Encouragement From The Word

Don’t hide your ‘alleluias’

The English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote prolifically, and focused frequently on her vibrant faith.  An Oxford Movement Anglican, she often structured her poetry around the Christian year.

Here is one of her poems for Lent, the season which, this year, began on Wednesday of this week.

It is good to be last not first,

            Pending the present distress;

It is good to hunger and thirst,

            So it be for righteousness.

It is good to spend and be spent,

            It is good to watch and to pray:

Life and Death make a goodly Lent

            So it leads us to Easter Day.

What strikes me about that poem is the very last line.  It reminds us of the purpose of Lent.  It is not an end in itself, nor is it some sort of religious diet or austerity plan.  It is a means to an end.  Lent is designed to prepare us for Easter.

Just as a measured celebration of Advent makes Christmas more special, so too does Lent, celebrated appropriately, make Easter more meaningful.  By “celebrated appropriately”, one could mean any number of things, but at the very least, it means remembering that there are but 40 days in Lent:  Sundays are not included.  Each Sunday remains a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.  There is no reason to hide our ‘alleluias’ on those Sundays, because each Lord’s Day is a reminder that the Lord is risen.

So, be last and not first; hunger and thirst; spend and be spent – as long as it leads to Easter Day.  The story ends well, indeed, victoriously!  Keep that end in mind, however you choose to celebrate Lent.

But thank God!  He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15.57, NLT).

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Encouragement From The Word

No Greater Love

For Christians in many traditions, this coming Wednesday marks a special day:  it will be Ash Wednesday.  And if you notice the calendar, it falls this year on February 14, which is also widely celebrated in western culture at Valentine’s Day.

When you were a kid, maybe your experience was a bit like mine.  My mother had me write out Valentines for each of my classmates.  After all, it was the right thing to do.  But did you feel, well, awkward about some of them?  Like they were going to be received as pregnant with meaning when they weren’t?

Love, as they say, is a many-splendoured thing.  And it is multi-faceted, like a beautiful diamond.  It can be possible to read too much – or too little – into an expression of human love.  A Valentine can be an expression of single-minded devotion, or it can be simply conforming to a cultural tradition.

Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of Lent, a 40-day (note that Sundays are not included, since each Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection!) period of penitence and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is a whole season that prepares us to receive the greatest gift of love – the greatest Valentine – ever offered.  There is nothing ambiguous about this Valentine.  Jesus only has one meaning for it – selfless, life-giving love.

You don’t need to celebrate Lent to value what Jesus has done for us.  But many people find it a helpful time to awaken their awareness of what God is doing in their lives.

This coming Wednesday, whether you receive the imposition of ashes or not, understand that the greatest Valentine you will ever receive has paid the price for your sins, has paved the way for eternal life to be yours.

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command” (Jesus, John 15.14-15a, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Don’t be ashamed of the Name

This Sunday at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, I’m going to talk about a term that gets tossed around a lot – often with scorn attached – in the church and in the world.  It’s the term “born again”.

In the sense in which Christians use it, the term appears just in one place in the New Testament:  the story of Jesus’ encounter at night with Nicodemus in John 3.  Nicodemus confides that everybody who has been eyeing his ministry knows he has come from God.  Then Jesus tells him, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3.3, NLT).

Well, that kind of came out of left field, didn’t it, Jesus?  After receiving such a high compliment from such a high-ranking Jewish official, one would think he would demurely blush and say, “Aw, shucks” or something.  But not Jesus.  He jumps right into the challenge of the Kingdom:  to see it, you must be born again.

What did he mean by that?

As I noted, the term is fraught with baggage both inside and outside the church, and it’s often negative.  But the term that John uses for “again” in John 3.3 – anōthen – has a couple of similar meanings.  It can mean ‘again’, ‘from the very beginning’, or ‘for a long time’; or, as John tends to use it most, ‘from above’.  Some translations of the Bible have started using ‘from above’, because it is a correct translation, and perhaps also to try to steer away from the negative baggage that ‘again’ has caused over the year.

