Encouragement From The Word

Essentially speaking

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

This phrase has shown up in a couple of conversations I’ve had in the past few days, and it has stuck with me.  It is variously attributed:  some say it was Augustine of Hippo, others say it was John Wesley, and still others attribute it to one or another person.

It is a phrase commonly used among Christians, and almost certainly it arose from some sort of theological discussion.  It remains an extremely helpful reminder to us as we look at what it means to be the church in various expressions today, but it has its share of challenges, too.

I think most every sane follower of Jesus can agree that “in all things, charity”, or love, is crucial.  Jesus told us his disciples of old to love one another, and that applies to his disciples today, too.

What, though, is considered “essential”, and what is considered “non-essential”? That’s the tough question this phrase begs.

There will be a lot of answers to this, to be sure.  But followers of Jesus generally can agree on some key essentials, such as a belief in the Triune God: God the Father, made known in his Son Jesus Christ, living in believers today by the Holy Spirit.  Basic stuff.

We can consider essential that Jesus died for our sins, and rose again – bodily – on the third day.

But once you get past these key beliefs, the definition of “essential” starts to vary. And this is why, I think, we will always have denominations.  There will be different branches of the church of Jesus that hold different tenets as essential.

The big challenge comes when a Christian group opts not to define what it considers to be essential.  If a creedal church – one that upholds the ancient creeds of the early church – simply states that the Apostles’ Creed, or the Nicene Creed, is what defines what is essential, is that sufficient?  (After all, even the Nicene Creed has two versions, depending on whether you believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father. A lot of ink was spilled over that one a long time ago.)

The Bible is replete with statements that any church could consider to be essential, core statements of faith.  I don’t think it’s up to each person alone to decide what is essential.  Certainly, as an individual, I can read Scripture and discern what I believe is most important to my faith, but then I am wise to affiliate with a body of believers that holds those tenets as essential.

Whatever those essentials are, they need to be grounded in a simple reading of Scripture, and grounded in the history of the church.   The Holy Spirit still works, to be sure, and the Holy Spirit never contradicts the Word of God.

So ask yourself:  what is essential for your church?  What is essential for you?  And then ask the Holy Spirit living within you to enable you to live in charity – in love – even with those with whom you disagree.

Sometimes, that can be difficult, and sometimes it means keeping fellowship at a distance.  That may be a different definition of unity, but in this day and age, it may be all we have.

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3.13-14, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

A snapshot of the Kingdom of God

Last weekend, I had the privilege of speaking three times on the occasion of the 153rd anniversary of Côte des Neiges Presbyterian Church in Montreal.  I suspect that, while I was there to provide spiritual encouragement to the church and to call the seekers to faith, I probably got more out of being among these people than they got from me.  Let me tell you why.

In that congregation I saw a snapshot of the Kingdom of God, and it was beautiful.

The congregation is reflective of its neighbourhood in terms of its ethnic makeup, and there are people from – quite literally – all over the world who worship God in that community.  To watch them in praise, and then in fellowship over meals, was truly a delight.

One incident that stood out for me involved a young Brazilian couple who had just moved to the city for school.  Neither spoke English, but at least one of them spoke Spanish, and serendipitously, a Spanish-speaking woman in the congregation sat with them and translated the service after they wandered in for worship (intentionally seeking a Presbyterian church, since that is their background).  Then, at lunch, she introduced them to the Pastor of the congregation, and he asked if they had any needs.  His desire for these folks, along with welcoming them into the faith community, was to make sure that their physical needs were met – something this congregation has become known for, even among government social service agencies, which are often suspicious of churches.

The young Brazilian couple was then escorted into the church hall to enjoy a great meal, with 150 other people of all ages.  And I’m assured that they will have been given a doggy-bag of leftovers, as happens with several people each week when the church sits down to a meal.  For some in the congregation, that meal is their biggest of the week, and a highlight of their lives.

At both worship and meals, there were children roaming around, making sounds, and what did the church do?  Nothing.  Why?  Because having children roam around, making sounds, is normal.  We can rejoice when these things happen, because they are signs of life.  It’s great to see a growing church in this day and age, and that one is growing!

Somehow, I suspect that when I enter the great marriage feast of the Lamb, it’s going to look a lot like Côte des Neiges Church.  And that will be wonderful!

Why am I telling you this?  The hope is to encourage you, that there are churches being effective in doing God’s work.  I hope yours is one of them.  When we visit other worshipping communities, we have the opportunity to learn things that will help us make our own churches into little snapshots of the Kingdom of God.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133.1, NRSV).

Encouragement From The Word

Peace and unity

On Remembrance Day, we pause to remember and give thanks for those who have fought for our freedom – a freedom demonstrated earlier this week as our neighbours to the south voted in a presidential election.

