t have equally fond memories of myself from that time. These types of encounters often make me realize that if the individual from my past was to step into my life at this point, they might not know the person who stood in front of them. There would be the possibility that we might both revert back to that time of connection out of familiarity, but if that old friend was to walk into a lecture I was giving, they would probably be astonished.

Next came the comments of people around me about how much they respect the amount of time I dedicate to reading. People who have a history of enjoying literature were telling me they were convicted by the amount they see me reading, and the insights I share from the different books I have read. The irony of those comments was completely lost on them. These are people (including my lovely wife) who have only known me for at most, six years, so they have no context for the irony. Currently, I am reading three books at the same time (outside of the reading I need to do for work). I am currently reading more books for pleasure than I likely did in my entire time in public school. Then there is what I do vocationally. I teach, but not only that, I essentially teach literature, or the study of it. This might sound like a minimization of Scripture, but what I’m getting at is the irony that someone who almost failed every high school English class he ever took, now helps people understand how knowing the elements of a particular genre of literature might help them better interpret a 4000 year old sacred text, and apply it to their lives. While the people around me don’t understand the irony of this firsthand, anyone who knew me in my teens could relate.

Additionally I have been thinking about my teenage years. I was exposed to things by accident and by choice that I now truly regret – and that was before the internet made access to everything so easy. I think of what statistically I know my teenage sister has likely been exposed to, and it makes my shudder. This being said, I look back at my own evolution under the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit, and I know that as bad as it can get, God can redeem it. Looking at my life in my late teens, there is no way anyone could have guessed that I would serve God as a missionary and Bible teacher. Most would be amazed that I do not have a child and that I chose to get married in my late twenties instead of being forced to marry someone I had got pregnant. Of course, as I think of my sister, I have confidence that no matter what she accidentally or willingly is exposed to, God can redeem it. I hope this won’t be necessary, but I can trust that nothing is too big for God to change.

Finally, I come to the last piece of the puzzle that led to these thoughts on evolution. I am currently reading Timothy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage; in it, Keller argues against the typical Western perception of marriage. He talks about the unrealistic belief people have that marriage is about finding someone who is compatible with you. One of his arguments came from Stanley Hauerwas, whom Keller quotes:

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being (the enormous thing it is) means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is…learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.*

I realized as I read this that in comparison to the man she married over five years ago, Helen really does wake up next to a stranger. Now this is a stranger she has come to know and love over that time. Likewise, I have to remind myself that I am not married to the same woman I committed to in June 2008. This is a good thing because I have watched her evolution and there is so much more to love in the stranger I wake up to every day than there was back then. It can be detrimental to our relationship in the present when I react to Helen as if she is still the woman I married on that beautiful summer’s day a little over five years ago.

If pressed I will say I believe in evolution – at least the evolution of who I am, and the evolution of those who have allowed the Holy Spirit to infiltrate their lives. The more Christian term for this is “sanctification,” but in some ways I feel arrogant saying I am more sanctified now that I was five, ten, fifteen years ago. It’s much easer to say I have evolved. Actually, the most honest response I can think of is to say that I have become a stranger to who I used to be. I feel like my prayer should be, “God, keep making me strange.”

* Keller’s source for this quote is available online at www.religiononline.org/showarticle.asp?title=1797.

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Titus: Sharing the Gospel Through Transformation and Good Works

Titus had his work cut out for him as he was assigned to put the Cretan church into order. The island of Crete had a history of piracy, and the Cretans were known as “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). They even had a word coined in their honour (or dishonour): the word “kretizō” or “to Cretanize” was understood to mean “to lie” and to “double deal.”

Despite the Cretans’ reputation, the Gospel found its way into the hearts of some of the people in Crete. It’s not entirely clear how or when the church on Crete was founded, but regardless of its origin, there was a body of believers on this island south of Greece when Paul saw fit to write this letter of instruction and encouragement to his ministry partner, Titus. Paul’s main concern? That the Gospel was going forward in truth, transforming lives and producing good works. False teachers had infiltrated the church, “especially those of the circumcision party” (1:10), who taught that it was necessary for believers to become Jewish before they became Christian. They taught that Christ-followers must also be Old Testament Law-followers. In his letter to Titus, Paul is adamant that the true Gospel is not based on works, but on the mercy of God’s grace (3:3-7).

