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Encouragement From The Word

Reading for Formation

This Sunday at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, I am beginning a series called, “How Do I…?” in which I will spend some time on practical tips for some of the basic disciplines of following Jesus that not everybody fully grasps.  This week, the discipline is prayer.’

One of the points I’ll make is that prayer is not only talking to God, but listening to God as well.  The primary way we hear from God is from his Word, the Bible.  We can read the Bible for information – to learn something – or for formation – to be shaped in the image of Jesus.  Each is valuable, and each has its place.  But too often, we focus on reading the Bible for information; rarely do we read the Bible to be formed.

An example of reading the Bible for formation comes in the ancient practice of holy reading, what the ancients called lectio divina.  It’s a practice whereby we read a short passage of Scripture four times, with each time having an emphasis:

Read:  what word or phrase stands out for you?

Reflect:  how does the passage impact you?

Respond:  talk to God about your reaction.

Rest:  embrace God’s thoughts for you as a result of your experience.

Let me suggest that you try that for a few moments, using the passage below.  Let the Lord speak; don’t worry about the meaning of any part of the passage in this exercise.  See if God has a word for you in this part of the Bible.

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”  (Matthew 5.14-16, NLT)

Read.  Reflect.  Respond.  Rest.

God is in charge.

Biblical Messages

The Powers That Be

In this worship gathering, we hear a message from Revelation 13.1-10 that illustrates how the apostle John shared his vision with the early church, illuminating the Roman Empire for what it was – an ugly beast. We apply the passage to our own situation as we learn to discern what really constitutes persecution. You can watch the whole gathering below, or just the message below that.

Encouragement From The Word

We are the church, together!

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a treasured colleague.  Though he was a good age, it was still difficult for his family and his friends.  His daughter-in-law read a letter from friends who could not be present.  His son shared about him in a loving way, and another colleague, who took the service, spoke warmly as well.  But if that was all there had been, it would have felt like something was missing:  fellowship.

I was grateful that there was an opportunity for fellowship after the service was over.  Throughout most of the last two and a half years, the fellowship component to funerals has been missing because of concerns over the pandemic.

But I’m glad it was back for this gathering, because there were people who are dear to me with whom I wanted to be able to express personal condolences and have a conversation.  I know from experience that in many ways, as important as the service itself is, the opportunity to share grief in community makes a significant contribution to the healing process.  

Likewise, community is strengthened when there is an opportunity to share table fellowship.  Last Sunday, our congregation had its first pot luck lunch in almost 3 years, and it was wonderful.  Twice as many people stayed as had actually signed up to stay, which was great – there was plenty to eat – but it was a sign that people hunger for fellowship.

Since March 2020, when the world shut down, fellowship has been hard to come by.  For a while, of course, people stayed apart on the advice of officials who were still trying to figure out the unknown communicability of COVID-19.  But, thanks mostly to the media, that caution became an abject fear in some people that has continued to this day.

And, as a result, they are losing out on one of the most wonderful things about being human:  community.

This is especially true for followers of Jesus, because Christianity is definitely a team sport.  We can’t go it alone; we need each other.

So be cautious, yes, but don’t deprive yourself of the fellowship you need to keep your faith strong.  Christian, you are the church!  We are the church, together!

And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Hebrews 10.25, NLT).

Biblical Messages

Strategic Withdrawal

In this worship gathering, we hear a message from Revelation 12 that helps us understand the cryptic nature of John’s vision of the dragon and the pregnant woman – and how we shouldn’t read contemporary ideas into an ancient text. The story parallels the exodus from the Old Testament, and we look at the importance of retreat as part of our defence against the devil. You can watch the message below, or the whole worship gathering below that.

Encouragement From The Word

The value of retreat

This Sunday at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, I will be talking about the value of retreat as part of the message (something one might find surprising to pull from Revelation 12!).  I thought I’d take a minute to say a bit more about its importance.

