Jamaican banana bread

cookbookThis holiday season is strange. My travel schedule will take me away on Thanksgiving, then over Christmas we’ll be in South Korea. So, even though it breaks my rule of “No Christmas music until after the Thanksgiving meal,” I’m listening to Josh Groban’s “Noel” and the Carpenter’s “Christmas Portrait.” Now that I’m in holiday mood, time for some baking!

There’s a first for everything, and this is the first time I’ve attempted banana bread. With a bunch of overripe bananas on the counter, it’s the perfect time to try my hand.

The recipe comes from Extending the Table (Herald Press, 1991), an old Mennonite cookbook that we acquired when we lived in West Africa (see cover in photo).



Makes 1 loaf

350 F / 180 C

55 min

Cream together: 1/2 c. margarine (125 ml), 1/2 c. sugar (125 ml), 1 t. vanilla (5 ml), and 1 egg, well beaten

Sift together: 2 c. flour (500 ml), 1 T. baking powder (15 ml), 1/2 t. ground nutmeg (2 ml), and a pinch of salt

Add to creamed mixture alternately, with: 3 ripe medium bananas, mashed (about 1 c./250 ml)

Add: 1/4 c. nuts, chopped (50 ml), and 1/4 c. raisins (ml)

Turn into greased 9 inch loaf pan (2 L). Bake 55 min. in preheated oven at 350 F (180 C) until golden brown.


God’s four-step path to healing

DSCN4860Three words on a package of bananas – “Do not refrigerate” – instantly transported me back in time.

I was 16 and it was my first day on the job at the supermarket. My manager gave me simple instructions:

Take the skids off the truck, then stack the boxes of produce in the cooler.

The truck arrived, I did my work, then clocked out and went home.

The next day, my boss was furious. “Why did you put boxes of bananas in the cooler?” For the next several days, blackened bananas sold at deep discount on the sales floor. I’d messed up…majorly.

Most of us can recall times when we’ve missed the mark not just by a little but by a lot. However good our intentions, the end result was disastrous. We let someone down and may have even caused them deep pain. A shattered marriage, a bankruptcy, a broken trust – the consequences of our failure are plain to see and cut deep.

Thankfully, there’s a four-step path to healing.

First, let us resist the temptation to call sin by any other name. Instead, we have to admit we were wrong and be willing to change. Proverbs 28:13 reminds us: “People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy” (NLT).

Secondly, let us accept God’s forgiveness. “As far as the east is from the west,” writes the Psalmist, “so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12, NIV).

Third, let us ask forgiveness from the person we wronged. James 5:16 promises healing, yet there is a prerequisite. We are to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other. Three of the most powerful words in any language are these: “I forgive you.” Reconciliation between people allows God’s healing to take root deep in our heart.

Finally, let us forgive ourselves. In Tramp for the Lord, Corrie Ten Boom talks about what God did with her sins once she confessed them: “When I confessed them to the Father, Jesus Christ washed them in his blood. They are now cast into the deepest sea and a sign put up that says, ‘NO FISHING ALLOWED.’ ” Like Paul, ours is to forget what is behind us and stretch toward what God has in-store for us (Phil. 3:13-14). God long ago forgave us. Are we willing to cut ourselves a break?

All of us have our own “bananas in the cooler” moment. There are times when there’s no way around it. We blundered, big time. Yet God doesn’t want us to stay mired in our guilt and shame. The Lord offers a path to healing. Are we ready to walk it, together?

God first

20151106_175754It’s an old marketing principle: If you want to sell it, sexualize it. So I was surprised to find headphones for sale not using sex as a hook, but religion.

The label read: “turn it up headphones.” Underneath were printed these four words:

Music is my religion.

Let’s be clear. Music is one of life’s good gifts. I’ve never been one to think that God put all the trees in the garden off limits and only allowed Adam and Eve to eat from one. Rather, it was the serpent who attempted to twist the LORD’s words in this way, asking husband and wife: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’ ” (Genesis 3:1, NIV). Music is one of the trees that God encourages us to explore. Art, drama, science, sports – there are so many pursuits in this life that fill our days with meaning and that can bring glory to God.

What crosses the line with the “music is my religion” slogan is simple. It puts something else at the center of our lives instead of God. Any pursuit – even an otherwise wholesome one – that displaces God and takes center stage in our lives is an idol.

Football – what Americans call soccer – can take on religious overtones. While doing postgraduate study in Manchester, England, I often took bus 42 downtown to the John Rylands library. As I looked out the window one day, we drove by a small sign along the side of the road. It depicted a soccer ball with a halo over the top. Underneath were these words: “Worship the game.” As God is crowded out of the lives of many and fewer people are part of a community of faith, will vocabulary that before was reserved for the divine be co-opted by lesser things?

