Biblical Messages, Uncategorized


If you never thought you could learn about the value of confessing sin from a Bible story about a talking donkey, you need to listen to this message.  It’s based on the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22.21-35.

Biblical Messages, Uncategorized

My God Is With Me

“Immanuel” means, “God With Us”.  That’s a great thing to celebrate in this season of Advent!  What does that mean, though?  How can we make the most of having God with us in Jesus Christ?

Based on Isaiah 41.1-10, you can find out by listening here:

Biblical Messages

REBUILDING A PEOPLE: 2. You Know You’re Doing Something Right

Chances are, if you’ve got critics, you’re doing something right.  Last week, our intern introduced a series on the book of Nehemiah, which we are entitling, “Rebuilding A People”.  It is taking a brief look through this most interesting book of history and faith in the Old Testament.  Today, we looked at Nehemiah 4.1-23, a story of opposition to the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem.  Nehemiah’s response to his critics provides us with a vital lesson for ourselves and our churches today.  Have a listen here:

The photos referenced in the message were taken by my wife in Jerusalem in November 2013:

Neh wallis0902 Middle section - Nehemiah

Biblical Messages

LOVE ONE ANOTHER: The Son of God Has Come!

In the concluding message of this series, based on 1 John 5.13-21, we learn that the real purpose of Christmas is to celebrate that God has come in the flesh.  This gives us certain assurances about faith and prayer and forgiveness of sin, about which you can learn if you listen here:

There is a section of the passage that deserved more attention than I could give it in this short message.  Verse 16 talks about “a sin that does not lead to death” and “a sin that leads to death”.  What is John talking about here?  In the message, I allude to Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of venial and mortal sins, but is that what is being referred to here?  And, in verse 18, John writes that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.  How does that square with reality?

The Old Testament knew of sins that were deliberate – open rebellion against God, and punishable by death – and sins that were inadvertent and could be atoned for.  (For example, look at Leviticus 4 or Numbers 15.22-29.)  Judaism in the time of the writing of 1 John will have retained this understanding, and perhaps it was thus delineated in John’s community of faith.  That would help us understand the notion of the sin that leads to death.  Trying to guess what that is, on the other hand, is a pointless and fruitless venture.  Mark 3.29 refers to the sin against the Holy Spirit; could that be the sin that leads to death?  Because John’s context is all about false teaching in this letter, it’s more likely that he is thinking of that:  leading people astray in their belief is an unforgivable sin.  And then, are we enjoined not to pray about those sins?  It’s not clear that John is discouraging praying under any circumstance, but it does seem clear that he thinks there is no hope in prayer for someone who has committed such a sin; such a person would be denying God’s mercy, and the only effective prayer for such a person is to call for repentance and conversion (so says the Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

As to not continuing in sin (v. 18), it has been John’s premise throughout the letter that those who truly are ‘in Christ’ are not going to fall victim to a sinful life.  Do we still sin, even though we belong to the Lord?  Yes.  John’s point is that followers of Jesus should not make sin a pattern, a lifestyle choice, since that would be incompatible with the life to which we have been called.

Hopefully, that will tie up some of the loose ends left by the message.  Merry Christmas!

Book Reviews

Book Review: “Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer” by Rowan Williams

On a Facebook recommendation, I pre-ordered, and received quickly from, the latest publication by Rowan Williams, entitled,  Being Christian:  41YEga+-9rL._SL500_AA300_Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans, 2014).  It is a surprisingly small book, at under ninety pages.  And it is a quick read; it arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon, and I had it completed before going to sleep (with several other needful things done in between).

I recommend this book for those looking for a basic refresher on some of these fundamental aspects of what it means to follow Jesus.  As the subtitle suggests, he writes (about twenty pages on each) about the meaning and implications of the sacrament of Baptism, how we read (or hear) the Bible, what it means to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and then gives a brief summary of three views on the Lord’s Prayer (from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian, all classic Christian writers from early [pre-AD 600] Christianity).

Williams is clear, concise, and accessible in his writing style.  He writes with a modest Anglican bias, which the reader would only expect coming from the immediate past Archbishop of Canterbury!  But even with that ‘filter’, Williams could be read quite satisfactorily by an inquirer, or by a believer from any branch of the church.

There were six especially helpful learning points that I noted for myself in the book:

  • In the Eastern Christian tradition, some icons for the baptism of Jesus depict Jesus up to his neck in water, with river gods, representing chaos being overcome, beneath the water.  The old ways are always trying to claim us back.
  • The Bible is, in a way, our own story, so history matters when reading Scripture.
  • In the Eucharist, Jesus is telling us he wants our company.
  • Prayer is about changing your attitude.
  • Prayer is a promise to God.
  • This one deserves to be quoted:  “[Prayer] is opening our minds and hearts and saying to the Father, ‘Here is your Son, praying in me through the Holy Spirit.  Please listen to him, because I want him to be working, acting and loving in me'” (p. 80).