Followers of Jesus, like everybody else in this world, are bombarded by noise.  Often, we think of ‘noise’ as an unpleasant sound, like fingernails on a chalkboard, or that sound that grabs our attention when an amber alert shows up on the television.  But in this case, I’m referring to ‘noise’ as any sound – even a pleasant sound – that keeps us from hearing from God.

We love the sound of our preferred music.  We love the sounds of the voices of people we love.  We might even love the sound of the hustle and bustle of the city.  And it all has its place – but it can all serve like earplugs, keeping us from hearing God’s voice.

That’s why retreat is such an important part of the Christian life.

Lots of churches go away on retreat, taking time away from the normal environment for fellowship and teaching.  But not very often do those times include silence and solitude.

Those retreats end up just changing up the noise.  Don’t get me wrong:  it’s probably good noise!  But I maintain that time apart, in quiet, is important for balancing our relationship with the Lord.

Many times, in the Bible, we see stories of people who set themselves apart from the crowd, and the noise, to be with the Lord:  think of Moses, Elijah, even Jesus (who was, after all, already God!).  Yet, in our high-demand, high-energy world, we don’t usually make time to be apart from the crowd.  And when we do, we usually fill that time alone with sound – even good sound, like edifying music or podcasts or TV shows.

Here’s a challenge for you:  block out some time in your schedule to go away somewhere, with no agenda but to be with God.  Turn off your phone, and be somewhere as quiet as you can find.  It needn’t be far from home; I recommend that it not be at home, simply because the environment is so familiar, and the temptation exists to do something.

If that sounds daunting, start with 5 minutes.  Go into your bedroom, perhaps read a verse from Scripture that you love, and just sit with the Lord.  Some will find this difficult.  Others will find it exhilarating.  But try it.  And when you have success with 5 minutes, start ramping it up, until you are ready to go away for a weekend or a week with a goal of simply being with the Lord.

I call it “strategic withdrawal”.  And you might be amazed at the difference it makes in your life.

Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19.11-13, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Duct cleaning prep

Maybe you know someone who pays an individual to do their house cleaning.  Almost everyone I know who has a house cleaner actually cleans house before the house cleaner arrives.  I suppose one must pick up certain bits of clutter, but otherwise, I’ve never quite understood why people clean house, and then pay people to clean house for them.

Yesterday, I had the ducts cleaned in our house.  (No, I didn’t succumb to one of those robocalls with someone from south Asia, representing heaven-knows-who.)  It was just time to get the job done.

But, like many people with their house cleaners, I found myself preparing for the visit by cleaning house.  We dusted and vacuumed in areas where we don’t always remember to dust and vacuum.

Why?


Because, I reasoned, if we’re going to have clean ducts, why would we want the cold air returns sucking in the dust and dirt and hair we had not cleaned off the floors?  It would negate the whole purpose of getting the ducts cleaned.

This got me thinking:  in some ways, coming to worship with God’s people is a bit like getting your spiritual ducts cleaned.  And there’s value in being prepared for it.

Do you prepare for worship?

I don’t just mean by getting to church five minutes early so you can catch your breath before the gathering begins.  

You can prepare for worship even the night before, by setting out your clothes (and maybe those for other members of the family, if they need help in that department), having Sunday’s dinner ready to go – things like that.

But you can also prepare your heart.

While time in silence and solitude, meditating on God’s Word, is a good practice for every day of the week, it might be especially helpful on Saturday evening as you prepare for worship with the church on Sunday.  It can quicken your heart to be ready for God to speak to you.  It can ready your soul to open up in praise of the Lord who made you, who redeemed you in Christ, and who sustains you every day by his grace in the Holy Spirit.

It is the dusting and cleaning you do before you get your spiritual ducts cleaned.  And it can make all the difference.  Give it a try tomorrow night before you go to bed!

Worship the Lord in all his holy splendour” (Psalm 96.9a, NLT).

Biblical Messages

Safe and secure

In this worship gathering, we hear a message from Revelation 11 that helps us understand that God’s faithful people are kept safe by him, have power, and will win the final victory despite suffering. You can watch the whole worship gathering below, or just the message below that. We apologize that there are no song lyrics this week; our projection program was not working properly. Message slides were added in post-production.

