Encouragement From The Word

One Iota

There are memes-a-plenty on the Internet around this time of year, especially as we approach December 6, which is the Feast of St. Nicholas – the day when St. Nicholas is celebrated in many churches.  While we have translated St. Nicholas into “Santa Claus” with his trips down the world’s chimneys, leaving of gifts, and eating of sundry snacks left behind by enthusiastic children, the real St. Nicholas did more than give gifts.  He helped keep young women from being enslaved to men, for one thing, and he also was an ardent defender of biblical Christianity.  This is seen in one key way.

He defended the faith against Arianism, the notion that Jesus is subordinate to the Father.  In the early church, when theological issues arose, a council of the church’s greatest leaders was called to debate, discern, and ensure that the church was remaining faithful to the truth as set out in Scripture.  Thus, in Nicholas’ time, with Arianism holding sway over the church, the leadership (in the name of Emperor Constantine) called a council, which met in Nicaea, a place in what is now Turkey.  It was called the Council of Nicaea, and one of the principal doctrines it tackled was the very idea of whether Jesus was subordinate to the Father, or was equal to the Father.

At issue was one little Greek word:  homoousios.  Or was it homoiousios?  That was the question.  The word homoousios means “of the same substance”, while homoiousios means “of a similar substance”.  To make a long story short, the church affirmed that the Son was homoousios with the Father – of the same substance.  Anyone, like the Arians, who believed that the Son was homoiousios – of a similar substance – was deemed heretical and in need of correction.

That’s why, today, we have the English idiom, when two things are the same, that they differ “not by one iota”.  Iota is the Greek letter that we call “i”.  The only difference between doctrinal truth and error, on the issue of the substance of the Son of God, is one iota, between homoousios and homoiousios.

It doesn’t take much to be off significantly in doctrine.  And while this might seem like ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’, it actually is a very important issue for the church, because if Jesus were only of similar substance to the Father, he was not technically God, and therefore could not atone for our sins perfectly.  If Jesus isn’t God, in other words, we’re still dead in our sins.  And that wouldn’t be good news.

It’s amazing what one letter can do.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.  He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation” (Colossians 1.15, NLT).

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Encouragement From The Word

Simple preparation

This weekend brings the beginning of the season of Advent, a time when God’s people prepare themselves – in every way – for the birth of his Son.  It’s what sets us apart from the rest of the world, that spends its time preparing for Christmas by shopping ‘til they drop.

For some, it is a very elaborate preparation:  there are special services, candles to be lit, prayers to be said, both at church and at home.  For others, it is a very simple preparation:  extra time spent in prayer, spiritually and emotionally getting ready to mark what followers of Jesus have been marking for over 2000 years.

This dichotomy is well expressed in one location.  If you’ve never been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, I recommend you go at least once.  Upon arrival, you’ll see a very small door that opens into a large nave, at the front of which are some very elaborate decorations, common to the tradition that regularly worships in that building.  Underneath the front section of that worship space, one descends a small, narrow staircase into a grotto – a cave – where one can touch what is believed to be the very place where the birth of Jesus happened.

There’s a lot of bling on top, but at the very root of Jesus’ birthplace is rock.  Above the elaborate is simplicity.

You can have one, you can have the other, you can even have both – but whether your Advent is simple or elaborate, celebrate.  Get ready.  The birth of Jesus is nothing if not world-changing.  That deserves our attention, and our devotion.

Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
‘Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem,
a firm and tested stone.
It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on.
Whoever believes need never be shaken’
” (Isaiah 28.16, NLT).

 

Encouragement From The Word

Forgiveness

We all make mistakes.  Some days, our blunders are bigger than others, but even on our good days, there are booboos.  We need to deal with them quickly and constructively.

One of the things I help couples understand during marriage preparation is the importance of open communication – owning our own feelings, telling the other person in a constructive way if something is bothersome, or even offensive.  This is true in all our interpersonal relationships, of course, but most people don’t come and talk to me about it unless they’re preparing to get married, when I require them to have the conversation.  I wish it were required for all people at various times in life.  (Maybe if we had a crash course in interpersonal relationships as often as we have to get our licence plate stickers renewed, the world would be less encumbered by conflict!)

If you have been offended – I don’t mean in the trendy way of a new generation, but truly hurt – you have a responsibility to tell the person who hurt you and own up to how you feel.  The other party then has the responsibility to apologize for the offence and to make amends, even if she or he doesn’t think anything was done inappropriately.  After all, what the other person received was her or his reality, and something can be learned for the sake of the relationship if an apology is offered and the conflict is cleared up.  And then – this is sometimes the hard part – your next responsibility is to forgive that person quickly.

