Biblical Messages

When You Talk To God…Know Who’s Working Against You

Satan doesn’t get much press anymore, even in the church.  He likes it that way, actually.  But evil is real and it’s a power to be reckoned with in the world.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  [In the contemporary version, we say, “Save us from the time of trial” instead of “And lead us not into temptation”, for reasons you can hear in the message.]  Whehn we say that, we are acknowledging the reality of evil in the world.  So when you talk to God, it’s good to know who’s working against you.

As I say in the message, this was a hard one to prepare for, because the devil doesn’t like it when we expose him.  He fought with me tooth-and-nail as I prepared to preach this message.  But God has the victory!

Based on James 1.12-18 and 1 Peter 5.6-11, this message can be listened to here.

Encouragement From The Word

Recharging Your Batteries

            While working on my model railroad layout on my day off last Monday, a death in the family occurred:  my cordless drill gave up the ghost.  Its two batteries were no longer accepting a charge that would give the drill sufficient power to countersink more than one or two screws.  The visitation and funeral took place immediately, with the sharing of fond memories of layouts past that had been built, when the drill was younger and stronger.


            As the cycle of life with tools comes and goes, I found myself later that day in a nearby home improvement store, respectfully and carefully seeking out a replacement for my deceased friend.   With its successor chosen, I paid the bill and returned home.  The greatest characteristic of this new drill is that it has more power than the old one:  18 volts versus 14.4 volts.  (Picture a “Tim the Tool Man Taylor” kind of growl coming out of my mouth as I wrote that…more power!)


            The problem with rechargeable batteries – at least the kind in the old drill – is that they cannot accept an infinite number of charges and still be expected to perform.  Eventually, what gives them the juice to keep working will fail.


            We humans have something to learn from the lowly nickel cadmium battery.


            We are like those batteries in the sense that we can’t keep going on and on and on without being recharged somehow.  Thankfully, we are unlike them in that we can be charged up again and again and again – though not infinitely.


            God designed us for work and rest.  There is a cycle, a rhythm to life:  7 being a very significant biblical number, and 7 being the number of days in a week according to the calendar we follow, there needs to be one of those seven days each week that steps aside from the daily routine.  In the days of the Old Testament, and to our Jewish friends, it’s called “sabbath”.  To us, it’s a day of rest.  Christ-followers usually call it “the Lord’s Day”. 


            When folks talk about coming to worship as “recharging their batteries”, there’s some truth to that:  in giving our praise to God and serving others, and in receiving spiritual nourishment from God, we find our batteries recharged – we find ourselves better equipped to take on the week that is before us.  But surely there should be more!


            There is.  The concept of ‘sabbath’ involves us taking a day away from the normal routines of the week.  Ideally, that day should include worship and community with God’s people, but it ought also to include activities that are so different from our day-to-day activities that we feel refreshed just in doing those activities.


            The Scriptures record that rest was valued by God:  By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.  And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2.2-3, NIV).  So if God rested on the seventh day – Saturday, on our calendar – why do we worship and rest on Sunday, the first day?  Because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week!


            For the Christ-follower, our cycle of work and rest is based on the victory of Jesus.  When we rest from our day-to-day work on Sunday, we honour his work in bringing us salvation.  Our time with the church on Sunday involves worship, but even our rest, the recharging of our batteries both spiritually and physically, honours God.


            In this world of rush-rush-rush and ‘get it done now’, my prayer for you is that you will be able to take time to rest, to recharge your batteries, and in so doing to honour God.

Biblical Messages

When You Talk To God…Use the REAL ‘F’ Word

Obviously, a title that uses the term “‘F’ Word” is going to attract some attention, and it appears to have done just that!  And when we say we want to use it at home, work, school *and* church, that gets even more attention!

But I want to encourage you to do just that:  use the real ‘F’ word in church, and everywhere else in your life.  But it may not be the ‘F’ word that you think.

Listen to this message, based on Matthew 18.21-35 and Ephesians 4.17-28, here.

The video that was shown in the service can be found here.

May God give you grace to use the real ‘F’ word in your life!

Encouragement From The Word

Seeing Jesus For Who He Is

Periodically, I read something that just makes my heart sink. This week, it was an opinion piece in one of our local newspapers.

