Category: Pastor’s Pen

Dealing with disappointment

I guess we are all familiar with disappointments and can tell story after story about disappointments we experienced as a children and even as adults. It’s also no secret that different personalities handle these disappointments very differently. On the one extreme people will simply go quiet and withdraw, while on the other end of the spectrum people will react verbally, with anger, and much emotion.

Most of us had hoped that, by now, this Coronavirus would be “under control”, whatever “under control” means. Maybe that life as we used to know it (how long ago was it?) will return, or that medical science would have come up with a treatment that works, or that the thing will simply go away! But here we are … facing yet another lockdown as cases in Europe (and other countries) seem to spiral out of control. What a disappointment! Most of us are tired of this way of life, forced to stay indoors, wear masks, meet via cyberspace, keep social distancing, and much more. Psychologists actually refer to it as COVID fatigue and even Zoom fatigue! Tired, disappointed.

There is an incident in the life of Samuel that may help us shift or focus during this current disappointment. The first king of Israel, Saul, selected by God and anointed by Samuel, became a major disappointment to both God and Samuel because of disobedience. This caused much mourning on the part of Samuel (1 Sam 15:35) … until God said to him, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons” (1 Sam 16:1).

In the midst of grief, disappointment and mourning over Saul, God found King David, from whom would come the King and Messiah, Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Maybe the message for us is: Look up, look ahead, look around to see what God can bring about in the midst of this pandemic!

Patience…

For a while now we’ve looked at the Book of Judges, digging for gold, which I see mainly as the characteristics of God. Each Sunday we’ve discovered some aspect of how God is revealed to us in the lives and experiences of the “judges”. It’s certainly not the only way to look at the Book of Judges, but it has been helpful to me to work through some very tough (and most often disappointing!) stories and incidents in the life of Israel and her leaders.

One of the main characteristics in the book is the patience of God. There are many definitions of patience, but one puts it this way: it’s “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious”. Looking at the sinfulness of God’s people in Judges, there is no doubt that God had to exercise constraint in not simply killing them off or destroying them in order to start over again. But, such is the patience of God. God is God, God is full of grace, and God had a plan. Even now God is patient, not only with those outside the Kingdom, but also in offering ongoing forgiveness to us when we sin and repent.

Many years after Judges God’s patience resulted in the coming of Jesus to this world to die for our sins. Jesus himself showed patience in bearing with rejection, misunderstanding of his ministry and his final goal, but He “endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2) in order to finish the task of bringing salvation to the world. The author of Hebrews therefore encourages us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (12:1-2). New Testament authors also encourage us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus by pursuing the same attitudes He had – among others, patience, as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).

I can think of no better time to be reminded to be patient than right now during this pandemic. It seems as if this “thing” is going to be with us for a while. As followers of Christ, let us display the attitude of Jesus and thereby be true witnesses to the world in how to endure in times of trial and difficulties.

Waiting

I recently followed a devotional on the Bible app Youversion, about waiting on the Lord, written by Charles Stanley, well-known pastor of a large church in Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t know if it was written specifically for this COVID-19 time, but I certainly found it very appropriate for this time of waiting for the virus to “go away”! Most of us have experienced some form of waiting, quarantine, isolation and even loneliness – all because of a virus that has stopped the world in its tracks. And it’s not all over yet, with recurrences, a “second wave” and a variety of different kinds of experiences. It seems it will take a while before things settle and we have some form of (new) normal again.

The theme of waiting runs throughout Scripture. It looks like the Bible sees it as a normal part of life. Whether it’s waiting for healing, waiting for peace, waiting for the Lord to answer a prayer, waiting for persecution to end – it is accepted as life-as-we-know-it.

It’s also important to note in Scripture that the “waiting” experience is described in light of our relationship with God. Instead of simply complaining or getting angry, believers in the Bible take their plea to God. A good example is found in Psalm 27, where David expresses his faith in God while acknowledging the difficulties he is going through. He mentions severe challenges, such as experiencing the wicked against him, being besieged by the enemy, having to fight a war and living through days of trouble. But in all of this he takes his refuge to God, saying: “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?

