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God with us…in the valley

In this worship gathering, we hear about a recent mission trip to Guatemala, celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and begin the season of Advent with a message (inspired by Craig Groeschel) about how God is with us even through the valleys of life. Based on Psalm 84, you can watch the message below, or the entire worship gathering below that.

Encouragement From The Word

Life is not measured by how much you own

Customarily, I take a week off before the season of Advent begins, and I did so this year – but I spent it in a different way than I have before.

Like most couples, my wife and I have accumulated a lot of Stuff over the 30 years of our marriage, and while we have no plans to move, we found that the volume of Stuff around which we were living was getting a bit overwhelming.

So, inspired by having just cleared out my mother’s house – my childhood home –  following her move to a retirement facility, I was ready to do a little decluttering and purging of my own.

The adventure began in the basement, where many things go to die from ignorance.  We were able to donate many things that we had been saving for a yard sale we were going to have after the pandemic hit.  Items we had been saving, thinking, “That’s going to be handy someday” were let go to enable them to be handy for someone else.  We had our share of thoughts of, Why on earth did I save THAT? as they were boxed up for donation.

There was a reasonable volume of trash. And a mountain of recycling.  I even had a full carload of Stuff to take to the hazardous waste depot!

In the end, the basement is much better organized, and several shelves upstairs are bereft of long-ignored books and trinkets.  While there is more that could be done, I am deeply satisfied with what was accomplished.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, the day before my decluttering week began, I met with my spiritual director, and together we explored the commonalities between decluttering the home and decluttering the heart.

When I live surrounded by clutter, my senses make it hard for me to focus on the Lord.  So there were times when I was saying to myself, I need to deal with all this Stuff when I should have been in conversation with the Lord.

Decluttering isn’t a panacea by any stretch of the imagination, spiritual or otherwise.  But it has helped me be at peace more than I was before the events of last week.  In one sense, to borrow from the title of a popular book by the late Dallas Willard, not only did I declutter my home last week, I undertook a renovation of the heart.

What decluttering needs to happen in your life in order for your relationship with God to flourish?  It might have to do with Stuff, or it might have to do with toxic relationships, or other challenges you face.  Whatever it is, get to purging it.

Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own” (Luke 12.15b, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Take care of the basics

In a conversation yesterday, a friend pointed me to the State of Theology report, prepared by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research.  From time to time, it surveys Americans generally, and those who identify themselves as “evangelicals”.  What is most notable is the trend that is seen as the years go by:  the United States is becoming more secular.

As Canadians, we already know what that’s like.

In the US, though, it takes on a different meaning, because of the common conflation of conservative Christianity and conservative politics.  (For example, while it is not universally true, many Americans who vote Republican would also classify themselves as evangelicals, even if their core beliefs do not reflect the theological tenets of evangelicalism.)

If you review the survey results cited in the link above, you will find that the surveyors ask questions about both theology and ethics.  It is interesting that as our understanding of the authority of the Bible changes, so too do our ethics.

Of greatest concern to followers of Jesus should not be the changing views on abortion or human sexuality or any number of other ‘hot button’ issues of our time, as important as these are.  What should be most concerning is the drift that is noticeable on what constitutes authoritative truth.

If we no longer believe the Bible to be God’s authoritative Word, then our views on social issues will not be as likely to reflect the position of the Lord as outlined in Scripture.  

This is true, no matter what country or culture we live in.

As people of the Lord, we need to be committed to the basics of our faith.  In one sense, we could say that if we take care of the basics, the basics will take care of us.

So when you read your Bible, take it seriously, and let God’s Word affect all aspects of your life.

The rain and snow come down from the heavens
    and stay on the ground to water the earth.
They cause the grain to grow,
    producing seed for the farmer
    and bread for the hungry.
 It is the same with my word.
    I send it out, and it always produces fruit.
It will accomplish all I want it to,
    and it will prosper everywhere I send it” (Isaiah 55.10-11, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

He will preserve his church!

It’s a different world today.  

I probably don’t need to tell you that in this post-pandemic-but-still-kind-of-COVIDy time.  (Yes, I just made up that word.)  But the 2021 census data on religious diversity is out, and that just confirms that we live in a different world than even 10 years ago.

helpful chart based on these census figures has been prepared by Waybase.  It notes that while 53% of Canadians still identify as Christian, that figure is down 14% since 2011.  And, other than Quebec, the steepest decline in Christian identification among Canadian cities appears to be taking place in what was once a bastion of traditional values, the Maritimes.

It would be easy to read statistics like this and throw up our arms in defeat (or maybe just throw up!).  But that’s not an option for followers of Jesus, because we believe that Jesus is not finished with Canada, nor with any other part of the world.

Here’s the deal:  there may be churches closing in Canada at an unprecedented rate (which is true); there may be fewer and fewer Canadians identifying as Christian (which is also true).  But the Lord will preserve his church!

If you’ve read the book of Revelation (and you should), you’ll see that what was going on in the first century among the seven churches of the province of Asia to which Revelation was first written looks eerily similar to what’s going on today in our neck of the woods.  And if you read to the end of the book, guess who wins?

