Looking Up

As a six-year-old, I spent some evenings learning from my mother to write in Chinese. She began by deftly forming several Chinese characters at the head of a large copybook and explaining what they meant. I would then copy each of her characters multiple times in a slightly crooked vertical line below her example.

I quickly discovered that, if I simply looked at the character I had just written while writing the next one, I wouldn’t have to crane my short neck nearly as far to examine my mother’s original work. This strategy seemed to work well until my mother came along and discovered that one of my characters had dropped a line, that the one below had dropped both the line and a little box, and that the third was missing the line, the box AND a central stroke. Relying on my own nearby scrawls instead of on my mother’s smooth models at the top resulted in a sort of Telephone game on paper, where each attempt became less and less like the first example. Accuracy came at the price of taking the time to look up at my mother’s work each time, no matter how confident I felt in my own imitations.

The imitation game changed as I entered teen-hood, full of insecurity over how to behave and what kind of a person I wanted to be. I started looking to role models—teachers and youth leaders, especially—to figure out this crazy rollercoaster called life. Occasionally, I had a phase of intense adoration for some female teacher or young leader. I would observe this person closely for several months, thinking admiringly, “That’s exactly how I want to behave when I grow up. I want her poise, humour, gentleness, confidence…I want to be her!”

Unfortunately, at some point in each of these phases, my blissful bubble of blind devotion popped. My practically perfect role model would do or say something which would make me think, “That’s not what I would do,” or worse, “That’s not what God would want.” There would follow a period of disappointed questioning: did I really want to imitate this person? Or was God calling me simply to be the person He had lovingly formed in my mother’s womb? To look up to His perfect example for how to live my life, even if it meant searching beyond the people around me in prayer and in His Word? In daily life decisions, would it be wiser to ask, “What would she do in this situation?” or discern what Jesus would do instead?

Today, I am a teacher with many wonderful teenage students. As much as I long to do right by them and model God’s love and character through what and how I teach, there are times when I fall short. My prayer is that my students learn to see themselves as God sees them and to know the security of being the perfect Maker’s imperfect, but beloved, child.

Thinking back fondly on my teenage “fangirl” phases, I thank God for the wisdom, character, intelligence and confidence these amazing adult women modelled for me. I believe He brings models into our lives who exude His character—we are made in His image, after all—and whom we can learn from, be it in the church or our neighbourhoods.

I also thank God for those “bubble-pop” moments of disillusionment. Although we are made in the image of God, we are not God: “all have sinned and fall short of [His] glory” (Romans 3:23). To look up to more experienced leaders and Christians is incredibly beneficial for a time, especially as we start on the journey of faith. However, to look only to a fellow human to meet our needs for spiritual and emotional growth, and to fix our eyes on that human rather than on their original Creator, can only disappoint us in the end. If taken too far, it leads to idolatry.

I wonder if the apostle Paul understood this tendency to focus on the close and convenient when he wrote, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

These words used to discourage me. How could I ever be just like God and Jesus? Now, I wonder if Paul was not so much calling the Ephesians to contort themselves towards impossible standards of love and holiness, as he was reminding them of whose they were and whose right example to follow. After all, my mother never expected me to copy her exquisite Chinese characters perfectly from the get-go. All she did was gently remind me to look up.

How can we take the time to look up at the perfect Head who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:18)?

Heart (Re)tuning

My palms burned as I held the tuning peg on my cello in a death grip, tightening it millimetre by stubborn millimetre. Would it stay put? Cautiously picking at the string, I heard a perfectly pitched “A” ring out. The moment I released the peg, though, it immediately backslid to the original position, leaving me with a string hanging limply by a piece of wood. As time-consuming as the tuning process took, there was no shortcut if I wanted the instrument to play decently. I just wished I hadn’t let it sit long enough to get *so* out of tune.

In the daily news, harsh tones of fear and anxiety echo throughout the COVID-19 reports, stories of senseless murders and racist attacks, and accounts of other horrors ranging from the local to global scale. Facing this cacophony, I wonder if we as a church also need to regularly check our built-in instruments of worship–our hearts–to make sure they’re in tune.

Too often, whatever thanksgiving my prayers start off with is too quickly buried under a landslide of requests: that God would have mercy on the suffering, that He would keep my family and friends safe, that He would give me a discerning heart for the topsy-turvy challenges of the coming day, that He would give a certain student a helpful nudge to hand his homework in…the list goes on.

