One of the most impactful messages I have ever heard came from a pastor several years ago who spoke on the idea of “making decisions against yourself.” The main thrust of his message was that great Christians sometimes have to cut off mediocre choices to get to where God really wants them to be. While they might still be able to make comfortable choices and get by, the true payoff occurs when they are bold and make a greater decision against themselves.
For me, one of these decisions against myself has come in the sport of hockey. In my first year of undergrad, I started reffing and did so for ten years. While I certainly was not going to ever make it to the big leagues, I enjoyed the sport and the challenge. But one slight problem. Sundays. Anyone who is involved in sports knows that most of the competitive tournaments involve a good deal of Sunday competition.
In fact, when I first signed up to work games in the Great Toronto Area (GTA), the supervisor bluntly stated that unless I was going to work on Sundays they would not have a placed for me in doing higher level games. Over the past ten years, this decision has caused me to miss out on thousands of dollars of extra cash, simply because the best paying games and tournament finals are often on the first day of the week.
My point here is not to debate the merits of making Sunday the Lord’s Day (although I think there is a good case to be made in this regard). Certainly some health and service jobs necessitate work 7 days a week. I am simply making a statement about priorities and decisions. For me, to go where God wanted me to go and be the pastor he what he wanted me to be involved sacrificing the few extra bucks I might make on a Sunday afternoon so that it could be a day of rest that was focused on God.
Over the years, I have noticed that in our Christian journey, before God takes us to that next level of dependance on him, he often watches to see if we are willing to take an extra step in his direction and make a decision against ourselves. This might involve cutting out a hobby we enjoy so that it can be replaced by a more wholesome activity. It might include cutting back on entertainment or other pleasures that would be the enemy of God’s grand picture for our lives.
Making decisions against ourselves are not always exciting in the short run. Often, they can be a little painful. But they have a way of exercising our spiritual muscles in new ways. They stretch us and prepare our souls for the next steps that God has for us.
The first couple days of an extended fast are always difficult. If you are doing some type of food fast, no doubt the craving and desire for that thing you are abstaining from eating is starting to drive you a little crazy! Maybe until this moment, you did not realize how much you really enjoyed your mocha cappuccinos in the morning, your donut in the afternoon, or that plate of sushi for supper (Personally, I could pass on the sushi!). In short, the reason week one of a fast is so difficult is because you are saying no to the urges you have developed a habit of saying yes to for quite some time.
But week one is also extremely liberating. As you are going through the pains of withdraw, gradually the screams of your physical desires will decrease while the spiritual voice of God increases. You are doing what the Apostle Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27.
25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
The means to which great athletes go to discipline their bodies is incredible. PGA Tour golfer John Daly spoke of almost starving himself to death on one occasion because his coach wanted him to lose weight. Former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis talks about maintaining a diet that was so strict that he would only eat sweets on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And various boxers and MMA fighters have gone for weeks or even months at a time, eating little more than an orange a day, in their effort to make a certain weight class before a fight.
As Christians, the discipline of bringing our bodies under control is incredibly important. In some ways, it can be more difficult than the one who is in the boxing ring. Reason: For the boxer, there is an obvious goal and reward in mind. There are trainers to provide accountability. There is the constant fear of what will happen to their careers if they do not reach the weight limit they are seeking to hit.
However, for the believer who decides to turn off the desires of this world to seek after God, the motivation to continue this discipline for days on end can be overwhelming. And after a few days of fasting, the urge to give up can grow stronger and stronger. That little voice in your head starts saying, “Take it easy! This whole fasting thing is insane, and besides, who cares if you break the fasting commitment you have made?!”
If this is where you are at, I sympathize! But let me just tell you why I would urge you to continue. The greatest spiritual blessings in this life often are experienced after pushing through a continued season of self-denial. While it may not feel very spiritual to drink a smoothie rather than eat a steak, I can assure you that it is worth it to continue. This first week is not about experiencing an emotional high or spiritual buzz. It is about positioning and quieting yourself to hear the voice of God.