Ever the evangelist, Paul’s desire was always to see the Gospel going forward. How did he hope the Gospel would go forward on Crete (and really, everywhere)? Through the witness of transformed lives and the good works that naturally flow through those who find their salvation in the grace and mercy of Christ. Considering the life of the typical Cretan, imagine how incredibly the transformed life of a believer would stand out in immoral Cretan society. As Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders in the church, he insists that these elders are to be faithful spouses, capable parents, above reproach, not arrogant or quick-tempered, drunkards or violent, but self-controlled, upright, and holy (1:5-8). As he addressed how the believers on Crete are to live, he repeatedly emphasized self-control (2:2,5,6). Such qualities would stand out to the world around the believers, as self-control and godliness were not characteristics attributed to the people of Crete.

Imagine you are a Cretan, immersed in your ungodly society – it is all you have ever known. Imagine that your best friend/brother/co-worker – someone you have grown up with – changes their lifestyle from the one that you follow to one that has been transformed by the Gospel. Your friend/family member/co-worker used to double-deal, was involved with multiple women, and was known for their violent behaviour, but now they are walking in transformation, dealing honestly, are faithful to their spouse, living in a self-controlled manner. Your friend/family member/co-worker is now walking in good works, inspired by the Holy Spirit powerfully working through them. Imagine the effect this would have on you as a Cretan! Would you not wonder about the source of the change? Might you even dare ask why the transformation? Why the good works? At this point, your friend/family-member has the opportunity to share the Gospel with you. Their life has pointed you towards Christ.

The implications of Titus for today are obvious. We may not live in a culture that has its roots in piracy, but we certainly live in a time when ungodliness is the norm. Walking in transformation and good works inspired by the Holy Spirit continues to be counter-cultural. While this letter was written to Titus on the island of Crete almost two thousand years ago, we too can be inspired by Paul’s heart to see believers walk in transformation and good works – qualities that point others to Christ. As Christ-followers, let us have soft hearts towards transformation, and let us allow the Holy Spirit to direct us in the good works God has prepared for us. Let us point others to Jesus through the witness of our lives, as well as through the sharing of the Gospel.

Finding God in Those Around Me

There is a certain buzz of life that comes with the arrival of a fresh group of students – especially when the majority are in their early twenties. It’s been good for my soul. Sometimes living here on the campus of YWAM Turner Valley, I forget that I am an extrovert. Because I’m married to someone who lives in her head (Helen is an introvert) and because many of the people around me are also introverted, I can quickly begin to think that that is where I find life too. Well, the start of a new school year and the arrival of so many new people to get to know has awoken the extrovert in me. Though my extrovertedness is a little rusty at the moment, and though I often find myself retreating into one of the three books I am trying to read before they are due back at the library, I am just so amazed at the people God has brought together for the next nine months to study His word. I feel like a bear coming out of hibernation at the first signs of Spring – I find myself enjoying the tension of spending time getting to know our students and studying for my quickly approaching lecture on the book of Psalms.

As someone who teaches people how to access God through the Bible, it’s funny that I find myself most often seeing God expressed in other people, though just like me, they are broken sinners. We all carry the image of God, but that image has been marred by sin. Jesus is redeeming that image through His work on the cross and the sanctifying working of the Spirit. My point is that even though we often don’t represent Jesus well, my belief in God is bolstered as I see Him in others. At times God is more clearly expressed to me through others than He is through the Bible. Of course, the great joy of what Helen and I do here in Turner Valley is that we get to experience God in both ways very intensely. I am glad that I get to study the Psalms and discover God in the way the psalmists speak to Him. I am equally blessed, however, to get to experience God through those I work with, and through our students, even when that experience is a little messy.

As I try to come to a conclusion as to why I am sharing this, I can’t really put my finger on it. Maybe my hope is to give you a little insight into my heart as we enter a new season of ministry here in Turner Valley. Maybe I hope you too may be blessed with the double joy of discovering God in the Bible and in those around you. Ultimately it was what was on my heart as I stood (yes, trying a standing desk experiment) at my computer to type this post. I hope in some small way these thoughts have blessed you.