Abundance: A Land Flowing With Milk and Honey

Canada

Like ancient the land promised Israel (Exodus 3:8), Canadians today are blessed to live in a prosperous part of the world. Yet the Bible tells us that prosperity comes with responsibilities. How does God want us to live with the material gifts he has given us?

As Christians we often don’t want to talk about material prosperity. I think there’s two reasons for this.

  1. We’ve absorbed at least some of Jesus’ teaching that there is more to life than just possessions. For an example of this look at Luke 12:13-24. This means we’re somewhat hesitant to speak of material things as blessings. We prefer to speak of the simpler things in life and spiritual blessings.
  2. We’ve probably overheard or stumbled across some of the other things Jesus, Moses and the Prophets said about the responsible use of money and possessions – and they make us uncomfortable. So we don’t raise material blessings knowing it could lead to some challenging conversations. Yet we have to since Jesus speaks about money and possessions more than any subject other than the Kingdom of God (and he often speaks about both at the same time).

Does this sound right to you, or do the Christians you know readily talk about material prosperity? Might there be other reasons Christians often shy away from this subject? Do you feel comfortable talking about material things as blessings and what the Christian faith has to say about how we use our money and possessions?

While we must give priority to what Jesus says about material things and possessions we also can’t ignore the fact that the Old Testament frequently speaks about God’s blessings in highly concrete physical terms. Read and reflect on the following:

  • Genesis 1:26-31 & Genesis 12:1-3
  • Exodus 3:7-12 & Numbers 13:21-24

At the same time the promise of physical blessings came with a call to obey God’s ways and teaching, including the way in which these blessings are to be shared:

  • Deuteronomy 6:1-9 & Deuteronomy 15:7-11
  • Numbers 25 in particular reminds Israel that the land and it’s blessings are God’s – they are meant to be shared fairly.

The Hebrew Prophets show us how God called his people to account when they failed to share material blessings fairly:

  • Jeremiah 5:26-28; Isaiah 58:1-12 & Amos 8:1-8

We also see that at least some among the people of Israel also began to wonder about the connection between wealth, blessing and righteousness (see Psalm 37). Jesus also challenges the idea that there’s a clear and automatic link between material prosperity and God’s blessing (see the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 & Luke 6:20-26).

While we can’t assume that material prosperity is a clear cut sign of God’s blessing (and in light of what Jesus and prophets teach we should never assume that poverty, sickness or trials signal God’s displeasure – it can actually be the opposite), we need to take seriously what the Bible says about wealth as a kind of blessing and the responsibility that comes with receiving it.

Here are some closing questions for reflection: Would you describe Canada as a land of “Milk and Honey”? What do you see as the particular blessings God has given to this land and it’s people? Are these blessings shared equally or unequally? What responsibilities do you think go along with our wealth and material prosperity?

Abundance: The Abundant Life

One of the main goals for the sessions of this study is to define what is a good life, or is ‘the good life.’ The study guide* I’ve based this on uses the Biblical word ‘abundance,’ or ‘the abundant life’ to talk about this good life. This is taken from Jesus’ teaching in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John where he says: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10 NRSV)*

The best place to start thinking about this is in John 10:10-11, where Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. Take a few minutes to read and reflect on this passage.

  • What stands out to you?
  • How do you respond to the image of the shepherd?
  • Can the sheep survive without the shepherd? Without the flock?
  • What do you think the sheepfold and the pasture might represent for us? What might good pasture be for us as human beings?
  • What do you think Jesus means when he says he came to bring us abundant life?

In this passage Jesus uses the image of the shepherd that was well known and loved by the people of Israel. Their earliest ancestors had all been nomadic shepherds and that shaped their identity as a nation. God was understood as a shepherd, as were the leaders of the nation – kings, priests and prophets. Over the generations those who misled or misruled the people were condemned as false shepherds. Part of the hope for the Messiah or Christ was that he would be Israel’s true Shepherd, who would lead the people back to God, being faithful to God and to them.

Middle Eastern shepherds are quite different from those in Europe and other parts of the world. They don’t use dogs or herd the sheep from behind, but as Jesus describes in this passage, they go ahead of the sheep and lead them with the sound of their voice. The sheep actually know the voice of their shepherd and will run from strangers. The shepherd will often lie across the entrance of the sheepfold at night, and will also quite literally be ‘the gate’ for the sheep as Jesus says in verse 7.