My encouragement to you in this week of the fast would be to put on hold the possible litany of prayer requests that you might have for God. Instead, just be still before him. Read much of his Word. Feast on the Psalms. Allow the physical brokenness that you might feel in your body to translate into spiritual brokenness before God. Journal your prayers to him. Spend extensive parts of your day focused on his character and goodness.
As you are doing this in week 1, begin to seek God’s face about how he would have you to pray in the remaining two weeks. Allow him to shift your priorities (Often this might not happen until days 5-7 of the fast). Then trust that as you draw near and pour out your heart before him, he will draw near and pour out his heart to you.
How is this fast changing your life or challenging you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
Each January, both Discovery Pointe Church in Scarborough, Ontario and our “Mother Church,” Eastlake Community Church in Moneta, Virginia have gone through a corporate 21 days of prayer and fasting to start off the new year. This year we are doing a joint fast that starts this Sunday on January 8th.
If you are unfamiliar with this Biblical discipline, fasting is essentially abstaining from pleasures (usually food) for a spiritual purpose. While the discipline of fasting is not always enjoyable, the rewards of it are truly extraordinary. Just consider a few of these stories.
One of my friends from school was in the process of considering attending a Bible College. However, he was short of the financial resources necessary. While working at a local restaurant, he decided to participate in Eastlake’s 21 days of prayer and fasting. During that time, a random lady, whom he did not know before, pulled up to the drive-through where he was working. Moved on by God, she asked to meet with him, having no idea of his financial need. After learning of his financial situation, she made the decision to cover his entire first year of school — incredible.
During my time at Eastlake, I would see numbers of answers to prayer. I would see the transformation of a colonel in the Air Force who would give his life to Christ and go on to lead our Men’s Ministry after his wife fasted for him for 21 days. In 2014 I watched on the last Thursday of our 21 day fast as my senior pastor (Troy Keaton) walked into our worship leaders office (Ben Peak) and said that he believed God was going to allow us to purchase a 150 acre piece of land up the road from our church. I then sat back in amazement as a few months later this same piece of property would astonishingly be made available at a fraction of the price it was originally valued.
This past January (2016) at Discovery Pointe Church, a great man of God in our church, Alban Nedelko, had recently joined our congregation after moving from Albania. During this time, he decided to join us on our fast. However, he had come down with a fairly serious tooth infection. It is likely that the last thing he felt like doing was going on a fast to make him even more miserable! Besides, he was taking medication for his tooth that called for food to go along with it. Despite the challenges involved, Alban took the time to fast, trusting that God would take care of his tooth (a fairly serious problem given that they had just immigrated to Canada). Amazingly, it was not three days later till his entire infection went away and he has not had a problem with his tooth till this day. Similarly, God touched an amazing lady in our church, Dorothy, who has testified on multiple occasions about what God has done in her life through touching her failing eyesight and giving her full restoration. This led her doctor to state to her, “What are you doing that others are not?” Her response, “I’m praying!”
Personally, I have seen God do some incredible things through times of fasting. During an extended fast, I watched as God opened up the doors for us to lease the facility that we own at an incredible price that we can afford (not a sentence you hear too often in Toronto!). I have watched on numerous occasions as I have felt prompted of God to bring us different team members, only to see those prayers answered during or shortly after the fast was complete. For several years Janan and I had wanted to have children. In our 2016 prayer fast, Janan's 2016 prayer was for a child. Now, during this fast we are excited to find out the gender of our new gift scheduled to arrive in June. :)
Now, if you are someone who is skeptical to God, I can understand what you might be saying. “Ezra, lucky breaks or coincidences like this happen all the time.” I get it. Admittedly, sometimes Christians have been known to dramatize ordinary events and make them seem super spiritual. As a naturally skeptical individual, I might be saying the same thing if I were reading someone else’s accounts that I have just written (although I will say that the more I see God move the more my natural skepticism is replaced by expectant optimism).