While we are waiting and when are in the midst of the most severe trials, we can have hope, as long as we focus on God, our Rock and Salvation. Isaiah reminds us that “they that wait upon the Lord, shall renew their strength” (Is 40:31). May the Lord strengthen us and increase our patience as we trust Him during this time of waiting.

Broken dreams

It was (and still is) both scary and comforting to go through the lockdown experience during COVID-19. Scary to think what a small virus can do to the world as we know it, but also refreshing to experience the calm and quiet of a whole global world forced to take a break from the mad rush. It was good not to have the usual rush and were forced to reconsider the lie that we keep telling ourselves that we have to be busy all the time in order to find meaning in life. I also liked the fact that, at least in part, there was more appreciation for God’s creation as wild animals visited places they are not normally seen and cities were cleared of much of the smog caused by our demand for comfort.

It was like living in a dream world … well, almost!

But my dream world was quickly shattered by the usual (evil) realities, such as the wars in Syria and Yemen that were still happening (just pushed off the front pages by a tiny virus), while other diseases, bad politics (politicians!), corruption and global evils like poverty and hunger have not gone away. But perhaps the biggest bubble-burst reality was the rude awakening that racial harmony was very far from being experienced around the world, as highlighted by the senseless killing of an African American man and the consequent unrests, spreading around the USA and many parts of the world.

We live in a restless world. There is no lack of finding evidence of a world yearning for peace and harmony, but seem to always struggle to find it. Human organizations, talks, committees and all other efforts have failed to provide permanent peace.

And yet, we should not lose the dream of peace, rest and harmony. This is precisely why Jesus came, to mend a broken world, to revive our broken dreams. These dreams can only become reality if we truly believe in and follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, stepping into his footsteps by living as He did, striving not only to personally experience his peace, but also to become his “blessed are the peacemakers” in this world (Matthew 5:9).

May the Lord increase our peace as we seek to be instruments of peace for Him in His kingdom.

Lest we forget…

We’ve been in lockdown now since early March, with a slow opening up the economy and relaxing of the restrictions. While we were in the middle of it all, first quarantined for fourteen days and then severely restricted in terms of travel and shopping, it felt like an eternity of “sitting at home, doing nothing”. Not that I was doing nothing, but it felt weird to not being able to simply go somewhere, visit people, have church and so on.

At the end of May there is a kind-of lifting of the restrictions, as long as we still stay within the Slovak borders, of course. Joan and I have been going shopping a little bit more than a month ago, and I am struck at how life seems to get back to some form of normality, seen in how traffic patterns get back to jams, people shopping like crazy, visits to friends and family becoming more relaxed, and many other signs that we’re on the way to life as we used to know it.

And yet, something inside me is objecting! Humans easily forget, even despite the pictures we take, monuments we erects and entrances into our history books. I want to hold on to some of the lessons we learned during this time (and continue to learn). These include at least a more reflective life, taking time to enjoy quietness, learning to enjoy silence, getting away from the mad rush around us, appreciating regular contact with others by asking how they are coping (despite happening via Zoom, Whatsapp or social media) and many other things we should not forget as we get back into the routine of “normal” life. Maybe there should be a new normal for us as we “get out” of this time.

God knew that we easily forget and therefore instituted days and rituals or remembrance, such as Passover for the Jews and The Lord’s Supper for followers of Jesus Christ … all of this “lest we forget”. Make a note (physical or mental) of what you’ve learned to appreciate during this time, and make a point of remembering the lessons.

Corona and Freedom

We are currently in the middle of the strangest time I have ever experienced in my life on earth – and I’ve been around for a little while. A tiny virus, invisible to the naked eye, has shut down the world! The results of this (almost) world-wide lockdown have been varied, with both positive and negative responses. On the negative side we have seen more than the usual number of deaths around the world, people live in fear, we are limited by “social distancing”, and virtually every country’s economy is on its knees. We have yet to see the damage that has been done to businesses, income, wealth, travel and even health.