The Roman empire was a great threat to the early Christians, but it was no threat to God’s agenda for his church.  And while the Roman empire faded into history almost 1600 years ago, the church has continued, and even flourished, in the many centuries since.  What evidence is there to lead any of us to believe that’s going to change?

That doesn’t mean we should sit back and let history take its course.  No:  God has a plan for his church, and it includes all faithful followers of Jesus!  The Lord has entrusted us with the important task of building a strong, biblically faithful, Christ-centred church for a new time – for a different world…the one in which we live.

Be filled with the Holy Spirit, and roll up your sleeves.  It’s time to serve.

[T]he Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3.3, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

The legacy of Gordon Fee

Earlier this week, Gordon Fee died.  That name may not mean anything to you, but if you’re a follower of Jesus, there’s a good possibility that you’ve read something that he was involved with.

Fee was a Christian who pastored a church for a little while, but ultimately felt called to the academy.  He taught New Testament studies at Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and at Regent College in Vancouver, from which he retired some years ago.

But you probably don’t know him from his teaching appointments.

His greatest legacy, other than the students he taught, was threefold.  First, he was active on the translation team for the original New International Version of the Bible, so if you’ve read the NIV at all in the past, you’ve probably read some of his contributions to Bible translation.  Second, he wrote commentaries, principally on the letters of Paul (so if you’ve heard me preach on, say, 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee touched your life that way!).  And third, he co-wrote a book called How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth (a copy of which I gave away just yesterday!).

Fee was Pentecostal and a scholar, and he believed that the Holy Spirit plays a role in our study of the Bible as well as in our living out of the Christian life.  He wasn’t the first person to assert this, of course, but he was used by God to promote the spiritual life in the midst of learning and growing in Christ.

I recommend that you read anything he wrote.  And I also recommend that you read what he would have recommended, and that’s the Word of God.  Read your Bible – for all its worth.  Notice that as I just used it and in the title of Fee’s book, there is no apostrophe:  we don’t read the Bible for all it’s worth, but for all its worth.  We want to get the most out of the Bible, which has great worth to us as followers of Jesus.  It is how the Lord communicates most clearly to us.  It’s how we learn the Christian life.  It’s how we gain comfort and are challenged in our walk with God.  

So I don’t encourage you to read the Bible as a tribute to Gordon Fee; he wouldn’t ask you for that.  But I do encourage you to read the Bible because of what it is:  God’s Word to us.  The Word of Life.  The Truth. 

Take even five minutes today, if you haven’t already, and read a portion of Scripture.  Let the Lord speak to you.

Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear” (Jesus, Mark 13.31, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Breathe!

Whatever you’re doing right now (other than reading this), stop.

Breathe.

Rest.

If only for a few moments, pause from your daily activity and give thanks to God.

Do it now.

There.

Doesn’t that feel just a little bit better?

One of the things the Lord is constantly teaching me is the importance of rest.  It becomes too easy to hop on a treadmill (alas, not the kind that burns calories) and become a human doing, when the Lord made me (and you) to be a human being.

If you don’t pause from time to time, something will happen that will force you to pause.

I am reminded of a quotation by Christian author Wayne Muller in his book, Sabbath:  “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath – our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.”

Read that again.

And rest.

So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God.  For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world” (Hebrews 4.9-10, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Are you thrilled?

Usually, when we think of the word “thrill”, our minds turn to amusement park rides, or a first kiss – things that tend to elevate our heart rate!  Rarely do aspects of our faith come to mind when we think of the word “thrill”.

But maybe they should.

I was reading the Psalms the other day, and in the New Living Translation, Psalm 92.4 says, “You thrill me, LORD, with all you have done for me!  I sing for joy because of what you have done.

Now, most translations will use the more gentle (if more passive) “You make me glad” in translating a verb that means “to brighten up”.  But I think “thrill” is an accurate and appropriate translation – and one that makes us think.

In this, the afterglow of Canadian Thanksgiving, we do well to remember that while Thanksgiving is another statutory holiday, and a good excuse to eat turkey, gratitude should characterize us all year long.  When we think back on that for which we are grateful to God, can we say that we are “thrilled”?

Often, we take a lot for granted.  The fact that we have air to breathe, food on the table, people who love us – can we say that we are “thrilled” by these gifts?

Take some time today to review the past few days in your mind.  Think about what thrills you.  And turn that thrill into a prayer of thanksgiving to God that raises your pulse with joy!

Encouragement From The Word

Doggie Bags

Last Sunday, our Pastoral Intern preached a message about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in which she illustrated with the concept of taking home leftovers after a scrumptious meal at a restaurant.  I want to think about that idea with you for a moment.

If you, like most Christians around the world, celebrated the Lord’s Supper last Sunday, you probably received a wafer or a morsel of bread, and just enough wine or grape juice to wet your whistle.  It doesn’t seem like enough to require a doggie bag!

But when you feast upon God’s grace in this sensory manner, you are invited to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, and to be filled – not with bread and wine, but with the Holy Spirit.  In this way, you have ‘leftovers’ to last you through the week…leftovers that you can share.