But I think all of us, as Mark Zuckerberg's (CEO of Facebook) move towards religion has indicated, have this inner desire to experience a God who is real. Skepticism of the supernatural might be “cool” for a period of time. But when life’s deepest problems hit with the loss of a spouse, the pain of a broken relationship, or the failure in one’s career, it is then that we realize the deep longing in our lives can only be filled with a God that not only exists, but is active and present in our everyday lives.
So this New Year’s Season, I would just challenge you to take up this 21 days of prayer and fast challenge. Personally, I have found that I often enter into times of fasting with many misguided prayers. I have my list of things that I would like to see God change. But through times of fasting I have discovered that God is more interested in changing my character than he is about changing my situation. Ultimately, the purpose of fasting is not so that you or I can manipulate God’s hand to get what we want. Fasting is instead about seeking the face of God. It is not about us trying to get God’s attention (as pagan religions urge us to do). It is about us quieting our souls so that we can more clearly listen to the still small voice of God.
Do you have some big challenges in your life? Perhaps your home, job, or relationships are not what you would like. Or, maybe you just feel you have grown too comfortable and apathetic about life. I would just suggest that the key to getting through challenges is to stop trying to resolve them on your own (as I am inclinded to do) and instead spend the next 21 days focused on one goal: To turn down the noise of this world so that you can better hear the voice of God. I can promise you that the closer you draw to God the more your viewpoint will change. You will see your challenges in their proper perspective and more importantly you will gain a much better picture of God!
This last Wednesday (Dec. 7th) I was walking around our East Scarborough community and handing out invites for our Discovery Pointe Church “The Greatest Gift Christmas Celebration.” As it turned out, that day I was passing out door hangers in an area called the Dansig community. If you live in or around the Greater Toronto Area, you are likely aware that this was the scene of one of the worst shootings in recent Canadian history. That day the shooter, Folorunso Owusu (who was 17 years of age at the time of the shooting), was sentenced as an adult to life in prison.
While I was in this neighbourhood, I met a local reporter from 680 News who asked if she could get my reaction to this news. One question she asked stuck with me. She said (paraphrasing), “Do you feel that your community has gotten an unfair rap with the rest of the city and what would you say to people who have a negative view of this area?”
I could sympathize with her question because I have heard the comments from others before who had only seen news headlines that had talked about the drug, sex, and gang activity in our neighbourhood. But my response was simply this, “For those that might have a negative view of this part of the city that I call home, I invited them to come and meet the people for themselves.”
As last Sunday at Discovery Pointe Church indicated, we have a community of loving people who genuinely care for others! These last two years I have been a part of this East Scarborough area, I have met so many individuals who are incredibly generous with their time, energy, and resources. In and outside our church I witness moms walking their kids to school in the snow and cold every single day. I see people who might not have a lot share with those that do. I see others who have been blessed with greater resources share with those who have less. And truly, Janan and I are blessed to be a part of this neighbourhood.
Over these next several years, I am excited to see how the power of the gospel continues to impact the lives of people in this community!
As many of our friends and family know, there is a painting in our living room that is very special to Janan and I. It comes from our friends Bob and Nancy Stouffer and has these words from Zechariah 4:10, “Do not despise the day of small beginnings.” The reason this is so precious to us is the significance behind these words. Shortly before moving to Toronto, Bob and Nancy took us to the Brooklyn Tabernacle in Brooklyn, New York. The theme for that evening? You guessed it…Not despising the day of small beginnings!
These past two years, Janan and I have remembered that message numerous times. We have remembered them when attendance at church has not been what we would have liked, when people have disappointed, and when challenges arise. But in those times, Janan and I often look or think of that painting on the wall and say to ourselves, “Lord, help us to rejoice in these days.”
For Christmas this year, Janan happened to place our manger scene directly underneath this painting. One day she happened to remark to me, “Ezra, what could have been a smaller beginning than the one Jesus had when he came to earth?” I had to agree. Here Christ was, God in the flesh, and yet he was born into the most humble of places to the most humble of people. A beginning could not get any smaller.
