Encouragement From The Word

The Gift of Simplicity

            There’s an old song, written by Joseph Brackett in 1848.  Brackett was a leader in the Shaker community in Maine in the middle decades of the 19th century.  The song goes like this:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come out right.


            If you don’t recognize the song, try singing it to the tune that we commonly associate with “Lord of the Dance”.  (“Simple Gifts” came first.  Brackett wrote the tune for this text.)


            Lately, I’ve been thinking more intently about the gift of simplicity.


            Let’s face it:  life is complicated today.  Too complicated, most of us would say.  That means that the church is complicated, too.  But does it have to be?


            Some months ago, I read a book called Simple Church.  (You can read my review of it here.)  And I’m becoming more convinced than ever that the church needs to regain the simplicity that characterized the first followers of Jesus.  Why?


            I think the church in general has become so good at being religious, we’ve lost the focus on being the church.  Confused?  Read on.


            Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God (Matthew 4.23), not religion.  It was those who were most vocally opposing Jesus who were among the most religious.  Even the apostle Paul, in his speech to the philosophers of Athens, offered a backhanded critique of their religiosity (Acts 17.22).  Religious activity is human effort.  It’s our attempt to have God show up someplace for a prescribed reason. 


Being the church is different.  Being the church is living as those called out for the purpose of building the kingdom of God.   And if the New Testament is any witness, building the kingdom of God comes through serving others.  Simply.


Let’s not, though, confuse the church as a serving body with a service club.  Service clubs have a place, but it’s not the same place as that of the church.  The church serves others in response to the love with which God has filled our hearts by faith. 


Sadly, some people – perhaps many people – see their responsibility in the church as occupying a seat each week and “being fed”.  While we can’t negate the importance of strong pulpit teaching on Christian development, if we see our sole responsibility in that passive way, we will lose sight of the serving role to which God calls the church.


Fulton Sheen was Archbishop of Canterbury at one time in the Church of England.  He was known for saying that “the church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of its non-members.”  That is, we exist to serve, not to be served – just as Jesus, the Son of Man, “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45, NIV).


But, you may be thinking, doesn’t all this serving just complicate the church even more?  It can, but it doesn’t have to.


If your church has a mission, a vision, a purpose – something on which it intentionally hangs its ministries – then serving can be simple.  Make that mission the filter through which you strain every ministry opportunity.  Engage only in those that make it through the filter; those are the ministries, the serving opportunities, that God has set out for you.


Imagine with me what the world would look like if every church in every place knew its God-given vision, and acted accordingly – with a serving heart instead of a religious bent.  It would be a simple way to be the church.  And God’s kingdom would grow!


Is Your Marriage “Fireproof”?

fireproofSt. Paul’s Church, Nobleton is hosting a showing of the popular movie, “Fireproof”.  This film is intended to bring encouragement to couples in their married life.  It was, apparently, 2008’s highest-grossing independently made film in the United States.

To aid a special mission project, we’re asking for a minimum donation of $5.00 per person for admission.  Child care will be provided.

The event will be held on Friday, March 27, 2009.  Doors open at 7:00 p.m., with the movie starting at 7:30.

To learn more about Fireproof, click here.

If you have questions or want to obtain tickets, call Calvert at 905-859-3028 or the church office at 905-859-0843.


Probing our Purpose: To Make God Known To Everyone

In this last part of the series exploring St. Paul’s statement of purpose, my “big idea” was the concept that if we truly believe that Jesus is what makes the difference for eternity, our love for others should encourage us to share our faith with them.

The technical gremlins were at work today, so neither of our usual sources was able to record the message in audio format. However, I showed a video of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame, speaking about his experience with a Christ-follower witnessing to him. Here’s the link to the video:

I found it pretty convincing when an avowed atheist tells me that sharing my faith is important!

Encouragement From The Word


          In case you missed it (how could you?), the newly-minted US President, Barack Obama, visited our nation’s capital on Thursday for a symbolic, but important, meeting with the Prime Minister (as well as the Governor General and the Leader of the Official Opposition).