Here’s a quick priority test. Other than food, water, clothing and shelter, which human beings need to survive, what other things are there in our lives that have become such a part of our daily routine that to lose them would cause us pain? The Christian discipline of fasting can help us put them back in perspective. Calculate the time you spend on your smart phone or playing games on the internet. Now, for the period of one week, cut one of those out of your life. Instead, take 10% of that time and spend it talking with God. When you reach for the cell phone to send yet another SMS or to check FaceBook, or you reach for the remote on your TV to watch your favorite sport, instead sit quietly for two minutes and listen for God’s voice. This exercise will help us tear down idols and put God back at the center where He belongs.

I only have one religion, and that is God. No other pursuit – no matter how wholesome – must take the place of my pursuing Him. Let’s keep God at the center. Let’s keep God first.

Heaven isn’t enough

heavenWhy did Jesus die on the cross?

The tendency over the past 50 years in some Christian circles has been to say:

Jesus died on the cross so we could go to heaven.

The epitome of this approach was an evangelism strategy developed by the Reverend D. James Kennedy, pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In home visits, church members would ask prospects: “Do you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven?”

At Seminary, we learned this method in a slightly modified form. However, it has always seemed incomplete to those coming from a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective. In Matthew 28:16-20, the passage commonly called the “Great Commission,” Jesus outlined our mission not as helping people make sure their ticket is punched for the heavenly bus ride. Rather, it is a call for people to follow Jesus in the here-and-now:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV).

Common Evangelical parlance says that we must “get saved.” Strangely, there is often little mention of this in relationship to following Jesus. An experience of praying a “sinner’s prayer” becomes the be-all and end-all of our interaction with individuals. Discipleship – the act of following Jesus and growing in holiness – seems to be relegated to an optional activity. To this, Gregory Boyd responds:

To place faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, therefore, is inseparable from the pledge to live faithfully as a disciple of Christ.

Even this needs more clarity, for a decision to “be saved” is a decision to turn our backs on wrongdoing and to follow Jesus together. The Great Commission is explicit at this point since disciples are to be baptized, a sign of our abandonment of evil ways and our initiation into the church. In meeting together we find strength and mutual encouragement. An ember separated from the fire soon grows cold,  but when left piled up with other embers keeps glowing and producing warmth. It is together that we can learn to obey all that Christ commanded, in love holding each other accountable.

But let’s return to the original question: Why did Jesus die on the cross?

We’ve seen so far that the answer “so that we could go to heaven” is inadequate in that is skips over the crucial notion of discipleship. It neglects to mention that our one day being with Jesus in heaven will be because we’ve followed him there first.

A better answer to the question would be:

Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.


In the film, Apollo 13, the astronaut character played by Tom Hanks radios back to earth: “Houston, we have a problem.” In the same way, the Bible teaches that each of us has a problem, and that problem is sin. Sins are the evil actions we commit that estrange us from God. These acts of disobedience to God’s law (1 John 3:4) set us on a path that ultimately leads to our destruction (Romans 6:23). To follow the path of sin is to follow what Jesus called the “broad path” (Matthew 7:13). On the other hand, God gives us the power to choose to follow Christ. A decision to follow him is a decision – by God’s help – to turn away from the path of destruction and take another path, a narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).

When the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would bear a child, the angel told Mary what name to give the newborn. He was to be called Jesus, derived from the Hebrew word Yeshua (salvation). And what would Jesus’ mission on earth be? He would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, KJV).

These days some want to rewrite Matthew 1:21 to say that Jesus will save his people not from their sins but in their sins. It is like we believe that since Jesus saves me, it doesn’t matter how I live. John Wesley (1703-91) called this false doctrine antinomianism, or lawlessness. He saw it as the most widespread and deadly error of his day. Yet the writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus died in order for us to live transformed lives:

Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood (Hebrews 13:12, NRSV).

In this verse, to sanctify is to purify. God longs to make us like Jesus, to clean us up! Nina Gunter insists: “Grace does not leave us where it found us.” This is exactly the opposite of the slogans we hear, such as “I’m only human” or “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” You may have been a sinner, but that was then, this is now (1 Corinthians 6:11).  Now, we are followers of Jesus Christ, reconciled to God, adopted into God’s family! Jesus can change us; he can save us from our sin, or he is no Savior at all.

Church leaders are wringing their hands, wondering what they can do to make the church grow again. May I suggest sinning Christianity is the problem? Until we get to the place where we are sick of our sin and desperate for God’s holy love to fill us, we will have nothing of value to offer to people who look on and see only the same filth and absence of love that they can find 24/7 elsewhere.  If the church has a PR problem, it’s only because it has a sin problem. How can we offer deliverance if we ourselves are still enchained?

Heaven isn’t enough. Jesus died for more than to take us to heaven. He died so that as his true followers we can live new lives, transformed lives, lives characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit, spilling over with God’s holy love right here on earth. May the Lord renew His church both individually and corporately!


