Encouragement From The Word

Safer Than A Known Way

The recent release of The King’s Speech, a movie starring Colin Firth, has highlighted the fact that King George VI was generally not viewed as a compelling speaker.  The movie places his speech impediment in the spotlight, and has been an encouragement many who deal with speech impediments of various sorts.

The one speech King George is remembered for is his Christmas Day, 1939, address to the Commonwealth (which can be heard here).  This was a critical speech for the King, as it came at the dawn of the Second World War.  In it, he quotes a poem which was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, written in 1908 by Minnie Louise Haskins, an English economist who enjoyed a writing hobby.  It goes like this:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied,
“Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!”

So I went forth and finding the Hand of God
Trod gladly into the night
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.

So heart be still!
What need our human life to know
If God hath comprehension?

In all the dizzy strife of things
Both high and low,
God hideth his intention.

We stand, today, at the gate of the year, quite literally:  it is December 31, and tomorrow brings with it a new digit in the year.  And, despite what may already be written on our calendars and punched into our smartphone day planners, it is very much “into the unknown” that we tread.

Were we able to predict, let alone to know, what would happen over the course of the coming year, we would never have to work a day, because we’d make all the money we’d want as a side show act.  No, we are not omniscient; we don’t know everything.  But we who follow Jesus serve the God who is omniscient, who does know everything.  And the poet’s counsel is true:  “Go into the darkness” (for that is what the unknown is), “and put your hand into the hand of God.”  Why?  “That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!”

There is much more that we don’t know about 2011 than what we do know.  But of this much we can be sure:  God has the whole year figured out.  And with our hand grasped by his, we will be able to traverse the year, confident that we walk in his way, according to his plan.

Is this easy?  No; it’s an act of faith.  But that’s what following Jesus is all about:  it’s an act of faith.  And when we all put our hand into the hand of God, and walk in his way, it becomes more enriching as we live by faith in community.

May the church – your faith community – be a big part of 2011 for you as you stand at the gate of the year.  “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.  Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation” (Hebrews 11.1-2, NLT).

Happy New Year!  May God give you joy as you step through the gate into 2011.

Biblical Messages

The Gift of Yourself

It’s a bit strange that the church celebrates Stephen – the first martyr – on the day after Christmas.  I’ve never done so before, but this year, I thought I would celebrate Stephen’s leadership in dying for his faith, since December 26 landed on a Sunday.

In case what I say in the message does not convey what I mean, please know that, when I mention the underground church, I don’t mean to suggest that they do not share their faith – indeed, many do so vigilantly, and successfully – it’s just harder for them to do so because they lack the freedom we have to share our relationship and experience with God.  Pray for the underground church around the world, please!

This message is based on the story of Stephen in Acts 6 and 7.  You can listen to the message by clicking here.

Encouragement From The Word

No room in the inn – what about at your place?

As part of my personal devotions the other day, I read a prayer that I thought would make an excellent Christmas prayer for any of us.  It goes like this:  Purify my conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in me a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

I love the imagery of the ‘mansion’ in that prayer.  As part of my prayer of confession, I can ask God to purify my conscience – that is, to make the slate clean once again – that Jesus, whose advent we celebrate, would find a home in us!

When we think of Jesus’ coming, we tend to think either of his birth, where he was laid in a manger, or of his return, where he will come to rule the earth.  This prayer gives us another way of thinking about Jesus’ coming:  he is coming to live in us.

This image makes sense, doesn’t it?  This is a time of year for receiving company, and if you’re like me, you find yourself madly rushing to get the house tidied up before company arrives, because you want your home to appear at its best when your guests arrive.  Now, most gracious guests will say that they come to see us, not our houses, but when we’ve been guests, even gracious ones, in our minds we still think that it’s nicer to be received in a clean house.

Wouldn’t we want that for Jesus?  Wouldn’t we want him to have a nice, clean place to live – in our hearts?  Believe me, this is not about keeping up appearances.  This is not about having the best hardwood floors and the fewest dust bunnies.  This is about welcoming the Lord in our lives with hearts that are ready to receive him.

When the mud of sin is tracked through the mansion of my heart, it oversteps Jesus’ welcome.  When, by confession to God, that mud is cleaned up and cleared out, Jesus has a perfect place to live, a mansion prepared for him.  And when we confess daily, as the prayer suggests (“by your daily visitation”), there’s always a welcome place for Jesus in our lives.

When we welcome him, he will always have a place to stay – unlike the first night of his life.

She (Mary) gave birth to her first child, a son.  She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them” (Luke 2.7, NLT).

As we celebrate his coming, celebrate his coming in your heart.  May your celebration be filled with joy!

