Encouragement From The Word

Getting ORANGE around the kitchen sink

My wife and I spent our day off this week camping with some friends.  As I was building the fire, our friends were doing the supper dishes, and my wife was getting the ingredients ready for a fun-filled dessert.  Once everyone had reconvened at the campfire, my friend said to me, “Jeff, while we were washing the dishes, we were having a theological conversation about…”

Now, that might not seem *too* strange, except that the “we” in that sentence was a dad and his two teenage children (mom was away at work, sadly).  Yes, a dad and his two teenage children were talking about the Christian life over the dishes.

I’d call that remarkable.  And wonderful.

It’s a terrific example of a parent being a spiritual leader to his children – not just once, but over the course of their young lives.  I know these kids, and they’re used to having regular conversations about their life in Jesus.  And their comfort in drawing me into the conversation tells me that they also are used to inviting others along for the journey.

This is what God intended for us all!  If you read the Old Testament, the parents took full responsibility for the spiritual development of their children, and the community played a role in that development.  Consider Deuteronomy 6.6-7, which follows on the heels of the giving of the Ten Commandments:  “And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.  Repeat them again and again to your children.  Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up” (NLT).

I encourage you to take my friends’ experience as a model.  If you have children, be spiritual leaders in their lives.  Show them how to walk with God.  Draw others into the dialogue so that your kids can hear your answers from another voice.

If you don’t have children, consider being one of those “others” who are drawn into the conversation.  Be an example of Christian faith to the kids in your church, in your neighbourhood.  Engage them so that they don’t see talking about the Lord as “weird”.  Let them know it can be as normative to talk about our faith as it is to wash the dishes.

God knows the difference we will make if we will do this, and do so intentionally.

Biblical Messages

MYTHBUSTERS: The church is full of judgmental hypocrites

One of the commonest beliefs outside the church is that the church is full of judgmental hypocrites.  The sad thing is that in some places and in some cases, this is true!  But a church full of growing followers of Jesus makes for less judgmentalism (but clearer judgment) and less hypocrisy (and more truth).

Many people love to quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 7.1:  “Do not judge”.  But they neglect the context around it, in which Jesus proceeds to give his followers some tools and criteria for judgment!

The key is not to avoid judging, but to avoid judgmentalism.  What’s the difference?  Listen here, to this message based on Matthew 7.1-6, 13-23.  (You’ll notice a little difference in the sound quality before the Scripture reading – I neglected to begin my recording during worship and had to re-record the introduction later.  But it’s all the same information!)

Encouragement From The Word

Make a difference: avoid hypocrisy

I learned a lot from cartoons when I was a kid.  One of my favourite memorable lines from a Sylvester and Tweety vignette came when Sylvester was supposed to be “looking after” Tweety, but when Grannie wasn’t looking, Sylvester was doing all he could to ingest Tweety!  After being found out, at one point, Tweety said, “Ooo, what a hypotwit!”

Now, I must admit I’m a bit fond of the idea of creating a new word that combines hypocrite and twit to make ‘hypotwit’, but in reality, Tweety was just calling Sylvester a hypocrite.  So I learned from that cartoon that a hypocrite is somebody who says s/he will do one thing and then turns around and does the opposite.

Hypocrisy is not restricted to the realm of animated cats and birds; you and I have been victims of hypocrisy, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve even committed hypocrisy at some point in our lives.

People often say that the church is full of hypocrites.  And there’s a measure of truth to that statement, inasmuch as any group of people, brought together, will have hypocrites in their number.  Since the time of Adam and Eve’s fall, hypocrisy has been part of human society.

The trick, for growing followers of Jesus, is to be intentional about seeking to avoid hypocrisy.  It’s easy enough to just admit we’re sinners and live with our hypocrisy.  But God invites us to grow beyond it, so that as the church becomes more mature, it becomes less hypocritical.  And when that happens, people will see the difference, and want to know what makes you different!

The same is true of judgmentalism.  People often levy a charge of “judgmental hypocrisy” against the church, and sometimes it’s right.  After all, we’ve all seen the unfortunate placards that the people of a certain church in the US use to discourage people from homosexual activity.  They’re not in any way kind or gracious; they are, in fact, judgmental.

It’s a myth, though, that God doesn’t want his people to judge.  We’re all required to judge, for if we didn’t, there would be nothing but chaos in the world!  But there is a difference between being judgmental and judging.  Making judgment calls, and speaking the truth in love with words characterized by grace, is biblical.  Condemning sin and sinner with one whip of the tongue (or one slip of the pen) is not biblical.

