Encouragement From The Word

Remembering to lament

Perhaps, like me, you are finding the restrictions of the pandemic, at least here in Ontario, wearying.  Even with the promise that vaccines are rolling out, we get the sense that the process is slow.  Even with the entertainment we have received over the past days, weeks and months from our neighbours south of the border, there is a feeling that so much of life has become elegiac – lamentable, in a sense.

And we have a problem:  our culture has largely lost the ability to lament.

Most of the music we hear nowadays, at least popularly, is meant to be positive, even to hype us up.  But there are occasions when we need artistic expression of other emotions to help us induce the feelings that need to be manifested.

As I write this, I am listening to a piece of music that, for me, evokes lament – the Adagio for Strings, by Samuel Barber, arranged for organ.  Not exactly a top 40 hit. 

But I find listening to certain pieces of music will conjure the emotion that is pent up inside.

So do the Scriptures.

Not all Bible passages, in or out of context, are meant to be “keep your chin up” texts; in both the stories and the songs of the Bible, there are laments.  We find few, if any, of them paraphrased in the CCLI Top 150.

Of course, there is a whole book seemingly devoted to lament; we call it “Lamentations.”  But there are many other examples in Scripture.  Several of them are in the Psalms – and there are even different types of laments found there.

When we think of the Psalms, our minds likely move toward “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23) or “I lift up my eyes to the hills” (Psalm 121), since these are words of comfort.  Yet the beloved Psalter contains numerous laments; feel free to look them up after you’re done reading this.

But for now, consider Psalm 38.  Read it over a few times, slowly, paying attention to your breathing as you do.  Perhaps the Lord will highlight a particular word or phrase, as he did for me.  Yours may be different from mine, as mine is different from another’s; God uses his Word to speak to our hearts and minister to us where we have need.

O Lord, don’t rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your rage!
Your arrows have struck deep,
    and your blows are crushing me.
Because of your anger, my whole body is sick;
    my health is broken because of my sins.
My guilt overwhelms me—
    it is a burden too heavy to bear.
My wounds fester and stink
    because of my foolish sins.
I am bent over and racked with pain.
    All day long I walk around filled with grief.
A raging fever burns within me,
    and my health is broken.
I am exhausted and completely crushed.
    My groans come from an anguished heart.

You know what I long for, Lord;
    you hear my every sigh.
10 My heart beats wildly, my strength fails,
    and I am going blind.
11 My loved ones and friends stay away, fearing my disease.
    Even my own family stands at a distance.
12 Meanwhile, my enemies lay traps to kill me.
    Those who wish me harm make plans to ruin me.
    All day long they plan their treachery.

13 But I am deaf to all their threats.
    I am silent before them as one who cannot speak.
14 I choose to hear nothing,
    and I make no reply.
15 For I am waiting for you, O Lord.
    You must answer for me, O Lord my God.
16 I prayed, “Don’t let my enemies gloat over me
    or rejoice at my downfall.”

17 I am on the verge of collapse,
    facing constant pain.
18 But I confess my sins;
    I am deeply sorry for what I have done.
19 I have many aggressive enemies;
    they hate me without reason.
20 They repay me evil for good
    and oppose me for pursuing good.
21 Do not abandon me, O Lord.
    Do not stand at a distance, my God.
22 Come quickly to help me,
    O Lord my savior.  (NLT)

When David first wrote, or sang, this, he was acknowledging the pain in his heart.  You can do the same as you read it.  And as you acknowledge your pain, remember that the Lord is your Saviour; he will come to help you.  He came to help David, and he has come to help me.

Biblical Messages

Love Wins?

In this week’s worship broadcast, we hear a message that challenges our understanding of love – a debt we cannot repay. It’s based on Romans 13.8-14, with support from Ephesians 6.10-17 and 1 Thessalonians 5.1-10. You can watch the entire broadcast below, or just the message below that.

Encouragement From The Word

Hold on to the One who holds the future

I’m torn about how best to write to you today.  As we enter a second state of emergency in the province of Ontario, which affects many of our readers, I want to tell you to keep your chin up and your face smiling, that better days are ahead.  Or, as the Premier of Ontario said when he announced the new stay-at-home order, “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”  (Whether he knew it or not, he borrowed that from the late televangelist Robert Schuller!)

However…even though I call this Encouragement From The Word, I’m not here to be a cheerleader.  It’s Encouragement From The Word.