It may be hard to forget the offence, but for the sake of the relationship, it’s important to clear the slate and start fresh.  I often illustrate it this way:  I have a small scar near the knuckle of my left index finger.  I remember exactly how it got there.  I was adding weight to a freight car on my model railroad, about 16 years ago, when a dollop of hot glue landed on my hand.  Of course, my immediate reaction was to get rid of what was causing the pain.  As I brushed off the glue, it took some skin with it.  It healed, and I have the scar – but no pain.  I remember the incident, but it’s over.  It causes no angst, no pain; I am left only with the memory.

That can be the case in relationships, too.  We may remember the offence, but the pain is gone when we’ve forgiven the other person.

“…be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4.32, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Thoughts and prayers

The dreadful mass killing in a Texas church last Sunday once again brought forward a recent phenomenon creeping into social media, that is, the idea that we should abandon the notion of “thoughts and prayers” in favour of gun control in the United States.

This piece is not about gun control in the United States.  I am not an American; I am not entitled to an opinion about US domestic policy or constitutional law.  This piece is, instead, about “thoughts and prayers” – something with which I have some experience.

Is there a flippancy with which we toss out that we are offering “thoughts and prayers” when we see word of a tragedy?  Perhaps.  If we type something like that on a post about an unfortunate event on social media, without acting on it, then the gesture is as flippant as the all-too-common “How are you?” question, for which the interlocutor really doesn’t want an answer anyway.

For some people, perhaps “thoughts and prayers” has become a benign term of sympathy.  After all, in the face of adversity, many people don’t know what to say to others.  (Have you ever paid attention to what people say when they greet mourners at a funeral visitation?  Often, they fill the air with meaningless words in an attempt to cover up the fact that they don’t know what to say.  Perhaps the next trend we’ll see in the funeral home will be people walking up to grieving friends and greeting them with the words, “thoughts and prayers.”  It sounds preposterous, but I don’t think it’s a stretch.)

If typing “thoughts and prayers” is as phony as air-kissing, though, let’s abandon it.  But what if thinking about, and praying for, troubled individuals or grieving family members or challenging situations actually did some good?  Would we continue to do it?

Prayer is conversation with God, and conversation with God – for the faithful – is always comforting (or at least centring).  And those who are prayed for usually feel encouraged, knowing that they are being supported by others.  (It is a different, and rather more challenging, question as to whether or not prayer can change the mind of God, but we’re not going there today.)

So if we actually pray when we offer “thoughts and prayers”, then carry on!  I know how much it matters to me that others pray for me, and when I pray for others, I seek to let them know in some meaningful way.  Maybe there’s a way we can communicate that we are praying for those suffering in tragic situations that doesn’t sound flippant.

Then, the challenge for us who pray is this:  if God calls us to act as a result of our prayers, will we?  Perhaps it isn’t necessary to separate praying for people from acting to ameliorate their situations.

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him” (1 Chronicles 16.11, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

The importance of listening

I had a conversation the other day with a pastor friend who told me a story that he has given me permission to share.  He was driving home from a conference he had been attending when another driver, not looking properly, sideswiped his car on a busy street.

Both my friend and the other driver were shaken up, as can happen even with a minor fender-bender, but neither of them was hurt.  As is common in such difficult situations, they exchanged information.  The other driver, who had admitted to it being her fault, wanted to attempt to get the repairs to my friend’s car made without going through insurance (and possibly pushing her rates up).

My friend told her he was a pastor, and that he had a Christian friend who is a mechanic who deals with people fairly and honestly, and that he might be able to give her a decent quotation on the cost of repairs to my friend’s car.  (As it turned out, the quotation was higher than expected, and the lady opted to go through her insurance.  Happily, she had a clause in her policy that had accident forgiveness!)

As my friend and the other driver were exchanging information and conversing, she was asking him about his church, and seemed interested in the Christian faith.  All the while, my friend sensed the Holy Spirit saying to him, “You need to pray with her.”

He resisted, understandably, because it just seemed an odd time and an odd circumstance to pray with a stranger.  But the more he resisted, the more clear the Holy Spirit’s prompting became:  “You need to pray with her.”

So he said to her, “I know this sounds kind of weird, but can I pray for you?”

She consented.  He prayed for her.  And over the course of the next few days as they spoke on the telephone to get repairs looked after, she mentioned how she has a teenaged son that she wants to get engaged in a youth group.

She lives closer to a different church than my friend’s, and so she may end up taking her son there.  Either way, it’s a win for God’s Kingdom.