Now while this passage can help us start to get an idea of what abundance means from a Biblical perspective, we also need to look at how the world around us understands it today. According to one edition of Webster’s dictionary there are at least two common meanings, the first meaning is ‘very plentiful; more than sufficient; ample.’ But the second meaning of the word abundant is ‘well-supplied; rich (in something),’ beyond ‘enough’ or ‘ample’ and leaning towards ‘excess.’ Here we can see some tensions in the idea of the abundant life. According to the first definition, abundant is synonymous with ‘ample’ Yet according to the second, the word abundant means to be ‘rich in something.’ Thus abundant seems to contain a sliding scale of meaning from ‘adequate’ to ‘having more than enough.’ In other words, the definition of abundant changes depending on our perspective.

Perspective also affects our sense of what abundant life means. There are different perspectives on what makes up abundant living or “the good life.” Today it increasingly means material possessions and wealth, as well as having a good career, being successful, accomplished, and even famous – Facebook and other social media play into this as people compete with others in a game of who has the best life (or can look like they have the best life). This even comes down to who has the best family, who is the best parent, has the most accomplished kids etc. – There is a desire to have it all, and have it more than others. At the same time the more subtle good things in life have gone down in value (the stuff that can’t easily be boasted about online) faith, spirituality, personal growth and development, and seeking to bring the good the beautiful and just into the world.

Our sense of what is enough, or is abundant also changes based on our place in life, society and the world. For example people’s notion of enough, and what they need verses what they want, has changed dramatically in the past 60 to 70 years. It generally takes more stuff to feel satisfied (who in Canada can imagine a good life without a TV, computer, car, washer and dryer these days). This is especially true of many younger people used to these things who want to start off where their parents are now, not where they started from when they were young.

Take some time to reflect on some or all of these questions:

 

  • How has your sense of what is enough, and what it takes to feel satisfied with life changed over the course of your life?
  • How has your ideal of having it all, and the balance between the different kinds of abundance changed over time – material prosperity, personal and career success, family, personal growth, faith and spirituality?
  • Think of a time when you felt in balance – what was that like? Think of a time when these things were out of balance – did having a lot of one or two things compensate for a lack of other goods?

One vision the Bible provides of the good life, and of the world being in balance with everyone having enough is of the Jubilee. When Jesus announces the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in his life and ministry in Luke 4:16-21, he announces that his arrival brings about the ‘year of the Lord’s favour.’ Here Jesus speaks of the Biblical year of Jubilee found in Leviticus 25.

This was probably an ideal that was never fully put into practice but the idea was a simple one. Every 50 years the people of the nation would rest, the land would rest, and everyone would return to their ancestral land (even if they had sold it to someone else), all debts would be cancelled, and all slaves would be set free. It was a Sabbath of Sabbaths, a time of rest, a time when the reset button would be pressed and everyone would get a more or less fresh start. The rich wouldn’t keep on accumulating forever, and the poor would have hope that they could catch up and start again from a more level playing field.

Read through Leviticus 25. What sounds appealing in this vision of a good life for all? What is challenging to you?

*Abundance: Living Responsibly with God’s Gifts by John W. Peterson published by Abingdon Press in 2001. This session is based on p.19-26.

*Translations that derive from the King James Version (RSV, ESV, NASB, NRSV) tend to use some version of the word ‘abundantly.’ Other modern translations like the NIV translate as ‘life to the full’ or ‘rich and satisfying life’ (NLT). The Greek term is περισσός which means ‘a quantity so abundant as to be considerably more than what one would expect or anticipate.’ New Testament scholar N. T. Wright translates it as ‘full to overflowing.’

 

Abundance: Enough for All? (Bible Study)

Jesus says: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

The theme of this study is Abundance.* Each of the 8 sessions will be connected by this theme – What does it mean to live the good life? What does it mean to have enough? What does it mean to have abundant life?

Part of the reason I settled on this theme is because we live in one of the wealthiest societies in human history. And being here in Ancaster, we live in one of the richest communities in Canada. Yet we also live in a time where we are increasingly aware that even here in Canada this abundance is not being spread around equally – in fact many are falling behind while others are becoming much wealthier. We also know quite well that increasing material prosperity does not necessarily lead to happiness, and in fact often seems to lead to less happiness and contentment.

Another reason is that as a church we are in the midst of experiencing a season God’s Abundance – both in the Access Project as well as in a feeling of renewal and hope here in the church. This raises questions of how we can continue to grow as stewards of the abundance God has given us, both in terms of material things but also the spiritual blessings we have been given.