But there have also been, almost ironically, some positive spin-offs so far. The streets are quieter, very little rush-hour traffic, life is less rushed, we are forced to re-evaluate our priorities, families are spending more time together, there is much less pollution in cities, and a host of other things that may help us to hit the restart button to hopefully a “new normal” once this is all over.

I’ve been intrigued by the reaction to government measures around the world. There is, not unexpectedly, a whole range of responses, from simply accepting the lockdown to outrage that “our human right to freedom is being violated”. This made me think about the concept of freedom (read “human rights”), which certainly must be understood as coming with certain limitations. For example, my freedom does not allow me to take another person’s life. Our right to freedom is limited by our responsibility to behave in ethical and moral ways, respecting other people’s freedom too.

This is true in the spiritual realm as well. Recently we celebrated Easter, emphasizing that Jesus came to set us free – free from the guilt of sin, free from condemnation and free from legalism. But this kind of freedom is not a license to sin, as Paul reminds us we “were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh” (Galatians 5:13; see also 1 Peter 2:16). Christians are saved by God’s grace to experience the freedom that Christ brought and bought (“If the Son has set you free you shall be free indeed” John 8:36). But this very freedom is limited by grace, since our understanding of God’s grace compels us to stay away from the contamination of sin. Our freedom from the bondage of sin sets us free to love, serve and worship Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.

May this freedom-robbing-virus-time help us to fall more deeply in love with Jesus!

Giving and Gaining

I have enjoyed doing the short series of four sermons on the life of Hannah, which I called Life with Hannah, based on 1 Samuel 1 & 2. There are many lessons to learn from her story and experience and I don’t want to repeat the sermon series here! The one lesson I would like to focus on is how Hannah gave up much, but gained so much more. Hannah was willing to give up her precious son, Samuel, but gained so much more from it, not least the fact that this son became a major instrument for change in God’s plan for Israel.

As I reflect on the more than five years of ministry in Bratislava at our church, I am full of gratitude to the Lord and his people for allowing me this privilege. Being involved in the lives of (mostly) internationals have some real benefits, such as rubbing shoulders with and learning from other cultures, discovering family I didn’t know I had! Our church is a true “family away from home”.

Most of us would feel that we have gained much from being in Bratislava, meeting different people, being exposed to a “world out there” we didn’t know before. All of the interactions, people from other parts of the world, different food tastes, opportunities to travel to parts of the world I have only heard of – all of these are wonderful “gains”, privileges and gifts received from the Lord and his people.

But it is also true to say that these “gains” have come at the cost of “giving” – giving up what is familiar to us. For most of us, even those who left home elsewhere in Slovakia, it is a big sacrifice leaving what is familiar to us (language, home, culture, food, family) in exchange for being enriched by a different country, world, culture and foreigners.

The great benefit of belonging to a church like ours is that we can continue to worship the Lord, seek fellowship with other Christians and belong to our “family away from home”. Thank you for being part of this family and for being our family!

Looking back

The year 2020 has arrived! A New Year is always an opportunity for us to reflect on what the Lord has done for us in the past year, but also to look at where He may be leading us in the future. As we look back on the year 2019 there is much that our church can be grateful for. I can think of at least the following highlight, and it’s not a complete list.

  • Consistent Sunday attendance. Thank you to all who attend on a regular basis to make our Sunday worship times special. We even had a great first-time Easter Friday service.
  • Worship team participants. It is quite amazing that, despite the transient nature of our church, there are always people to make music and lead our times of worship in song, including our first-ever Christmas music choir and band! Thank you to the worship team members.
  • Leadership provided. The Church Council has again been helping, meeting, guiding and leading the church this past year. Over the past few years there has been great consistency regarding Council members. This is a good asset for a church like ours, providing much-needed stability in a changing environment. Thank you to leaders of different ministries.
  • Regular times of fellowship around meals. Monthly potlucks, Bible study meals every week, and also the very special times of eating (too much!) at Thanksgiving and Christmas. These are wonderful opportunities of fellowship and binding us together, as well as reaching out to others in our city.
  • Purchase of the church property. We are now a church that owns its own apartment to accommodate the pastor (current and future). This is truly a great blessing from the Lord, especially considering the fact that we had to rent apartments for many years, as well as receiving a major financial gift from the International Baptist Convention. The apartment will no doubt provide even more stability to our church as we go into the future. Once again, thank you to those who supported this decision, and especially to Pete and Vierka who spent many hours working on the legal side of things.