One of the things I have noticed in recent years, which was writ large throughout the seemingly-endless US election campaign, is that in western society, we are polarized like never before.  And it seems to pervade all spheres, not least the political and ecclesiastical spheres.

In church and state, people seem pitted on either side of one issue or a multiplicity of issues, and the mud-slinging comes from both sides.  What the world needs is what the church can demonstrate if it will:  peace and unity.

To that end, I will let God’s Word speak for itself.  Receive these words from the Lord.  Read them slowly, perhaps a few times.  Allow the Lord to speak to you through them.  And respond practically.

How very good and pleasant it is

    when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head,

    running down upon the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,

    running down over the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon,

    which falls on the mountains of Zion.

For there the Lord ordained his blessing,

    life forevermore.  (Psalm 133, NRSV)

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.  So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.  For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.  The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.  So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.  (Romans 13.1-5, NLT)

Encouragement From The Word

Lessons for the rest of us from the election of Pope Francis

In case you missed it, the Roman Catholic Church has a new leader as of this week.  Pope Francis is the first pontiff from the Americas, and he has been received with great joy.  From this, there is a lesson for us.

Our Roman Catholic friends are a devoted bunch.  The vigils that took place outside the Vatican as people awaited the white smoke billowing from the pope-selection-white-smoke_65226_600x450chimney of the Sistine Chapel brought people for as far as the eye could see.  And once that white smoke came, there was jubilation – even before they knew the identity of the new pope.  Folks were excited to know that their church had a new leader.

What makes this all the more amazing, from a democratic perspective, is that these folks are showing so much joy at the election of a leader over whom they had no say whatsoever.  And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

The lesson for us, I think, is multifold.  First, trust the process.  There is very little that’s democratic about the Roman Catholic Church; it doesn’t pretend otherwise.  It’s a top-down system of church government, and the major decisions are made by high-ranking clergy.  The decision over who would be made pope was made by 115 men (cardinals) who themselves have been papal appointees over the years.  And their decision-making process was one that, they trusted, was guided by the Holy Spirit.  Of course, we don’t know what went on in the conclave; but if 115 cardinals can decide, reasonably quickly, that one of their number should become the next pope, there must be something to be said for the process.

Second, trust the deciders.  There were people in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto who prayed for their pastor, Cardinal Thomas Collins, every day from the time he left for Rome, that his decision, and that of the other cardinals, would be Spirit-led.  And once the decision was proclaimed, no one doubted the sanity or opinion of these decision makers.  They accepted it with joy.

Third, support the leader.  Because the people trusted the process and trusted the deciders, it became easy to support the leader.  True, there may be those who had been hoping, maybe even praying, that someone else would be elected.  But nobody is jumping up and down, making a fuss over the election of a new pope.  They are rejoicing with the decision that was made, and celebrating with their fellow Roman Catholics that the Lord has guided the process of choosing a new leader.

What does this mean for us?  It can apply in our politics, and in our churches.

In our politics, the lesson is that once a leader is chosen, through whatever democratic process we have, we support the leader…even if that person’s politics are not the same as ours.  Of course, there is always room for opposition, but it is always, in Canadian parlance, loyal opposition.  (Granted, that loyalty, in context, is to the Crown, but as the one who leads on the Crown’s behalf, there is an implied loyalty that comes even amid asking difficult questions.)  Too often, at least in North American politics, the opposition (both official and unofficial) has become cruel and personal in recent years.  This is not helpful to the cause of governance, nor to the cause of the Gospel that we followers of Jesus seek to live out.  Once the leader is chosen, be supportive.

(I know, I know.  Hitler was duly elected.  But can we call a spade a spade and say that the situation surrounding the Third Reich was an exception rather than normative?)

In our churches, the lesson is that once a leader is chosen, through whatever democratic process we have, we support the leader.  Sound familiar?  The same concept applies.  In my tribe, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, the congregation is asked the following question at the induction of a new pastor:  “Do you receive N to be your minister as from Christ?”  That’s a pretty serious question.  If we believe that our leader has been chosen through a divinely anointed process, and that the Lord Jesus is personally bringing this person into our midst as a leader, it stands to reason that we should support him or her – even when we have disagreements with that leader.  That applies to your elders and deacons, too.

This doesn’t mean we can’t air our grievances; what it does mean is that we air our grievances respectfully.  In Christian circles, that means following the principles that Jesus set out for us, particularly in Matthew 18.15-17:   If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (NIV).

The unity of the church for which Jesus prayed (and still prays) will become more real the more we joyfully and prayerfully support our church leaders.  I’m blessed to serve a congregation that offers joyful and prayerful support to its leaders, and I hope you do, too.