Each session is designed to be self-contained. If you can only make it to one, or a few you won’t be lost. Each session will be connected to the others by the common theme of Abundance, but each one will look at a different aspect of this theme.

For this initial session I  want to introduce a basic question that I’ll be touching on in most of the sessions. “Is there enough for all?” “Do we live in a world of abundance or scarcity?” “Does God give his blessings abundantly and to all?”

But before we get into this big question, I want to ask how it applies to our own lives. Ask yourself: In your life do you feel like you have had what you needed to live a good life? Have you been given more than you need? Do you feel like you’ve struggled to have enough to get through life? Has this changed over time? How did you feel when you were younger? How do you feel about having enough now?

JESUS-MIRACLE-FEED-5000

One of the great themes of the Bible is that the God of Israel and the God revealed in Jesus is a God who provides for his people. In the great story of the Exodus the people of Israel experienced blessing after blessing as God freed them from slavery in Egypt, led them safely through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. God provided them with enough every step of the way.

One of my favourite stories from the Exodus is the story of the Manna, or Bread from Heaven. Read and reflect on Exodus 16:1-36. What stands out for you in this story?

One thing that stands out for me is the question of trust. In spite of all that the people of Israel had seen God do for them so far they found it hard to trust that he was going to provide for them in a new day. How are we today when it comes to trusting God for “our daily bread” and the other things we need in life?

The other thing that stands out for me is that some among the Israelites did come to trust in God’s abundance – those who only gathered enough manna for one day for their families, who didn’t try to hoard it, and trusted God would provide for the Sabbath day. They were looking at the world and God through the lens of abundance. Others tried to gather as much as they could, tried to hoard it over night, and go out to find more on the Sabbath. They were looking at the world and living through a lens of scarcity. Both groups experienced the same blessing of manna and quails every day, yet each saw God and the world quite differently. So one question I ask is are we living our lives today through the lens of abundance and trust, or through the lens of scarcity and self-reliance?

Some other questions to consider: What is appealing to you about the image of God providing enough for everyone among the people of Israel? What is challenging (think about how no one was allowed to have more than others)? How does this connect with the world we experience today?

With the coming of Jesus we see a movement from God’s promise to provide his people with enough, to the new world of his Kingdom where there will be an overflowing abundance for all people. We see this in the well known story of “The Feeding of the 5000” which appears in all four Gospels. Here we see Jesus take the old story of the manna in the wilderness and but move it into the new and more abundant world of the Kingdom.

Read and reflect on John 6:1-15. What stands out for you in this story?

How does it connect with the story of the Manna (notice that John tells it happened during Passover when the Exodus story is remembered by Jews)? What is similar to the story from Exodus? What is different? Do you find hope in the fact that Jesus provides not only enough for all, but that in the end there is more than twelve baskets full left over when all have eaten their fill? What might this suggest about the blessings Jesus gives us, and the blessings he allows us to share with each other (like the boy with his loaves and fishes)?

Now so far we have been talking mainly about material things. There are of course other goods and blessings in life. Indeed having our physical needs met is almost never enough for us to have a good life.

Read on a little further to John 6:25-27. What do you think Jesus means by “food that endures for eternal life”? What kind of bread or food do we spend most of our lives working for?

*This study is adapted from Abundance: Living Responsibly with God’s Gifts by John W. Peterson published by Abingdon Press in 2001.

Risen

Seeing as I’ve been doing a run of video posts for Holy Week, I figure I should post one more for Easter to make a trilogy (or trinity) of it. In Sunday’s sermon I talked about how I always go searching through the media leading up to Easter for things to do with Jesus – every year you’re guaranteed to see something released, be it a variety of articles, a book, a documentary, or a movie. This year was pretty quiet though.

There was one exception though, and surprisingly it is a thoroughly orthodox look at Jesus and the Resurrection. It’s called Risen been released through a major studio (Columbia Pictures) and starts two well known Hollywood actors: Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, Enemy at the Gates) and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter films); but it takes Jesus’ resurrection seriously and stays fairly close the Gospel accounts.

It’s also well written, directed, produced and acted. Not the best film I’ve seen, but well done. And it’s not overly preachy. It takes the perspective of Fiennes’ character, a Roman military Tribune named Clavius who is given the job of finding Jesus’ body after Easter by Pontius Pilate. Clavius is a hardened soldier, pragmatic and skeptical, and there is actually some genuine tension in the search (even though you can guess the outcome from what I’ve said so far).