As we enter this New Year, may the Lord help us as we worship Him, fellowship with one another, being “family away from home” for many, and seek to reach more people for Him in our city and beyond. Let us attempt to do much more for the Lord in this year. May you have a blessed 2020!

Mary, did you know?

The Christmas story is not complete without reading about, remembering, portraying (often by children in plays) or simply marveling at the way God brought his Son into the world through a young woman from Nazareth named Mary. In some church traditions this has captured the imagination so much that there is more than simply respect, but some form of worship of Mary as the mother of Jesus, ascribing to her a kind-of mediatory role to have access to Jesus. Although in the church tradition that we represent we avoid doing so, it is worth sparing a moment to remember Mary’s role in God’s provision of salvation for sinners.

Despite the fact that many suggestions, traditions and stories of legendary value arose around Mary, we don’t know anything beyond what the Bible mentions about her. But let’s think about what we do know.

She was young, born and raised in a peasant’s family – not the kind of family of special standing in the 1st Century society. She lived in a male-dominated society – not many women in that world would make it into prominence or history books. She was a simple believer in God, willing to receive a message from God, committing to something she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. Her dreams of a “normal” life of getting engaged, marrying her future husband, living in her village, and raising a “normal” family … all of these were rudely interrupted by God, maybe even shattered by what she heard and (initially) experienced.

Yet, with absolute blind faith in the God whom she served from childhood, she put her trust and her future into His hands by simply saying “I am the servantof the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

The Christmas story requires more than remembering or retelling the birth of Jesus. It demands our adoration, worship and obedience to the One who was willing to be born as a human to identify with us, and to pay the penalty for our sins in order to offer us forgiveness. Mary sets an example of someone who was willing to allow God to interrupt her normal life in order to receive life as only God can give it – life to the full, abundant, joyful, meaningful, eternal.

If God chose Mary to be the mother of His Son born as a human, then God can choose us for any role He plans for us to have. And if Mary could say “yes” to God, then surely we can also commit to be available to serve the Almighty God who gave his only Son to bring us forgiveness. Let us therefore not only celebrate Christmas with trees, lights and gifts, but with obedience and worship!

Connections!

As people created in the image of God we crave fellowship, contact, conversation, staying updated on news from family and friends – the main reason why social media such as Facebook have become so popular and virtually a part of our everyday existence. In short, we all like to stay connected.

For any person who believes in God and who, through Jesus Christ, has a personal relationship with God, it is important to stay connected to God. We often refer to this as our relationship with God. It mainly happens through Bible reading, study of Scripture, prayer, listening to the Word proclaimed, asking God for guidance, depending on the Holy Spirit to guide us in all that we do. We refer to this as our vertical relationship.

But we also have a major need and obligation to stay connected horizontally. In other words, God created us with a need to relate to other human beings around us, such as our family members, friends, colleagues and fellow Christians. For those of us who are followers of Christ this happens primarily when we are part of a local church where we support one another, pray for each other, and encourage each other to remain connected with God. The key word in the previous sentence is “another”. It is amazing to note how many times the New Testament refers to the “one another” aspect of our faith! (See an interesting article on this aspect at http://www.smallgroupchurches.com/the-59-one-anothers-of-the-bible/)

I sometimes refer to our horizontal relationships as our “connections”. I have even used the term to refer to our children’s friends and (now) spouses! I don’t know whether they were always impressed with my reference, but these are the kind of relationships that keep us connected with our social world, our family and friends. In the past while we’ve had several visits in Bratislava from people we’ve known or worked with in the past, and it was good to catch up with some our past connections! It reminded me how important it is to build bridges while I can, to live in community, to give attention to these connections of mine. We have that opportunity here in Bratislava. Whether we are here for a short while or for a longer term, let us build relationships, connect with each other, let us make sure we are well-connected with others in our church. These connections may stand us in good stead in the future!