I want to believe that the author intended something better than came across in his writing, but what I read just left me shaking my head. The author stated that he believes our reason for living is to “live each day creatively, co-operatively and with deep, heart-felt satisfaction.” Now, that doesn’t seem so bad, does it? So why is my heart so sunk?

I believe, with the Christ-followers who crafted the Westminster Confession of Faith, that our reason for living is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s what they called “Man’s chief end.” God made us for his pleasure, to praise him and enjoy the riches of his grace. It’s a significant part of what makes the Christian faith unique from other religious or non-religious traditions.

None of this makes sense, however, if we believe the author’s assertion about the nature of God. He refers to God as “our Divine Essence” and Jesus as “a superlative representation of God”. Hmmm…last time I checked, the Bible indicated to us that Jesus IS God! After all, in John 1.1, we read, “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NLT). To say that Jesus is “a superlative representation of God” comes close, but it indicates that he’s merely a facsimile – not God in the flesh. And while it is true that Jesus represents God, and is the closest thing to God that we can wrap our finite minds around, to say that he is “a superlative representation” indicates that there might be other representations, and Scripture is pretty clear that Jesus was the only one: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1.15, NIV).

I believe that the church’s downfall won’t come over a moral issue. Churches won’t fall because of how they feel about abortion or same-sex marriage or euthanasia, important as those issues are. The make-or-break issue for the church will be our answer to the question Jesus posed to his followers: “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16.15, NIV). If we will not acknowledge Jesus as the unique Saviour of humanity – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16, 16, NIV) – then what distinguishes the church from any other organization? If it’s all about being satisfied and co-operating with other people, why bring God into it in the first place?

But Jesus wasn’t into religion. Jesus was about the kingdom of his Father. And we should be likewise. That means, first, seeing Jesus for who he is.

Book Reviews

The Way Is Made By Walking

the-way-is-made-by-walkingArthur Paul Boers describes himself as “Seminary professor, Author, Mennonite minister, Benedictine oblate.”  I prefer to describe him as “deep man of God.”  Arthur Boers taught one of my doctoral courses, a course on Christian spirituality.  It was one of the finest and most life-changing courses I ever took.  So anytime I can find a volume written by him, I pick it up and absorb it as soon as I can.

The Way Is Made By Walking is Boers’ theological reflection on a pilgrimage he took along the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  This five hundred mile journey, which he completed on foot in 31 days, had him  meet people of all walks of life – and not all people of faith.  Many were Roman Catholic pilgrims, some were Protestant, but others were of no particular faith persuasion at all.  Boers found his journey enriched by all whom he met.

The book was, to me, a helpful reminder that all of life is a journey, and that the destination is not everything there is to it.  This has been a difficult thing for me to grasp, but over the last few years, God has taught me that the journey matters, and shouldn’t be forsaken in favour of getting to the destination more quickly.

Don’t get me wrong:  I look forward to spending eternity in the presence of God, by faith, and am not afraid of what I will face when I breathe my last.  In fact, I am excited about standing before the throne of grace!  But in the past, I have tended to focus so much on that destination that the journey – this life – played second-fiddle.

I may never walk a five hundred mile pilgrimage.  As much as I enjoy a good walk, I’m not sure I’m built for that kind of pilgrimage.  But I am built, specifically, to fulfill the plans God has for me while I serve him in this life.  And I want to live out those plans to the fullest measure. 

The Way has encouraged me to that end, and I recommend the book for all believers.  Because of its narrative form, it reads fairly quickly, yet has a depth to it that speaks to the soul.  This was not a book in which I highlighted or underlined.  I just let the words speak.  I read it to learn, but not in a ‘how-to’ kind of sense.  And every practicioner of ministry needs a book like that, at least once in a while.

The Way Is Made By Walking is written by Arthur Paul Boers, and was published in 2007 by Inter-Varsity Press.  ISBN 978-0-8308-3507-2.

Encouragement From The Word

Grace and Speeding Tickets

I’m ashamed to admit it, but a couple of weeks ago, I got my first speeding ticket in almost 18 years. There really was no excuse for my behaviour. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was just looking forward to getting home. I was only about 8 km from home, priming myself to watch some championship women’s curling on television. The next thing I knew, there was a police officer standing in my lane, pointing to me to pull over. I looked at the speedometer. Oops.

