Encouragement From The Word

Routine maintenance

Twice a year, on my day off, I undertake a task I never look forward to, but I do it anyway.

I change the tires on my car and my wife’s car.

In November, I put on the winter tires, and in April (or, in this case, May 2), I take those off and put on the so-called “all season” tires.

You might be thinking, Jeff, if you don’t enjoy it, why don’t you just hire it out?

Well, I used to do that, back when I was only changing the tires on my wife’s car.  But my insurer now requires that I do so with my vehicle as well.  The hassle and cost of having this job done at a garage left me thinking, Why don’t I just do it myself?

My dad taught me the basics of tire changes when I was young, so I started doing it myself.  The first time, it took me most of a day.  Why?  Because I lacked adequate equipment for the task.

I’d use the scissor jack to lift each wheel, take the lug nuts off with a ratchet, change the tire, and put the lug nuts back on with the ratchet, lower the jack, and tighten them more fully.  I’d repeat this process seven more times (for two vehicles).

Needless to say, my out-of-shape body was feeling it by the time that task was done!

Each time I’d do it, however, the process got quicker; this past Monday, I accomplished the task in less than 2 hours.  Why?  Because I had better equipment and more experience.

This involved two investments:  an investment in tools, and an investment of time.

While I’ll never be able to accomplish the task as fast as a garage mechanic could, I now have a good rolling floor jack, an air compressor, an air tool for the lug nuts, and a modest torque wrench.  And each time I do the job, I find ways to be more efficient.

Growing as a disciple of Jesus is not much different, is it?

By investing in tools and time, our walk with God improves.  It’s not that we want to make it more efficient – our spiritual formation is a life-long process, after all – but as we become more spiritually mature, our life as disciples of Jesus does take on a different character.

Tools such as a good study Bible and some solid theological literature can go a long way toward impelling forward our faith journey.  And the investment of time, through worshipping in community, belonging to a small group, and engaging in personal devotion on our own will advance our maturity in Christ.

In other words, being a follower of Jesus is not just something that we do for an hour on Sunday.  It’s a 24-7-365 venture.  And the results are so worth it.

If you don’t have a good study Bible, a church family, or a small group to which to belong, let me know…I can make recommendations for you.  It’s an investment with eternal dividends.

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4.11-13, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

The alternative to prayer in school

In last week’s Encouragement From the Word, I recounted part of the story of Cassie Bernall, the student at Columbine High School who was killed for being a Christian, relating that to the reality of suffering and persecution among believers.  This elicited a heart-tugging response from a subscriber who was part of a tragic school shooting at one time.

This person told me how important a role prayer played in the aftermath, noting that “Amongst the sirens and the ambulances and the police, we gathered in small groups, holding hands and praying.  God was there giving comfort to us in our time of greatest need”, and that when the school reopened, a few days later, a prayer was offered over the PA system to bring comfort to the injured and the families of the victims.

Most schools today, at least where I live, don’t offer the option of public prayer.  And while I would welcome a call to restore school prayers, I fear that horse has left the barn, as the saying goes, and that nothing short of national revival is going to bring it back, especially in the political culture in which we find ourselves these days.

So what is the alternative?

Prayer at home.  (Now there’s a concept.)

Those students who gathered to pray amid the chaos in my interlocutor’s story must have had some foundation of prayer, both at home and in the church, to lead them to pray together.  It served them well to provide comfort in an unimaginable moment.

Too often, in our consumer culture, we depend on institutions to do work that more rightly belongs to the family.

We should not rely on the school system – even a Christian parochial school system, if that’s where our kids go – to teach them such foundational faith basics.

I dare say we should not even rely on the church to do this.  (Gasps come from the crowd.)

I think this is the responsibility of parents.  In fact, this is not my idea; it’s deeply rooted in the history of God’s people.  Consider that sharing the basics of faith has been considered a family mandate from as far back as the time of Moses:

Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.  Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up” (Deuteronomy 6.4-7, NLT).

Of course, parents themselves have to learn this, if they weren’t taught it by their own parents.  And that’s where the church comes in.  The church’s job is to equip parents to be used by God to shape their children as followers of Jesus.

Someone has said, tongue-in-cheek, that as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in school.  But in an age of increasing persecution for followers of Jesus, all the more do children and young people need to be spiritually formed at home – including knowing how to communicate with God in a loving relationship – so that they can be strong in their faith, no matter what they face, in school or elsewhere.