Biblical Messages

IDENTITY CRISIS: Would the real Jesus please stand up? 4. Prince

 Through this Advent series, we’ve seen that Jesus is pure, our virgin-born Son of God; he is the pointer, the prophet who points us to the Father; and he is our partner, the priest who intercedes for us at the right hand of God.  Today, in the final installment, we will learn that Jesus is our Prince, the King of Israel whom God has given reign over us.

Based on Isaiah 9.1-7, you can listen to the message by clicking here.

Encouragement From The Word

Why snow draws me closer to God

Christmas eve is a week from today.  Sorry to alarm you, but the reality of the calendar has crept up on us yet again.  The temptation to tell you to ‘take time for God amid the hustle and bustle of the season’ is strong, but my sense is that you may not need to hear that.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably already trying to take time for God.  Perhaps this will help.

I read an article by John Ortberg this week that reminded me, as a leader in ministry, that it’s an easy time of year for me to be inattentive to God, even though it’s supposed to be a time to make us more attentive to God.  Let’s face it:  there are lots of people outside the church whose attention to God is piqued at this time of year.  It’s not always the case with those of us on the inside, myself included.

Strangely (or not), I find my nearness to God increased by snow.  Oh, man, you may be thinking, this guy must be from northern Ontario.  Of course, you’d be right.  But it has less to do with my northern roots, even though I can recall only one ‘green’ Christmas in my entire childhood, and more to do with how the snow brings beautiful Christmas hymnody to my mind.

Everybody has a favourite Christmas carol.  I confess to having two, both of which are not on the typical ‘top 40’ lists of Christmas carols.  I like one for how the common tune draws the text out, and the other just for the poetry itself.  May I share them?

One is See amid the winter’s snow, text by Edward Caswall, tune Humility by John Goss:

See amid the winter’s snow, born for us on earth below,
see, the gentle Lamb appears, promised from eternal years.
Refrain:  Hail that ever blessèd morn, hail redemption’s happy dawn,
sing through all Jerusalem:  Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Lo, within a manger lies he who built the starry skies;
he who, thronèd in height sublime, sits amid the cherubim. Refrain

Say, ye holy shepherds, say, what your joyful news today.
wherefore have ye left your sheep on the lonely mountain steep? Refrain

“As we watched at dead of night, lo, we saw a wondrous light;
angels singing ‘Peace on earth’ told us of the Savior’s birth.” Refrain

Sacred Infant, all divine, what a tender love was thine,
thus to come from highest bliss down to such a world as this. Refrain

Teach, O teach us, holy Child, by thy face so meek and mild,
teach us to resemble thee, in thy sweet humility. Refrain

The other is In the bleak mid-winter, text by Christina Rossetti, tune Cranham by Gustav Holst (though I love the choral setting by Harold Darke even more):

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

By these carols – not often heard on the radio or in the malls – my attention in this season is drawn back home, where it belongs:  to the God whose miracle in Christ we celebrate.  Yes, these are some of the darkest days of the year, but there is much to celebrate.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9.2, NIV).  May you know the joy of the season:  the Light of the World that is Jesus.

Biblical Messages

IDENTITY CRISIS: Would the real Jesus please stand up? 3. Partner

One of the great things about the new covenant, inaugurated by Jesus between us and God, is that we don’t need anybody to talk to God on our behalf.  We can do it ourselves!  Of course, it’s great to have others pray with and for us, but it’s not like their prayers are any more or less effective than our own.  Jesus paved the way for us to have a full and complete and intimate relationship with God.

This message is based on Hebrews 8, and can be listened to by clicking this link.

Encouragement From The Word

Tapping in to the power source

A couple of weeks ago, I was doing some work on my model train layout, wiring up track signals.  Any directions I had as to how to make that work that came with the signals or the switch motors were sufficiently vague as to leave me needing to do some guesswork.  And guesswork doesn’t always end well…but this one was okay – it just took a while.

I had assumed (and we all know what that does…) that I simply needed to wire the signal to the internal electrical switches inside the motor that powers the track switch.  After all, I thought, there is power running to the motor, so it must give power to the internal switches, right?  I tried this, and found no lights in my signals.  Oops.

As it turned out, the signals needed to be wired separately to the power source in order to work.  I thought they were connected to a power source, but they weren’t!

Too many people think they are connected to THE Power Source, especially if they do good deeds or engage in religious acts or show up for Christmas eve services.  But those folks are just fooling themselves.  Connecting my signals to the power bus on my train layout involved taking wires from the signals and attaching them to the power bus – creating a relationship between the signals and the power.  When we want to connect with THE Power Source, we need to create a relationship.