Meanwhile, the person driving the vehicle behind me was laying on her horn, and swerving around me, while I slowed down (in a hurry!) and prepared to pull over. As she swerved around me, the police officer motioned to her to pull over, too – which she began to realize perhaps five metres before nearly hitting the officer.

The officer came to my car, took my information, and told me how fast I was going, according to his well-concealed radar gun: 80 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. Ouch. I suspected I was speeding, but didn’t think I was going quite that fast. I apologized to the police officer, and expressed gratitude that the driver behind me had not sent him to an early grave. He said, “Yeah, I need to have a conversation with her.”

The police officer took my licence and registration with him, and approached the other vehicle. The driver decided to argue with the police officer. This is not a good idea, Ma’am, I’m thinking to myself. After she had had her say, the policeman retired to his warm car where he proceeded to do what officers do when they get back to the car. When he came back, he came to me first, gave me my information, and explained that he had to give me a ticket – almost apologetically.

The good news for me was that he had reduced the fine, and it wouldn’t cost me any demerit points. I thanked the officer for his leniency, and s-l-o-w-l-y made my way back onto the roadway. As I drove past the officer, now having another conversation with the other driver, I wondered to myself whether he would be as lenient with her as he had been with me. I doubted it, simply because, while I had been compliant, the other driver had nearly killed the cop, and then argued with him about it!

But then, I thought to myself, I couldn’t know for sure that he wouldn’t be gracious to her. I was immediately reminded (no, really, I was!) of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Jesus told a story of a vineyard owner who went into town to gather some workers for his fields – first at 6 in the morning, then at 9, noon, 3 and again at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Quitting time was 6, and when all the workers lined up to get their pay, they saw that the workers who had been brought in just an hour ago were paid the standard day’s wage. They were thinking, Man! If these guys are getting a whole day’s wage, we must be going to get a lot more!

But they were wrong.

In the end, the owner gave each worker the very same amount of money. They complained to the owner that this was unfair, but the owner reminded them that they had agreed to work for the wage they were paid. “Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20.14-15, NIV). The vineyard owner extended to all the same grace out of his own generosity.

In my heart, I was torn. Part of me was hoping that the other driver would not receive the same grace I had. Another part of me was hoping she would.

Isn’t it great that God doesn’t think like we do? Jesus introduced that parable by saying that this is what the kingdom of heaven was like. God’s kingdom is characterized by God’s grace. This means that people who make authentic death-bed professions of faith will receive all the riches of heaven that the lifelong believer will receive. It means that I had no reason to hope that the other driver received a ticket for anything more than I did. If anything, by thinking with a kingdom of God mind-set, I should have hoped that she was let off with a warning.

If you’re a seasoned believer, pray for those who have yet to come to faith, that they will experience the true riches of God’s grace.

Musings, Uncategorized

Hockey Safety Fail

Every once in a while – okay, more often than that – some sign catches the eye and screams, “Something’s not quite right here.” So it is with this sign, found at the Golden Arches on Highway 27 in west Toronto.

They’re trying to tell us two things, but, well, they failed.

Kids, don’t try this at home.img_0047

Biblical Messages

When You Talk To God…Look For The Kingdom

The concept of the kingdom of God is not an easy one for anybody to wrap the mind around – even seasoned Christ-followers.  Yet when we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”  What do we mean when we say that? 

That’s what I explored in this message, based on Matthew 20.1-16. Included in this message is a video clip from the “bridge of death” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which can be found here.

Listen to the message here.

Encouragement From The Word

Contrasts in Customer Service

        Recently, I had the opportunity to visit two different businesses in a community different from the one I live in.  One was a musical instrument store, and the other was a hobby shop.  Anybody who knows me well can understand that both are the kinds of stores I tend to frequent.


When I walked into the music store, I was in the place perhaps thirty seconds when I was greeted in a friendly way by a fellow who turned out to be the manager.  He told me his name, and asked me mine as he shook my hand.  With his disarming demeanour, it was easy for me to tell him exactly why I had come into the store.  Like a good salesman, he took me into a separate room to show me a high-end version of what I was looking for.  When I said that I was impressed but unable to spend what that unit would demand, he completely understood and escorted me to another area of the store to show me a unit that was well-priced and, while not as good as the first unit he showed me, would serve me well.  He took the time to demonstrate it, and answered my somewhat amateurish questions without missing a beat.  When my wife came in, he even made a joke with her that we all laughed at.  All the staff in this store handled customers the same way. 


