Encouragement From The Word

How Do I Love Thee?

The other day, I was listening to a recording of choral music that I’ve heard dozens of times.  For some reason, though, this particular time my ears perked up to one particular anthem that was sung.  It’s called “How Do I Love Thee?”, and I realized upon listening carefully that it is, in fact, a musical setting of what is arguably the most popular sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43, written as a love poem to her husband, Robert Browning.

For years, in (sort of) listening to this piece, I thought it was just another choral anthem of praise to the Lord.  I hadn’t thought it was an anthem of praise to the poet’s husband!

However, if you examine the words, you can, without difficulty, make it into a song of praise to God:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

It works, doesn’t it?

Now, go back and read it again, and put God in the first person, so that it tells of God’s love for you.

Amazing, right?

Victorian-Romantic poetry may not always have been intended for God, but we can make it so.

Spend some time with this sonnet, and make it your own praise to the Lord.

Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord!” (Psalm 150.6, NLT).

If you want to listen to the arrangement that struck me, here’s a setting.

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Encouragement From The Word

Who’s the customer?

Today’s Encouragement is a reprise of one I wrote several years ago.  The message still applies!  Blessings.  JFL

         Recently, I had the opportunity to visit two different businesses in a community different from the one I live in.  One was a musical instrument store, and the other was a hobby shop.  Anybody who knows me well can understand that both are the kinds of stores I tend to frequent.

When I walked into the music store, I was in the place perhaps thirty seconds when I was greeted in a friendly way by a fellow who turned out to be the manager.  He told me his name, and asked me mine as he shook my hand.  With his disarming demeanour, it was easy for me to tell him exactly why I had come into the store.  Like a good salesman, he took me into a separate room to show me a high-end version of what I was looking for.  When I said that I was impressed but unable to spend what that unit would demand, he completely understood and escorted me to another area of the store to show me a unit that was well-priced and, while not as good as the first unit he showed me, would serve me well.  He took the time to demonstrate it, and answered my somewhat amateurish questions without missing a beat.  When my wife came in, he even made a joke with her that we all laughed at.  All the staff in this store handled customers the same way.

Needless to say, I made a purchase there.  I had seen other units in other stores, but the service I received at that point in time was what made me buy there.  And because of that experience, I will shop there again, even though it’s not exactly handy to my home.

By contrast, when I walked into the hobby shop, I was ignored – despite the fact that I was one of two customers in the store and there were three people working there.  Since I had come all the way to the place, however, I browsed for a few minutes.  A stock person spoke to me when I spoke to him, and he opened a locked cabinet to allow me to examine more carefully something that had caught my eye.  I picked up something I needed, and when I went to check out, I waited for ten minutes.  (Remember, the help-to-customer ratio was 3:2!)  When I produced my ‘loyalty club’ card, which I assumed would save me 7 percent on cash purchases such as the one I was making, I was told that because I had not spent a sufficient amount of money in the store in the past year, they could not honour the 7 percent discount.  And the clerk was in no way apologetic about this.

I walked out of that hobby shop – in which I had spent quite a lot of money over the course of several years – having decided it is unlikely I will ever spend money there again.

Do you see the contrast between those two businesses?  Both sell things that musicians and hobbyists need.  Neither holds a monopoly in its field.  These are tough economic times.  Every business should be grateful to have customers at all!  So why was one so encouraging and the other so ignorant?

Personality will have something to do with it, to be sure, but I think the key is that the music shop staff refused the temptation to take customers for granted.

Lest you think this is merely a consumer rant, let me apply this to the Christian life.  When I was inducted as pastor in an earlier church, the preacher at the induction asked this question of the church:  Who is the customer, and who is the sales person?

Many church people assume that the customer is the church member, and the sales person is the preacher.  Wrong.

The customer is the newcomer to the church, and the sales person is the church member.  This has always been true, but in these days when many churches are in a state of decline, it is more true than ever.