Encouragement From The Word

Choose life.

Earlier this week, we received the horrific news of a school shooting in Texas.  The school was for 7- to 10-year-olds.  Nineteen children and two adults were killed, and many others were wounded.  This was the 27th school shooting in the United States this year.

The shooter was just 18 years old.

He is also suspected of killing his grandmother before the rampage began.

To be sure, the young man must have been deeply, deeply troubled.

Many people think that guns are to blame for such events.  And while American culture is fond of its second amendment right to bear arms, rarely are these tragedies caused by law-abiding, legal firearms owners.

The problem is that our society has been taught not to value human life.

Of course, the deeper problem is that of innate human sinfulness, something that society at large, and sometimes even the church, fails to acknowledge and deal with.

But the lack of respect for human life is the main symptom of sinfulness that rears its ugly head in situations like this, and countless others – and they don’t all involve weapons.

Parents, school curricula, even churches fail to stand up for the innate value that each human being, from conception, has in the eyes of God – and should, therefore, have in our own eyes.

But between an emphasis on rights over responsibilities, and profits over people, western society continues to collapse before us.  (Honestly, the rest of the world is not much better off in that regard; the war in Ukraine is a good example.)

Please join me in praying for the grieving families of the deceased in the Texas shooting, and for parents, teachers, educational bureaucrats, and churches, that we will see how important it is choose life when there is so much violence going around.  Maybe if we can get people to think more properly about life, we can get people to act respectfully toward life.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life” (Deuteronomy 30.19-20a, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

A special day looms…

One of the most often overlooked days in the entire Christian year is sneaking up on us.  It happens next Thursday.  But unless you live in a land that treats it as a public holiday – there are still a few that do – it might slip under your radar. Yet, without the event marked by this day, the church could not have come into being as it did.

I’m talking about Ascension Day.

It often sneaks under the radar of most followers of Jesus because it always falls on a Thursday.  Some churches celebrate it the Sunday before or the Sunday after, but Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday.  Why?  Because it happened 40 days after the resurrection of Jesus, and when you add 40 days to a Sunday in the spring, you’re always going to land on a Thursday.

But what was “it”?

It’s the day Jesus ascended into heaven.

Why does it matter?

Well, among many other things, had Jesus not ascended into heaven, the promised Holy Spirit would not have come.  And the church as we know it would not have been born.

Ascension Day is a good day to celebrate!  It’s the day when Jesus gave his Great Commission.  And as the disciples followed that Great Commission, ten days later, the Holy Spirit fell on the believers at Pentecost, and the church came into being, spreading across the world, over time, into the vessel of God that brings the gospel to the nations.

The Bible doesn’t tell us a great deal about what happened in those 40 days between the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus.  But it surely involved much preparation for the disciples to be ready to venture forth on their own, with the promised Holy Spirit’s guidance, to build the Kingdom of God.

When the ascension happened, it inaugurated a new era – an era in which we still participate today.  

So next Thursday, give a wink and a nod – or more! – to the celebration of Jesus’ ascension, and give thanks for his providential care.

So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”

He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.  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.”

After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him.  As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”

                                                                              – Acts 1.6-11, NLT

Biblical Messages

Final Boarding Call

It was an interesting morning…we had no electricity in the whole town due to a car that decided to take out a power pole. Without sufficient cellular signal to live-stream worship, we simply recorded the service on a phone, and what you have here is the edited result. We hauled out hymn books and sang some traditional songs that gave us words to unite our voices in praise, despite the lack of power to project words on a screen. In this worship gathering, we hear a message based on Revelation 9 that helps us understand the importance of sharing faith with people who don’t know Jesus, and our fuel, our impetus, is found in the sad judgment that we see in Revelation 9. You can watch the whole worship gathering below, or just the message below that.

Encouragement From The Word

Friday the 13th!!