          Frankly, I had a hard time believing the hoopla that went down over this.  I’ve taken to calling it “Obamania”, since the ladies squealing in the presence of the President is not unlike what the Beatles experienced in their heyday.


          So why the excitement?  President Obama is a new phenomenon.  He’s different.  He’s a change from what we’ve been used to seeing come for official visits to Canada.  Now, to be sure, the very concept of “President Obama” is historic, and not to be discounted in any way.  But apart from the sense of pride that is rightfully felt by North Americans of African descent, what’s the big deal?


          I think it has to do with the fact that President Obama is different.  He’s different from what we have on ‘our side of the fence’, so to speak.  He’s outgoing and charismatic, and seems very approachable.  His unscripted walk through the Byward Market in Ottawa proved that for many people!


          There are Canadians who wish that Barack Obama was their leader.  But I think that’s just a desire to have what’s on ‘the other side of the fence’.  I’m not being political here.  Who of us hasn’t had something – say, a car – that was perfectly satisfactory, but as soon as someone drives by with the ‘vroom-vroom’ of another, perhaps more attractive car, we find ourselves wanting that?  Fill in your favourite possession; it happens to us all at some time or other.


          This was no less true of the people of God in Hebrew Scripture.  Many people think the Old Testament is full of blood and violence and rules.  If we read it to look for those things, then yes, we’ll find them.  But on the whole, the Old Testament is about a totally faithful God and a totally fickle people.  God redeems his people, and his people drift away yet again.  They are always looking for greener grass on the other side of the fence.  They claim allegiance to the Lord, and then turn away after some other nation’s false deity.  Then God redeems them again – this is often where the blood and violence come in – and the people show their true colours by wandering again.


          But there is great hope:  the story of the Old Testament prophet, Hosea, illustrates in brief the whole story of the people of God through the ages.  Despite the people’s wandering:  The Lord says, ‘Then I will heal you of your faithlessness; my love will know no bounds, for my anger will be gone forever.  I will be to Israel like a refreshing dew from heaven.  Israel will blossom like the lily; it will send roots deep into the soil like the cedars in Lebanon’” (Hosea 14.4-5, NLT).


          Despite our faithlessness, God will remain faithful.  Despite our wandering, God will redeem us.  Should that encourage us to simply keep on wandering, in order that God’s redemption may continue?  The apostle Paul dealt well with this question for Christ-followers in Romans 6.1-4:  Well, then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?  Of course not!  Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?  Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death?  For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism.  And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.”


          “Obamania” is just a symptom of a greater sickness of wandering from the known and the safe and the faithful, to something new and exciting and, ultimately, not ours.  And it applies equally in our life of faith.  We are “prone to wander” as the hymn writer of old put it, but only the Lord has everything that can satisfy.  Give your total allegiance today.


Encouragement From The Word

The Gift of Encouragement

Some folks just have a perfect, God-ordained sense of timing.  Have you ever received a card or a phone call or a hug at just the right time?  I can’t count the number of times this has happened to me over the course of my life and ministry.  Even this week, after a particularly distressing few moments that had a more profound impact on my psyche than they should have, the Lord used two friends to encourage me:  one with an “out of the blue” phone call that communicated just the right words, and another with a card that said exactly what I needed to read.


There is great power in the use of the spiritual gift of encouragement.  Nobody gets too much encouragement, right?  The Bible mentions this gift in Romans 12:  In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well….If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging” (vv. 6 & 8, NLT).  People who have this gift find it very easy to seek out the positive and reinforce it.  And they are responsive to God’s little nudges, and his overall sense of timing. 


George Barna recently reported that more American Christians report having the spiritual gift of encouragement, which – if they use it – should be really good news for churches.  Hopefully, this is true for Canadian Christians, too!  Encouragement, as I see it, is the fuel for ministry.