So I’m not going to tell you to keep smiling or keep your chin up; I’m not going to tell you to be tough, even though these are not bad pieces of advice.

I’m going to tell you to hold on to the One who holds the future.

I know many people who are acquainted with hardship in these days – and I don’t mean the “hardship” of wearing a mask.  I’m talking about sickness – severe sickness – that has left the ill and their family members desperate.

I’ve heard of the heartbreak of people having to drop sick loved ones off at the hospital door, because they are not allowed to accompany them.

I’ve heard of people so focused on the mere act of breathing that nothing else matters.  (Remember the old motto of the Lung Association?)

And I wonder:  without faith in the living Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the future, who knows tomorrow, how does anyone cope?

We don’t know when things will be better.  But they will be better.  Trusting Jesus right now makes life better, both for today and for eternity.

In him you will find your strength.

[T]hose who trust in the Lord will find new strength.  They will soar high on wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40.31, NLT).

Biblical Messages

Not Quite Libertarian

There has been no time such as this in our lifetime to share the relevance of Romans 13.1-7. In this service, we hear a message about what it means to submit to civil authorities, and how that relates to the uprising in the US last week and the current pandemic. You can watch the whole service below, or just the message below that. Apologies for some of the poor video; we had some technical issues this morning.

Encouragement From The Word

Submit?

Happy new year!

A week in, and we’re already on pins and needles, eh?

I have to admit, I was going to write about the sad lunacy of the whole “Amen and A-woman” debacle in the US House of Representatives, but then this past Wednesday happened.  I’ll save the other one for another time.

It might be the first time the White House was stormed since, well, the Canadians burned it during the War of 1812!

I’ve never believed in coincidences, not even homiletical coincidences.

When 9/11 took place, I was preaching through the book of Jonah.

This Sunday, returning to a series I broke from for Advent and Christmas, I will be preaching on Romans 13.1-7.

I’ve been looking forward to this passage for quite a while, but I wasn’t expecting such a current illustration as we got on Wednesday!

Everyone must submit to governing authorities.  For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Romans 13.1, NLT).

Amid the rioters on Capitol Hill, amid the pandemic and the lockdown, where lies the boundary for submitting to governing authorities?

The key comes in understanding the verb, “submit”.  Rather than meaning “blindly obey”, its definition has more to do with appreciating the hierarchy that exists within the rule of law.  

God is at the top of the chain, but he places governments – through various means – in place over us, and we are called to respect them.

For some, though, the question becomes, “To what extent do I submit?”

If the government forces you to do something that is patently and obviously contrary to God’s will in Scripture, that may be the point where civil disobedience kicks in.

If you want to know how that relates to the widespread lockdown we find ourselves in currently, tune in live on Sunday at 10:00 a.m., or on demand any time after 4:00 p.m.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Canoeing the Mountains

If you’re a church leader, especially a pastor, hands up if you’ve muttered in the past year, “They didn’t teach me this in seminary”?

For me, it became a mantra as the reality of the pandemic set in, along with the first round of lockdown, back in March of 2020.  Not long after that, I was given a copy of Canoeing the Mountains, and I thought it sufficiently intriguing that I would read it, if for no other reason than to give me a break from watching YouTube videos telling me how to do some of the things that seminary didn’t teach me.

The title itself beckons the reader to pick up this book.  Whoever heard of canoeing the mountains?

Exactly.  That’s why this book needed to be written, and why it needs to be read by Christian leaders, especially in these days.

The book is premised on the expedition of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.  For us Canadians, that has an almost solely academic meaning, but to the average American, especially those living west of the Mississippi, the heart skips a veritable beat when these names arise.  They are woven into the fabric of American history in the years after the Revolution.

But this is not a history text.  I will admit, however, that as a Canadian, I learned more about the Lewis and Clark expedition in this Christian leadership book than I ever knew before.  Illustratively, Tod Bolsinger, a minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, makes masterful use of Lewis and Clark to help church leaders realize that what seminary prepared them for is not what they’re navigating today.

When Bolsinger wrote this, he did not anticipate a global pandemic that would change the face of the world – and the church – forever.  By God’s grace, the principles he writes about, while entirely applicable to pre-pandemic leadership, are going to be doubly applicable in mid- and post-pandemic leadership.

