Encouragement From The Word

Advent: anticipating something wonderful

I was recently asked by a friend, “How do you celebrate Advent?  I mean, we know how the story’s going to end already! How can you anticipate something that you know is going to happen?”

It’s a good question.  The answer that came immediately to mind was an analogy from my childhood.

It was the autumn of 1978.  I would turn 11 before the end of that year.  The crispness of the season was in the air, and the leaves were changing colour.  The brilliant red of the maples was especially resplendent that year.  And Dad decided it was time to buy a new truck.

He knew I liked to drive; he’d had me on his lap, steering, on back roads since I was about 4.  (We have differing views of what made us end up in the ditch one time!)  So I got to participate in the truck-buying process.

Dad knew what he wanted:  a 1979 F-100 standard cab, 351 engine (which was a bit of a lemon, as it turned out!), and a 4-speed overdrive standard transmission.  And I was good with all that; after all, I didn’t have a clue what most of it meant!  But at nearly 11 years old, I knew my colours pretty well.  So it was up to me, said Dad, to pick the colour.

Ford had a number of colour choices even then, which probably left Henry “You can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black” Ford rolling over in his grave.

My choice was obvious:  Candy Apple Red.

I still wonder if Dad thought that was a bit too sporty for him (I really should ask him!), but he went along with it.  The papers were signed, the deposit handed over, and then we waited.

See, this truck had to be built; it wasn’t sitting on the lot.  So there was a bit of a wait, a time of anticipation.  We knew it was coming, and we even had a date – but there was a time of waiting that just built the anticipation of having a new truck.

I remember when the truck was delivered.  I walked down to the dealership to get a sneak-peak at it, but it was covered in snow from the previous night’s storm!  Still, when Dad and I went to pick it up, I remember beholding the beauty of that Candy Apple Red pickup.  (Every time I smell Ziebart® rustproofing, I still think of the first time I got into that truck.)

Dad kept that truck for several years.  I learned to drive in it, though, thankfully, I didn’t have to take my road test in it (which is another story altogether).  But even today, every time I see a Ford pickup in any shade even close to Candy Apple Red, I am taken back to the months preceding my 11th birthday, and filled with anticipation all over again.

Let Advent be that for you:  a time of anticipation for something wonderful that you know is coming…the birth of the Saviour of the world!

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us” (Isaiah 9.6a, NLT).

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Encouragement From The Word

Drop everything…

In branches of the church that mark saints’ days, today is known as St. Andrew’s Day. 2000px-Flag_of_Scotland.svg(Even some Presbyterians, not necessarily known for their veneration of saints, will celebrate November 30 because Andrew is the patron saint of, among other things, Scotland.  Because of this, there are hundreds of Presbyterian churches in Canada called “St. Andrew’s.”)

While I’m not one for giving any one Christ-follower a higher ranking than another (the Bible says that all followers of Jesus are saints, by grace), I’ve long believed that recognizing saints’ days gives us the opportunity to learn about great men and women of faith and how they served God devotedly, often in very hard times.  So let’s take a look at Andrew.

Andrew was not, contrary to some assumptions, born in Scotland!  He was a Galilean Jew, the very first disciple Jesus called (along with his brother, Simon Peter).  He was a common fisherman, likely coming from Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  (By the way, you can visit that, and many other sites in the Holy Land, this coming February with my wife and me – click hereto learn more about our Israel pilgrimage.  We’d love to have you come!)

When Jesus called Andrew and Peter to follow him, he said, “I will show you how to fish for people” (Matthew 4.19b, NLT).  And how did they respond?  Matthew records that “they left their nets at once and followed him” (Matthew 4.20, NLT).

Andrew was called by Jesus, and he immediately walked away from his livelihood to follow.

That doesn’t mean, when Jesus calls out to you, that he’s necessarily calling you into vocational ministry (though that may be true for some).  But Andrew’s model for us is to attune our hearts to listen for the voice of Jesus, and to follow what he says.  In our time, of course, this primarily happens through our reading of Scripture, wherein God speaks to his people.  It can also happen through prayer, which, after all, is not just talking to God, but listening to God as well.

So on this St. Andrew’s Day, let me encourage you to emulate that first disciple, and respond to the call of Jesus, whatever you’re doing.