God does want to hear us voice our needs. Jesus tells us that our Heavenly Father is more than willing to give good gifts to those who ask Him (Matthew 7:11). In fact, we are encouraged to pray “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18). Yet, sometimes, the worries and sorrows and all I want the Lord to do threaten to take centre stage in my conversations with Him, pushing into the wings all that He has already done.

Time and again, the themes of praise and thanksgiving pop up in the Bible. Almost every one of Paul’s New Testament letters opens with a passage thanking or praising God. Curiously, these words of thanksgiving always come first. And I wonder if these joyful prologues serve as heart-tuners. Tuning pegs that pull us away from the “sour notes” of worry, bitterness, shame or irritation lingering in the chambers of our souls. Thought-knobs that limber up the strings of limp, exhausted spirits.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Remember you are talking with the God who:
● enriches you in all speech and all knowledge (1 Corinthians 1:4),
● mercifully comforts you in all afflictions (2 Corinthians 1:3),
● blessed you in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, predestined you for adoption as a child through Jesus Christ, redeemed you through his blood, forgave your trespasses and lavished grace upon you (Ephesians 1),
● begins and completes good works in you (Philippians 1:6),
● teaches believers to grow in faith and love (2 Thessalonians 1:3),
● gives us a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:3),
● … (It turns out that the list goes on here, too.)

A friend and I recently discussed what it would be like to begin prayers with at least one minute of praise and gratitude for what God has already done. It’s not always easy. Years of launching into litanies of supplication after only a brief note of appreciation tempts me to spend more time on the “Would you please, Lord,” than on the “Hallelujah! Thank you, Lord!”

But the more I focus on all that this Lord has already done for me and humankind, the more I am awed by His gracious and generous character. Sometimes, the gratitude list gets so long that I never get to the requests. Or, if I do, it is less out of desperation or frustration and more out of trust in the One who gives the best gifts in His time.

While it takes time to tune–and retune–my heart to thanksgiving as it backslides to discontent, fear and other “sour notes,” this promises the hope of living and thinking in harmony with the great Conductor of heaven and earth.

How do you fine-tune your heart to sing in the tones of reverence, awe and gratitude that are due to the loving Creator and Saviour of all things? How can we challenge ourselves and each other to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present our requests to God” (Philippians 4:5)?

Who’s Enough?

who is enough

“I’m too fat; I’m too tall. I sing off-key and I don’t fit at all.”

So runs a rhyme I made up as a seven-year-old with a crippling case of self-doubt.

For several years, I chanted this merciless mantra under my breath whenever I did something wrong, couldn’t find friends to play with, or “messed up” in one way or another. Why I enjoyed replaying this negative self-talk remains a mystery. What I do know is that replacing it with Biblical truths about who I am as God’s created treasure I and many others struggle with to this day. Almost every day, the underlying currents of self-doubt—Am I beautiful? Am I lovable? Am I good enough? simmer in the back of my mind.

The North American consumer culture capitalizes on self-doubt. Advertisers design their commercials to make us feel not enough: not rich enough, not successful enough, not good-looking enough. The hope is that we will buy their products and services in the wild goose chase of becoming “enough.” Societal influences like pornography and misuse of social media platforms, which laud “perfect” and often unrealistic images, become key ingredients in recipes for self-destructive thoughts, harsh self-criticism, and depression. The discontentment that runs rampant in the adult world filters too easily into the teenage sphere: high school students can fall prey to the comparison game as they vie for good grades, brand name clothing, athletic ability, looks and popularity.  

What hope is there for those who battle with self-doubt? Here are three tools which have helped me in the past and which I am still learning to use:

1. Look to the Word.

God’s Word alone has the power to lift people from a spiral of mantras borne of fear, shame and guilt. Romans 12:3 reads, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” According to John Piper, Paul says through this verse that our pride is found in our valuing of Christ Jesus and therefore in our “faith.” Thinking of ourselves with “sober judgment,” we avoid both becoming puffed up with an inflated self-image and beating ourselves up with unnecessary criticism. Instead, we can learn to “look away from ourselves to Christ as our truth and treasure.”

2. Look to the Lord.

Praise the Lord that, when we look to the Word, we discover that “it is by grace we have been saved, through faith—and this is…the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The fact is, when it comes to salvation, everyone misses the mark. No one is good or smart or beautiful enough to win their own salvation—if we were, Jesus wouldn’t have had to die on the cross. Writer Andy Stanley sums up the gospel this way: “The good news is that good people don’t go to heaven—forgiven people do.” Thank God that Christ came not to save the healthy and righteous, and but the sick and the sinners.