When you look back in history on the great times when God moved among his people, they always started with humble beginnings. For Joseph, they started while spending years in prison for a crime he did not commit. For Moses, they started with 40 years of exile in the wilderness. For David, his small beginnings included spending years being chased like a dog in the wildernesses by an evil King Saul. And for Zerubbabel (the intended recipient of God’s words to Zechariah in this verse), it meant waiting for over twenty years, in the midst of tremendous opposition, as he helped God’s chosen people rebuild the walls of Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonian empire.
Small beginnings are not always exciting. They do not capture the news headlines. But they are tools God uses to grow us up into the men and women he wants us to be. Perhaps this Christmas season you are going through a “Small Beginnings Period” in your life. You are humbled because your children you raised to serve God want little to do with him. Perhaps the business you felt God wanted you to start is struggling and you wonder what the future holds. You pray for a breakthrough…and yet all you hear is silence. Like that humble manger scene, it might seem that the position you are in is rather humbling.
This brings us to the question: How did Jesus handle his small beginnings? Because even after his unflattering birth, Jesus would live a life that was filled with seeming insignificance. Ultimately, he would lay down his life in the most shameful manner possible. Yet in Hebrews 12:2 it says that for the joy that was set before Jesus, he endured the cross and despised the shame. In Christ’s case, shame would rob him of everything that he had: his reputation, his friends, and his dignity. Yet even in that moment of greatest pain, he was able to look into that shame and in the words of John Piper it was if he said, “Listen to me, Shame, do you see that joy in front of me? Compared to that, you are less than nothing. You are not worth comparing to that! I despise you. You think you have power. Compared to the joy before me, you have none. Joy. Joy. Joy. That is my power! Not you, Shame. You are worthless. You are powerless.”
This Christmas season, do not allow the humility of where you might be to rob you of the joy that God wants you to have. Despise the shame that the enemy wants to bring upon your life but do not despise the day God of small things. It might just be that in your day of humble beginnings God might be doing and preparing to do his greatest work!
Honest reality: Each of us know people who grew up with us who want very little to do with God today. They attended the same churches, went to the same camps we did, and maybe grew up in our same families. Yet, for one reason or another, they want nothing to do with him. This saddens me. Not because I particularly care whether or not others adopt my personal framework of belief. It just saddens me because they are missing out on a relationship with a God who loves them so much and cares about them so deeply.
Recently, I listened to a sermon series titled “Who Needs God?” by author and pastor of one of America’s largest churches, Andy Stanley. While I did have some significant problems with several of the implications of a few of his messages (John Piper graciously outlines some of these), overall I found his series very helpful and thought provoking (which is probably more than I can say for more than one sermon I have preached!).
In particular, I found his message “Who Needs God: Gods of the No Testament” very interesting. In a nutshell, Stanley’s premise is that some people have walked away from a picture of god that in no way represents the God of Christianity. In this point, I entirely agree.
Adapting and tweaking some of Stanley’s thoughts, here are 6 “gods of the Bible” that perhaps you grew up believing in that I would suggest do not even exist.
When I think about it, there have been various points in my life when I have struggled with each of these misconceptions of God. Perhaps you might have as well. The question then becomes, what will we do to overcome these false misconceptions? Are we willing to allow them to be excuses that would prevent us from fully enjoying God at a higher level or are we willing to address them intelligently?
In my most recent book What’s the Point?, I write about my experience with God as a kid. One of the greatest challenges I had was that I tended to view him through the lens of other people. I looked at God through pastors, parents, and role models in my life. But while all of these are good, there were times when each of them would disappoint. However, when I was about 14 years of age, I remember making the decision to personally discover God for myself. I wanted to view God for who he was, not through what someone else portrayed him to be. That decision completely changed my life. When we rid ourselves of the wrong perceptions we have had about God, then we can begin to embrace him for who he truly is. This is exciting!
How do you view God today? Have you struggled in one or more of these areas? Feel free to leave a comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts!
At various times in my life, I have contemplated going off social media all together. Probably like you, I grow tired of the negativity, divisiveness, and cat pictures (my apologies to all you cat lovers :)). And at different points I have stepped back from social media and gone off it for several days. Despite it’s flaws, personally I have found social media so helpful and the reason I choose to stay engaged is threefold.