Again, as growing followers of Jesus, God invites us to be intentional about moving away from judgmentalism toward making judgment calls characterized by grace.  If we can avoid being hypocritical, and avoid being judgmental – while still speaking and living God’s truth – we will find that the church of Jesus Christ will be more like what God designed it to be, and it will change the world.

Biblical Messages

MYTHBUSTERS: The body is shameful

North Americans are an enigmatic lot when it comes to the human body.   The culture seems to welcome the objectification of the body, especially women’s bodies, and yet it can’t handle simple, non-sexual nudity in, say, a group of seniors at a free beach.  Why is that?

In this message, I talk about how the culture has equated Victorian values with biblical ones – erroneously – and how it has been assumed that sex is to be either for procreative purposes or illicit purposes, instead of being for the pleasure of a man and a woman united in the covenant of marriage.

What has been perceived as Christian culture has done little to help the issue of body shame.  In the Bible, clothing became part of human reality not because of shame, but because of fear.  God created our bodies, and said they were not only “very good”, but in his very own image!  So if God makes everything glorious, as the David Crowder Band has sung, and we are his, what does that make us?

Based on 1 Corinthians 12.14-26 and Psalm 139.1-16, you can listen to a message debunking the myth that the body is shameful here.  The message concludes with a video montage from YouTube accompanied by “Fingerprints of God” by Steven Curtis Chapman, viewable here.

Encouragement From The Word

Cream pies for Jesus

I take great delight in watching the joyful abandon of children.  Last week, St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton held its annual Bible Fun Camp – five mornings of fun and Bible learning offered to the children of our community.  When I volunteered to be “of any help I could,” little did I know that I would be depriving someone else of the privilege of teaching children for the week!  While it made for a very busy week (with all the usual responsibilities), it was a week of blessing.

Watching children concentrate on a craft helps me see their creativity.  Watching them listen carefully to a biblical concept as it’s taught, and watching them learn a Scripture verse by memory, is heart-warming.  Watching them go on a scavenger hunt for various things in God’s creation gives me hope.

Watching them prepare with absolute glee to throw cream pies at me, however, simply struck fear in my heart!

jeff's cream pies


Photo courtesy of kingweekly.com

Actually, I offered to be the victim for the cream pies.  I hadn’t honestly banked on being the recipient of thirteen cream pies, but thankfully, they were small.  (I’m still digging NutriWhip out of my right ear.)

Why would I submit to all this?  As a pastor, don’t I have the right to say, “I’m too busy”?  Probably, but here’s why I gave up five mornings and let children play target practice with my head:  memories, and relationships.

My earliest memories of church life are of Vacation Bible Schools of my childhood.  I didn’t go to church as a youngster, so VBS was pretty much my only exposure to church as a kid.  But those concentrated weeks of learning and fun were part of the foundation for what became my profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  I thank God still today for the people who gave of their time and themselves to help me know Jesus through VBS.

And relationships are key to growing faith in young people (and their families).  Many people still have a view of clergy as ‘untouchable’, as aloof, as different.  I have worked hard to be as accessible and as ‘normal’ as possible in my ministry, because it helps to tear down barriers that otherwise keep people at a distance from me – and thereby from the church, and even from the Lord.

The Apostle Paul was all for breaking down these barriers, too:  “When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ.  Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Corinthians 9.22, NLT).

This is why engagement with the culture is so important.  It’s not the church’s role to assimilate itself into the culture, becoming indistinguishable, but to use the culture’s means to communicate the timeless truth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

If doing things like taking pies in the face will help bring people to Jesus, all I can say is, “Bring on the NutriWhip!”  How about you?

Biblical Messages

MYTHBUSTERS: God has a blueprint for my life

One thing that every Christ-follower, and even some who are not committed to faith, seek to do is to find and understand God’s will.  Some people even think that God has a “blueprint” for our lives!  Yet, if you think about it, when we make one mistake, that blueprint is completely distorted.

Some take it to a ridiculous extreme, and even worry over which shoe to put on first in the morning (the message you’ll hear begins with me, pondering which shoe to put on first). 

In this message, based on Ephesians 5.15-20, I explore the possibility that God doesn’t have a blueprint for our lives – but he does have a game plan!

Click this link to listen to the message and find out the difference between a blueprint and a game plan.

Encouragement From The Word

Remembering the birthday of a friend

Today marks the birthday of a dear old friend of mine.  He died a long time ago, but he left an indelible mark on me and on countless others.  It could be said that there was no greater thinker of his time; some might even suggest there has been no greater thinker since.

