Blog posts

Encouragement From The Word

Consider the context

I’ll admit that when I see someone quoting the Bible on social media, I get a little excited.  It’s always great to see God’s Word sent forth through whatever channels we can, whether to encourage or challenge.

So I saw the following post earlier this week; I’ve blotted out the information about the posters for their own security.  Can you see the problem?

The person who posted this decided that she would appropriate this passage of Scripture for herself.  I pointed out that the “her” in Psalm 46.5 doesn’t refer to any woman who decides to read it, but to “that city”, i.e., Jerusalem.  (Not all translations use the feminine pronoun for Jerusalem in this passage, which is helpful in situations like this one!)

In response to my pointing out that the text was about Jerusalem, the poster’s response was to say, “I am Jerusalem.”

Really?

As someone smarter than me once said, all Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applied.  When we yank a passage out of context and apply it to ourselves, or a given situation – without regard for the context of the passage – that’s called “proof-texting”.  It might also be called abuse of the text (and, when applied to others in this manner, spiritual abuse of another sort).

Psalm 46 is not about the person who posted this on social media in that sense.  There are principles we can draw from the Psalm, not least the “be still, and know that I am God” part (verse 10).  Even that, though, can be abused; I remember a famous Hollywood person many years ago using this verse to suggest, in some sort of ersatz Eastern meditation seminar, that the participants be still and know that they are God.

Nope.  All kinds of nope.

The Bible is not given for us to snip bits we like.  When you pick up a saw, you’re not just using one of the teeth, right? To use it effectively, as intended, you’re making full strokes with the saw, using all the teeth.  Trying to cut a piece of wood with one saw tooth would take you a very long time (you would die before you were finished).  It is no less foolish to lift parts of Scripture and misapply them.  While it might make us feel good and be a boost to our energy, we’re actually deceiving ourselves in so doing.

By all means, please do read the Bible.  But don’t yank out parts of it that inspire you without yanking the context out with it.

Let me give you one more example.  I saw this verse posted on a daily tear-off inspirational desk calendar one time:  “I will give it all to you if you will kneel down and worship me.”

Sounds inspiring, even empowering, right?  But consider the context:

Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  “I will give it all to you,” he said, “if you will kneel down and worship me.”  “Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him.  “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the LORD your God and serve only him.’” (Matthew 4.8-10, NLT)

Ouch.  Not so inspiring in context, is it?

Scripture is intended to be inspiring and challenging.  But until we pay attention to the context, we’re playing with fire.  It is, after all, a sword.

Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6.17, NLT).

(By the way, you could accuse me of pulling Scripture out of context when I close each Encouragement with a verse or two, but rest assured I have considered the context around what I choose and seek to apply it helpfully.  Feel free to battle back if you think I misuse a Bible verse!)

Biblical Messages

The Great Prostitute

In this worship gathering, we ordain some new ruling elders for our leadership team, and hear a message from Revelation 17 about the image of the Great Prostitute – the Roman Empire – and how it would fall…and some potential modern-day equivalents (like the World Economic Forum). More on that in chapter 18 next time! You can watch the message alone below, or the whole worship gathering below that.

Encouragement From The Word

Jesus got angry!

One of the key tenets of the Christian faith is that we believe that Jesus was both divine and human:  fully God, fully man.  Sometimes, though, I know I am guilty of focusing on Jesus’ divinity and neglecting his humanity.

We don’t always reflect on just how human Jesus was:  that he felt every emotion known to the human race, yet did not sin.

Sure, we know Jesus was happy and sad, but Jesus also experienced anger.

Often, when we do think of Jesus getting angry, we think of how he turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple (John 2).  But Jesus also got profoundly angry at the Pharisees and teachers of religious law, the “establishment” in the Jewish world of his day.  Much of Matthew 23 is dedicated to Jesus’ verbal tirade against these highly-respected religious leaders.

Many people are taught that it’s wrong to get angry – maybe even unchristian.  Yet Jesus got angry…for the right reasons, for righteous reasons.  So did the prophets.  So did the Psalmists.  So does the Father!

It’s not unbiblical to be angry before God.  Everything we do is before God anyway!  And because Jesus expressed anger, we can, too.

Our challenge is to be able to do so without sinning.  That’s the hard part, isn’t it?

When we are angry for righteous reasons, perhaps we are less inclined to sin in our anger, directing that energy instead toward upholding the glory of God.