Is your church running on empty?  Suggest to your church leadership that they engage in a survey of the congregation’s spiritual gifts (I can help you with that, by the way…).  A spiritual gift discovery is often a real revelation for people, as they learn what God has equipped them to do in the life of the church.  You can be sure that at least one person in your fellowship has been gifted with encouragement.  Once you know who that person is (or who those people are), draw them into a nurturing of their gift.  Help them understand that their encouragement will strengthen the leaders of the church, and will bring a positive spirit to the life of the congregation.  Never underestimate the value of encouragement.


Just ask me.  I know.

Biblical Messages

In memory of a friend

Today, I preached at the funeral of a dear friend, whose sudden and untimely death has shaken us in her circle of acquaintance.  My responsibility in the midst of this was to share the hope that she had, and that all may have, in Jesus Christ in the face of death.

Here is the message I shared, in written format:





      I’m not always prepared to admit this publicly, so please show a little mercy:  I grew up listening to country and western music.  And my father, who turns 75 tomorrow, asked me to create a “best of” CD for him with some of the more popular songs of such esteemed artists as Charley Pride, Merle Haggard, and, of course, Tom T. Hall.  So, off I surfed to ITunes, to purchase and download the songs Dad was asking for.


      Once I had purchased the songs and burned them to a CD, I was listening to the disc to make sure that the process had happened successfully.  And what I was left with was a flood of memories, since each one of those songs had once emanated from speakers in the living room of my childhood.


      Memories, for the most part, are a blessing from the Lord.  Particularly at times like this, when we remember someone we have loved, memories of good times are what help us to heal.


      My memories of Darlene stretch back to 1992.  When I came into The Presbyterian Church in Canada, and began renting the manse in Tara, the Presbytery appointed Ken to serve as an advocate for me in the process.  We began meeting together and, forged a friendship that extended to our wives.  The four of us enjoyed several long evenings over dinner at Grosvenor’s, though probably not enough of them.  Ken and Darlene travelled all the way to the middle of Ohio to celebrate my doctoral graduation.  And when I introduced Ken to some of Cuba’s finer exports, Darlene quietly tolerated our enjoyment of those exports. 


After we moved out of the area, Ken and Darlene would host us in their home.  Their spare bedroom was decorated liberally with dolls and stuffed animals.  It was this that reminded me of Darlene’s faith.  There was never any doubt in my mind that she loved the Lord Jesus Christ and sought to serve him with every ability that God had given her.  And she did so simply, in a way that I consider child-like – not childish, but child-like.


Jesus spoke positively of child-like faith.  The writers of three gospels record the time when Jesus had to rebuke his friends for trying to keep folks from bringing their kids to Jesus.  In Mark’s rendition of the story, in Mark 10.13-16, we read, “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant [in other words, he was ticked with them!] and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you [which is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘listen; this is important’], whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”


We are sad today, and we have every reason to feel sorry for ourselves.  We are bereft of a daughter, a wife, a friend, who meant so much to us.  But I want you to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have no reason whatsoever to feel sorry for Darlene.  Why?  Because she loved the Lord Jesus and received the kingdom as a little child.  Darlene was, in faith as in every other part of her life, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person; she had no agendas, no pretensions, no airs.  She took pleasure in simple things.  She was who she was – a committed follower of Christ who lived her faith in a child-like manner.


Because of her faith – and because of her faith alone – we can be assured that Darlene stands now in the eternal presence of the living God, where there is no pain and no sorrow, where there is no need to test blood sugar or inject insulin before partaking of the great heavenly banquet that God has prepared just for her.


God invites us to consider whether we have that same confidence for ourselves.  Jesus said, in comforting his friends before his death and resurrection, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6).  The loss of a loved one, especially at an age where we would expect to have her among us for another thirty years, brings us face-to-face with our own mortality.  But the fact is that we cannot know with confidence the length of our years.  So the time to consider your relationship with the Lord is now.  Will you, like Darlene, receive the kingdom as a little child?  Will you trust the Lord Jesus with a child-like faith?  If you will, then you will be able to say, with confidence, that your help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Psalm 121.2).