But they really all point to the same thing:  there must be some sort of new, supernatural birth that takes place in our lives before we can see the Kingdom of God.

Many well-meaning followers of Jesus have hammered away at this verse over the years as an antidote to the milquetoast teaching (or lack thereof) that suggests, “All you have to do is be good, and God will have you.”

I’m still not sure, after 30 years in this business, where people came up with that notion, but it sure wasn’t from the Bible, that’s for sure.

No, at some point in our lives – and it’s never too late! – each of us needs to come to terms with the reality that Jesus’ death and resurrection were not just historical events, but that they were accomplished for me.  For each of us.  And when God pours down his grace on us to enable us to make that confession of faith, something new happens inside us, and we experience new birth.  We are born from above.  We are born again.

It doesn’t have to have a dramatic testimony attached to it.  Instead of a Damascus Road experience, it can be an Emmaus Road experience.  Each must lead to the same conclusion, though:  at some point, we ceased living under our own strength and gave over the throne of our hearts to Jesus.  When you do, some people will label you as “one of those born again Christians.”  And when they do, you can give humble praise to the One who died and rose again for you, and who changes you within by the Holy Spirit.

It’s not about pride – far from it.  But you don’t need to be ashamed of the Name.

P.S.:  If you’re interested in integrating your faith and your work, consider coming to St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton for a simulcast retreat called “Work as Worship” on Friday, February 23 from 8:30 to 3:30.  Lunch is provided in the $25 registration cost.  Learn more by clicking here.

 

Encouragement From The Word

Working for the Lord

Let’s be honest:  there will be times when living for Jesus is not all a bed of roses.  Sometimes, standing up for what we believe to be true in God’s Word will leave us frustrated, lonely, and even persecuted.  And it’s at times like those that we most need to remember the big picture, to look at the forest instead of the proverbial trees.

John Calvin, the great reformer of the 16th century, was invited by the city fathers of Geneva to create a Protestant city-state.  A few years after he had begun his work, though, those same people who had invited him turned around and banished him!  For three years, he lived in exile in Strasbourg.

I love what Calvin’s response was to that banishment:  “Surely if I had merely served (humanity), this would have been a poor recompense.  But it is my happiness that I have served him who never fails to reward his servants to the full extent of his promise.”

Calvin knew that even if people did not respond well to what he was doing, that was less important than God’s response to what he was doing.  He knew that, even if Geneva did not want him, the Lord still had a purpose for him and his work.  During his exile in Strasbourg, Calvin never stopped writing, preaching and teaching; he just did it in a different location.

Three years later, the councillors of Geneva saw the error of their ways and invited Calvin back to continue the work he had begun.  But even if that had not happened, God’s work would have carried on, for Calvin knew that serving God faithfully mattered most.

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people” (Colossians 3.23, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Cultivating to serve

I know a guy who slipped on some ice not long ago and broke his wrist badly.  And let’s face it:  there’s never a good time to break a bone, but in the middle of winter, when you have a long driveway to shovel, it’s a particularly bad time.

The story is not all about pain, though.  He had to undergo surgery to reset his wrist, and when he came home, casted, he found his driveway had been cleared of snow.

At that point, clearing the driveway was probably the last thing on his mind.  But some of his friends had not forgotten it.

You might be thinking that a neighbour cleared it out for him, which would have been very kind indeed.  But that’s not what happened.

While he was in surgery, one of his university buddies contacted 9 other mutual friends, and the 10 of them pooled a few bucks together and paid to have their friend’s driveway cleared – for the rest of the winter.

Can you imagine?  Having a broken wrist, and not having to worry about shovelling at all until after it’s healed?  It’s a really thoughtful gift.

What’s particularly heartwarming is that in our very insular and individualistic society, there are signs that people still care – and care enough to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.

There are many good lessons from this story, one of which is the importance of cultivating strong relationships.  I mean, I can’t think of the names of 10 people I went to university with, let alone be in touch with them in such a way that they would know I was injured and needed help.  You might not be able to, either – but it’s not too late to cultivate strong relationships now.

