It’s not an especially inviting title for a message: “Four Beasts”. But that’s the central theme of Daniel 7 and the meaning may not be as obvious as we might expect! This message is about personal and corporate sin, more than anything else. Listen to it here:
Month: June 2014
Be Practically Thankful
This weekend, most Canadians will mark Canada Day (which falls on July 1) with merriment: a barbecue, perhaps camping, maybe fireworks. We often take for granted what Canada Day celebrates: our freedom, a stable government, human rights, good health care, a beautiful country with polite people.
Many folks look at Canada in awe, for they do not experience the blessings we have always known. As I was preparing for Sunday’s message, I was thinking about the many stories that show up in the news – maybe not on the front page, but still in the news – of people around the world who would give everything they had to experience what we enjoy every day.
Instead of asking you to read my thoughts, though, I invite you to take a few minutes to express your own grateful thoughts before God for Canada, where we are free to love and serve Jesus. Take time to pray for the people around the world who are persecuted for their faith in Christ.
Pray especially for the Christians in Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia, and especially for the Nigerian school girls and the young wife and mother in the Sudan who has been imprisoned (again) for choosing to follow Jesus.
Maybe you know of other people who experience great persecution because they love the Lord. Ask God to be present with them by his Spirit.
And be thankful. Be practically thankful. Invite the Lord to take seriously what appears on Canada’s coat of arms: ad mari usque ad mare.
“May he rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 72.8, NIV).
Getting at the olive pit
About a week ago, our dishwasher started making a really nasty noise. Not being too familiar with the internal workings of this marriage-saving appliance, we weren’t too sure what to do. We began by running some vinegar through the system, but that didn’t help.
As you may know, the majority of the ‘guts’ of a dishwasher are suspended underneath the tub, mere millimetres from the kitchen floor. To see anything, you have to lie down on the floor in front of the dishwasher.
Like lifting the hood of your car, staring under the dishwasher doesn’t remedy the situation at all.
I called a repair shop and described the noise as sounding like a motorcycle running in my kitchen. The helpful chap on the other end of the phone politely suggested I clean out around the pump, and check for things like olive pits around the macerator.
I managed to clear some time last night to disconnect the electricity, water, and drain, and pull out the dishwasher. Of course, staring at it then rendered no positive results, either.
Thankfully, YouTube is a great resource for many things, including dismantling our brand of dishwasher. With just one video (played and stopped and played over again and again!), I had all the help I needed to know how to get the circulation pump dislodged from the tub of the dishwasher.
And what did I find around the macerator? Yes. An olive pit. (There were a few other offending bits, too, but the pit was probably the real culprit.) After giving the guts a thorough cleaning, I reassembled the dishwasher (with a couple of false starts), flipped the breaker back on, and ran a rinse cycle. Our quiet-running dishwasher was back.
To find the problem, I had to get to the heart of the dishwasher. Only after a serious dismantling process did I discover the offending pit.
Life is like that. We live our lives, managing our sin, trying to keep it quiet, in a sense. We might even make other noises so that the sound generated by the sin isn’t noticed. (At one point I suggested to my patient wife that she could just turn the television up louder. Probably not the best answer!) Do you see what I mean, though? We manage our sin; we don’t get rid of it.
In many ways, we’re afraid to get rid of it, because, like taking apart the dishwasher, there is a lot of work involved in dealing with sin at its root.
But it totally worth it.
It can be hard to do this alone. Sometimes, rooting out sin works best when we share that difficult journey with another person who loves us and wants God’s best for us. It begins, of course, with confession and repentance. And it must include seeking the Holy Spirit’s power and grace, because even though we may repent, without the Spirit at work in us, we are likely to go back to old ways.
Have you identified the proverbial ‘olive pit’ that you need to get out of the core of your life? Have you sought the help of God’s Spirit, and maybe a Christian friend, to excise the sin?
It may be hard work, but you will be glad you did it when your life isn’t so bothered by the noise of that sin impeding God’s work in you and through you.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139.23-24, NIV).
Why Aren’t We Panicking?
In the wake of the 140th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, an ecumenical friend who was in attendance asked me a most interesting and insightful question:
Knowing the decline in membership in the Presbyterian Church (a fact starkly shown on the screen during the Record’s presentation), why was nobody running around sounding the alarm? I just read a report about the Anglican Church that predicts it will have no members left by 2056; I wonder if the United Church and Presbyterians are far behind. Why wasn’t there a greater sense of concern (or even panic) at the Assembly? Or did I just miss it? Or is that not the Presbyterian way? Or am I off base?
