An Alternative to Hate

When I was a kid my friends and I would build tree forts amidst the Canadian boreal forest. Mosquitoes, spruce bugs and a variety of flies would bug us as we chopped trees down and fashioned together our forts, but they never deterred us from working together and getting the job done. Sometimes circumstances and attitudes can limit our possibilities, even to the point of rage and hate. There is much to be angry at in our highly politicized and divisive environment. Yet, much of what we see and hear through the various forms of media are but flies that can be faced in a productive and good manner. We can overcome the hate. We can concentrate on the good amidst us.

In the book of Exodus, Moses is commissioned by God to challenge the hate of Pharaoh. Sometimes we cannot ignore the consequences of hatred and evil but must (and through the strength and wisdom of Christ) come face to face with it and work towards productive and life giving solutions. Solutions can come easily and quickly, but usually they take time and effort. Regardless, we are to pray and love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), hold each other accountable (Galatians 6:1-2), and confront those who use hateful words for the sake of attention (Ephesians 5:11-12).

Clashing with hatred and evil takes a lot of faith. Let us work towards peace and joy as outlined in the Bible and trust the work of Christ in us, through us and with us. He is always faithful. Keep your eyes on Him and the world will see you as an alternative to hate.


Life is Not a Dead End

People feel like life is a dead end and you wouldn’t even know it. They appear to be moving towards peace, love and joy, but the awful truth is they are great at disguising their stalemate. The postmodern world necessities it. There isn’t time to talk about what troubles them, nor many ears to hear. And those who could hear are too distracted or overwhelmed, or when they finally do have time, they haven’t an answer. Or, perhaps, they have a solution but it isn’t congruent or desired. And so, people feel like life is a dead end.

Growing up, I knew of a dead end. A paved street amidst rows of houses, some two story and old as the Great War with flush green yards and chain fences. The street came to an abrupt end. That’s it. If you’re driving, turn around or sit there and stare at the concrete curb or the white barrier or the clump of trees overshadowing the dead end street. There isn’t many options in a vehicle, but on foot you’ve got a host of possibilities. For beyond the curb and barrier lay a path, into the trees and beyond the dead end. So too is the Christian life. Here are three approaches to life that lead to dead ends and three counter approaches that lead to life and the Author of life.

Ambition

Ambition moderated will suffice. Yet left on it’s own, and apart from virtue, it becomes a demanding steward of your very life. The overly ambitious constantly complain. They are never content and always critique the works of others. They envy and gossip with jealous zeal. Friendships fail to mature because the primary focus is on the acquisition of a good yet attained. Though once achieved the focus shifts to another mountain to climb. There isn’t time for rest or the view. One must march on. The overly ambitious tire those around them, and finally themselves, successful or not, into a retreat of depressive anger. They are without peace.

Peace

“His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7b). The road of ambition is thrilling but requires a lot of energy. It burns people out. Anger wells in disappointment. Everyone has disappointments. Guard yourself with the peace of Christ. Redirect your ambition to be a person of peace. Moderate it with self control and you will walk the path of life with peace in your heart and a mind clear from the weight of failures. You will walk with Jesus and hum, “it is well with my soul.”

Approval

Approval moderated will suffice. Gaining the approval of those who discern the difference between good and evil is a boon worth more than a million likes. But those who seek constant approval are desperate for affirmation. They haven’t the resources of inner strength and the knowledge of who they truly are to walk with sure steps. They constantly forget who created them and who gave purpose and order to their steps. Wayward, inconsistent, unreliable, and always in need characterizes their end of the friendship. They take and hastily give but take the wrong things from the wrong people and give to their determent. They are in need of love.

Love

“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love” (Jn 15:9). The road of approval is a promise never kept and a burden always felt. It’s mysterious in that it causes people to shrink the further they travel. Less of them is possible. They require affirmation from confidants and then acquaintances and then strangers in person and online. Take the easier path and surrender to the love of Christ. Moderate your need of approval with first hand experience of His love. If you haven’t yet had His love, ask for it. Seek it as you had with approval and lo, the path will open to you and you will walk with Jesus and hum, “Jesus loves me.”