In short it’s a rare gem – a Christian film I wouldn’t be embarrassed to take my non-Christian friends to see. Too bad it’s already out of theatres (it only ran for a couple of weeks up here in Canada and was gone by Easter). It will however be out on DVD and other media in May or June.

So if you want a Jesus film you can actually show to someone who isn’t already a Christian, or just a reminder of how unexpected and overwhelming the Resurrection was for those who first experienced it, Risen is worth looking at. Below I’ve included the better of the two trailers (mild warning: it does include a brief glimpse from the crucifixion), and a short clip from the movie itself.

 

Good Friday Video

As I sit at my desk here in the church, with branches cracking and booming, ice on the ground and the fog so thick I can hardly see the old school out the window, I am earnestly praying for better weather tomorrow. But if the weather keeps you inside tomorrow, or you’re travelling to be with family or otherwise occupied here’s another Holy Week video from Sparkhouse.

This more somber animated piece is helpful for reflecting on the challenging subject of Good Friday. I find it manages to give us some images of Jesus’ suffering and death to meditate on that aren’t too graphic or upsetting – though I suggest parents view it first and determine for yourselves whether you think it would be appropriate for your own children.

Good Friday can be a tough subject for us all, and especially in how we explain it to children, so I hope this will be useful for at least some of you.

Palm Sunday Fun

It’s been a busy week, so I don’t yet have a follow up for my last post written up yet. So in the mean time here’s a fun video for Palm Sunday from the good folks over at Sparkhouse. But while it’s fun for all ages (and good for a laugh) watch closely, because there are some things in the video to think about what Palm Sunday means, and where we’ll be going on our journey this Holy Week.

 

Call and Answer

reject-call

“So how did you know you were called here?” is a question I’ve been asked more than a few times already in these early days at St. Andrew’s. I take this as a good sign, because even among Presbyterians who have a strong theology of God’s calling (on paper at least), all too often the relationship between a congregation and a minister is thought of in terms of a job search or hiring process.

Now, this can simply be a matter of honesty. Sadly there are far too many cases where the calling of a minister or pastor to a local congregation or parish differs little from the hiring or staff transfer process in a secular organization. Some churches in the name of honesty have given up on the language of “call” entirely for this reason.

That said I’m glad Presbyterians in Canada have held on to the language of call and calling, even if the process all too often falls short of such an exalted concept. And that’s because for me it’s not just a matter of abstract theology, it’s a matter of lived experience. As a preacher’s kid I watched my parents often wrestle with the question of call, especially in the difficult times of ministry (“Were we really called here?”) and in the long years where the higher principles of call did battle with the realities of keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. And now as a minister myself I too have had to face those questions head on in the more challenging times of my first five and a half years of ministry.

So can we really know if God is calling us to be somewhere, do something or take up a particular role or vocation in the the church or world at large? The resounding answer for me is “YES!”

I won’t pretend that it’s always clear or obvious, but I can say with abolute certainty that God can and does speak to us. How can be so sure? Well I definitely would not be a Christian minister today if it weren’t for the words Jesus spoke to me in my residence room at McMaster University 15 years ago this past January.

This isn’t something that happens to me regularly, in fact to date that has been the only time in my life that God has spoken to me with such clarity. Never before or since have I heard actual words from the Lord. But I did that day.

I can tell you it was the strangest thing I had yet experienced. I was looking out my window in Woodstock Hall when all of a sudden in what I can only call words without words – I didn’t hear them as a sound in my ears, it was more like a message spoken directly into my head – I heard a voice say “John, there’s something I need you to do.”

Now that might seem rather vague, but as soon as I heard the words I also knew two things without a shadow a doubt: 1) the words were spoken by Jesus; 2) and what he wanted me to do was to become a minister. Don’t ask me how I knew, I just did. Which is why my first response was to be profoundly angry and mutter to myself something along the lines of “you gotta be …. kidding me.” Of course I immediately took that back, as I was still of the mistaken opinion that you weren’t allowed to be angry at God or talk back to him. But that was my gut response.

And that’s why I say I wouldn’t be a minister today if Christ hadn’t called me by name and told me to go and serve him as a minister in his Church. As a preacher’s kid I had seen ministry take it’s toll on my parents, known our struggles as a family to survive, and felt the kind of pain that only comes when the church hurts you. I wanted no part of that, and it was only after two and a half years of running away from God that I said yes.