In my twenty-plus years in this denomination, only rarely has anything resembling an alarm been sounded about our membership decline, and when it has been expressed, it has come from only a few different sources. Do we lack a sense of self-preservation? Are we apathetic? Or do we believe God has a greater plan?
While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, it’s possible that all three of these scenarios may be true for us.
I think it might be more than foolish to say that there is no sense of apathy among those affiliated with The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Some are sufficiently wrapped up in the excellent work done by their local churches that what happens to the broader, connectional church is none of their concern. (It might make for a good argument as to whether it ought to be, of course, but let’s leave that for another time.) There are other congregations that are so engrossed in trying to stay afloat for just one more week that the state of health of a denomination matters little when the local entity has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
There is also the reality of leadership, or lack thereof. When leadership, whether at the local, regional or national level, is weak, it becomes easy to focus on the present without giving a moment’s thought to the future. We can blame this on the clergy or the seminaries or what-have-you, but to be fair, there is so much that needs to be taught to future pastors during their three-year (minimum) tenure in seminary that not everything could possibly be covered. Sometimes, what gets missed is leadership. And even when it doesn’t get missed, not everyone who senses God’s call to full-time Christian service is spiritually gifted for leadership. True, there is a measure of leadership skill that can be taught, and a measure that can be caught, but unless the person has been given a leadership gift by God, there are pretty significant limits to what leadership that person can exercise. (Check out Romans 12.6-8, and other passages, to learn more about the spiritual gift of leadership.)
While we’re on the topic of spiritual gifts, perhaps you’ve noticed that there seems to be a skewed distribution among certain gifts. For example, I don’t know very many Presbyterians (though I do know some) who exercise the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. This is ironic, considering that the use of the gifts of tongues and prophecy is the foundational context for a verse we Presbyterians love to pull out of context: “[B]ut all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14.40, NRSV). But I digress.
The other common spiritual gift that seems in short supply among Canadian Presbyterians is the gift of evangelism. Put simply, the gift of evangelism is a special ability given by the Holy Spirit to be able to explain the good news of Jesus in such a way that people become his followers. Now, we’re all called to have a heart for evangelism, and we’re all called to do evangelism; that’s the crux of the Great Commission. If we’re to be about making disciples, it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is helping people have a life-changing encounter with the living God through Jesus Christ. Not everyone, of course, will have a special gift that gives him or her the proverbial Midas Touch when it comes to leading people to faith. But surely some must have the gift; where are they? Are there any in The Presbyterian Church in Canada?
Some congregations get so focused on social justice that they miss its hand-in-glove partner, evangelism. That’s too bad, because many acts of social justice can be outstanding ‘pointers’ to faith in Christ. This is, I think, at the heart of being missional in today’s context: we go out into the world, taking Jesus with us as we serve the community in mission. But if our acts of justice are done either without comment or merely for the sake of a better human race, we have moved from ministry to social work, and ought to name it as such. Social work is unlikely to grow God’s Kingdom, but social justice ministries done in Jesus’ name most certainly can.
Faith without works is dead, as James wrote in the New Testament, but works without faith aren’t much good, either.
A lack of evangelistic fervour is a significant contributor to apathy. When we fail to see the good news as truly good – and good for everybody – that banana peel on which one foot is stuck gains significant traction.
The Moderator of the 140th General Assembly, Stephen Farris, noted in one of his series of prophetic, cut-to-the-quick remarks to the Assembly that while sociologists tell us that the world has been moving in a post-denominational direction, perhaps God is doing likewise. In that sense, self-preservation for us, as a ‘tribe’, is pointless; after all, if God is at work, and God’s Kingdom is coming on earth as in heaven, our task as followers of Jesus is not to preserve a particular sub-culture, but to get on board with what God is doing. In other words, God has a greater plan and we should pay attention.
One of the many theological joys of the Reformed tradition is the eminently biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God. In one of its many iterations, it assures us that when it comes to the future of the church, the work is God’s, not ours. What we sometimes miss in the utterance of that truth is that God regularly chooses to use people in the divine work of preserving the church. We are, as the hymn puts it, “Called as partners in Christ’s service.” So while God has a plan – a greater plan – we can be certain that those who are called by the name of Jesus now are called to be participants in the execution of that plan.