Stay on the path that the Lord your God has commanded you to follow. Then you will live long and prosperous lives in the land…” (Deuteronomy 5.33, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Two-way mentoring

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of spending part of my day with a young man from our congregation.  It was “take your kid to work day”, and since this particular young man understood his parents’ work, he asked them if he could spend some time with me.

Of course, I readily agreed!

Since no two days of my ministry are alike, I wasn’t sure exactly what we would do, but I invited him to help me with a number of regular activities in the study, and we made a ‘road trip’ to the Canadian Bible Society to pick up a Bible my wife and I want to give to an acquaintance.  So I showed him the vast range of English and non-English Bibles available for purchase and distribution.  We had lunch, and on the way home we stopped at Tyndale University College & Seminary to see the chapel and the bookstore, where my wife works.

Amid all the activities we undertook from the time I picked him up until I took him home, we chatted about a vast array of matters, including how faith impacts his life as a Grade 9 student.  He may have learned a little from me, but I learned a lot from him.

While I may have spent the day mentoring my young friend, he also spoke into my life as a Christian leader.

It leads me to ask you:  are you engaged in relationships with people younger than you including (but by no means limited to) your own children?

There is mutual learning that can come from that. The young person understands that you care, in a tangible way, because you are giving him or her the gift of time and wisdom.  And you learn from the young person because you get to view life and faith from a very different perspective.

You might think to yourself that you were young once, and that’s certainly true; but the cultural context in which you and I were young is vastly different from the culture in which today’s youth live.  And if you’re like me, you don’t often immerse yourself in youth culture today. We need to learn from our young people what life is like for them if we’re going to help equip them, and their parents, for effective Christian living in the current cultural context.

So spend some time praying about whom you might come alongside.  Offer that young person your faith and wisdom.  And listen to that young person’s story to learn what contemporary culture is really like.

It doesn’t mean that you or the younger person have to change your views on matters of theology, but the dialogue will enrich you both.

The dialogue I shared with my young friend certainly enriched me.  Give it a try!

We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other” (Romans 12.5, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word will return on November 30.

Encouragement From The Word

No Greater Love

This Sunday marks the 100thanniversary since the declaration of the armistice, ending poppythe First World War.  It was deemed “the war to end all wars”, yet it certainly did not turn out to be so.  Along with one other significant global conflict, there have been regional, local, and various civil wars that have taken place around the world since that celebratory day in Compiègne, France, on November 11, 1918.

Remembrance Day, as we call it in Canada, is one of those days in the year where church and state comingle in an interesting yet often awkward way.  As Canada has grown more pluralistic, the presence of Christian clergy has been augmented by the presence of other religious leaders, and has often been diminished by restrictions placed on how pastors can speak at some Remembrance Day ceremonies.

The Scripture most often cited around Remembrance Day comes from Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 15.13:  “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NLT).  Unfortunately, when it’s not given context, one can conclude that this was a passage about the valiance of war.  And while it is true that the valiant sacrifices made by those who laid down their lives in the cause of world peace and democracy are significant and not to be forgotten, this was not the context in which Jesus said those words.

Jesus was not talking about brave soldiers.  He was talking about himself.

John 15.13 isn’t about a war between nations; it’s about a war between humanity and God.

Sin separates us from God, and puts us at war with our Creator.  But Jesus came to pay the price for our sin, and make us right with God once again.  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul said, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations” (Ephesians 2.14-15a, NIV).

There will always be wars on earth, until Jesus comes again, or until the whole world knows his peace.  So let’s all commit to sharing Jesus’ peace with others, humbly and winsomely, so that war will be a thing of the past – between people and people, yes, and between people and God.

Let Remembrance Day be a reminder of our need for peace of all sorts, especially “God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand” (Philippians 4.7a, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

What’s wrong with the world?

From time to time, when the bad news seriously outweighs the good, we are tempted to throw our arms in the air and exclaim, “What’s wrong with the world?”

This is nothing new, for many years ago, a correspondent of the Times of London was researching and reporting on many of the challenges of society – many of them similar to today’s – and would end every piece he wrote with that same statement:  “What’s wrong with the world?”