The apostle Paul wrote, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5.20a, NIV).  Paul was writing about himself, but he was encouraging all believers to be ambassadors, to be ‘in sales’ for the gospel.  Churches where the people believe that they have no responsibility to care for guests don’t grow, because their guests often have experiences at church like I had in the hobby shop.  Churches where the people know they have a hand in caring for guests will grow, because their guests will feel cared for and will want to come back.

Of course, the Holy Spirit plays themajor role in church growth, but, oddly enough, the Spirit chooses to work throughGod’s people.  Thanks to you, and God working through you, your church can be more like the music store than the hobby shop.  That’s my prayer for you!

Encouragement From The Word

The importance of waiting

Last weekend, I had the privilege of hearing Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim speak as he was given an honorary doctorate at Tyndale Seminary’s convocation.  Lim, the South Korean-born minister of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, made news last summer after he was freed after more than two years of detention in a North Korean prison, to which he had been given a life sentence with hard labour…all for having been providing humanitarian aid to the North Korean people.

In his short but poignant speech, Lim spoke about his experience as a prisoner in North Korea – his hard work, his sicknesses, his visions from the Lord, his memorization of Scripture, and the like.  But the one thing he talked about that struck me most was the importance of waiting.

Heaven knows that Pastor Lim had a lot of waiting to do.  When he wasn’t working – often chopping up large boulders of coal into small bits, winter and summer – he was alone.  He knew that his Canadian family, church family and government were doing all that could be done to secure his release.  But the days must surely have been long.

He redeemed the time, though, and found that he grew in the fruit of patience as he waited.  He learned many Bible passages and explanations of Scripture.  His prayer life was rich.  And he waited.

What do you need to wait on God for?  Too often, we like to have everything now. Many things, though, don’t come now.  As we wait, we grow more mature, emotionally and spiritually, and we learn that “those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40.31a, NRSV).

Encouragement From The Word

An important weekend

This is an important weekend.

It’s Mother’s Day weekend, yes.

It’s my wife’s birthday weekend, yes.  (Happy birthday, dear!)

But it’s also the weekend the church celebrates one of the most important, yet under-the-radar, events of the Christian year:  yesterday having been Ascension Day, this Sunday is the day when the church marks the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In many churches – including my own – it will get but a passing nod.  In many more churches it gets less than that.  But the celebration of the ascension of Jesus deserves our attention.  After all, as Tim Perry and Aaron Perry say in He Ascended Into Heaven (Paraclete, 2010), “Resurrection is the beginning of ascension; ascension is resurrection completed” (6), and, “The Ascension marks both the completion of the Son’s mission and the beginning of the mission of his followers – to bear witness to his triumph” (49).

Any doubt as to the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus was settled when he ascended into heaven.  And this, with the great commission, began the work of making disciples, baptizing and teaching.

So Ascension Sunday is a bit like Launch Day: it signifies a new beginning for the church, a new opportunity to commit to the work of making disciples.  If you haven’t been doing all you can to draw people to the Lord – thinking like a missionary, as I said last Sunday in my message – then consider this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, a chance for a fresh start.  And as Luke’s telling of the ascension hints, we don’t have to undertake that fresh start alone!

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” (Acts 1.8, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Ambulances, not hospitals

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to listen to Professor David Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University speak about the state of the church in Canada today.  He said many noteworthy things in his all-too-brief 45-minute talk, but one thing in particular stood out for me:  “Churches are hospitals.  We need ambulances.”

What does that mean?

It means that while God’s people are in the business of soul care, we have, for too long, expected people to come to us for that healing, instead of us going to them. And today, if the church is to thrive, we have to go to them.

Who are “them”?

They are our neighbours, our friends, our loved ones who are suffering spiritually because they lack a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. For a long time in Canada, we have simply expected that people who were interested in religious services of a particular brand would go to a church building of that particular brand, walk in the door, and engage.  And on some rare occasions, this actually happens today…but not often.

No, today, we need to go out into the streets with proverbial stretchers and bring care to the spiritually sick right there in the field before we bring them to the hospital.