So don’t hold back your emotions before the Lord.  Be honest, be real – but don’t let your emotions get the best of you.  He knows how you feel anyway.  Because Jesus experienced every human emotion, you can be sure God really knows how you feel.

’[D]on’t sin by letting anger control you.’ Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil” (Ephesians 4.26-27, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Perspective and Original Intent

There is a meme that has been making its way around social media for the last few years that has always troubled me.  It depicts a number painted on the ground, appearing either as a six or a nine, depending on the perspective from which you come to it.  The caption reads, “Just because you are right does not mean I am wrong.  You just haven’t seen life from my side.”

In some ways, it may seem comforting to know that, yes, there are different sides to every story and every situation.

But what it fails to communicate is an important truth:  What was the original intent of the person who painted that number on the ground?  Was it intended to be a 6 or a 9?  Unless it was painted maliciously – to get people to fight about it – the only way one can know whether it is a 6 or a 9 is to know what the painter intended it to be.

There are, of course, small matters on which this meme depicts reality.  Let’s say, for example, that instead of a number it was a pitcher of milk that was sitting there.  One person may come at it with great joy, because she loves milk and has it on her cereal every morning.  Another person may approach it with great revulsion, because he hates milk, having been forced to drink it warm from the cow’s udder by his mother.

That, though, is a matter of taste, not objective truth.  Trouble is, some people apply the same principles to truth as they do to taste, and that’s where we get into difficulty.

We live in a strange time.  Western society used to treat objective truth as just that.  Then we moved into a phase where truth was believed to be relative (what’s true for you might not be true for me, etc.).  Now, in some ways, society has moved back to a place where truth is absolute, but only when it suits our own agendas.

For example, as a friend posted on social media yesterday, it’s astounding how some people will believe that the Bible can speak clearly and objectively about the importance of caring for refugees, but those same people may not believe the Bible speaks clearly and objectively about matters of sexuality – or vice-versa. 

We can’t pretend to control what the world thinks or believes, though we can seek to influence it.  As followers of Jesus, we need to be on the same page – literally and figuratively.  We need to be willing to submit to God’s Word as objective truth.  Yes, we read it with sensitivity to its cultural context, but we also must read it with full knowledge of our cultural context.  That is, at the same time as we take the culture of Bible times into account when we read it, we must also be fully aware of our own culture, being careful not to read our cultural norms into the Bible’s context.

This is why it is so important for us to read prayerfully, with an eye to how students of Scripture have read and interpreted it over the course of the two millennia of Christian history that preceded us.

In short, read Scripture the way it wants to be read, not the way you want it to read.  And yes, be sensitive to the perspectives others bring, but look primarily for the original intent as you read.

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4.12, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Don’t forget your spiritual health

Okay, who got a Peloton bike or a Bowflex set for Christmas?  How about a gym membership?

These things are very popular gifts for those who are resolving to get in better physical shape in the new year.  And after eating our way through December, it’s common to resolve to improve our health. 

Some will even want to attend to their mental health, perhaps through counselling, and that can be a good thing as well.

Trouble is, we often focus on our physical health, and possibly even our mental health, while ignoring our spiritual health.

As I’m going to talk about on Sunday at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, we can and should pay attention to our spiritual health as we look to a new year.  Just as we can’t ignore our physical or mental health, we can’t ignore our spiritual health, either.  In many respects, as Pete Scazzero says, our emotional health is tied to our spiritual health.

How can we work on our spiritual health, which affects the rest of who we are as people?

The best way is to understand our spiritual health as a relationship with God, and then to handle that relationship the way we would handle growing any relationship:  time spent together, and conversation.

We spend time with the Lord by sitting still (or even going for a walk) intentionally in his presence.  Being mindful that the Lord is with us whatever we do, wherever we go, has an impact on our spiritual health.

As for the conversation, we can talk with God in prayer, about anything and everything; after all, he already knows what’s going on in our lives, and like any parent, he delights in hearing us talk about our lives.

But that’s only a one-sided conversation.  

We hear God speak to us through his Word.  Read your Bible every day.  Listen for God to speak to you as you read the ancient truths of Scripture.  