Leaning heavily on the writing of Edwin Friedman, particularly in A Failure of Nerve, Bolsinger applies, and demonstrates through the relation of personal experience, family systems theories to the process of change in the church.  

He makes good use of the research of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, noting that “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb” (124).  I remember sharing that quotation and getting a prickly reaction, but I think there is some wisdom in it.  As Bolsinger later states, those people whom you disappointed at a rate they could absorb will later be your strongest allies.

This book is both a comfortable read and (in a sense) an uncomfortable read, well worth the time for anyone in Christian leadership.  I’m glad I took a break from tech-ed YouTube to read it!

Canoeing the Mountains:  Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger

(Downers Grove:  Inter-Varsity Press, 2015).  ISBN #978-0-8308-4126-4.

Biblical Messages

Climbing the Ladder (Or, “Teleoanticipation”!)

“Teleoanticipation”: use that in a crossword puzzle this week. It was a new word to me, introduced to me by my spiritual director. In this worship gathering for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we learn what it means, how it applies to our current situation, and how Mary exemplified it. While we “teleoanticipate”, we climb the ladder of faith. How? Watch to find out. The message is based on Luke 1.26-56, and can be viewed as part of the whole worship broadcast below, or by itself just below that.

Our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day broadcasts have been pre-recorded and will be available for viewing on our YouTube channel on December 24 in the afternoon and December 25 in the morning respectively, or anytime after those times as may be convenient for you. Merry Christmas! I’ll post them here as well.

Encouragement From The Word

The Glue and the Head

This Advent, we’ve been looking at Jesus through the eyes of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians.  In Colossians 1.17-18, he writes, “He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.  Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body.  He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead.  So he is first in everything” (NLT).

Imagine that:  were it not for Jesus – who, we learned, was present in creation – the world would quite literally fall apart!  He is the Glue that holds creation together.

And this Amazing Baby we celebrate in these days is also the Head of the church.  No matter what your tradition or polity, the very top of the chain of command is reserved for Jesus.  Why?  Because he was born for it, gave his life for it, and rose from the dead for it.

So, this Christmas, let me encourage you to make him, in Paul’s words, “first in everything”.

You won’t be disappointed.

Since the next two Fridays happen to land on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, let me take this opportunity to wish you a very merry Christmas, and happy new year.  Thanks for reading Encouragement From The Word.  It’ll return in January.

Make Jesus first!

Uncategorized

Placing the Ladder

Some say we live in hopeless times. People go looking for hope in all kinds of places – emotional support, financial stability, you name it. But true hope comes from knowing Jesus. In this message, inspired by Andy Stanley, we learn how to find and nurture our hope in the Lord. It’s based on Psalm 33. You can watch the whole service below, or the message alone below that.

Encouragement From The Word

This Amazing Baby

This Amazing Baby whose birth we anticipate is, as I’ve been pointing out in this Advent season, no ordinary Baby.  Not only was he present at creation, but he was active in creation.

How can a baby do that? you might rightly ask.  

Well, Jesus was not always a baby.

Of course, we know that he grew and became a man and ministered until he was crucified.  He rose from the dead and ministered again until he was taken up to heaven, from whence he came.

See, Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate version of the second Person of the Trinity.  The Trinity is a difficult doctrine, one that is inferred by Scripture and that has been a hallmark of apostolic Christianity for almost 1700 years (so it’s proven the test of time).  As the second Person of the Trinity, our Saviour was active in creating the world, so it’s no wonder that he was willing to give his earthly life for it.

Yet Jesus did not only create the mountains and valleys, the lakes and trees and rocks; he also set forth less immediately tangible realities.

This Amazing Baby in the manger is the Creator of heaven and earth.  Imagine that! 

He’s worth anticipating, worth worshipping, worth being ready for when he comes again.

[F]or through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth.  He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see – such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.  Everything was created through him and for him.  He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together” (Colossians 1.16-17, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

The Birth of the Firstborn

In Advent, we anticipate the birth of Jesus – something that happened more than 2,000 years ago.  Yet it has been commemorated annually by his followers for centuries.  What makes it a birthday worth getting ready for?

Jesus was no ordinary baby.  I’m pretty sure, though, contrary to the carols that proclaim “Silent night,” and “no crying he makes”, that his birth was a fairly normal human birth, with all the liquid and drama and emotion that go with it.

Mary, his mother, knew he would be different.  An angel of the Lord had told her as much.  But we can’t be certain when that different-ness became obvious to either Jesus or his mother.