It may not be bullets that they face (and so we earnestly pray!), but it may be words, which injure in different ways, or something else that comes with persecution.  As the church equips the parents to form the children, we will see great spiritual renewal among the people of God, which we need for the world in which we live today.

Biblical Messages

God Calling

If you follow Jesus, you’re a gifted person. The Bible tells us in a number of places that every follower of Jesus has at least one special ability, given by God, to serve him in the church. These are called “spiritual gifts”. And today’s message is about one of the passages that shows some of the spiritual gifts. Maybe one or more of those is yours! The message is based on Ephesians 4.1-16. You can watch the whole gathering below, or just the message below that. If you’d like to participate in the spiritual gift seminar on Thursday, March 18, 2021 at 7:00 p.m., on Zoom, you can comment on this post with your email address, and I’ll send you the Zoom link, and the link to the spiritual gift inventory you’ll want to complete before attending.

Encouragement From The Word

Position yourself for growth

If you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any length of time, you know the importance of growing in your faith.  So often, we get the notion in our minds that we have to work at it – and while there is some truth to that, we need to understand that it’s not our job.

I’m fond of the definition of spiritual formation given by the late Robert Mulholland, who taught New Testament at a seminary in the United States.  His definition of spiritual formation is that it is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.

When we come to faith in Jesus, it is not the end of a journey, but the beginning. When we begin our relationship with God, we submit ourselves to the process of being conformed – it’s not our job, but that of God the Holy Spirit living within us.

And we are being conformed to the image of Christ – as the apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth, “the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Corinthians 3.18, NLT).  That’s our goal – not to be “better people” or “more moral”, but to be more like Jesus.

Why?  For the sake of others.  We don’t grow in faith for our own sakes, but so that the world God made and the people God loves may benefit, and glimpse more of his goodness through us.

The work is God’s, but we are invited to be willing instruments.  Position yourself for growth this year.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: INVITATION TO RETREAT by Ruth Haley Barton

I’ve never read a book by Ruth Haley Barton that didn’t speak to my heart, and this is no exception.  Being a teacher of and on retreats, and a regular retreatant myself, I was looking forward to reading this small but helpful guide to the how’s and why’s of making a retreat.

For many Christians, especially Protestants, retreats are foreign, something made by Roman Catholics or disguised as preaching or evangelistic events.  Those are certainly legitimate and useful, but Barton’s subtitle, “The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God” hits the nail on the head of what a retreat should be.

The book is divided into four sections, introducing the concept of true retreat, preparing ourselves for retreat, what to undertake during retreat, and how we move back into day-to-day living from retreat.  Each of the twelve chapters offers practical assistance to the retreatant in terms of preparation and execution of the retreat.  Two appendices are offered for guidelines for fixed-hour prayers and planning a retreat.

For the person considering a retreat but not sure where to start, this book is a good place to start.  It helps us know ourselves as individual followers of Jesus as well as giving us tools for introspection when gearing up for a retreat and actually being away.  Among the key learnings, of which there are many, is to understand oneself as being able to be off-limits to anyone but God during that time, that none of us is indispensable.  Needing to be connected, 24/7, is often one of the biggest hurdles to an effective retreat, and Barton reminds the reader that such disordered attachments are not helpful to connecting fully with God.

Retreat is one of the main gateways to true spiritual freedom.  This book is a helpful guide in aiding us to achieve the true spiritual freedom the Lord seeks for us.

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat:  The Gift and Necessity of Time Away With God (IVP, 2018), ISBN 978-0-8308-4646-7.  I am grateful to Martin at Parasource for the desk copy he provided for me.  The book is available at most Christian retail outlets, including the Tyndale Bookstore in Toronto.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP” by Norm Allen

Knowing my interest in spiritual formation, a friend and colleague gave me this book, written by a friend of his. Intrigued by the subtitle (“The Art of Being Friends With God and a Few Others”), and the brevity of the book (it’s a quick read at about 100 pages), I jumped right in.

The author is the founder of Touchstone Ministries in Orangeville, Ontario. His business is to nurture friendships among Christians in leadership in various walks of life, and his book illustrates why that is important to him, and hopefully, to the rest of us.

Spiritual friendship is a model of spiritual formation that can complement other ways of going deeper with God. To illustrate his51NNE34MOLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ understanding of this model, Allen draws from the rich breadth of Christian tradition – from the Celts to C.S. Lewis to Miroslav Volf . He tells many stories of his own experiences in spiritual friendship that have both blessed and challenged him (as any good friendship should).