Reflection and discussion questions are provided at the end of each chapter for use by individuals or groups.  This is a short and helpful read, and I recommend it.

Encouragement From The Word

Prayer: our real work

Benedict of Nursia (480-543) is best known as the father of modern monasticism; his feast day, for those who mark such celebrations, is today, July 11. He 403nwrote what has become known as the Rule of Benedict, a lengthy guide for those who seek to live in cloistered community.

I could say much about Benedict, but I will limit it to this, for today: Benedict said that for the monk, nothing is to be preferred to what he called “the work of God.” And what is the work of God, for Benedict?

Put simply, prayer.

In a more involved sense, Benedict referred to the divine office as the work of God, the multiple daily occasions where the monks drop whatever else they’re doing to gather together to pray and sing the Psalms. While each monk is assigned work within the community based on training and gifting, his real work is to pray. Ora et labora is the Benedictine motto: pray and work.

Last week, I wrote about patience, and how time spent waiting in line can be used to pray for others – even the people waiting in line near us, whom we may not know. In response, I was asked two excellent questions by a faithful reader of Encouragement From The Word: first, Why would God need or want us to pray for someone we know nothing about? and second, Since God already knows what is best for that individual and we don’t, why would our prayer have any influence on God?

I responded by saying that prayer has less to do with us influencing God than it does with developing our relationship with God. I remember when I was getting to know the woman who is now my wife, in those early weeks and months, we talked, whether on the phone or in person, a lot. If you’ve been in a serious relationship, you probably have done the same. We would talk about anything and everything, and it wasn’t about information sharing; it was about relationship building.

And on those occasions when we pray for others, whose situations (or maybe even names) we do not know, we commend them to God’s love and care, and let the Lord deal with their individual circumstances. While we may not be able to pray with precision, we can build our relationship with the Lord through such prayers.

When I pray with a monastic community (and I do, when time allows), I am not always acquainted with the people or issues that fill their times of prayer. The Psalm chants that we sing are not always familiar to me. But these times, like the times I spent waiting in line and praying for others, help to strengthen my walk with God. And that is never time wasted!

How can you redeem time by spending it building up your relationship with God?

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Scrapbooking the spiritual life

Lately, my wife has busied her evenings with scrapbooking.  She’s not one of those scrapbookers – you know who you are! – who work meticulously and carefully on the exact placement of every photo, who scour the Internet to find exactly the right design and paper and theme, and, and…  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

No.  She creates a scrapbook for a singular purpose:  to create an authentic memory of an experience that she can look back on, and share with scrapbookothers.  Yes, she spends a bit of time on it, and it looks amazing when she’s finished, but it’s more about creating a memory than a piece of art.

When I meet with people seeking spiritual direction, I sometimes ask if they keep a journal.  For some, it’s a passion.  For others, it’s a ‘binge’ thing.  For still others, it’s an unknown discipline.  I like to think of journalling as a form of scrapbooking the spiritual life.

Like scrapbooking, everybody who journals does so in her or his unique way, and there’s no prescribed right way to do it:  it is, after all, a form of personal expression.  The biggest difference is that our journals are not normally shown to others.  They are our own visual dialogues with God.

Journalling can be a helpful discipline for those who struggle to pray; writing out a prayer in one’s journal can be a way of focusing the mind on the task at hand.  It also helps to expose what our common prayer pattern can be.  Is our prayer more like a love letter or a grocery list?  Is it more like a lecture or a lament?  Or something else?  Achieving balance in our prayer life is a good goal toward which to move, and journalling our prayers can help us review what our prayers are like.  Ideally, it is helpful to spend time, when we pray, praising God for who he is, confessing our sin, giving God thanks for what he has done, and offering our requests and concerns.

When we are intentional about including these different aspects of prayer, it can make us want to pray even more.  And when we journal these prayers, we can, as we would with a scrapbook, look back on it in years to come to see how our relationship with God has changed over time.   For me, as for many people, this leads to more prayer – especially thanksgiving.

I know some people who draw in their journals, expressing their thoughts to God pictorially.  Not all of them are necessarily even ‘artists’, as such, but they believe God gives them the drawing, and they share it as an expression of faith.

Have you ever thought about scrapbooking your spiritual life?

And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, ‘Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true’” (Revelation 21.5, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Making time

What does prayer look like for you?