Some folks will say that while this was important for Darlene, it doesn’t necessarily make it important for them.  But if you think that way, let me ask you a question:  what truly gives you comfort?  The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, an affirmation of faith from the Dutch Reformed tradition, asks this pivotal question:  What is your only comfort in life and death? 


I love the answer set forth by the divines of old:  It says that my only comfort in life and death is “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.  He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.  He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.  Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.”


That is an eloquent statement indeed, but it merely speaks the simple message of the Bible:  that God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but have eternal life (John 3.16).


When followers of Jesus die, they do so with the comfort of belonging to Jesus.  Many years ago, a hymn writer penned words that simplified that affirmation of faith:

Jesus my Lord will love me forever,

From Him no pow’r of evil can sever,
He gave His life to ransom my soul;

Now I belong to Him;

Now I belong to Jesus, Jesus belongs to me,
Not for the years of time alone, But for eternity.


Do you have that comfort, in life and in death?  Do you belong to Jesus?  It doesn’t need to be complicated.  For Darlene, it was simple.  It was basic.  It was all that it needed to be.  Despite other things that complicated her life, her devotion to God and his church was simple.

And it can be that way for you, too.  If you want to honour Darlene’s memory, make a simple commitment to Jesus.  Follow him in child-like faith as she did.  Receive the Kingdom for now and forever by making Jesus your Lord.


One of those Tom T. Hall songs I downloaded for my Dad was called “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine”.  With a title like that, it couldn’t be anything but a country song!  It’s about the troubadour encountering an old man in a bar, who shares his unsolicited wisdom.  One of the verses goes like this:

“Old dogs care about you

even when you make mistakes.
God bless the little children

while they’re still to young to hate.”
When he moved away I found my pen

and copied down that line
About old dogs and children and watermelon wine.


      “God bless the little children while they’re still too young to hate.”  Darlene was not one to hate, even when small-minded church people frustrated her.  We might say that Darlene was too young to die, never mind hate.  And that’s true, from our finite perspective.  But she lived long enough to leave us an example of faithful Christian living.  And now she stands with the whole company of heaven as one of God’s treasured saints, worshipping face-to-face the Lord she served.  Let that be our encouragement, and in following her example, may it be your hope today.

Darlene will remain in my memory, and in many others’, for a very long time to come.

Biblical Messages

Probing Our Purpose: Caring

I didn’t originally plan to preach a message on love and caring on the day of our congregation’s annual meeting.  And I have no idea whether or not this message influenced people as they prepared their hearts for the meeting that followed worship, but it was possibly the most up-beat, positive, encouraging annual meeting of a congregation in which I have ever participated.  It demonstrated that our people care about one another, and love each other.  And it demonstrated that they have faith:  the congregation approved a budget that involves a 17% increase in giving if it is to be met over the course of 2009.  As we grow, we can make this work – I am confident.

Anyway, give a listen to this message, based on 1 Corinthians 13. Let me know what you think!


What Recession?

I had to stop today at one of our local megamalls to deal with a defective zipper on a winter boot I had bought there almost a month ago.  Saturday is a day I tend to avoid malls at the best of times, but usually, “in the bleak mid-winter”, it can be tolerable.

Maybe usually, but not today.

Today, it was like the week before Christmas in that mall.  The crowds of people were shoulder-to-shoulder.  It left me asking myself, What recession? 

When I spoke to the clerk in the shoe store I was dealing with, I mentioned this.  She said, “Yeah, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

“People have the money to buy what they want to buy,” said I.  “It’s a matter of priorities.”

I’m no economist, but maybe it will be people’s willingness to spend beyond their means that may help bring the economy out of recession.  But in the long term, what good will be done by the amassing of all that debt?

Lots of questions I can’t answer, but when I look at the shopping malls, one thing I can say is that people are still spending.

Any thoughts?

Encouragement From The Word

Our Only Comfort

I received the sad news on Tuesday morning of the sudden passing of a dear friend, aged 54.  I have been asked by her husband, a friend and colleague, if I would preach at her funeral.  Of course, I agreed.