We may say we have a lot of friends, when in reality what we probably have is a lot of acquaintances. How many others know us at the depth of our being? There are no gold stars for the number of friends we have who can read us like a book, of course, but there is great value in having at least one friend with whom we can share deeply, and mutually. It becomes easy for hard sharing to be one-sided, where one person becomes vulnerable and the other simply listens. But in order for a spiritual friendship to be truly mutual, it must involve both parties sharing deeply – not in an attempt to one-up the other, but to be transparent and honest with the other.

Spiritual Friendship will challenge and encourage you to find and engage in a friendship with another Christian who will walk with you as you walk with God. I recommend you pick it up.

Spiritual Friendship: The Art of Being Friends With God and a Few Others by Norm Allen, published in 2012 by Clements Publishing Group, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-926798-08-0.

Biblical Messages

“Instant” Spirituality?

When we want something, we want it now, don’t we?  While that can work for coffee, our spiritual formation doesn’t happen so quickly.  415AQMKJ3WL._SY450_

Robert Mulholland, Jr., in Invitation to a Journey (IVP, 1993) defines spiritual formation as a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.  In this message, based on Ephesians 1.3-8, we explore what this understanding of spiritual formation means for us as followers of Jesus.  You can listen to it by clicking here.  The initial noises you hear are my Keurig machine making me a cup of coffee…instantly.

The video that’s shown near the end of the message can be viewed here.

Musings

Summer Reading 2013

Summer is often a time when we can slow down and do things we really enjoy.  For me, one of those things is reading.  It’s been a while since I suggested some good summer reading for you, so I’ll take the opportunity to do that now.  Of course, you could read these at any time of the year you wish!  But here’s a short list of books that will help build your faith and encourage you in your growing walk with the Lord.  I put this list in our church’s summer edition of the newsletter.

Ruth Haley Barton,  Invitation to Silence and Solitude (InterVarsity Press, 2010)

Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms (InterVarsity Press, 2006)

Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

These three books by Barton give a good introduction to practical ways to be formed spiritually in the Lord.  It is her video study we’re doing throughout much of June and July at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton.  I have heard her speak in person, and her writing is just as compelling.  She has been a ground-breaking writer in the field of spiritual formation for many Christians.  Her writing style is easy to read and you’ll find great helps for building your faith.

Michael Mangis, Signature Sins (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

Mangis’ thesis in this book is that the seven “deadly” sins, as they once were called, can be seen as the foundational sins from which our typical sin patterns emerge.  It’s likely, he says, that we each have a “signature” sin from among the seven.  What we often find ourselves confessing is not sin but symptoms of sin, and that, as Dallas Willard said, we tend to engage in sin management more than anything else.  Each chapter closes with useful questions for reflection, and there is a group study guide at the back.

Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey (InterVarsity Press, 1993)

While this book is by no means new, it is an excellent overview of what it means to be formed in Christ.  Mulholland correctly identifies that our spiritual formation is not something we do just for ourselves, but that it happens for the sake of others.

These are just a few books that can accompany you to the real or virtual hammock this summer.  Enjoy the rest, and remember to keep growing!

Encouragement From The Word

What do you want Jesus to do for you?

At St. Paul’s, Nobleton, we have a small group discussing a video series by Ruth Haley Barton entitled Sacred Rhythms, based on her book of the same title.  In lastBlind Bartimaeus Mark 10:46-52 night’s introductory study, we looked at the story of Bartimaeus in Mark 10.46-52.  In it, Jesus asks a deeply probing question:  “What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 51).

Most of the time, when we read Scripture, we read it to gather information.  Yet we can read Scripture to shape our lives.  As I’ve been known to say, information fills the mind, but formation shapes the person.  We can read the story of Bartimaeus to learn about the plight of the blind in the first century, and we can read it to place ourselves in the story, even opening ourselves to have Jesus ask us, “What do you want me to do for you?

Have you ever considered that?  Have you ever opened yourself to express your deepest desires to Jesus?

Because Jesus is God, he already knows our deepest desires, but there is something powerful, something intimate, about expressing them ourselves.  It’s like telling our spouse what we want to experience sexually – it’s that intimate, and arguably more so.

Perhaps that can be, today, your entry point into a more intimate relationship with the Lord.  Sit quietly as you ponder what you most want from the Lord.  Take time to tell him your deepest desires.  Allow yourself to be shaped by the Holy Spirit as you express them.

Why not do it right now?