Appetite

Appetite moderated will suffice. Yet left on its own, and apart from virtue, it will destroy your life. Those overrunning with desires chase pleasure with reckless abandon. They love to pursue and feast heartily on amusements but are never amused. They demand more. They’ve seen it all, usually by the age of sixteen, and slink along with guant souls, starving for meaning and joy. They become jaded, approach friendships with unapologetic shallowness and thus instill life with nihilism. “Paths are just paths to nowhere”, they conclude. Eat and drink merely, for tomorrow we die! They believe this sentiment because they are at a joyless dead end and cannot see the path nor the One who bequeaths joy. They are in need of Him and His great gift.

Joy

“You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1:8-9). The road of the appetites is fraught with unseen peril. A fog of delight engulfs and sleepily confuses. Just to lay down for a moment turns into an eternity of missed opportunities and regret. All of which is overcome when we venture towards the higher grounds of Christ and take up the glories of His joy. Vision is gained. Gladness beams from the soul. Seek the joy of the Lord and be delightfully amazed as you walk with energy and a bounce in your step amidst the presence of Jesus, humming “I’ve got joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart”.

Because of Christ, life is not a dead end. Realign your ambitions, need for approval and appetites with Him, and you will walk a good path of peace, love and joy.

Thanksgiving is Good for the Soul

Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father (Colossians 3:16-17).

The full, content life doesn’t have room nor time for bitterness or complaints. Grumbling, the norm and virtue for cultural puritans, cannot comment on gratitude in any meaningful way because they are primarily concerned with fighting and acquiring power for personal and societal reasons. All work and no play . . . and yet, many Christians too have been pulled into the grip of griping. They bemoan in their impoverished spirits, having neglected the riches of Christ, attributing their highest happiness to materialism, statues, money, political parties, popularity, and on and on. There are goods to be had, no doubt, but they are not the fullness of life: only God can be that which our souls yearn for the most. And once satisfied, the soul is replete with thanksgiving that goes beyond the pale of televised accolades.

A thankful heart is also resilient. It is not easily swayed by circumstances or peoples perceptions. It does not readily give in when others disagree or settle on contrary opinions. The thankful heart approaches the day with joy and a song that’s sweet and light, rising from the sidewalks through branches and clouds, beyond the stars to the very heavenly seat of Christ. The seriousness of the day isn’t lost on the buoyant soul. Weighty matters ought to boggle and cause some soul searching. But they need not drag appreciation from our storehouse of goods. We are stronger and freer in thanksgiving, able to fully appreciate God’s goodness and weather the storms of life. We have true shelter amidst complainers, who have abdicated blessings for that which they have not; and ever, do they wonder, why they will eternally be impoverished? If you let go of what God has given you, what makes you sure that God will give again? He is no dusted-off-genie out of a lamp, ready to grant wishes; for you see, you haven’t rescued Him, but He you.

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others (Cicero).

This Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks to our Creator and Savior, to our friends and family, to all those who came before us to give us our way of life, and let us do this not as a one time ceremony but as a way of life.

Pastor Aaron Talbot

The Light for a Dark Heart

A dark heart knows no end to gloom. Abundantly shower the dark heart with goods and resentment will squander every faithful gift, every act of mercy, every gesture of grace, every surprising hope, and every measure of love. The dark heart, if it’s to be rescued, must be flooded with the love of Christ.

“O righteous Father, the world doesn’t know you, but I do; and these disciples know you sent me. I have revealed you to them, and I will continue to do so. Then your love for me will be in them, and I will be in them” (John 17:25-26).

The love of the Father through the Son illuminates and frees the dark heart from its self dug grave of resentment. Lovingly embracing (believing) Jesus necessitates that we drop the shovel and step out of the lonely, cold dirt for abundant life. The Father’s providential purpose is clarified in our lives as we walk towards then with Him. His ways become our ways. And our dark hearts become full of His light and full of His love.


A Beacon Of Gratitude Shines In The Following Fog Of Events:

One month ago, Easter descended on our community with the fervor of a child seeking chocolate eggs at the crack of dawn, basket in hand. The sugar rush lasts throughout the morning but wanes sometime around noon, as too the Pastor’s ability to focus on any particular voice after a long day of preaching, meetings, counseling and the like. This happened to me a few days ago. Coming home from a long day at the office, I found myself exhausted, and, as Melisa related something of her day to me, I could not for the life of me, in that moment, concentrate on the sequence of sentences that spilled from her lips. I nodded in approval of what was said, but it didn’t make any sense. She noticed by the look on my face that I’d somehow misinterpreted her, so she reiterated. I agreed, again, but this time changed my tone and so was able to navigate the fog.