To carry that analogy further, we don’t wait for those in need to realize their need and come to the professionals for help.  All followers of Jesus are called to be spiritual EMS workers, acting where and when the need is greatest.

For all of us, that means growing in our faith so that we are competent to provide basic spiritual care – to introduce our neighbours to Jesus – out in the field. None of us ever masters the faith, for if that were possible it would cease to be faith!  But we should enjoy the Lord so much that we long to share him with others – over the back fence, in the post office, wherever we get the opportunity – without waiting for them to figure out their own need of Christ and finding your neighbour showing up at church, only to be surprised to see you there.

Churches are hospitals, and we need ambulances.  Will you be an ambulance?

Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone” (Mark 16.15, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Love extravagantly

Having written about the tragedy in Humboldt, Saskatchewan a few weeks ago, I was going to write today about the Southwest Airlines Pilot who successfully landed a plane with a non-working engine, a fan blade from which killed a passenger. Her testimony is remarkable.

But then someone decided to drive a van on a busy Toronto sidewalk on Monday.

Ten people were killed, and half again as many were injured.  What was most notable about this tragedy, if one can find any good in it, is the fact that one lone police officer managed to arrest the van driver, within minutes of the whole episode beginning, and without firing a single shot.

On Wednesday, I wrote to the congregation I serve to encourage us not to be afraid in the wake of this event, that the best thing to do is to trust in the Lord and push on.  Perhaps another point to emphasize as we continue to reel from this catastrophe is that it’s imperative for God’s people to be engaged in the lives of others, especially those who might seem unlovable.

The man who drove the van that killed ten innocent victims last Monday, according to research revealed online, was a troubled soul, and frustrated (for lack of a more sombre term) that he couldn’t get any dates with women.  It was this, apparently, that led him to run over that crowd of pedestrians – mostly women – and to want the police to kill him.

To be sure, there will be those who think that he should have been killed, but that was not the arresting officer’s mandate.  His mandate was de-escalation, which he performed in textbook fashion: weapon drawn, but not fired.  Now, hopefully, the driver can receive both justice and the help he needs.

What could have prevented this man from evenwantingto do something like run over people?  We may never know for sure, but I think it’s fair to say that experiencing more love would have helped.  We don’t know what his relationship is like with his parents or his wider family, and we don’t know if he has any kind of relationship with a church or with the Lord.

The lesson for us is to love our kids, and all people we encounter, with the love of Jesus. Who knows what difference our care could make in the life of another person?  Could our care save lives?

Possibly. What have we got to lose?

Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love” (1 Corinthians 13.13b, The Message).

Encouragement From The Word

Being ‘neighbourly’

This is one of those months that has five Sundays in it.   Any church treasurer I’ve known wishes that every month had five Sundays!  While it doesn’t happen every month, I’ve often wondered whether the unusual nature of the rhythm-breaking fifth Sunday could be harnessed in some way. While we like the idea of an extra Sunday of offerings, perhaps that fifth Sunday could also benefit those outside the church.

A couple of years ago, one of our Encouragement subscribers, Sharon, told me a story (which she gave me permission to share) about what happens in her church on the fifth Sunday of the month. In her congregation, they gather for a short worship time, and then go into the community to help their neighbours.

Sign-up sheets are provided so that activities and helpers can be coordinated. The first time the church did it, one group went to a nursing home to visit residents who never get visitors. Another group planted a vegetable garden on church property so that fresh vegetables could be provided for their local food bank.  Another group helped neighbours with physical challenges tend their gardens.  And yet another group picked up trash near a railroad right-of-way.

“The response from the congregants and the community was amazing,” Sharon told me.  “Great bonding, lots of laughter, many community members really impressed that we would leave church to come ‘out’ and help others.  It was a most powerful experience.”

If the church of Jesus is going to grow as God intends, one thing we know for sure is that reaching our neighbours is key.  I encourage you to consider this tangible way to reach out, whether on a fifth Sunday or some other time.  God knows the difference you could make by being ‘neighbourly’.

Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith” (Galatians 6.10, NLT).