That may mean working for a denomination, but it certainly means working for the Kingdom of God. Let’s be honest: for many people, the future of The Presbyterian Church in Canada is not about a particular expression of God’s work; it’s about the preservation of the Pension Fund. The government will make sure the Pension Fund is preserved, in one fashion or another. If God’s plan is to prosper the Kingdom in some other expression, God is God, and is free to do so!
I am a Presbyterian by choice, not by birth. I serve in The Presbyterian Church in Canada because I believe, at its heart, our expression of God’s church is, at least on paper, the best expression of biblical Christianity. I want to see God prosper The Presbyterian Church in Canada. I seek to heed the clarion call, issued well by some of my colleagues, to do my part to bring growth to this part of God’s vineyard. But I do so for the sake of the edification of the Kingdom, not the upholding of a denomination or its structure.
And ultimately, I think Presbyterians are a people who, above all things, trust God, who will preserve the church universal. Perhaps that is why there were no Chicken Little cries of “The sky is falling!” at the 140th General Assembly. May we all be sensitive to God’s call on our lives to fulfill the divinely-mandated role made for us in that act of preservation.
Covenant faithfulness – like your dog
Regimental funerals, whether for police or military personnel, are always moving experiences. But one of the most heart-rending images from the funeral for the three officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, held in Moncton, New Brunswick, last Tuesday, was that of a dog.
Constable Dave Ross, one of the fallen, served in the canine unit. His shift partner was a dog named Danny.
Ross left behind a pregnant wife and a toddler, and we can only imagine the unspeakable grief that they – and the families of all three deceased officers – have felt and continue to feel.
But we can, at least, imagine it.
With an animal, we can’t imagine its grief, because we don’t think like animals.
Danny could not shed tears at the funeral. All he could do was express what he did best: loyalty. He audibly whined through parts of the service. He wanted to be near his partner, even to the point of standing on his hind legs during a procession to get one final whiff of his handler’s scent from Ross’ hat, a lasting reminder of the one he went work with, the one with whom he served and protected.
I think it was Mark Twain, the famous American writer, who said that his goal in life was to be the kind of person his dog thought he was. There is some wisdom in that, for dogs tend to find the best in their owners. And those owners are rewarded with loyalty and faithfulness.
There are those who think that the God of the Old Testament bears little resemblance to the God of the New Testament, but, in truth, they bear witness to the same God. There is a word in Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, that is found in many places from Genesis to Malachi. Many translators render it to say, simply, ‘love’. However, it is deeper than that. The word translates well to ‘covenant faithfulness’ – in short, the kind of love expressed by Danny the Canine Mountie.
God’s expression of love toward his people has always been, and will always be, love – covenant faithfulness. So maybe becoming the kind of person your dog thinks you are isn’t quite as high an aspiration as becoming like your dog, being loyal, loving and faithful to God, and to others, to the very end.
“The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning” (Lamentations 3.22-23, NLT).
Monuments that point to growth
Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France. News and social media outlets are chock-a-block with stories commemorating the valiant efforts undertaken by the allied soldiers, particularly the Canadians.
It has been noted that this likely will be the last time many of Canada’s veterans will return to France to mark D-Day. After all, given that many of them were in their late teens or early twenties at the time, they are all around ninety years of age, and many are growing frail. Unlike their fallen comrades, age has wearied them.
Thankfully, though, their efforts are remembered on occasions like this, and annually on November 11. The goal, of course, is not to glorify war; none of the veterans would have us do that, for each of them knows intimately that there is no glory in war. Instead, they would have us remember, and work for peace. When we remember the cost of war – the cost in lives lost – we are encouraged to live peaceably with our neighbours.
There is a parallel here for the church of Jesus in Canada. Particularly in mainline denominations, we hear of churches closing at a frightening rate. Too often, a church closes, and its building is repurposed: condominiums, loft apartments, small businesses. Its shape and form serve as a memorial to a community of faith that once enlivened that piece of God’s earth.
For me, those are reminders – not of the eventuality of the church’s demise, but of the need to draw people to the Lord, to – dare I use this word? – evangelize. God will preserve his church; it does not belong to another to dictate her lifespan. But in his wisdom, God chooses to use his faithful people to bring growth, new life to his church. We are told in the Great Commission, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28.18-20, NIV).
Just as seeing a monument at a cenotaph causes us to remember those who died for the cause of freedom, and to preserve peace, so seeing a repurposed church building can cause us to remember our responsibility to share our faith with others, if even in subtle ways.
Sow the seed in a way that comes naturally to you, and let the Lord look after the cultivation.