For many people, even seasoned believers, prayer is something that happens at meal times, maybe at bed time, maybe for a few minutes before the morning rush ensues.  But few of us take much time for this rich and important fellowship with the Lord.

If you’re one of those for whom time in prayer is limited, you’re in good company:  even most pastors do not spend much more than 5 minutes a day inimages prayer.  That said, such ‘good’ company is auspicious indeed.  What kind of relationship would we have with our spouses if we spent only 5 minutes a day in conversation with them?  Not much, right?  So why does God get crowded out of our lives in terms of the priority of time?

Perhaps one reason is that we cannot see God, at least not in a physically obvious way.  “Out of sight, out of mind,” we might say.  Another reason God gets crowded out of our lives has to do with his character:  God is patient.  Because God is Creator and we are the creation, God has no need of us, so he has no reason to beg us to be in relationship with him.  Yet God wants to be in relationship with us, so he finds subtle ways to invite us into his presence.  Can we slow down enough to take the time to notice God’s subtle invitations, and respond?

We seem almost to wear it as a badge, don’t we?  Someone asks, “How are you?” and we respond, “Great.  I’m really busy.”  Yet even the most noble tasks – even the most godly tasks – which make us too busy to spend time with the Lord need examination by us if we are to carve out time for our Maker.

It doesn’t have to be complicated.  And it can start simply.  There will be interruptions, but as one person has suggested, consider each interruption yet one more opportunity to return to God.  Start with five minutes a day, and add a minute each week to your prayer time.  Even if you find you don’t have enough to say to fill the time, sit in the silence.  Let God speak to you, or just enjoy the silence with God as your Companion.

Rise up, my darling!  Come away with me, my fair one!  Look, the winter is past, and the rains are over and gone.  The flowers are springing up, the season of singing birds has come, and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air.  The fig trees are forming young fruit, and the fragrant grapevines are blossoming.  Rise up, my darling!  Come away with me, my fair one!” (Song of Songs 2.10-13, NLT).

Biblical Messages

A fruitful prayer life

Concluding our series on prayer, “A Fruitful Prayer Life” is intended to encourage you to look at some more basic premises for making your prayer life more abundant.  Based on Jeremiah 29.10-14 and Galatians 6.1-10, you can listen to the message by clicking this link.  The sound quality is a little different on this recording, because I had to use the sound room recording as a backup; my digital recorder’s batteries gave out!

What makes prayer more fruitful for you?  Feel free to comment.

Biblical Messages

The ‘Whos’ of Prayer

Reformation Sunday, that which Protestants celebrate nearest October 31, commemorates the beginning of what Martin Luther had hoped would be a re-forming of the church from within.  It took on a life of its own before he knew it, and the Protestant Reformation, as we know it, is said to have begun on October 31, 1517, when Luther nailed 95 propositions for the reforming of the church to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany.

We look at the “whos” of prayer appropriately on this day, recognizing that it is God alone to whom we are invited to pray according to Scripture.  Listen to this message by clicking this link.


Prayer and responsibility

While soaking up some of God’s free vitamin D today, I was reading David Benner’s excellent book, Opening To God, in which he wrote these very interesting words:

Coming to God in trusting openness does not mean abandoning our agency and responsibility.  Genesis tells us that God invested in Adam and Eve the responsibility for all of creation, and at no time since then is there any reason to believe that God has said:  “Since you have made such a mess of things I now absolve you of that responsibility and ask that you simply trust me to take care of things.”  Prayer is divine communion that enables us to engage the world with renewed focus, competence and passion – and with all of our natural gifts and abilities.  And pondering problems, both personal and communal, can form a central part of that experience of communion with God.  (David Benner, Opening To God [Downers Grove:  IVP, 2010], 96)

What a great reminder!  Even though God is sovereign, and he invites our prayerful communion with him, we are still responsible, and can share our decision making process with God as a form of prayer.

Biblical Messages

The real place of sanctuary…

We tend to think of a “sanctuary” as a physical place of worship, a building where we take ‘sanctuary’ from the world.  But in reality, the real place of sanctuary is the human heart.  When we make the interior journey, we can worship and pray anywhere, because God lives in our hearts by faith when we have trusted Jesus as Lord and Saviour.  The church still is important, of course, because it is this community for which Jesus died, and about which his Spirit is passionate to build into.

This message begins a series on growing in holiness, and we begin by looking at God’s holiness in Isaiah 6.1-8, and then explore the value of worship, and prayer (based on Philippians 1.3-11).

You can listen to the message by clicking here; the video shown near the end can be watched here.