Still, the birth was special, because Jesus was no ordinary baby.  The Apostle Paul would write later that “He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation” (Colossians 1.15b, NLT).  Other translations render that as Jesus having been the firstborn of all creation.

No wonder he would later say to the Pharisees, “Before Abraham was even born, I AM!” (John 8.58, NLT).

There’s definitely something special about celebrating the birth of One who has existed since time began, One who was present at the very creation of the world.

Whatever your seasonal celebrations look like this year – and I’m sure they will be different than in years past, at some level – there is definitely a reason to keep them special, since we’re celebrating the birth of no ordinary baby.

What will you do to make it special this year?

Encouragement From The Word

All about family?

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day in the US.  Today is Black Friday.  This Sunday begins the season of Advent, as we count down the days to Christmas.

And we’re still in COVID.

Many people say – reinforced by countless television commercials aimed at selling you something neither you nor your loved ones need – that “The Holidays are about family.”

I’ve been saying for years that this statement misses the mark significantly.  And this is the year to find out if that’s true.

I’m astounded – nay, gobsmacked! – at the attitudes I see on social media with respect to the pandemic and family gatherings.  These days, I see photos of some of my American friends, gathered in large crowds for Thanksgiving, as if they are unaware of the risk that if even just one person in a gathering is carrying Coronavirus, the whole group could be infected.  Why are they taking this risk?  Because “the Holidays are about family.”

In other words, maintaining a tradition is more important than preserving life.

We are entering what is usually the most socially-packed month on the calendar.  This year, that may need to be handled differently.

This may be the year that you prove that the Holidays are not really all about family.

It is possible to be thankful without having The Whole Gang present in the room.

Christmas parties can take place virtually, or in physically distanced settings.

We can still celebrate the birth of Jesus when it’s just our own household.

I don’t want to pretend I’m anybody’s Medical Officer of Health, and I’m certainly not trying to engender fear in anyone.  We serve a God who is bigger than any virus!  But as Advent begins, I think this is the year we can demonstrate, once and for all, that the Holidays are not all about family.

In this year of craziness, let’s focus on the One (in the) Stable:  let’s remember the Reason for the Season.

Whatever shape your Advent and Christmas celebrations take, be safe.  And let Jesus be the Centre of it all.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15a, NLT).

Biblical Messages

Sweet Revenge

In this worship gathering, we hear a message entitled “Sweet Revenge”, based on Romans 12.9-21. If you’ve ever been the sort who says, “I don’t get mad, I get even”, this message is for you. And if you’re wondering how to grow as a follower of Jesus, give this message a listen. The whole worship gathering is below, and the message alone may be found just below that.

Encouragement From The Word

Hiding the Word

Many people don’t realize it, but there are many English idioms that come from the Bible – most from the King James Version of 1611 (and thereafter), and some from even before that.  Because Bible reading used to be much more prevalent in society at large, these phrases became commonplace in English.

I’m going to be talking about one of them on Sunday.  It comes from Proverbs 25.22, cited later by the apostle Paul in Romans 12.20.  It’s the idea of doing good to your enemies being like heaping burning coals on their heads, in the context of leaving revenge to God.  (In the Old Testament, the idea of burning coals is an image for the judgment of God.)

Just for fun, I took to social media the other day to ask people what their favourite English idiom with biblical roots might be.  Here’s a sampling of the answers I got:

  • “The writing is on the wall” – from the book of Daniel
  • “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight” – from Jesus in Matthew
  • “Scapegoat” – from Leviticus (this one dates back to the time of William Tyndale’s translation in the 1500s!)
  • “Eat, drink and be merry” – from Ecclesiastes
  • “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – from Genesis
  • “A drop in the bucket” – from Isaiah
  • “A fool and his money are soon parted” – from Proverbs

To be sure, there is a move afoot to expunge the Bible from culture.  But that’s next to impossible to do; because the Bible has had so much influence on culture, literature, art, and virtually every other aspect of society, it would take far more effort than most people are willing to put forth to remove the Bible from our culture entirely.

It’s one thing, though, to have a Bible-laced vocabulary of idioms; it’s another thing to have the Bible ingrained in us in such a way that we live its principles and follow God’s ways as we live in relationship with him.  That has much more potential to change the world!

I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119.11, NLT).

Encouragement From the Word will return on November 27.