But where’d the fog come from, and why was I wandering around in it?

A lot happens in The Valley. There are events for everything, and this is something that I’m curiously growing accustomed to. On one hand, I like the pace and productivity. Tulare county is known for its high production of dairy and grows nearly anything under the sun. There is an old fashioned work ethic that's somehow survived post-modernity and reminds me of hauling barrel sized stumps and logs out of the bush. My father, brother and I would cut up wet poplar, spruce and pine and drag them to the truck, loading the box to the max for a slow ride home. The wood would sit for a year beside the garage and then we'd split the stuff into fours when it was properly dried. The logs would pop and crack under the slow, merciless hydraulics of the wood splitter.

On the other hand the sheer pace of running from one event to the next is a little maddening. There’s nothing hard about going to events and shaking hands and passing out contact info and drinking coffee and chatting about the differences between Canada and California (most notably the weather) and sitting through the National Day of Prayer after a hearty breakfast. I don’t feel worn because of that. But I do feel hollow when I haven’t had much time to pray and think. Being a busybody is precisely that - the soul passively moves from one place to the next, one interaction to another, and is deprived of nourishment. The soul is slow. It, I mean me and probably you too, need a human pace that’s divinely orchestrated rather than mechanically synchronized for surface level encounters. Less is more, as they say, and, they’re right in the way 1 John 2:17 is right: “And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.” Simplicity in this age of hyped-spectacle glut is golden because it reminds us of our mortal natures. Thank the Lord we have the freedom in Christ to turn off our devices, say no to a few things and walk in His creation as we first did.

The mountains out here are never far away, nor the ocean for that matter. I’m told that many in The Valley get away from it all with quick trips to either location, but not always. About a week and a half after Easter Sunday, a friend invited me to the Sequoia Cycling Classic, a day long hodgepodge of bike races in downtown Visalia. We watched a couple hours of racing and even walked the track to get a better sense of the corners. There were a few announcers who kept the crowd into it and a beer garden about half full, with the rest of the spectators milling either around the finish line or by some of the booths selling tacos and bike gear. You watched because you either were into cycling and racing or knew a competitor. Or because you were just passing through . . . which got me thinking about how hard it was to train for anything, let alone 30 to 75 minute high speed races of constant pedaling and maneuvering. Looking from the sidelines, I could relate with the discipline needed to just make the event and was struck with an odd sensation that had somehow been hidden among the fog: gratitude.   

* * *

The trek to Phoenix, Arizona for the Church of God Regional Convention pushed us along nine hours of freeways and semi-trailers. There isn’t much for the mind to think about after the first few hours, but Ben Hayes (Youth Pastor outta Exeter, Church of God) and I knew the drill. We’re both from Western Canada and have driven through its vast tracts of prairie, Rockies and snow drift nights to know that good conversation can get you six, maybe seven-hundred miles. After that, sections of the brain start to shut down, leaving only the lights on in the primordial areas. Once arriving, it gives you that oh-we’re-here-already effect; the numb feeling of fatigue where the last hundred miles are somehow obliterated from memory.

Pulling into Maricopa, I asked Ben about our host.

" I don’t know him.”

“You don’t know him”, I replied, suddenly feeling alert.

“Yeah, I talked to him over the phone once for about forty-five minutes, but I’ve never met the guy.”

This is how Youth Pastors role. They’re betwixt weird worlds of teenagers and adults and have to pull off late nights and early mornings with relational zeal hovering somewhere around professionalism, but not too much, lest they be considered an Associate. Spontaneity is key in order to be with the kids and keep up with their schedules.

Our host, Pastor Chris Leon, grew up in the Central Valley but is now ministering with his wife, Katie, and three children at Community of Hope Church. We talked for hours in their spacious kitchen as tri-tip and ribs smoked in the backyard. Chris and his wife weekly host kids from in and outside the church. They are a family on mission and take the Gospel wherever they go. And sometimes, it need only go as far as their living room.

After the meal, Ben, Chris and I decided to venture out for ice cream. We drove through the sleepy town of Maricopa and discussed the difficulties of playing the town’s disc golf course, which runs parallel to the road and rows of houses, giving any noob limited room for error and plenty of chances to be out-of-bounds over a fence or on the asphalt and under the moving tires of a SUV full of kids meandering slowly to the next soccer game.    