Since it’s Friday the 13th, I thought I’d share a reprise of an Encouragement from a similar day several years ago.  In light of the culture of fear in which we live today, perhaps this is more timely than ever!  — JFL

 Well, we’ve arrived at our first Friday The Thirteenth of 2015. (Since this is not a leap year, you can expect another in March. We won’t see another until November.) Some in western culture do see it as an “unlucky” day (as if there really were such a thing as luck, but that’s a topic for another day!). The fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskevidekatriaphobia. I don’t know if anyone seriously fears these days anymore; most of the time, what I see on social media just laughs them off.

But one thing is for certain:  human beings do have fears.  It’s part of who we are as those who live in the time after the fall of humanity.  And it’s amazing what we will do, sometimes, to compensate for our fears.

People who are afraid of heights, for example, will normally try to steer clear of places where they fear they may fall a great distance, such as roofs, balconies, or mountaintops.  People who are afraid of dogs will try to stay away from homes where dogs may be kept as pets, or from pounds, kennels or veterinary clinics.

Some fears, though, can’t be compensated for.  They must be faced.

One might be afraid of public speaking; I think I read that this is the commonest of all fears.  And while some people may be able to escape it their whole lives, others must speak publicly, whether for their employment or to voice a conviction or to laud someone at a retirement banquet or a funeral.  Sometimes, upon conquering the fear once, it is discovered that it can be conquered again.  Soon enough, the individual realizes that the fear wasn’t all that rational after all.

Followers of Jesus, like everyone else, experience fear.  But we have an additional source that can encourage us to face our fears.  King David, who had his share of enemies during his life, proclaimed, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27.1, NIV).  It would have been easy for David to run into the Judean hills and hide from his enemies, but he stood fast because the Lord was with him.

Whatever fears you may face, the Lord will be with you, too.  Why not make Friday the 13th an occasion to rejoice in the Lord, who has the power to take away our fears?

Encouragement From The Word

Routine maintenance

Twice a year, on my day off, I undertake a task I never look forward to, but I do it anyway.

I change the tires on my car and my wife’s car.

In November, I put on the winter tires, and in April (or, in this case, May 2), I take those off and put on the so-called “all season” tires.

You might be thinking, Jeff, if you don’t enjoy it, why don’t you just hire it out?

Well, I used to do that, back when I was only changing the tires on my wife’s car.  But my insurer now requires that I do so with my vehicle as well.  The hassle and cost of having this job done at a garage left me thinking, Why don’t I just do it myself?

My dad taught me the basics of tire changes when I was young, so I started doing it myself.  The first time, it took me most of a day.  Why?  Because I lacked adequate equipment for the task.

I’d use the scissor jack to lift each wheel, take the lug nuts off with a ratchet, change the tire, and put the lug nuts back on with the ratchet, lower the jack, and tighten them more fully.  I’d repeat this process seven more times (for two vehicles).

Needless to say, my out-of-shape body was feeling it by the time that task was done!

Each time I’d do it, however, the process got quicker; this past Monday, I accomplished the task in less than 2 hours.  Why?  Because I had better equipment and more experience.

This involved two investments:  an investment in tools, and an investment of time.

While I’ll never be able to accomplish the task as fast as a garage mechanic could, I now have a good rolling floor jack, an air compressor, an air tool for the lug nuts, and a modest torque wrench.  And each time I do the job, I find ways to be more efficient.

Growing as a disciple of Jesus is not much different, is it?

By investing in tools and time, our walk with God improves.  It’s not that we want to make it more efficient – our spiritual formation is a life-long process, after all – but as we become more spiritually mature, our life as disciples of Jesus does take on a different character.

Tools such as a good study Bible and some solid theological literature can go a long way toward impelling forward our faith journey.  And the investment of time, through worshipping in community, belonging to a small group, and engaging in personal devotion on our own will advance our maturity in Christ.

In other words, being a follower of Jesus is not just something that we do for an hour on Sunday.  It’s a 24-7-365 venture.  And the results are so worth it.

If you don’t have a good study Bible, a church family, or a small group to which to belong, let me know…I can make recommendations for you.  It’s an investment with eternal dividends.