Encouragement From The Word

Mission in God’s Big World

As you read this, I will be en route to Bangalore, India, where I will be providing spiritual direction to pastors and students (and possibly their family members) at the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies.  A team of six of us are helping to equip leaders of churches with new tools for spiritual formation.

This is a new thing for me.  And as I’ve told my congregation, it’s way outside my comfort zone.  The last few days of preparation were remarkably difficult, because my dear wife and I, in twenty years of marriage, have never been apart for three consecutive weeks before!  However, I pressed on, because I know God is in this in a powerful way.

One of the things I know this trip will teach me is just how global the church really is.  Never having flown farther than Vancouver before, I know this will stretch my picture of human society and enhance my understanding of what God can do in the world.

In that sense, I will almost certainly receive more than I give in this trip, but I hope to make a contribution to the Asian church as it enriches its understanding of spiritual formation.

God is at work all around the world.  While we in the North American church lament the closure of congregations and bicker over points of biblical interpretation and theological practice, the church in Asia bustles with excitement and activity.  People come to know Christ every day.  And I’m excited that I get to be part of that for just a few weeks.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28.19-20, NIV).  Wherever in the world you go to make disciples, know that the Lord is with you.

Please keep our team in your prayers.

Musings

“I don’t have time” or “It’s not a priority”?

After seeing a friend’s Facebook status the other day, I chose to write about how “I don’t have time” versus “It’s not a priority” relates to God’s invitation to being…

Based on the comments I received on the theme of last Sunday’s message, I get the sense that many of you are living the harried life!  Several of you spoke of how the shaken, cloudy water resonated with you.  I know what you mean.   But where does it go from here?

It’s one thing for us to commiserate, but quite another to do something about the problem.  That’s the hard part, isn’t it?  Most of us simply shrug our shoulders and say, “I don’t have the time,” when in reality, what we might better say is, “It’s not a priority.”

I’ve often wanted to try an experiment.  (I’ve wanted to, but have regularly said, “I don’t have the time!”)  I’d love to take a typical day and chronicle everything – everything – I do, and write it down so I could see where my time is really being spent.  It wouldn’t just be writing down “work” from 9 to 5 (or whatever), but denoting exactly what comprised that “work”.  Something tells me that if any of us did that, we might be a trifle surprised, maybe even humbled, by the results.  But that would be a great way to begin the process of prioritization.

Hopefully, you want to make time to just “be” with the Lord.  Rather than say, “I don’t have time to just ‘be’ with the Lord,” try saying, “I don’t make it a priority to just ‘be’ with the Lord.”  Ouch.  Trouble is, we often find ourselves with an even odder conundrum:  we don’t make it a priority to re-order our priorities.  Maybe that’s the place to start.

Even if you don’t bother to try my little experiment noted above, clear an hour from your schedule.  Sit in a quiet place, in a comfortable, upright position.  Take a notebook, or a sheet of paper, and write down the major things that are part of a typical day, and a typical week, for you.  There will be sub-categories, of course, but among your major categories might be such things as sleeping, eating, working, spending time with people you love, and having fun.  How would you prioritize these?

Clearly, earning a living is important, unless you’re already retired (which leaves you with more free time, at least in theory).  Sleeping is also important, since you need rest in order to be able to function fully.  Spending time with people you love matters, too, because your marriage (if you are married) is foundational not just to your own family but to all of society; your kids and other family members are important, too.  And we all need fun once in a while.  So where do we fit God into this scenario?

Ideally, God is part of every part of your day (and he is, whether we realize it or not).  But where do we fit intentional time with the Lord into this picture?

Something else you should gauge among the things you do in the day is the time you waste.  Most of us waste some time during each day; some of us are really good at it!  A friend of mine, who was struggling to find enough time to spend with the Lord, decided to cut out the 11:00 news at night, which, she reasoned, sent her to bed flustered anyway.  That produced a minimum of an extra three-and-a-half hours each week that she could spend with the Lord.

I’m confident that each of us, if we see time with God as a priority instead of just another thing to add to the list, can deepen our walk with the Lord through quality time sitting in his presence.  May God bless you as you work on your priorities!

Biblical Messages

God’s Invitation To Being

In our busy world, we regularly forget that we were not made to go hard 24/7.  We were made to spend six days in our work, and one day in rest.  And that rest – that gift of Sabbath – should include availing ourselves of God’s gifts of solitude and silence.

Prior to this message, based on Matthew 11.25-30, this video was shown.  You can listen to the message by clicking here.