We pulled up to a Sonic Drive-In and proceeded to the drive thru. Looking through the long menu of ice cream, floats, shakes, and everything else, we finally settled on what we were to order. We also noticed that shakes were cheaper past eight p.m. . . . and lo and behold we were well past the hour.

“Hi, welcome to Sonic. How may I help you?”

Chris: “Yeah, are your floats also half off?”

Nothing. Did she hear us? O, wa-

“Whaaaaaat?”

Chris: “I said, are your floats half off too? It says that your shakes are but I was wondering if your floats were too?”

Nothing, again. Is there some sorta delay between us and the teenage girl at the window? Are they transmitting the message to Sonic’s headquarters in Oklahoma City before relaying it to-

“Did you want friiiiies?”

At first, I started chuckling. How’d she get fries out of that? Looking over, I noticed Chris was laughing as well and had his head slightly bent down as if not to laugh right into the microphone. That’s when Ben decided to do what was only reasonable, and answer for Chris.

Ben: “Yes. Fries.”

My chuckle began turning into a laugh. Not a full blown laugh, but a quiet, maintained laugh. Chris was laughing too and unable to cut Ben off.

“Whaaaaaaat?”

This was getting to be too much. How was our communication breaking down so badly? Amidst the laughter, Chris reiterated his question and it was met with more silence, and then this:

“DId you want to order fries, half off?”

I began laughing heartily.

Ben: “Yes. Are your fries half off?” He said it composed, as if he were the one really trying to order, not Chris.

That was it. I lost it. Tears of laughter trickled from the corners of my eyes as I laughed, crouched up into my knees in the passenger seat, thinking that this was never going to end and that somehow we’d be stuck with a few bags of lousy fries. The miscommunication kept going on, back and forth, till it was finally made clear that no one really wanted fries and Chris wanted floats half off (which they were). Driving back to Chris’s house, I was grateful to be with two spontaneous and godly men, full of ice cream and jovial banter.

* * *

Six a.m. came quick with the annoying buzzing of the alarm, and some thirty minutes later I was driving up Mooney towards the National Day of Prayer in a button up and tie. I typically don’t dress up in Tulare since California casual pervades, but decided to this time around. The Rotary Club was hosting the event, and that, at least to my assuming, groggy mind, meant a level of formality. I was right as most had dressed just formal enough to make you think twice about sneakers.

After the hearty breakfast, we listened to a local quartet sing a few songs that sounded familiar. I hadn’t heard the songs before, but I knew the sound. There was hope in their voices as they sang in harmony. Faith permeated the words and I couldn’t help but be reminded of God’s unconditional love for every soul in and outside the room. And again, like the bike rally and drive thru, a bright light of gratitude filled me and cut through the fog. As James 1:17 states, “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.” Some inner beacon of gratitude within me kept turning on as I stumbled in the fog, and it kept pointing me to Christ. I’m here because of Him and grateful that He steers me right, out of harm's way and further into His good way.

This Is My #sticksoutforHumboldt

On April 6th, around 5pm, a passenger bus carrying the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s  Humboldt Broncos - kids aged 16-21 - collided with a semi-trailer in devastating force at the Highway 335 junction not far from Tisdale, SK. A town of just over three-thousand people, Tisdale is considered the Honey Capital of the province and an important agricultural center for prairie dwelling farmers on the edge of the boreal forest. I’d spent a number of years ministering near Yorkton, living among farmers and miners alike, being only a 3 hour drive from Tisdale. Growing up, I’d even hunted for whitetail with my father and brother nearly every November, sleeping in a hunting shack for days just outside of the Moose Capital of the World, Hudson Bay.

Hockey, like hunting and fishing, was an exciting part of my childhood. It was also an important component on the school-ground. As soon as the early parts of fall would turn frosty, the football would be put away for hockey sticks and yellow tennis balls. The recess bell would sound, teams would be drawn up and for fifteen glorious minutes we would vigorously play street hockey, either winning or losing but always, and undoubtedly, relishing with exuberance the time away from desks, assignments, reading out loud, rules, teachers, and above all the dreaded and confusing interactions with the opposite sex. For these were pre-dating days, and so the schoolyard was full of boys playing hockey.