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4.11-13, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Ya gotta have faith!

One of the latest investment trends is the NFT, which stands for non-fungible token.  (If you’re like me, you want to know what “fungible” means, too:  it means “mutually interchangeable”.)  In other words, these items are not mutually interchangeable, but they can be owned.

The thing is, these items don’t actually exist.  They’re not actually things.

You can own them, you can buy them, you can sell them – but they are digital; they’re not real.  And NFTs can be anything from a piece of digital art to a picture of a non-existent cigar, and everything in between.  I don’t understand either the concept or the craze, but it’s a thing (about non-things) these days.

It seems to me that dabbling in NFTs (or cryptocurrency, for that matter, which is another booming trend) takes a lot of faith.

It takes faith in the person who creates (and sells) the NFT.  It takes faith on the part of the person who might then buy it from you.  You have to believe that this non-existent thing actually exists, by mutual understanding.

I suppose, in one sense, it’s a bit like trading stocks. As long as everybody’s on the same page about the value, and your ability to be able to convert that to hard currency, I can understand the allure.

But it still takes a lot of faith.

This is why I am puzzled when people are unwilling to place their faith in God.  For eons, the Hebrew people placed their faith in a God whom they could not (and would not) see.  When God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, aspects of God became visible.  He taught as one with authority.  He performed mighty and inexplicable miracles.  Yet many people refused to believe.

Even with hard evidence in the person of Jesus, and in his mighty acts, people would not believe.

I think if I were into the NFT and cryptocurrency trend, I would want to be a person of faith in God.  After all, there’s a lot more hard evidence for the good news of his love for us in Jesus than for the value of a digital image!

We have consistent records of the value of faith in the Lord.  Trust in him today!

And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11.6, NLT).

Biblical Messages

The Covenant of Grace: Why Infant Baptism is Biblical

Do you ever wonder if it is biblical to baptize children? In the Reformed tradition, we don’t believe it saves the child, but we do believe it places the child on the path toward profession of faith in Jesus, which does bring salvation. It’s based on Genesis 15, Genesis 17, Colossians 2 and Acts 2. You can watch the whole worship gathering below, or just the message below that.

Encouragement From The Word

Action, in the afterglow of Easter

We have been through Holy Week, witnessing Jesus sharing the last supper with his disciples, humbly washing their feet, subtly being betrayed, helplessly hanging on the cross.  We have waited through those long hours in anticipation of finding the tomb empty.  And it was empty!  Jesus was raised from the dead!

In the afterglow of Easter, though, the party might be over, but the work is not done.

Churches that follow lectionaries for their preaching often spend time in the season of Easter – the Great Fifty Days between the resurrection and Pentecost – studying the book of Acts.  Theologian J.B. Phillips, when translating the New Testament for ease of reading in the 1960s, called it “The Young Church in Action”. 

It’s an accurate title for the book of Acts, because that was the early church’s response to the resurrection of Jesus:  action.

And it should be the response of the church of today, too.

If we remain content to give mere mental assent to the resurrection of Jesus, but then do nothing with it, our faith doesn’t mean much, does it?  Just ‘pie in the sky when you die’.

But Jesus’ victory over death calls us to action, and specifically to grow the church.

Granted, that’s a tough task these days, with secularization on the rise, and sundry scandals among church leaders dotting the news.  In the midst of all that, though, Jesus is alive, and he longs to build his church.

Despite society’s best efforts, the church of Jesus will never die.  If you read statistics, you might not believe that, but maybe you’ll believe Jesus when he said to his disciples that on the bedrock of their faith, “I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16.18b, NLT).

The church is, literally, unstoppable.

If you’re in leadership, you’re probably tired right now.  (Join the club!)

If you’re not in leadership, pray for your leaders.  They’ve been praying for you!

Pray that all of us, together, will be the church in action, responding to the grace of God at work in the resurrection of Jesus in this season of such growth potential.

The risen Lord Jesus has not given up on the church, so why should we?

Two thousand years on, we are still called to be the young church in action.