Create a reading plan for yourself, or borrow one from any number of online sources.  Each day’s passage doesn’t have to be lengthy.  In fact, I am not an advocate for the “Bible in a year” plans; forcing yourself to get through such a lengthy volume in a year, while entirely attainable, may leave you rushing through a passage, “just to get it done”, when perhaps the Lord wants you to sit on it for a bit.  There have been times when the Lord has left me on the same passage for multiple days at a time so that I can absorb the richness of what he is telling me.  Do have a Bible reading plan, but hold it loosely; it may need to spill into the next year.

As you read, be sure to allow silence, giving space to God to speak into your heart as you read his Word.

Of course, there are other spiritual disciplines that you can practise, too, and I’ve written about them before.  But Scripture and prayer are the two most important.

This Sunday brings a new year, and it can bring a new you:  when you consider your health, don’t ignore your physical and mental health, but also keep in mind your spiritual health; eternity is a long time, and you’ll want to be in practice for eternity.

[A]nyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun” (2 Corinthians 5.17, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

God is with us…are we with God?

My preaching series this Advent season has centred around this pivotal verse from the Bible:

Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
    She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel, 
    which means ‘God is with us.’

(Matthew 1.23, NLT)

And as the season of Advent wraps up with our celebrations on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we do well to be reminded that in the birth of Jesus, we know that God really is with us.

The question that remains is this:  are we with God?

Often, in English parlance, when we say that someone is “with God”, that usually means the person is dead.  You know, “Great Aunt Hortense is with God” is a spiritualized equivalent of the idiom, “She’s pushin’ up daisies.”  She’s deceased.  She ain’t comin’ down for breakfast.

But I’d like us to think of being “with God” in a different light.

We take great comfort in the belief that in Christ, God became human and really is with us.  With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God lives in and through all followers of Jesus.

The challenge comes in our response:  God is with us, but are we with him?

We can give nodding acceptance to the notion that God is with us in Christ.  We like it; it’s like a warm blanket.

But if we do nothing about it, is it really all that comforting?

If we’re honest, most church-going people are quite content to think about this in a very universal way:  “God with us” means “God with everybody”, which in turn means “Everybody’s going to heaven.”  Trouble is, Scripture is pretty clear that this is not the case.

Yes, Jesus came for all.  “God so loved the world,” said Jesus in the famous John 3.16.

But Jesus’ coming really only matters for those who respond:  “…that everyone who believes in him will not die but have eternal life” – that’s how the famous verse concludes.  Everyone who believes in him.  

And those who believe in him do so in practical ways, starting with active faith:  “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved” (Romans 10.9-10, NLT).

God is with us in Jesus; that’s what Christmas is all about.  It is through active faith that we are with God.

So when you attend Christmas services, come with faith.  Come with your heart; that’s what Jesus really wants.  He came so that we could be with God.

(If you’re looking for Christmas worship opportunities, you’re welcome at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton on Christmas Eve at 7:00 p.m. and on Christmas Day at 10:00 a.m.

Merry Christmas!  God is with us…let’s make sure, by faith, we are with God.

Encouragement From The Word

Verify Your Identity

The weeks leading up to Christmas are busy for most everybody, whether it’s preparing extra services (hello, preachers!) or going to celebratory gatherings or buying the right gifts for people we love.

And in the retail world, especially online, it’s a busy time for fraudsters.  We know of this personally in our house.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife’s Amazon account became inaccessible.  It turns out that someone had successfully guessed her password, turned on two-factor authentication to his or her phone, and then made some fairly big purchases.  We only found this out when we called the credit card company to cancel the card and re-issue it; the outstanding balance on the card was A LOT higher than we ever keep it.

After several days and several calls, the issue seems to be resolved with both Amazon and the credit card company, but the challenge my wife had with this whole ordeal was being able to verify her identity – something that we always have to do when dealing on the phone with any number of organizations.

Whether it’s through passwords or verification texts or multi-digit codes or one’s mother’s maiden name or what-have-you, the ways in which we must verify who we are can be confusing, as necessary as these things are (and, in the end, they’re not always tamper-proof).  Isn’t it good to know, then, that there is one iron-clad aspect to our identity that can’t be messed with?

For followers of Jesus, that’s our identity in Christ.

Identity has become a big buzzword nowadays, not just in terms of commerce, but in terms of nationality, sexuality, pronouns, vocation, and countless other things.  It can be quite confusing, especially for those who are particular about it.  But for people of The Way, for Christians, there is only one aspect of identity that really counts:  we belong to Jesus.

And the really good news is that this identity cannot be stolen from us.  It is given by the Father, and he will not take it away.