 He is missed, but through his writings and those who have studied him, like me, he lives on.  Yes, today marks the 500th birthday of the Frenchman born Jean Cauvin.  We know him better by his anglicized name:  John Calvin.

 john_calvinCalvin’s name has been equally praised and maligned by people throughout the centuries since he became the Reformed pastor in Geneva in the sixteenth century.  There are those who think his understanding of God and of Scripture is harsh, while others think it is supremely insightful.  In the words of some other Great Theologian, “You can’t win ‘em all.”  (It might have been Yogi Berra.)

 There are five tenets that popularly denote Calvin’s theology:

  • That humanity is, by virtue of the sin of Adam and Eve, inherently sinful and unable to choose right when left to our own devices;
  • That followers of Jesus are, by God’s grace, chosen by God to be his without condition;
  • That there is no universal salvation – only those who profess Jesus as Lord and Saviour are able to be saved;
  • That when God fills us with his grace, we are powerless to resist it; and
  • That those whom God calls and chooses as his own are his forever.

 These five tenets are all biblically defensible, though not always palatable.  Truth is not always easy to swallow.

 I celebrate the life and work of Calvin not simply because I affiliate myself with Presbyterianism, which he, through John Knox, founded as a denominational expression of Christianity.  I celebrate Calvin because he reminded us all that no matter what may happen in this world, God is in charge.  That is, he is “sovereign”.  And he has a plan for his people – a plan to prosper and not to harm, to bring a hope and a future (see Jeremiah 29.11).

 I celebrate Calvin because he reminded us all that God’s grace – his unmerited love and favour – is greater than our sin.  “He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103.12, NLT). 

 I celebrate Calvin because in his preaching and teaching ministry, he sought to excite the hearts and minds of people with the Word of God.  He knew that the best way to captivate people with the majesty of God was to fill their hearts with the Word of God.   This was the legacy of both his preaching and his writing, for Calvin left not only his mammoth Institutes of the Christian Religion (which are worth the read, by the way), he also left commentaries on virtually every book of the Bible.  Calvin wasn’t an ivory tower theologian; he was a pastor who met people where they were with an understanding of Scripture that built people up and convinced them of the glory of God.

 I don’t pretend to be a thinker like Calvin.  But I do aspire, like my 500-year-old friend, to captivate people with the majesty of God – and the knowledge that his love never fails.

 Happy birthday, John Calvin.  Thanks be to God for your legacy.


Putting things in perspective

As I type this, the massive memorial for Michael Jackson, late pop singer, is beginning, and is being broadcast all over the world in every media format.  But I’m not watching it – for two reasons.

The first reason is that I simply wasn’t a fan of Jackson’ s music or his life.  When my friends were buying “Thriller”, I was buying other styles of music.  It just wasn’t my thing, and it never became my thing.  Further, regardless of what one may have thought of his music, his character never impressed me as one that was worth following.  So I didn’t.

The second reason is that I’m tired.  Why?  Because I’ve spent all morning leading children at Camp WannaKnowGod, the Bible Fun Camp at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton.  I did it yesterday, too.  And I’ll do it again for the rest of the week.  By week’s end, I’ll be totally pooped.  And I’ll count it all joy.  Why?  Because leading people, and especially children, to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is the highest privilege I can be afforded.  I don’t care how much energy it takes – I’ll do it.

I’m putting things in perspective here.  People are mourning the passing of an icon; while a death should be grieved, there are people – the news reporters interview these folks – who feel that their lives will barely go on without Michael Jackson.  I can understand if his family or even his close friends may feel this way for a time.  But fans?

On the other hand, I’m convinced, with the Bible as my guide, that without Jesus, life does not go on.  Oh, sure – we live until we stop breathing with or without Jesus in our lives, but after we die – what?  I’m banking on the promise of Scripture that I am spending all week teaching children:  “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10.9, NIV).  I don’t want to find out what eternal life without Jesus could be like.  And I don’t want anyone else to find out, either – which is why I have dedicated my life to spreading God’s good news.  And it’s why I’m taking the time to teach these kids.

In 100 years, Michael Jackson will be but a memory.  But in 100 years, what we did with Jesus will make all the difference.  I want these kids to experience new and full life in him.  So I’m happy to be tired.  But not so tired that I can’t put things into perspective.

Biblical Messages

MYTHBUSTERS: Church is boring!

Lots of people – even some who attend worship! – say that “church is boring”.  Why is that?  Is it really a myth?

I’ve visited a few churches where there was no denying that it was true – at least on the Sunday I visited!  But I think most congregations that even bother to entertain the question of whether or not church is ‘boring’ probably are working hard to dispel the myth.