But what if my friend had not been listening for the Holy Spirit to speak into his life, even in such an unusual situation as a car accident?  Or what if he had continued to ignore the prompting of the Spirit to pray with the woman?  Would she still be interested in the things of God?

It’s vital for all followers of Jesus – not just pastors, of course – to listen for the Spirit of God all the time.  It’s a muscle that we need to exercise.  After all, if we want to lift weights, we need to exercise the muscles that lift the weights.  And if we want to hear from God, we need to exercise those spiritual muscles, too.

Read the Scriptures daily.  When you pray, don’t do all the talking; sit in silence and let the Lord speak to you, through his Word and by his Spirit.  Then, when you are out in the world, engaged in normal, everyday activities, who knows what God may say to you by his Spirit that could change someone’s life forever?

Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given —and you will receive even more.  To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given” (Mark 4.24-25a, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Back on Track

This Sunday, many churches around the world will mark an important event:  it was on October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago – that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk from Germany, nailed papers containing 95 theses for the reformation of the church to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.  Thus began what we know from history as the Protestant Reformation.

Luther never intended to start a “new” church.  He wanted to help the “old” church return to her roots.  The pre-Reformation church had become a little too full of itself, spending more time, effort and money on propping up the institution (with all its bells and whistles) than on its true mission, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching” (Matthew 28.19b-20a, NRSV).

Luther’s mission was not to start from scratch, but to help the church he loved to be true to its biblical roots, particularly in five areas:

  • People are justified before God by faith alone;
  • People are saved from sin by grace alone;
  • Jesus Christ alone is Saviour and Lord;
  • The Bible alone is our authority for faith and life; and
  • God alone gets the glory.

It wasn’t that the pre-Reformation church had no concept of these things; it’s just that so much had been added on top of them that these basic principles had been obliterated.  Luther’s mission was to help put the church back on track with Scripture.

While what we call the Reformation took place in the 16th century, to be fair, the church has gone through a number of reformations since; in fact, the church – we! – do well to experience daily reformation, where we are put back on track with the Word of God.

How about you?  Is it your church’s mission to make disciples?  Is it yours?  Those are questions worth asking as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Encouragement From The Word

Examine it!

The responses to the passing this week of Canadian musician Gord Downey, and of Leonard Cohen earlier this year, remind us of just how influential music is in the lives of Canadians, and of western societies generally.  So attached are Canadians to their music legends that the official and unofficial condolences rival (or even exceed) those offered in memory of world leaders.  After all, how often does the flag get put at half-staff on Parliament Hill?

In light of this, I want to encourage you to examine the music you listen to.  Yes, examine it.  You might say that would take all the fun out of it, but anything worth having fun at is also worth thinking about.

You can ask yourself, How does this music make me feel inside?  Does it soothe your soul?  Does it make you angry?  Does it raise your pulse or lower it?  Does it motivate you?  Does it calm you?  How does the music you listen to make you feel?

For example, some people use loud music with a heavy beat to get them going in the morning; it stimulates them from head to toe.  (I think that’s why I never did well in fitness classes; loud music with a heavy beat just makes me want to walk away!)  Alternatively, some people use quiet music with a floating ambience to help them chill out.  The ease with which we can access recorded music of our own choosing today has made music a universal tool at our disposal pretty well anytime.

So, how does what you listen to make you feel?

You can also ask yourself, What do the lyrics I listen to really say?  This is a kicker for some, who may listen to the music for the beat but don’t realize until they examine the lyrics that what they listen to degrades women, or glorifies sex, just to state two common examples.

Or, you can ask yourself, What does the music I listen to say about me – intentionally or not?  As a follower of Jesus, you are being watched by your friends, family and acquaintances.  People notice if there are inconsistencies in your witness.  Does the music you listen to complement your faith or contradict it?

Some might say that, in response, we should listen only to Christian music.  While I certainly encourage you to listen to Christian music – and there is all sorts of it – I wouldn’t counsel you to limit yourself.  I do encourage you, though, to have a music “filter” that’s always engaged.  Music is a gift from God, something most musicians know innately.  So we can celebrate the gift of music of all sorts, asking the Lord for the wisdom to “filter out” what is blatantly unedifying.

I am reminded of the words of theologian A.W. Tozer:  “What goes into a mind comes out in a life.”  Remember that when you’re examining the music you listen to, and especially when you hear what your kids are listening to.

Take the advice of the apostle Paul, in writing to the church in Philippi:  “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise…. Then the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4.8b, 9b, NLT).