Needless to say, I made a purchase there.  I had seen other units in other stores, but the service I received at that point in time was what made me buy there.  And because of that experience, I will shop there again, even though it’s not exactly handy to my home.


By contrast, when I walked into the hobby shop, I was ignored – despite the fact that I was one of two customers in the store and there were three people working there.  Since I had come all the way to the place, however, I browsed for a few minutes.  A stock person spoke to me when I spoke to him, and he opened a locked cabinet to allow me to examine more carefully something that had caught my eye.  I picked up something I needed, and when I went to check out, I waited for ten minutes.  (Remember, the help-to-customer ratio was 3:2!)  When I produced my ‘loyalty club’ card, which I assumed would save me 7 percent on cash purchases such as the one I was making, I was told that because I had not spent a sufficient amount of money in the store in the past year, they could not honour the 7 percent discount.  And the clerk was in no way apologetic about this.


I walked out of that hobby shop – in which I had spent quite a lot of money over the course of several years – having decided it is unlikely I will ever spend money there again.


Do you see the contrast between those two businesses?  Both sell things that musicians and hobbyists need.  Neither holds a monopoly in its field.  These are tough economic times.  Every business should be grateful to have customers at all!  So why was one so encouraging and the other so ignorant?


Personality will have something to do with it, to be sure, but I think the key is that the music shop staff refused the temptation to take customers for granted. 


Lest you think this is merely a consumer rant, let me apply this to the Christian life.  When I was inducted as pastor in an earlier church, the preacher at the induction asked this question of the church:  Who is the customer, and who is the sales person?


Many church people assume that the customer is the church member, and the sales person is the preacher.  Wrong.


The customer is the newcomer to the church, and the sales person is the church member.  This has always been true, but in these days when many churches are in a state of decline, it is more true than ever.


The apostle Paul wrote, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5.20a, NIV).  Paul was writing about himself, but he was encouraging all believers to be ambassadors, to be ‘in sales’ for the gospel.  Churches where the people believe that they have no responsibility to care for guests don’t grow, because their guests often have experiences at church like I had in the hobby shop.  Churches where the people know they have a hand in caring for guests will grow, because their guests will feel cared for and will want to come back.


Of course, the Holy Spirit plays the major role in church growth, but, oddly enough, the Spirit chooses to work through God’s people.  Thanks to you, and God working through you, your church can be more like the music store than the hobby shop.  That’s my prayer for you!

Book Reviews

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church

beyond-the-first-visitLately, I’ve become more intentional about welcoming guests at our church, and encouraging others to do the same.  To that end, I’ve read Fusion (see my review here), and now, Beyond the First Visit.  The two volumes have much in common in terms of encouraging the reader to prioritize the importance of first impressions among guests, and to look at the life of the church, and even the property, from the perspective of someone who has never been there before.


In this book, author Gary L. McIntosh teaches the reader how to think like an outsider, so that the church can do many things – even post signage – in ways that make sense to the first-timer.  He also warns congregants against badmouthing the church, noting that while a good reputation can be built with hard work, a bad reputation can be created with just a few words – even if what is said is untrue.


McIntosh encourages significant advertising, at least four times a year, to reach your target audience.  When that involves newspapers, he wisely suggests not advertising on the “church page”.  After all, who reads the church page?  People who go to church!  If your target audience is guys who watch football, advertise in the sports section.  If it’s people who like movies, advertise in the entertainment section.  Sure, it will cost more, but we’re talking about an investment in eternity here!


A good reminder in this book is to give newcomers a task of some sort, so that they get an opportunity to meet other people in the congregation.  In order for guests to become regular participants in the life of the church, they need to form relationships within the congregation.  Engaging them in some task that gets them connected will accomplish this.