(By ‘church’ here I’m talking about the worship gathering, rather than the body of Christ itself – though some would argue that boring people make for boring worship, but I’m not going there!)

When this was being discussed with our children, one of them aptly said, “Church is boring if you want it to be.”  That is, if we go expecting it to be boring, it might just turn out that way.  But if we go expecting God to speak, God will speak.  And that’s exciting.

There were many passages of Scripture I could have chosen to debunk this myth, but of them I chose 1 Corinthians 14.22-40.  As I note in the reading of the text, there is a portion therein that could serve as a red herring to the topic at hand, and I didn’t have time to deal with the issue of women speaking in church in this message. 

You can listen to the message here.  Feel free to comment on your experience of church – has it been boring or exciting for you?  And in what ways?

Encouragement From The Word

A visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum

Diana and I visited the ROM on Wednesday, July 1, 2009 in the afternoon.  Having read on the internet that hours had been expanded for the summer specifically because of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) exhibit, we expected it to be busy.  Still, we were a little surprised by the queue outside the ROM, from the front door right to the Bloor Street sidewalk!  However, since we went all that way, we determined we would get into the line, and we were relieved that it moved quite quickly.  From the time we first queued up, we were inside the door in about 10 minutes.

Moving inside the building, however, there was another 10 minute queue to purchase tickets.  The ROM knows many people will come just for the DSS exhibit, and are taking full advantage of that; adult admission to the ROM is $22, and to see the DSS as well the admission is $28.  But, curiously, one cannot pay a lesser amount just to see the scrolls!

Our tickets were purchased for admission to the DSS at 2:30 (it was about 2:00 when the tickets were bougdead sea scroll jarht).  We took our time, poked around a little, and then moved downstairs to queue up for the exhibit.  That line took about 15 minutes to get through.  Once we were beyond the entrance, one could wander wherever one wished, and we did.

There is a great deal of historical context given to the DSS before one ever sees a scroll in this exhibit, and that’s good, given the dearth of biblical and historical knowledge of today’s average museum-goer.  Everything is, of course, under glass – a good thing considering the age of these artefacts.  The first item one sees on exiting the queue is an earthenware jar, a replica of one of the pots in which the DSS were found in the caves over the Dead Sea at Qumran (pictured at right).

Next, one sees several ossuaries (containers that hold human skeletal remains).  These ossuaries are small, only a little bigger than the average laser printer.  The exhibit contains several of these, perhaps just to give some anthropological context to the era of the scrolls.

Other jars and artefacts, as well as cphylacteriesoin replicas, are on display.  One example that surprised me by their size was a series of phylacteries.  Phylacteries were little boxes in which some portion of the Law was written, and these were tied onto the arms or foreheads of faithful Jewish people (pictured at left); they were created as a response to Deuteronomy 6.8-9.  Their uses and abuses are noted by Jesus in Matthew 23.1-6.

Coin replicas can be found from the time the DSS were first written.

It’s worth noting that not all of the DSS contained what we know as Holy Scripture; there were several ‘extrabiblical’ documents found, including some texts that just added more laws to the community regulations.  Others were non-canonical Psalms (that is, Psalm texts that were not chosen for inclusion in the Bible).

The history is worth stopping to read.  There, one learns about the different sects (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes) and the history of the various Jewish revolts, some of which took place during the writing of the DSS.

Several videos are available to watch, which show archaeological sites, stories of the commercialization of the DSS after they were discovered, and how they have been preserved.

Canadian content exists, too:  there is acknowledgement that Professor R.B.Y. Scott, of the Faculty of Divinity at McGill University in Montreal, was instrumental in bringing DSS scholarship to Canada; in fact, he purchased a matchbox containing 17 scroll fragments and some coins in 1955, thus making Canada unique in its ownership, for a time, of some of the scrolls.  Scott was born in a Presbyterian manse, and was Knox College educated around the time of Church Union; he chose the United Church, and was ordained into its ministry in 1926.  Shortly after making national headlines as a DSS owner, Scott moved to the United States to teach at Princeton University.  (As another aside, a hymn he wrote, “O day of God, draw nigh”, appears at #786 in our Book of Praise.)

Beyond this, one gets to view some of the scrolls.  As the ROM says on its website, there will be a second ‘round’ of scrolls that will be shown later in the year; some may want to visit twice to see them all.