Where we are not enough, His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9).  It’s funny how “I”-focussed my childhood rhyme was and how obsessed I was (and still am, sometimes) with my perceived shortcomings. When we take our eyes off our many limitations and shift our focus to Him, we go from saying “I can’t do this” to “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). Our attitude turns from one of self-pity and fear to one of gratitude and worship.

3. Look to the world.

Shifting our focus to the Creator demands shifting our focus to His created. As a high school teacher, my focus is conveniently forced outward. Juggling students’ questions, reactions and needs, I have very little time to spare for berating myself on a less-than-ideal lesson and wondering if I can really teach (although, granted, there are days when that’s all I waste time thinking about!) Instead I can choose to wonder, What can I do better to help them now/next class/the next time we do this activity?

Sometimes looking to the world may take the form of intentional acts like:

-Encouraging someone else—a classmate, a colleague, a stranger

-Volunteering

-Doing a good deed for a family member or a friend

-Enjoying nature—garden, hike or play with a pet—and thanking the One who gives us these good gifts

How do we look to the Lord, the Word and the world to combat self-doubt? How do we replace the doubts niggling at the backs of our minds with words of thanks and worship:

“For you created my inmost being, You knit me together in my mother’s womb;

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:13-14)

Who’s Got the Road Map?

A couple of years ago, I spent a summer tour guiding at the Parliament of Canada. Visitors young and old from across the world flocked to marvel at one of our nation’s most prized monuments, take photos of Parliamentary chambers and admire the view of the national capital from the top deck of the clock tower. Although the majority of these tours ran smoothly, logistical bumps would often spring up along the way.

No sooner would my colleagues and I ask visitors to keep the door closed at the end of the hall when several would promptly push it open and begin milling into the hall on the right, reserved only for staff and parliamentarians.

No matter how many times we asked visitors to stay on the left side when walking from stop to stop (a trick to keep traffic running smoothly in the building), there would always be a few who wandered to the right to take photos.

Despite our pleas for the visitors to stay with the group, a determined few would hang back to admire particularly ornate pillars or appealing tableaux, only to lose the group and rejoin us at another stop with a constable’s help.

And then there were the anxious questions:

“How many more stops?”

“Can’t we take this shortcut?”

“How come we can’t go there?”

“Can we slow down?”

“Can we pick up the pace?”

“Why does she get to go in that room? Is she more important than us or something?” 

“Will you show us where the exit is when the tour is done?”

Sometimes, I felt my energy flagging and my patience wearing thin. If only they would quit straying off by themselves! If only they would follow me without questioning every step and every turn! If only they would trust me! In such cases, I comforted myself with the thought that I was only their guide for 40 minutes. After that, the tour would end, I would let them go and their whereabouts would no longer be my responsibility. My fellow guides and I enjoyed laughing and exchanging stories about the “annoying visitors” who had sent our tours lurching on a hundred more hiccups than we would have liked.

It was that summer that I read Psalm 48:14 with fresh eyes: “For this is our God forever and ever, He will be our guide even to the end.”

How many times have I turned a deaf ear to God’s instructions, wandering off the road He wants me on because I thought another one was better? How many times have I protested in times of waiting, craning my neck to get a sneak peek at what’s ahead before He reveals it to me? How many times have I shown my lack of trust in Him by worrying whether my studies, career or relationships were headed in the right direction—when He alone holds the best road map? In my walk with Christ, I have been more impatient and wayward than any of my visitors were in the Parliament Buildings. Yet He promises: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He promises to lead me “even to the end” of life’s route—which takes a lot longer than 40 minutes to traverse. Talk about a patient guide!

How can we give thanks to the good Shepherd who “guides [us] on paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3) and promises to never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6), no matter how many detours and wrong steps we take?

Prepping for Eternity’s Worship Set List

Quick—grab a pen and jot down five of your favourite songs to sing at church on Sunday.

Now take a look at what you wrote. Do all of or most of your songs lean toward a certain time period or style?

 

If you’ve been raised to worship God with songs in a certain style, it makes perfect sense to relate better to that style. The problem arises when believers assume that their way is the only way to worship. Christians brought up on hymns may cover their appalled ears at the hammering drumbeats and electric vibrations of modern worship hits. Worshippers bred on 21st-century praise songs may scoff at the archaic four-syllable mouthfuls in some of the Victorian worship classics.

 

What does the Bible have to say about worship music across the centuries?

 

Turning to the songbook nestled in God’s word, we discover the enduring power of God-adoring music and lyrics. Psalm 145:4 tells us that “one generation shall commend [God’s] works to another.” God’s people have always been doing this through song. The Book of Psalms itself is a Spirit-breathed legacy left to us by some of the earliest worship leaders. Songwriters today still dig into this treasure chest of lyrics to root their creations in a strong foundation of faith. Praise is meant to be passed down.