But that doesn’t last long and soon enough the hockey on the streets is ignored for the serious play in the arenas. I remember going to Flin Flon Bomber games (my hockey playing experiences are limited to the most amateur settings, away from the leagues), sitting among my peers as some viciously yelled at the reefs for nearly every blown whistle against us. It was, at times, bordering the barbaric, especially when the gloves were dropped at center ice halfway through the third period of a close and frustrating 2-1 game. Load the penalty box at that moment: we didn’t care. Someone had to pay for goalie interference. Even if he’d hacked their right-wingers shines since the start of the game, a reckoning would befall all who habitually trespassed the goalie’s crease.

Those outside of hockey culture don’t get this sorta justice. But it’s an integral part of the game just as the game is an integral part of the community. Winters in Western Canada are long, brutal affairs that can easily extend into the early weeks of May. Cabin Fever is a serious problem, rigidly setting in depressions, thick as a four feet of ice on a barren lake. The hockey arena has been a good antidote amidst howling northern winds. It’s been more than a game, more than the goals and accolades, but a source of warmth for kids and adults alike. It’s at the heart of the community where generations are able to huddle together and get along over a cup of coffee and an arena burger.

The tragic death of sixteen lives has touched so many because most of us can relate with the kids, parents, trainers, coaches, bus driver, and trucker. The team is in pain, hospitalized and grieving. We grieve too in expressions ranging from anger and calls to inquiries and justice to heartfelt sadness, tears and prayer. A whole community has been rocked and there are the injured, and the parents, siblings, families and friends who are trying to make sense of the whole thing the best they can. Grief is a lot like midnight waves of the sea - it comes and goes with strange frequencies, pushing our emotions all over the place while swamping our ability to think straight. As best you can it’s better to ride it out rather than fight or ignore the waves, one day at a time. Know too that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed “ (Psalm 34:18). Through the cross, Jesus has shown us that He is never far from our pain. He too knows what it means to suffer. And as our Heavenly Father, He understands grieve. To all my friends and family in the Great White North, we are praying and grieving with you. May our Lord be with you and may His peace be in abundance.

Pastor Aaron

Breaking the News Fast, Sorta

Today my fast from the news ends and I’m reluctant to read and watch with the same level of concentration that I had forty days ago. It was refreshing to get away from the talking points, spin, illogical debates and arguments, splinters of information taken out of historical context, hype without hope, and politics. I really, really, really enjoy politics. But only in a disciplined approach away from the banter of pundits and sophistry of powerplayers. The top news networks are successfully splitting communities and families over ideologies and constant, nauseating coverage of politics. News and politics are nearly indecipherable, which is detrimental to free speech, free press and governing. The two have nearly consumed each other and are wholly concerned with propagating rather than telling the truth. Objectivity is rejected for subjective opinions and I’ve grown tired of the whole game. Furthermore, there is nothing in Scripture nor in nature that demands I keep paying attention to this vicious coliseum of childish actors appealing to our bases desires and fear.

One could argue that I ought to pay some attention so as to relate with others, but I would respond that human nature hasn't varied since the last news cycle. Also, I could easily ask a few questions to get the gist of what’s on everyone’s mind (which usually isn’t the news).

But let’s say I exercise my right to vote (as a Canadian citizen in Canada (unless the law of the land changes and allows non-citizens to suddenly vote (which could happen here in the beautiful state of California, and is an entirely different discussion for, perhaps, another blog posting))), shouldn’t I be informed and wouldn’t the news give me the best information? Of course I ought to be informed. It’s been said that Democracies get exactly what they deserve. If that’s true then I better know what each party stands for, their track record and the various people running for office. Yet even before that I should know the functions and limitations of our current politia so as to ensure that I make wise decisions. All of this takes work and interpretation, and that’s precisely how I’ve come to understand much of the news: broadcasters are interpreting for the general population and supplementing the work and study one does to discover the truth. They have become the quick fix, which rarely works out and probably never in politics. Finally, the news cannot best inform because it functions more like a mixture of vaudeville and telegram. It’s short bursts of entertainment.    

One last thought: Ephesians 6:10-12 says, “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” Fasting from the news has not only given me room to think a bit more deeply but also to pray for peace and justice. We are all in need of both and it is the work of Christ in and through us that brings this about. Our obsession with current events cannot. May Christ be our strength.