First, social media offers me a platform to be salt and light. The only way you and I can escape all negativity is to completely remove ourselves from all people (even then I would argue we would still have issues!). Everywhere we go there is the battle of contrasting worldviews that people may have. However, I believe Jesus has not called his followers to be removed from this world but rather to be salt and light. One of the greatest ways Christians can do this is through social media. With one message, we can literally impact hundreds or thousands of people. Amazing!
Second, social media is a powerful connector. Many of the connections I have made in life have come through LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (My wife included but that’s a different story). Living in a city, it can be tough to get to know people. Everyone is constantly running and doing many different things. But through social media I can quickly find people in my area who have similar likes and dislikes. It’s awesome!
Third, social media lets me know what others are thinking. This can be both good and bad :). Through looking at a person’s feed, you can quickly see their unfiltered interests and passions. In 2 minutes, I can often know what type of entertainment they like, their associations in life, and general outlook towards God. There is no way you could discover this much info about someone else in the same short amount of time in person…unless you had a really fast high-speed awkward conversation (having funny mental images in my mind).
While I love social media, this past election cycle has indicated that perhaps Christians in general could posibly do a better job in spreading salt and light online. So, here are Ten Ways Christians Can Make Social Media a More Positive Experience!
Recently, there has been much sarcasm and jesting by numbers of Americans that they were going to move to Canada when the results of this election were announced (although I am certain some of this was probably real).
After hearing this I thought, “Hey, maybe it would be good for Americans to hear a little about the way Canadians think about the US.” You might be thinking, “Who cares?” Hey, you might be right. :) But there is a statement I have been saying for years that goes like this: Where the UK was yesterday, Canada is today, and the States (Without God’s intervention) will be tomorrow. For this reason, I think it is helpful for American Christians to better understand the culture of Canada because in ten or fifteen years this is what your nation might become.
In part one of my response to this, I posted Ten Things Canadian Christians Should Remember About the US After This Election. The intention of this post is to do anything but lecture. I love the US and throughly enjoyed the decade that I spent there. But as the years roll along, immigration in the US will continue to grow (although perhaps less so in the future under this new administration) and as someone who has spent half my life in the US and half my life in Canada, I thought it might be helpful to note some of the ways US Christians can better understand Canada (thus perhaps better understanding other cultures and their own future cultural as well). So here we go…
Ten Things American Christians Can Learn From Canada
I hope this has been helpful and I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment!
I have a heart for God and I have a heart for the church! Growing up, I was born in Montreal, Quebec and grew up in a small town called Cochrane, Ontario. At 15 years of age I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and then down to the Moneta, Virginia. In September of 2014, my wife and I moved to Toronto. So, all in all, I have split my life living between Canada and the United States. Doing so has given me a vantage point from both perspectives.
After this most recent Presidential Election, I realized there are some stereotypical myths that many US Christians and Canadian Christians hold that potentially can be broken down as we look to grow together. This list is not exhaustive but I hope it it helpful to Canadians and Americans alike!
In my second post I will address the ways Americans might learn from Canadians but in this initial one I wanted to address this to my fellow Canadians.
Ten Things Canadians Should Remember About the US
The Gospel Changes Everything
Ultimately, I believe the gospel of Jesus changes everything. It says that all men and women were created in the image of God for a purpose and a plan. Thus, in the grand scheme of eternity we are not viewed by God as Canadian or American. We are viewed as his children. I love this and it gives me so much hope!
If you are living in Canada or the US, I would love to hear your thoughts? Do these points make sense? Is there something you would add? I want to learn!
The US Election and Why The Call for "Spiritual Revival" Might Not Be Connecting With Young Adults Today
I love young adults. One obvious reason: I am one! It is unsurprising then that on the eve of this Presidential election that my mind drifts to what my younger generation is thinking.