The labels put on the scrolls can be a bit daunting to understand.  For example, one of the first scrolls one sees on display is called “4Q112”.  It contains parts of the book of Daniel in Hebrew and Aramaic, and is dated to approximately 50 BC.  The “4Q112” means that this scroll was found in the 4th cave, at Qumran, and it was the 112th scroll catalogued.

If you’re used to telling time with “BC” and “AD” as I am, you’ll want to know that because of the pluralistic context, scholars use “BCE” and “CE” to be politically correct.  This is explained at one point during the exhibit.   What we know as “BC” is “Before Christ” and “AD” is Anno Domini, “In the year of our Lord”; those who aren’t so crazy about Jesus (and others who are being sensitive to same) use the rather more mundane terms “Before the Common Era” and “Common Era”.

Among the scrolls that are currently on display are the one from Daniel; an apocryphal (‘hidden writing’) Psalm; a Messianic Apocalypse (a document that purported to show the coming of the Messiah in an end-times context); a fragment containing Psalm 102.26-29 and 103.1-3; a section from the Book of War (dated to around the time of Jesus, or a little after); and even an old agreement (Bar Kokhba)!

Near the end of the exhibit – before entering the inevitable gift shop – there are some very old samples of Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures.  (The New Testament that is on display is a Mohawk translation, which was the first translation work done by a Bible Society anywhere in the world; it was done in the very early 1800s for the Mohawks at the Six Nations Reserve at Brantford, Ontario.)  The writing on the wall of this section claims that all three major western faiths worship the same God as Abraham did; while it is indisputable that all three trace their roots back to Abraham, I think it is entirely debatable as to whether or not Muslims can still claim to worship the same God as Christians or Jews.

Diana and I have two prints framed in our living room that are pieces of art based on fragments of the DSS, by Mrs. Lika Tov; her husband, Dr. Emmanuel Tov, is one of the leading scholars on the DSS in the world. We purchased ours directly from the artist at a DSS symposium sponsored by the Canadian Bible Society a couple of years ago.  Several of Mrs. Tov’s prints are available for sale in the gift shop at the end of the exhibit (though for a much higher price than we paid for ours).  Also in the gift shop are, among the dust collectors, some books that would be worth reading if you want to learn more about the scrolls.  I also have a couple of volumes in my library if you would rather borrow than purchase.

We completed our tour of the exhibit in approximately 30 minutes, but we are not lingerers at such things.  If you stop to read everything, you will take quite a lot longer, and there is certainly the freedom to do so.  If you go on a day when the line-ups are not as long, a more leisurely tour may be in order.

When we returned to the entrance, a little after 3:00, there were no line-ups at all!  So timing is an important factor.  (Purchasing your tickets online will save you one queue, too.)

Two additional observations are warranted:  first, the degree of security at this exhibit is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  This is partly due to the size of the crowds, to be sure, but it is also partly due to the potential for destruction.  Extremists in different camps may have a notion to do something stupid, and the extra security is an attempt to thwart that.  If you’re carrying a bag of any sort, be prepared to have it searched.  (They’re not looking for granola bars; trust me.)

Second, we should be encouraged by the great interest in this exhibit.  The cashier who sold us our tickets told us that 20,000 tickets were pre-sold for this exhibit.  To be sure, many of those interested in this exhibit will be of Jewish origin because, after all, the scrolls are ancient Jewish writings.  But there is a great possibility for witness to God’s faithfulness in preserving his Word as he has.  (Remember, the Dead Sea Scrolls are about 1000 years older than the oldest Old Testament manuscripts previously used in Hebrew Scripture scholarship and translation.)   People who think that the Bible is some sort of useless fabrication can do some reading, and see these scrolls, to understand that God’s hand has been mighty in the purpose of preserving the Scriptures for his people.  Folks are open to “spiritual things” even if they are not necessarily open to “church”; their openness to “spiritual things” can, however, lead to a deeper interest that may ultimately prompt them to at least visit a church on a Sunday morning.  Perhaps one of them will be a friend whom you can bring with you!

This exhibit has potential to draw many questions out of its visitors.  I’m confident that God is using it to open a door for many to receive Jesus.  May the church – you and I – be ready for what God is doing!

Biblical Messages

MYTHBUSTERS: Don’t get mad, get even!

We often hear the phrase, “I don’t get mad, I get even.”  Jesus has other ideas for how we deal with our anger, our hurt, our pain.  “Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you!” is what he says (Matthew 5.44).

This message, which was preached at an outdoor courtyard service (thus the sounds of airplanes and my comment toward one at one point!) at St. Giles Kingsway Presbyterian Church, Toronto, is based on Matthew 5.43-48 and can be listened to by clicking this link.