I’m only here today looking out the window of the minister’s office at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Ancaster because Christ spoke to me, called me by name and told me to follow. I had no doubt then, and I have no doubts now. This is what I am called to do.

So does God call us, speak to us and personally guide us today? Absolutely. Is it usually that clear? Nope. As I said, it was only that clear once. But the longer I walk with the Lord, and the more time I spend learning to listen for his voice, and look for signs he gives us, I have found that yes, he does regularly call and guide us if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

So how do I know I was called specifically here to be the minsiter of St. Andrew’s at this moment in time? Well, that’s something I’ll save for my next post.

New Year, New Ministry: Saying Hello & Goodbye

Norval Credit 1

While my New Year’s sort-of-resolution was to blog more I’ve been silent since my first post at this new location until now. And as the title suggests there’s a good reason for that. Back in January I preached for the Call to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Ancaster (Hamilton) Ontario.

The Presbyterian way of calling ministers from one congregation to the next tends to be a fairly slow process (though parts of the process can move quite quickly) and one which requires confidentiality. All of this means that though I received the unanimous support of the congregation on January 10th, the call didn’t become official until both Presbyteries approved it. Which happened past week.

So, while many people have been told in person or through private correspondence I haven’t said anything online until now. The upside is that this has given me a chance to reflect a little on how this call has worked out and what the Spirit has been trying to show me through all of this.

One of the things I’ve noticed is both how similar the process has been from my call to Norval Presbyterian back in 2010 and how incredibly different it has been. The common element (and one I’m deeply grateful for) is how God has made his hand quite clear in all of this. There have been so many little hints (and a few big ones) along the way that it is truly Christ calling me to be the minister of St. Andrew’s at this moment in time. It was the same with Norval. Both times the whole process has felt completely Spirit led.

At the same time, there is one huge difference. Back in 2010 I was a new grad simply being called somewhere. Here in 2016 I am being called away from one congregation even as I am being called to another. This time I’m saying goodbye as well as hello. This time their’s grief along with the joy.

Ministry is a funny thing (in more than a few ways). As a minister, priest or pastor you tend to form such deep relationships with people in the time you lead and care for a congregation, but when and if (and for most people it’s when) you find yourself called elsewhere you have to let those relationships go. For the long term health of the congregation and whoever succeeds you, you have to. Suddenly you have to walk away from all these people who formed such a big part of your life, and have played such a big role in your spiritual journey (especially if it’s your first congregation or parish as Norval was for me).

With one week to go before I formally take up my minstry at St. Andrew’s I am filled with great excitement and anticipation. I have such hopes for my ministry among and alongside the people I have met as I have discerned my call there. And yet on one level it all feels so strange, and I continue to feel sadness along with the joy of a new beginning.

So here we go. Hello and goodbye. Such is life in ministry. But, God willing, I hope it’s a long time before I have to walk this road again.

New Year, New Blog Host

happy-new-year-2016-dark-desktop-wallpaper It’s been a custom of mine for a while now to start each year with some form of resolution or hope that I’ll get back to blogging more regularly. After a decent start in 2015 (5 posts in 2 months) the last posting on my old blog was on March 9…

So here’s hoping this year will be better. Though to be fair to myself, I’ve had something of a quiet spiritual awakening over the course of the fall and early winter that’s slowly grown out a private retreat I made myself go on back in August. It’s been very gradual, growing out of a deeper commitment to regular prayer, scripture reading and taking up some different forms of prayer. It’s been hard work (even though it’s ultimately God’s grace that’s brought me to this point and kept me going) and I really haven’t had the time or energy for blogging.

But as I look forward to a new year and back on the year that has been I feel well enough established in this new and more life giving pattern to stick my head up again and try my hand at blogging again.

All of which led me to think of my platform. Quickly looking up an article on blogging platforms, I confirmed my suspicion that my old platform of Blogger is dead and buried. So here we are, a shiny new version of my blog here on the well established and nicely (and regularly) updated platform of WordPress. I’ll be learning WordPress again (I used it in a former incarnation of the church website) so the look of the blog will probably change  as I figure things out, but this is my stake in new ground. I may also repost some my better content from my old blog here (at least the stuff that won’t date too badly).

So here’s hoping I’ll have something new to say about blogging in January 2017.

Grace and peace to you in 2016.

John