Image credits

Staircase to heaven: picturesofheaven.net

Houston: wingclips.com


Just who do you think you are?

lllJesus was used to people asking him this brazen question. In John 10:24, some Jews gathered around asked him: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (NIV).

The Lord replied that he had already spoken openly about his Father, and that his miracles attested to his divinity. They got the message and angrily picked up stones to throw at him.

The Lord has a way of turning questions back on us. He did so with Simon Peter and the disciples in Matthew 16:15, asking: “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Famously, Simon answered: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (v. 16).

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis popularized the “Liar, lunatic, or Lord” argument, sometimes called “Bad, mad, or God.” The passage in John 10 cited above is an example of Jesus’ claim to be God. If Jesus claims it, then there are only three possible ways that we can respond. Either we call him an evil blasphemer for making such a claim, we deem Jesus insane, or we acknowledge that he is who he claimed to be, the only Way to God (John 14:6).

Answering this question is the most important thing a person can ever do. If Jesus is God’s son, then we can have confidence that the wrong things we have done (our sins) can be forgiven because of what Jesus did for us at the Cross, dying as a once-for-all sacrifice.

Make no mistake. Deciding to follow Christ as his disciple will not be easy. At times, it will be excruciatingly difficult, yet it is a commitment that gives deep meaning and joy to life, confidence that in this life and after death, we are and will remain part of God’s family.

They said to Jesus: Who do you think that you are? He turns it around, and asks you and me: Who do you think that I am? Is he a liar, a lunatic, or Lord?


Image credit: Bendigo Presbyterian Church

Something fishy about this meme

10606456_10154618217465010_6734428944087588241_nReligion and church get a bum rap. They have become dirty words, something socially acceptable to talk down.

Exhibit A: Let’s look at the meme to the right. It came across my FaceBook, shared and “liked” many times by others.

In the top line, note how “religion” and “church” are obstacles. They stand in the way of you doing what you really want to be doing (fishing) instead of being in church. The message is clear:

Fishing is fun, but religion and church are BORING.

Just go fishing. You’ll connect with God there, and have a lot more fun. What you need is relationship, not religion or church, or so the picture would have us believe.

Like most deceptive memes, there’s just enough truth here to sugarcoat the underlying falsehood. So let’s start with the truth in the meme. Many people – myself included – do connect with God through nature. While I don’t fish, I love to hike with my camera at the ready. No bird, rock, tree or flower can escape my 30x zoom lens. Like the Psalmist, I regularly see the hand of God in what the LORD has created:

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftmanship” (Psalm 19:1).

When walking with my camera, I am drawn to think about God. I talk to the LORD, and often I sense God’s presence in return, a sense of peace, of God’s love, of companionship with the divine. So far, so good.

Where the meme loses me and I start to say – “Now, wait just a minute here!” – is the false dichotomy, as if you can choose either a relationship with God fueled by nature or religion/church. Truth be known, we need not choose between the two. Both hold many comforts for the disciple of Christ.

Let’s start with the word “religion.” Contrary to the negative connotation given by the meme and by the title of Christian rapper Jefferson Bethke’s well-intentioned but half-truthish viral video, the word “religion” as used in Scripture is positive. Two prominent uses are found in 1 Timothy 5:4 and James 1:26-27. There, the instruction by Paul and James is not to jettison religion but to live out a form of religion that is genuine and caring. How can this be done? Both agree that how we treat others – the members of our family, the widows, the orphans – is to model positive and genuine religion. Interestingly, the word “religion” in both passages is understood socially. The true and honorable practice of religion means confirming the value of our professed relationship with God by treating those around us with love and concern. Though he doesn’t use the term “religion,” John ratifies this sentiment:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen (1 John 4:20, NIV).

Beyond the Scriptural understanding of religion is one more philosophical. The second definition of “religion” in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary is “a system of religious beliefs or practices.” The words “belief” and “practice” are in the same constellation as the term “worldview.” Religion is the God-shaped “glasses” through which a believer views reality. C.S. Lewis once remarked: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” To infer that religion is somehow opposed to relationship is like saying we should never use our eyes so that we can develop a keener sense of hearing. Religion (symbolized by the eye) helps us interpret reality God’s way. Relationship (symbolized by the ear) gives us a sense of meaning as we talk with God and develop intimacy with our Creator. Just like we function better with both eyes and ears – when it comes to God – we need both religion and relationship.