 

But there’s room for modern music as well. Psalm 149:1 invites us: “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!” New songs can take their good share of cudgelling. A revolutionary young worship musician was once harshly criticized for publishing a praise song that was too “man-centred” and “focused on human experience.” That song was no other than Isaac Watt’s now beloved hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

 

For the first 12 years of my life, my idea of church music was almost exclusively limited to a certain brown hymnbook in the pews of the sanctuary where my parents and I sat every Sunday. Visiting Faith for the first time in 2009, I was amazed to see a full worship band, complete with guitars and drums. The foreign-sounding choruses and syncopated beats of Chris Tomlin’s masterpieces overwhelmed my ears, which until then had been fed on the intricate poetry of “The Solid Rock” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Since then, I’ve learned that both old and new worship songs have the power to touch people’s lives and direct them towards Jesus.

 

Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Thou shalt not play drums in church.” Nor does it say, “The old hymns have passed away; behold, the new Hillsong hits have come!” What the Bible does say is this: “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (Psalm 95:1)

 

The pronouns make it clear: church worship is an “us” thing. Because it’s an “us” thing, God calls us to listen to the songs He uses to work in people’s hearts—no matter how sacrilegiously loud or outdated they may seem at first.

 

Whatever way we may prefer to make that “joyful noise” to our praiseworthy God, let’s take the time to learn how worshippers young and old prefer to make theirs. Why not invite someone from a different generation to share their top 5 church worship songs with you this week? After all, we never know if one of those songs will make it onto eternity’s worship set list.

 

(Bible quotes taken from the ESV.)

Confused?

confussed happy smily college freshman

March 2015. I’m sitting at the back of my English 101 tutorial classroom. Alarmed brain signals careen along the labyrinths of my mind as the course instructor announces:

“According to this theory, marriage is an unnatural constraint on sexual freedom. Marriage infidelity shouldn’t be shameful! Things would be a lot more ‘natural’ if everyone simply indulged in their desires.”

As he elaborates on the theory with eloquent arguments and examples from the media, my long-held values backflip like a half-cooked pancake on a griddle. Traces of doubt slither into my mind. Have I been living in a bubble up until now? 

Four years later, looking back at my wide-eyed university freshman self in English 101, I realize how much I trusted my professors to be right. When you’re eighteen and surrounded by seasoned thinkers, it’s easy to blindly believe the best-argued case. Problem is, universities are peopled with scholars who argue their case for a living. Most of them are pretty good at it.

Torrents of ideas have come crashing down on me in lecture halls. Ideas about society. Ideas about the origin of the world. One astronomy professor insisted that the universe created itself from scratch and that humans were random networks of stardust. Another literature professor nonchalantly reduced Christianity to a system of murderous colonizers and power-hungry church leaders.

I’ve also picked up new ideas from friends. University exposes you to a huge variety of perspectives from different religious groups and worldviews. Even between two Christians, opinions can differ wildly on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and gender-neutral washrooms.

It’s no wonder that, flailing in a sea of opinions, some students pick and choose a set of beliefs as they would select choice morsels at a buffet spread. They live only by the ones that seem palatable to them and adjust their views to their tastes. Paul already knew these customized worldviews were coming when he warned, in 2 Timothy, that “people…will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (4:3).

Others, like me, become plain confused.

It goes without saying that my Christian beliefs took a good shaking-up in university. But they have solidified into a stronger faith and greater trust in God and in Jesus’ salvation.

How in the world did I soak up four years of “enlightening” theories, many of which encouraged me to abandon my faith, and still end up a Jesus follower?

My astronomy professor shared his frustration that, despite his measuring tools, he couldn’t solve all the puzzles of outer space. My literature professor bemoaned our inability to break off the “chains of religious influences”. Even with all their professed insight into the mysteries of life, they were still confused.

And it hit me: humans don’t have all the answers. The most articulate scholars don’t. Neither do the brains behind the theories. But poring over the word of God, I find all I need to know in one handy guidebook. It comforts me when I’m at my worst. It gives me amazing discernment in sticky situations. It rebukes me when I wander off from where God wants me to be. And it boasts the mind-blowing mystery of salvation that makes life worth the living.

Yes, I respect human reason and university textbooks. But now, I also know that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ” (Colossians 2:4). The Bible, the lamp to our feet and light for our path, has the power to dispel confusion and trumps any man-made philosophy