It’s never easy to prepare for a funeral, but it can be especially difficult to prepare to proclaim God’s Word at a funeral for someone you knew well, and loved.  What makes it easy, if such a thing can ever be ‘easy’, is that she loved the Lord Jesus and followed him faithfully.  There will be no doubt in anyone’s mind when it is expressed that she has gone to join the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12.1, NIV).  We all know that she now lives to praise her Lord and Saviour eternally, where there is “no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Revelation 21.4, NLT).


That assurance leaves her loved ones encouraged, despite our loss.  And it leaves us wondering how anyone ever handles the death of a loved one without the assurance that comes with faith.  Readers from a Dutch Reformed tradition will be very familiar with these affirming words of faith from Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism:


What is your only comfort in life and death? 
That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.


When followers of Jesus die, they do so with the comfort of belonging to Jesus.  As hymnist Norman J. Clayton wrote many years ago:

Jesus my Lord will love me forever, From Him no pow’r of evil can sever,
He gave His life to ransom my soul; Now I belong to Him;

Now I belong to Jesus, Jesus belongs to me,
Not for the years of time alone, But for eternity.


Do you have that comfort, in life and in death?  Do you belong to Jesus?  If you’re not sure, I want to help.  Just email me and we can talk about it.


May the Lord give you his comfort, by faith.


Book Reviews

Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church

fusion_bookjpgOne thing I have in common with every church leader who is keen to see the church blossom and flourish is a desire to reach and retain folks who come to worship as guests.  Recently, I found the book Fusion:  Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Churchand devoured it.  It’s not a hard read, not a long read, but is a very practical and useful read.  It’s written by Nelson Searcy (with Jennifer Dykes Henson).  Searcy is a church planter, and pastor of a congregation in New York City that has several sites for its services.  He has come up with an assimilation method that has proven itself to work.  Seeing it on paper, I can see how it would work.

Basically, the idea is to communicate with guests – and regulars – and encourage them to take small but important steps toward commitment to Christ and the local church.  This happens through the use of cards inserted in every Sunday bulletin, incentives to encourage guests to fill them out (as they watch regular attenders fill them out, likewise), follow-up emails and letters, and simple encouragements to get guests to give serious consideration to making your church family their church family.

Searcy’s method is simple and easy to follow.  My one criticism of the book comes from what it assumes is happening:  that is, he assumes that people are coming to faith in Christ through the worship gatherings, or through friends, and that they have likely already made a personal decision to follow Jesus by the time they get to a membership class.  This is not always the case, of course, and he allows for this with an opportunity to lead people to Christ through the membership class.  His theology of church membership is more traditional than biblical, in the sense that church membership as we typically see it is not readily found in Scripture.  However, he points out that membership serves as a means of accountability, something that all growing followers of Christ need if they are to keep growing.

One of Searcy’s greatest points is that people who have come for a few weeks in a row need to be offered a serving opportunity of some sort – greeting, ushering, preparing refreshments, playing in the band, etc. – because they will start to take responsibility for the church as ‘their’ church if they have a serving ministry.  I hadn’t thought seriously about this before, but he’s absolutely right.  As a teen, I was assimilated this way.  I’ve seen many people assimilated under my own ministry – no thanks to me – through the initiative of another who thought to offer newcomers a serving role.

I highly recommend this book, and intend to put it to use this week in my own ministry.

Fusion:  Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church was published by Regal Books in 2007.   ISBN-13:  978-0-8307-4531-9; ISBN-10:  0-8307-4531-9.  You can check the author out on the web at www.ChurchLeaderInsights.com/Fusion.

Biblical Messages

Probing Our Purpose: Worship

The congregation I serve, St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, has this as its purpose statement:

St. Paul’s exists to worship God, be a caring Church, grow in Christ, and share God with everyone.

This month, in four messages, I will be probing our purpose, to know what it means to live, as a church family, by this statement.

This week’s message is about what it means to exist as a church to worship God.  It’s based on Psalm 95, and uses this video as an illustration.

You can listen to the message here.  Feel free to comment!