A second word in the first part of the meme that is given a negative spin is “church.” I’d be the first to admit that there are plenty of churches that aren’t worthy of the title. Ingrown, judgmental, legalistic, these clusters of Christians give churches in general a bad name. Prison chaplain Lennie Spitale laments that many who find Christ and grow in their faith inside prison fall away once released. Though they try to go to church on the outside, too many Christians leave the impression that they have their act together. The ex-prisoner feels awkward and uncomfortable, often reconnecting instead with former friends with whom they fall back into destructive habits and patterns (Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out [B & H Publishing, 2002, Kindle edition], 28).

potatoesBut I learned a lesson about potatoes that applies to churches. As a teen, my boss at the supermarket asked me to sort through a shopping cart filled with 10 lb. bags of potatoes. The bags were smelling ripe, so I ripped them open and dumped the potatoes out on the table. Usually, out of 20 or 25 good-sized potatoes, it was only 1 or 2 that were rotten. These I threw away, while the rest got bagged up for re-sale. So it is with churches. Some Christians in churches seem rotten, so much that we’d like to throw them away like I did with those putrid potatoes. But most believers are just fine, imperfect people like you and me who – by God’s grace – are coming to look more and more like Jesus. Will we throw away the whole bag of potatoes for the sake of a few smelly ones?

Church is not just an option for the believer. It’s a necessity. The writer to the Hebrews urged his readers to keep coming together for worship and mutual encouragement (Hebrews 10:25). Likewise, John Wesley (1703-91)  identified 5 crucial “means of grace” that help us grow in our faith. These are prayer, reading the Bible, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and “Christian conference.” By “Christian conference” he meant every way that believers come together. This involves weekly worship on Sundays but also includes being part of a small group where we can take care of each others’ needs, pray for each other, laugh together and – when necessary – warn a brother or sister when we see something creeping into their lives that risks drawing them away from God.

The community of faith has been so positive, so life-giving and joyful for me across the years that it’s rare for my mind to wander during worship to somewhere else I’d rather be. Instead, on the occasional Sunday morning when job duties and airline travel schedules keep me away from church, my mind often wanders there, with questions like:

-I wonder what songs they’re singing?

-I hope the pastor’s sermon series continues well today.

-Do you think that Joe’s job search we’ve been praying for has turned anything up?

-Today’s the day that the Smith’s baby gets baptized. They must be excited!

Relationship, religion, church – what powerful words! I’m glad that when it comes to us and God, we need not choose between them. They each have their place in our Christian vocabulary. By the strength of our example, energized by the Holy Spirit, let us make each of these words attractive and winsome in the eyes of our culture.


Image credit (potatoes): thekitchencousins.com

On sugar maples, Southern red bishops, and theology


A Southern Red Bishop rests after feeding on tender grain at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort, outside Johannesburg, RSA

This week, Amy, Brad and I are exploring Capetown for the first time. While we’re away getting acquainted with another beautiful part of South Africa, it seemed timely to re-publish these nature reflections from near Johannesburg.

I’ll be back next Saturday with a new “Theology in Overalls” blog post.




My father-in-law, John, is amazing. When I was dating his daughter, Amy (now my wife), I would sometimes visit their home near Auburn, New York. Usually at some point, her dad would proudly take me on a stroll in their park-like back yard, pointing out the many species of trees, some of which he had planted himself. Looking at the trees, I could identify oaks, elms, and maples. For John, that was child’s play. In his youth, he had studied to be a forest ranger and had spent several years surveying in the Northeast. He knew not only the English names for all the trees, but the Latin ones, too, terms like acer saccharum (sugar maple) and ulmus americana (American elm).

I wish he could travel to South Africa. His health now would never allow the trip. If he came, I’d show him the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens where not only are there many varieties of trees, but also birds. When it comes to birds, I’ll admit that I’m still weak in identifying different species, but little by little, I’m learning. And my favorite so far at Sisulu is the Southern Red Bishop. Riding my bike in our neighborhood the other day, I saw many birds, but instead of thinking “Look at that bird!,” I mused: “I hope that sacred ibis doesn’t decide to dive-bomb me!” My two-wheeled approach startled a pair of laughing doves, chasing them upward. To my right on the freshly mowed grass, a black-masked weaver pecked at a worm.

What applies to species of trees and birds applies to God. There was a time when I was content to just say “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But with time, I don’t just want to know that I am saved. I want to know how salvation works. So we learn of soteriology, Christology, hamartiology, and the Christus Victor. Some think theologians needlessly complicate things. I beg to differ. The same God who made salvation simple enough for a child to understand made study of Scripture and theology profound enough for minds far greater than my own to spend a lifetime contemplating the mystery of redemption.

So let’s have at it. Let’s unabashedly dive in deep to all areas of knowledge and master each discipline’s vocabulary as an act of worship to our Creator God. And I’ll make you a deal: If you are interested in knowing more about tertium quid, conditional immortality, and the eschaton, I’ll keep plugging away in areas that hold less fascination for me, but where my interest can still be sparked. One day, I hope to shake my head in disbelief that I used to be satisfied with merely saying “tree” and “bird.”