A most helpful learning point in this book came early on (beginning on page 34) where the author writes about “moments of truth” that guests have when they consider the church.  Those moments of truth are:

  • Receiving an invitation to church
  • Driving by the church building
  • Walking to the front door
  • Entering the front door
  • Meeting people
  • Experiencing ministries and services
  • Entering the sanctuary
  • Participating in the worship service
  • Leaving the worship service
  • Being contacted during the week
  • Ongoing contacts in the future


Did you notice that six of those “moments of truth” came before the worship gathering even began?  There are many, many factors that can and will influence guests in their decision to return (or not) to a church, and several of them occur before worship starts.  The worship must be excellent, because God desires our excellence, but we must also focus on that which surrounds it if we are going to encourage guests to return, and become vital parts of the body of Christ.


Beyond the First Visit:  The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church  by Gary L. McIntosh (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2006); ISBN 978-0-8010-9184-1

Book Reviews

Essential Church? Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts

essential-churchIn this follow-up to Simple Church, Thom Rainer and his eldest son, Sam, write about their research – and the implications – of people who drop out of church between the ages of 18 and 22. In most churches, that tends to be the “missing link”. Those who are completing high school and are in their undergraduate years are the people who tend to fall away from the church. In many cases, it’s not an intentional act – it’s something that happens almost by accident. Changing circumstances, changing friend circles, changing pressures – these all contribute.

But so does the church.

The Rainers spend much of the first half of the book sharing the bad news – that young people are leaving the church in droves. But they don’t leave it there: they then offer encouragement to the church on how to work intentionally to keep youth and young adults engaged. One of the key players in each church, according to the book, is the lead pastor. The lead pastor needs to be able to relate to this age group if they’re to be kept. That doesn’t mean that she or he needs to be the youth leader; but it does mean being sensitive to that age group’s peculiar place in life.

One paragraph, near the end of the book, sums up what constitutes an essential church: “Essential churches have simple structures that can be understood and embraced. Essential churches strive to take their members into deeper biblical truths. Essential churches have an environment of high expectations of members. And essential churches seek to multiply, to reach beyond their own fellowship” (p. 222).

The worship life of the church should, of course, engage the youth and young adults and unapologetically make them sense that God is relevant to them. But relationships are the real key. According to the authors, when a congregation is caring, welcoming, authentic and inspirational, many more 18-22 year-olds stay in church than drop out (p. 38).

This was my greatest learning point in this book. I think three of those four characteristics are relatively easily attained by the church. I’m less convinced about one other.

A church can, through effort, become caring, welcoming and inspirational. It takes much more work – and the breaking of many habits – in order for a church to be authentic. Most congregations are not known for being authentic.

 What does that mean?

Lots of people, when they go to church, get dressed up and put on their best ‘game face’. When people ask about them, they say, “Fine!” When they ask about other people, the response is, “Fine!” If someone ever chose to respond by saying, “My life is a shambles and I feel terrible”, folks wouldn’t know how to respond – if they even listened for the response!

To be an authentic church means being real with God, and real with each other. It means being vulnerable. Why should we do this? Simply put, we should be authentic because God knows how we all feel anyway. Furthermore, youth and young adults can see right through our well-intentioned fakery. Let’s be authentic as the church! This will make us even more open to deeper biblical teaching and to high expectations. And then, reaching beyond our walls will become that much easier.

May yours be an essential church!

Essential Church: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts by Thom S. Rainer and Sam S. Rainer III (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2008); ISBN 978-0-8054-4392-9.

Biblical Messages

When You Talk To God…Say ‘Holy’

Prayer is, simply put, talking to God.  Some find it easy, others find it difficult.  Most people would be interested in knowing more about it.

In my new series, “When You Talk To God…”, I’m exploring prayer in a deeper way, based on what we commonly call The Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. This week, we looked at the stanza, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”. What does it mean to call God “hallowed” or “holy”? What does it mean that God is in heaven? What does it mean that we call him our Father?

You can listen to the message, using Bible texts in Isaiah 6.1-8 and Revelation 4, here.

Encouragement From The Word

A Correction…

Friday’s “Encouragement From The Word” had a slip-of-the-mind in it:  A careful reader helpfully reminded me that of course, William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury whom I quoted – not Fulton Sheen, who was a Roman Catholic Bishop and did not say what I quoted him saying.

Thanks, John, for the sharp eye!  🙂