Think about your circle of acquaintance, both within the church and outside.  How strong is it?  How can you strengthen those relationships – not so that you would get help if you needed it, but so that you could be helpful if it were needed?

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”  We can deepen our relationships so we can serve others.  And who knows?  By serving others, by God’s grace, doors of faith might open.

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another” (1 Peter 4.10, NLT).

P.S.:  If you’re interested in integrating your faith and your work, consider coming to St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton for a simulcast retreat called “Work as Worship” on Friday, February 23 from 8:30 to 3:30.  Lunch is provided in the $25 registration cost.  Learn more by clicking here.

Encouragement From The Word

Be attentive

Happy new year!  A new year is a time, for many, to kick old habits and start new ones.  May I encourage you to begin a new habit of being attentive?

It happens to us all, now and again, right?  We may be daydreaming, or looking down at our phones, or distracted by some sight, and we miss something significant.  I remember one time when I was driving on a familiar stretch of road, and all of a sudden, I reached a landmark that made me think, How did I get here?  I had been driving carefully enough, but my mind had wandered to the point that I lost track of my surroundings.

Of course, it would be helpful for us always to be attentive when we are driving, for our safety and that of others.  But how often, even in our spiritual lives, are we just going through the motions?

We read the Bible, but we don’t really seek to understand what God is telling us.

We pray, but we don’t seek answers.

We serve, but we don’t seek to do so in ways that will draw people to the Lord.

When we are attentive, it changes how we live.

Charles Spurgeon once told the story of a school teacher who asked a little girl why she was not understanding even simple things.  The little girl replied, “I don’t know, but I sometimes think I have so many things to learn that I do not have enough time to understand.”

That can be true for us, too; time is short.  So we must prioritize our activities so that we can understand and truly appreciate each task we undertake.

Spurgeon said, “There may be much hearing, much reading, much attendance at public services, and very small result, and all because the word was not the subject of thought, and was never embraced by the understanding.  What is not understood is like meat undigested, more likely to be injurious than nourishing.”

So take time this year to be attentive.  It will enrich your days.

My child, listen to what I say,
and treasure my commands.
Tune your ears to wisdom,
and concentrate on understanding.
Cry out for insight,
and ask for understanding.
Search for them as you would for silver;
seek them like hidden treasures.
Then you will understand what it means to fear the Lord,
and you will gain knowledge of God.
For the Lord grants wisdom!
From his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

-Proverbs 2.1-6, NLT

Encouragement From The Word

An ever-flowing stream

There’s a verse in an old hymn that says,

Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away;

They fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day.

Time is something we tend to think a lot about as the year closes.  To be frank, I’m thinking a bit more about it than usual.

On Wednesday, I had a wonderful conversation with a dear friend who that day turned ninety-eight.  It’s hard for most of us to conceive!  But she is well, all things considered, and it was a joy to talk with her.

Then, on Thursday, I hit a milestone – the half-century club.  I’ve always believed age is just a number, but this one has caused me to pause and ponder a bit more than any other, perhaps because it is such a profoundly round number!

The end of the year, like a milestone birthday, is an occasion both for looking back and looking forward.  What have I accomplished in the past year (or half-century)Who have I becomeWhat do I hope to accomplishWho do I hope to become?

The ancients called an exercise like this the examen, an examination of both conscience (what I’ve done and who I am) and consciousness (how aware of God and his activity in my life I’ve been).  It’s something they actively encouraged we do not only annually, but daily.

Life coaches and new age gurus (who don’t necessarily overlap much) will often tell us to visualize goals as a means of doing what we want to do, and being who we want to be, in a prescribed period of time.  Making goals both attainable and tangible certainly contributes toward their accomplishment.  But I would stir that pot for you a bit by suggesting that what matters more in that conversation is this:  What does God want us to do, and who does God want us to be?

I encourage you to spend a few moments, as the year closes, asking those questions.  Because time, “like an ever-rolling stream”, seems to fly by with greater haste as we grow older.  Let’s make the most of it.

We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent us.  The night is coming, and then no one can work” (John 9.4, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word returns on January 12.