The renowned English writer, G.K. Chesterton, once wrote a reply to that correspondent which has become one of the things for which he is best known. He wrote,

Dear Editor:

What’s wrong with the world?

I am.

Faithfully yours,

G.K. Chesterton.

If we want to know what’s wrong with the world, we can start with some self-reflection. That’s why I commend to all followers of Jesus the ancient practice of the examen – examining our conscience (for sin) and our consciousness (of God’s presence in our lives) every day.  Consider concluding your day with a time with the Lord in which you review your day to see where God seemed most distant and most near to you.  Respond to where God leads you in that time with your own resolve to seek the Holy Spirit’s help in not being what’s wrong with the world.

Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7.20, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Remembering a mentor I never met

Eugene Peterson – follower of Jesus, pastor, author, Bible translator – died this past Monday.  He was a mentor to me.

But I never met him in person.

How can someone mentor another person without actually meeting face to face?

Peterson did it with me through his writings.  I was introduced to his books early on in my seminary training, and once I’d read one, I couldn’t read enough.  When his memoirs were published, entitled The Pastor, I felt like I knew him well, to the point that I actually wrote him a letter of thanks in response to reading his memoirs.  I have no idea whether he got it, given that I had nothing more to put on the envelope than his name and the Montana town near which he lived, but it wasn’t returned to me, so I’m hopeful that he received it.

It’s valuable for all followers of Jesus to have mentors, and it’s certainly ideal for those mentoring relationships to be ‘live’ and face to face.  But we can be mentored passively by people we’ve never met simply by reading their writings.

What giants in the faith have mentored you, either in person or through their writings? Among passive mentors, Peterson’s at the top of my list, and I’m comforted in knowing that he has now received his eternal reward with Jesus, whom Peterson described this way in John 1.14 (The Message):

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.

Encouragement From The Word

Essentially speaking

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

This phrase has shown up in a couple of conversations I’ve had in the past few days, and it has stuck with me.  It is variously attributed:  some say it was Augustine of Hippo, others say it was John Wesley, and still others attribute it to one or another person.

It is a phrase commonly used among Christians, and almost certainly it arose from some sort of theological discussion.  It remains an extremely helpful reminder to us as we look at what it means to be the church in various expressions today, but it has its share of challenges, too.

I think most every sane follower of Jesus can agree that “in all things, charity”, or love, is crucial.  Jesus told us his disciples of old to love one another, and that applies to his disciples today, too.

What, though, is considered “essential”, and what is considered “non-essential”? That’s the tough question this phrase begs.

There will be a lot of answers to this, to be sure.  But followers of Jesus generally can agree on some key essentials, such as a belief in the Triune God: God the Father, made known in his Son Jesus Christ, living in believers today by the Holy Spirit.  Basic stuff.

We can consider essential that Jesus died for our sins, and rose again – bodily – on the third day.

But once you get past these key beliefs, the definition of “essential” starts to vary. And this is why, I think, we will always have denominations.  There will be different branches of the church of Jesus that hold different tenets as essential.

The big challenge comes when a Christian group opts not to define what it considers to be essential.  If a creedal church – one that upholds the ancient creeds of the early church – simply states that the Apostles’ Creed, or the Nicene Creed, is what defines what is essential, is that sufficient?  (After all, even the Nicene Creed has two versions, depending on whether you believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father. A lot of ink was spilled over that one a long time ago.)

The Bible is replete with statements that any church could consider to be essential, core statements of faith.  I don’t think it’s up to each person alone to decide what is essential.  Certainly, as an individual, I can read Scripture and discern what I believe is most important to my faith, but then I am wise to affiliate with a body of believers that holds those tenets as essential.

Whatever those essentials are, they need to be grounded in a simple reading of Scripture, and grounded in the history of the church.   The Holy Spirit still works, to be sure, and the Holy Spirit never contradicts the Word of God.

So ask yourself:  what is essential for your church?  What is essential for you?  And then ask the Holy Spirit living within you to enable you to live in charity – in love – even with those with whom you disagree.

Sometimes, that can be difficult, and sometimes it means keeping fellowship at a distance.  That may be a different definition of unity, but in this day and age, it may be all we have.

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3.13-14, NLT).