For the first time in a decade, I am observing the US Presidential election from another country (which I am told many of my American friends wish they could do as well!). But even being up here and slightly removed from the political upheaval, it is interesting to me the impact this election is having on our culture. This Scotties’ tissue billboard that hangs on a bus stop on the way home from Janan’s school pointedly states the opinion of many Canadians and Americans alike (picture to the left). Walking into a local ice rink, the topic of conversation on the TV monitors and among the guys is about…you guessed it…the election. Open up the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) home page or turn on Toronto’s local TV channel and the US election "trumps" the Canadian headlines.
Thinking from my generation, there is an observation I cannot help but make. Take Trump’s campaign statement, “Make America Great Again.” I don’t have any problem with this. But the question I naturally have is, “When was America supposed to have been great?” For most Republican supporters, I believe they would point back to the days President Ronald Reagan was in office. Hey, I’m fine with that. From what I have read and watched, Reagan seemed like a great leader (The way he used humour to make profound points was genius!).
But there still remains one problem for those of my generation. We were not alive during that time point in history (I can already hear the groans from those over age 35!). Everything we know of this time period is second hand. So, while I believe I understand the call to make the US great again and might sympathize with the issues raised, I do not find the overarching vision compelling because the reference point of when it was supposed to have been great does not exist in my mind. [Note: I am not siding with or against Trump or Clinton. I am just making an observation about the way I believe many in my age category view this idea.]
As we saw with the 2008 election of Barack Obama and most recently with our election in Canada of Justin Trudeau, there is great appeal among millennials who see a candidate as pointing forward and not backwards. Obama’s message was “Hope and Change” while Trudeau’s message was “Real Change.” In each instance, these younger leaders observed a previous administration’s shortcomings and capitalized on them with younger audiences (as well as older). In Canada, while I really liked Prime Minister Harper, he had a public persona as being unrelatable and stuck in the past (It could be argued the “liberal” media contributed to this portrayal). While Harper tended to decline most news interviews, Trudeau went to the places young people were at and engaged them on their level. Recently, Bernie Sanders had enormous appeal to younger voters with the message “A future to believe in” and “A political revolution is coming” (To be fair, Trump has a number of younger voters siding with him as well for a whole differing set of reasons).
From a church perspective, writers such as John Dickerson (Author of "The Great Evangelical Recession") have noted that our younger generation is turning more and more away from the faith. Dickerson estimates that around 10% of the US is considered “Evangelical.” In Canada, we call it the 80-20 rule. Only 20% of our population make any profession of faith in Christ whatsoever (This includes Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics). So in reality, "Evangelicalism" is much lower here.
While I am so ill-equipped to offer much profound insight on this matter, I would just suggest that the way that we can reverse this trend is not by focusing on recreating something we observed in our past but allowing God the freedom to do a new work through us in our present day.
When I moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Moneta, Virginia to be a part of the amazing work God is doing at Eastlake Community Church, the reason was simple. When I listened to my heroes like Jeff and Troy Keaton talk about what they saw Christ doing through the church in the future, that was enormously compelling for me! When I moved from Virginia to East Scarborough, the reason again was the same. I believed and continue to believe that God is going to do something tremendous and fresh in our city.
Growing up, I often heard the phrase, “We need to pray for a revival.” But often these prayers were very ambiguous and most people my age were not really certain what revival even looked like or meant. Nevertheless, I picked up the lingo and started to pray this prayer for our city of Toronto. But more recently, Janan and I have stopped praying this prayer for our community in East Scarborough. The reason is that the word revival indicates there was a fire that was alive and burning in the first place. Through our observation, this has not been the case for many years (if ever). Jesus Christ is entirely irrelevant in most of the lives of people around us. So, instead of praying for God to revive an old work for our present day, perhaps we should be expecting him to do something fresh!
Don't get me wrong. I love what God has done in the past. I just finished a Church History course for my Master's Degree and was so challenged by the great faith of men and women who have come before us. But I have also noticed that whenever God chooses to move in a special way, it always looks different from place to place. The principles of his moving may be the same but the people he uses and the means he accomplishes his work are exciting and unique.
To me, the idea of God doing a fresh work in our day and age is something I find very compelling and I suspect there are others from my generation (and not from my generation) that would say so as well!