If there is any two-factor authentication for our identity in Christ, it’s in how we live.

We don’t engage in good works to earn our identity in Christ; that’s given to us.  It’s all grace.   But we can prove our identity in Christ by what we do.

Whether it’s offering a kind word to the person who serves you coffee, or shovelling a neighbour’s driveway, or inviting a lonely friend for a meal – the possibilities are endless – we prove our identity as followers of Jesus by what we do, by how we live.

So make sure you have two-factor authentication turned on so you can verify your identity as one who belongs to Jesus.

[L]et your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5.16b, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Follow your heart?

“Follow your heart.”  It’s advice we read everywhere, especially on social media, usually accompanied by several sappy emojis.

One would think that its popularity suggests it is a universal truth – and some people think it is just that.

But, honestly, I think that’s why the world is in the ethical pickle it’s in today.

Okay, truth be told, the other extreme isn’t always better, is it?  “Follow your brain.”  While this has a certain appeal to many, when we do what is logical without regard for its impact on others, that can be scary, too.

When I work with people in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, I often have to deal with questions surrounding the Thinking-Feeling continuum.  Yes, thinkers feel, and feelers think; it’s just that for each, one is more reflexive, preferred over the other.  (This is why working in teams is both very beneficial and sometimes challenging.)

So what’s so wrong with following one’s heart, then, if feelings are legitimate and important?  Well, I don’t think I could put it any more clearly than did the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah:

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
    and desperately wicked.
    Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17.9, NLT).

The heart was seen in those days not as the seat of emotion (that was the bowels, if you can believe it!), but the seat of one’s life and strength.  To talk about the heart in the Bible was to talk about the soul, the spirit.

And here’s Jeremiah, pouring rain on our parade.  But he’s right.  The Bible illustrates for us time and again just how untrustworthy our hearts can be.  Heck, the news illustrates for us time and again just how untrustworthy our hearts can be.

Should we trust only our minds, then?  All parts of us are under the curse of sin.  But our redeemed hearts and our redeemed minds, in tandem, can be powerful tools for doing the work of God’s Kingdom in the world.  

The trick is to ensure they are redeemed – not just once, but daily!  When we invite the Lord to pour out his Holy Spirit upon us as each day begins, we engage in an ongoing conversion of our lives.  And that prevents our hearts from becoming the “idol factories” that theologian John Calvin wrote about so many years ago.

So don’t focus on whether or not to follow your heart, or your mind.  Follow Jesus, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.  That’s what will make all the difference.

Encouragement From The Word

Jesus is not part of the story of Christmas…

We are just completing the first week of the season of Advent.  Advent is a word that means “coming”, and is a four-week time of preparation for the birth of Jesus.  

Among all the traditional Christian ‘seasons’, it was the last to be adopted (even though it’s the first in the Christian calendar).  And originally, like Lent, it was a season of penitence, where people often engaged in physical deprivation as part of their spiritual preparation for the birth of the Saviour.

Nowadays, even the church has transformed Advent into a season of anticipation and joy, perhaps in an attempt to keep up with the secular season of “Christmas” that begins at various times, depending on what store you’re visiting.  (In Costco, it tends to be late September; in some other places, after Hallowe’en; and in others, after Remembrance Day.  The retail side of Christmas still beats out Advent every time, chronologically.

Happily, though, the church has not transformed the season into complete compliance with the world; secularism can have its mountains of presents, but the church still has the greatest gift of all to offer in Jesus Christ.  After all, he is what Christmas is all about.  I saw an unusual post on social media the other day that illustrated this.  It was what I would call an “Orthodox meme”:  it was a meme, in the sense that it was an image that had text around it; and it was Orthodox, in that the image that was at the centre of the meme was an eastern Orthodox icon, depicting the incarnation!  Its message was this:

Jesus is not part of the story of Christmas.
Christmas is part of the story of Jesus.

Whatever you do to celebrate this season of preparation and celebration leading up to the nativity, put Jesus at the centre of it.  He’s not just part of the story of Christmas; Christmas is part of the story of Jesus.

Central to our anticipation of his birth is this truth, prophesied in the Old Testament and proclaimed in the New:  

Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
    She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel, 
    which means ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1.23, NLT).

No matter what you are going through – and this is a tough season for many – God is with us in Jesus Christ.  That’s what it’s all about.

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).