One of the realities that many of us church leaders have been talking about for the past several years is now becoming a reality, thanks to the accelerated change caused by the pandemic:  we need to take the church out into the neighbourhood.

Because the church is people – followers of Jesus and their children, gathered – it is possible to take the church away from the building.  Not to say that gathering together for corporate worship and fellowship are not important (they very much are!), but God’s people need to start thinking beyond the four walls, taking God’s love and truth, God’s justice and righteousness, into our neighbourhoods.

What can this look like?

It can mean hosting a Bible study (what we call a LifeConnect Group) in your home, and inviting your neighbours to join in.  (This is nothing new, by the way; my grandmother hosted a neighbourhood Bible study in our home in the 1970s!)

It can mean inviting neighbours to share a meal with you, in which part of the conversation opens a door to talking about your faith.

It can mean reaching out to a neighbour who has experienced some sort of illness, loss or life crisis with kindly deeds done in Jesus’ name.

It can mean sharing information by text or email among your neighbours and friends who are still fearful of stepping out their front door, inviting them to a watch party for a Sunday worship broadcast.

The list could go on and on, but the point is that if an invitation to cross the threshold of the church building doesn’t work, you can take the church to the neighbourhood.

This becomes the ‘doggie bag’ that you take away from a worship gathering, whether it involves the Lord’s Supper or not, because we can ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit anytime…and that infilling can overflow, and splash onto the people with whom you interact day by day.

God knows the difference you will make.

If you’re not sure you can do this, rest assured that you can’t do it on your own.  So ask the Lord to fill you with his Holy Spirit, just as Jesus promised at his ascension:  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

October is my favourite colour

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” wrote Lucy Maud Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables.  The delight of seeing the verdure of deciduous woods transform into hues of red and yellow and gold is a sight that never gets old.  (As I type this, I am beholding this transformation right in front of me, as my wife sits in the driver’s seat on our way to visit my mother in hospital; please pray for her!)

The dramatic nature of the colour change varies, depending on location.  If you live in the desert, you’re not going to see much change.  But in more temperate areas, the transformation is definitely more noticeable.  If you experience any kind of significant season change, you will see more colour.

And then, you will see no colour…just sticks coming up out of the ground.  And then, white sticks.  And then, melting, and buds, and leaves, and verdure once again.  The cycle continues year after year after year, in God’s grace.

The changing seasons remind us of the all-too-quick passing of time.  It is our most precious commodity.  How will you make the most of it?

The starkness of autumn reminds me of the importance of investing in eternal things – things that won’t decay with the passage of time.  This involves lining out our priorities.  Someone once wisely quipped, “What are you going to do with your dash?”, referring to the line between the year one was born and the year one died.  Will you use your time wisely, in ways that will impact your and someone else’s eternity, or will you fritter it away?

The leaves are starting to fall.

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3.1, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Be a spiritual prepper

With so many other shiny things in the news lately, we haven’t heard much about hurricane season.  But Fiona, the most recently-named storm, has pummeled Puerto Rico and has its sights set on Atlantic Canada, and though it will likely not be rated as a hurricane, it has the potential to do some serious damage.

Residents are being encouraged to ensure they have sufficient supplies for a hold-and-secure period of not less than 72 hours, and that their sump pumps are working.  This is the time when the “prepper” community – those whose hobby (or obsession) is emergency preparedness – has its opportunity to shine!

Often, it is experience that teaches us to be prepared for trouble, whether it is something large and uncontrollable like a weather phenomenon (remember the big ice storm of ’98?) or something localized and preventable (like a car accident that knocks out a transformer).  Until we are prepared, we end up scrambling.  And in reality, it may not be possible to be prepared for every eventuality, unless your commitment to emergency preparedness truly is an obsession that gobbles up your entire life.

Whether it’s having a good supply of potable water or a generator or a pantry full of canned goods or dehydrated food – to say nothing of fully-charged electronic devices and backup battery packs – it’s difficult to be ready for everything, but there’s one thing that many of even the most prepared people neglect, and that’s eternity.

You can be ready for a power outage so that your freezer’s contents aren’t destroyed, but that doesn’t make you ready for the second coming of Jesus; you’re not going to need your freezer when he returns.

The challenge for eternal preparedness is that it’s not a matter of buying More Stuff.  It’s about readying your heart and your soul, and quite frankly, that’s harder work, because God’s holy standard is perfection, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t measure up to that standard.

However, there is good news:  the bulk of that harder work has been done for you by Jesus.  The Bible tells us that “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5.21, NLT).  When Jesus died on the cross, he became our sin.  He was perfect, and he bore the weight of our sin – even yours and mine – so that we could be brought back into a right relationship with God.

And the benefit of this comes to us simply by faith.  When we can truly say in our hearts that Jesus is Lord – that he is Master of our lives – the benefits of Jesus’ work on the cross become ours, and our hearts and souls are made ready, fully prepared for eternity.

So, whatever befalls you, ensure your emergency preparedness kit includes faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.  Then, and only then, will you really be ready.