Fortunately, God has paved the way for us to do this in his Son Jesus Christ.  That’s the true gift of Christmas, that God sent his only Son into the world, in human form, to be the conduit for us to gain a relationship with God – the only way to experience eternal life.  Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6, NIV). 

Believe it or not, though, there’s more!  When we connect with God through Jesus, there’s an even deeper source of power that is given to us, called the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said, “…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14.26, NIV).  The power that comes with the Holy Spirit is the icing on the cake, the bow on the box, the bonus that most of us, frankly, do without – and that’s our loss. 

We can’t celebrate Christmas without being Trinitarian.  The Father sends the Son, and together they send the Holy Spirit.  What an awesome gift!  What an awesome power source!  Have you tapped in?

Biblical Messages

IDENTITY THEFT: Would the Real Jesus please stand up? 2. Pointer

“God is far less interested in your past than in your future.”  If I could point out the pivotal phrase in the message today (which you can listen to by clicking here), that would be it.

Jesus came, virgin-born, to be the Prophet – to point us to God the Father.  Yet he is so much more.  Read the text in Luke 7.11-17, and be encouraged by who Jesus is and what he came to be and to do.

Encouragement From The Word

The hopes and fears of all the years…

Well, here we are again:  December.  Where does the time go?

 To some, this is just a month like the other eleven, but to most – or at least to most people in the western world, anyway – it is a very different month, because Christmas is part of it.  So here we are, three weeks from Christmas eve.  Has the tension started to build for you yet?

My experience as a church leader is that the month of December is an enigma:  it provides opportunities like no other for ministry to happen among people who may not otherwise welcome it, and it provides stress like no other.  Let’s face it:  for many people, Christmas is about tradition.  If you don’t believe me, try leading a non-traditional Christmas eve service and see what happens.  Better yet, just trust me on that one.

Knowing that Christmas is not everything it’s made out to be in the movies (or, dare I say, in the Bible!), I asked the people in my circle of acquaintance on Facebook to tell me what excites them, frustrates them, and even scares them about Christmas.  Take a look at some of the responses I received:

  • Excitement:
    • Being with family
    • Seeing Christmas through children
    • Knowing I am saved
    • Singing carols
    • Entertaining
    • Christmas eve service
    • Anticipation of Christmas morning
    • Giving gifts
    • Joining family and friends in celebration
    • Sharing good news, making the message more powerful
    • Leading families into ‘God moments’
    • Christmas lights
    • Warmth in people’s hearts
    • Contagious joy
  • Frustration:
    • Grumpy sales people and shoppers
    • Malls
    • People who don’t know Jesus
    • Buying gifts for people who have everything
    • The commercial side
    • Removing Christ from Christmas, political correctness
    • People’s anger and busyness
    • The ‘more’ mentality
    • When the only thing people care about is what you ‘got’ for Christmas
    • The day goes by so quickly
    • Family disagreements
  • Scares:
    • Not being prepared
    • The weather for travelling
    • That so few people know why Christmas exists
    • The inevitable let-down and ensuing depression
    • Overspending, credit card debt
    • Not being able to keep up
    • Not being able to live the message of Christmas
    • That people will miss ‘The Gift’ amid the gifts
    • The loss of the meaning to political correctness

 Do you see a trend here?

 It is easy to find the true meaning of Christmas slipping away amid the pressures, overt and covert, to spend, spend and outspend.  Even people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves ‘religious’ and don’t regularly participate in the life of the church bemoan the lost state of the Christmas season nowadays.  So what can we do about it?

Don’t give in.  Celebrate Christmas – Christ-mass!  And celebrate Advent, the time of preparation for his coming.  By all means, participate in parties and merry-making as you are able, but feel free to make it a celebration of the coming of Jesus, and not just an excuse to drink – or eat! – to excess.  Make gift-giving what it was intended to be:  symbolic of the greatest gift ever given, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Don’t give to impress.  Don’t give to show off.  Don’t give because you think someone will love you more if you give that person something more expensive.  Give out of love, not out of obligation.  We can’t out-give God, who gave his only Son.  But we can symbolize that extravagant love with gifts we give, especially gifts that help the needy.  And keep it simple.  While cooking for a houseful can’t help but be complicated, try to make the whole celebration as low-stress as possible, so that everyone can focus on the true meaning of the season, and the greatest Gift of all.

Easier said than done, I know.   But I’m praying for you as you try; please do the same for me!

A Saviour has just been born in David’s town, a Saviour who is Messiah and Master.  This is what you’re to look for:  a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger” (Luke 2.11-12, The Message).

After all, you don’t get much simpler than a baby wrapped in a blanket lying in a manger.