Category Archives: Reflections

Bible in a year


One of the things I have been doing for a few years now is to read the Bible each year. There are many different reading plans designed to help you do this. You can even buy Bibles that are set up as daily readings (Bibles in a year.)

Some of these plans go from the beginning to the end. Some have a little bit of Old Testament, a Psalm, and some New Testament each day (Reading plan.) I found either plan to be an issue for me. Continuity was a problem with the mixed reading style, especially if I was travelling and wanted to read on my Kobo. The biggest issue, though, was that they all had a suggested reading for every day and I found I felt guilty if I missed a day and then there was the added pressure of trying to catch up. I don’t think this is meant to be the spirit with which we are meant to approach God’s word.

This year I decided to try my own way. I am into bullet journaling and use a dot grid book. First aI looked up the number of chapters in the Bible. I figured that if I read about three chapters/day I would finish in the year. The Old Testament was just a few chapters fewer than the squares on one page. I found a picture online which I liked and traced it onto one page. Then I marked the rest of the chapters on the next page. The plan was to just read and colour in the number of boxes/chapters I had read the night before.

 And so I began.
As the days went by, some days I would read three chapters and stop. Some nights where one chapter was particularly long, or I was super tired at night, I might just read one or two. On some, I was so caught up in what I was reading that I found I had read four or more chapters. The key for me was not worrying about reading “enough.” I noted the chapters on my phone each night when I out the Bible down and then again the next night.

What did I find with this? I looked forward to reading and it became second nature to reach for the Bible each night. Being a bit of a visual learner,it was great to be able to just look at the page to see my progress without dates or guilt. It is now the last day of August and I am into the prophets. I don’t know how I will approach it next year, but I really like this plan! If you think this would work for you Inencourage you to give it a try.

Other resources;

Bible app from Canadian Bible Society
App and email plan
The App Store

Google Play

Be of one Mind and Other Challenges for the Church


2759742066_57d26d0948It was recently Trinity Sunday. When I first looked at the readings for the week, though, I was thinking about it being the first Sunday after Pentecost and the beginning of a long period of regular time, neither a time of preparation, like Advent or Lent, nor of celebration, like Christmas or Easter.  My first thought was that, after preaching a service last summer on the longest Psalm, it was funny how short the Gospel (Matthew 28: 16-20) and Epistle (2 Corinthians 13:11-14) readings were. They may be short in terms of the number of words and verses, but they are far from short on import and challenge!

If you set aside the importance of the texts to the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity, these readings, in their few verses, speak to some of the most challenging things in the life of the church.  From the Epistle, “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.”, or in NRSV terms which I read first, “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.” These words seemed particularly pertinent in the wake of this year’s General Assembly, three full days of worship and deliberation on issues facing our denomination. And from the Gospel, “Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you.” Today I’ll focus on Paul’s final words to the Corinthians.

Paul wrote a series of imperatives to the community in Corinth. The first imperative to them was, “put things in order”, or mend your ways. The focus of this directive is for each individual looking first to their own relationship with God before trying to sort things out with others in the church. He “invites them into a time of self-examination and self-improvement. To “examine” and “test” themselves.”

 

Paul then, after reminding them to listen to him,  says, “Agree with one another,” or, “Be of one mind.” No problem, right!

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have trouble being of one mind on an issue, and I have just one mind! As we all know from our personal relationships, agreement between even two people can be hugely challenging. That is the whole premise of the various Love It or List It shows in which one couple is unhappy with their home, one convinced that they must move and the other convinced that renovations can solve the problems.  Things can get pretty nasty during the process, but in the end, a decision is made based on what is best for the family.

 

What happens when we disagree on things? It is so easy for a  calm discussion to devolve into argument. There may be harsh words, name calling, accusations may be made, feelings hurt, and the more we battle the less we are able to consider other’s ideas. We focus on defending our own view. This is true of almost any argument, imagine how much more so when the disagreements are on such fundamental things as our faith!

 

If it was easy to agree with one another Abel may have lived a long happy life, and yet Paul here encourages the church of Corinth, a divided, even fragmented, and contentious community, to agree with each other. “Be of one mind.” Was he kidding?

 

As we are agreeing already, the rest is to live in peace. I like this story…

“Painting Peace

There once was a King who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The King looked at all the pictures, but there were only two he really liked and he had to choose between them.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror, for peaceful towering mountains were all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell and in which lightening played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the King looked, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush, a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest… perfect peace.

Which picture do you think won the prize?

The King chose the second picture. “Because,” explained the King, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.” (“Painting Peace”)

This is still a significant challenge, but sounds much more realistic!

In the notes for today on the Church of Scotland website it says, “Second Corinthians is a painful letter for Paul to write, as it deals with the church community in Corinth that has been fractious, irreverent and divisive. The exhortation to, “mend your ways…agree with one another, live in peace…” is forceful. It is a word not only for C1st but also C21st Christians. If essential qualities of the Trinity are unity, togetherness, mutuality, interdependence, then Christians following in the way of the Trinity must also demonstrate those same qualities.

Paul’s letter, after the storms, tears, rebukes, recriminations, and self-justification, according to one commentator, ends with three sweet verses, “…that appear as something of a rainbow.” Paul calls for things to be put in order, for the Corinthians to ‘kiss and make up’, and to be reconciled with each other and with him. It might be that these verses do not give so much instruction about the Trinity, the Trinity is not the focus; rather it is the gifts, given by the Trinity, that are at the forefront: grace, love, and fellowship. The Trinity is intrinsically social in nature; therefore those made in the image of the Trinity are likewise intrinsically social beings. We are called to live in peace and harmony. We are challenged to resolve our disputes graciously and to live peaceably together. Or, to use Paul’s familiar ‘body’ metaphor from First Corinthians, in our diversity we find our unity. In the multiplicity of our purposes, we find that we work together for the good of all. God’s creative imagination and Christ’s redeeming love, culminating in the sustained fellowship and communion that is the binding and joining work of the Holy Spirit.” (“Trinity Sunday”)

And how can we do all this? This is where, in closing, Paul pulls in the ultimate example of a relationship, which we know as the Trinity. Though we can barely hope to do it on our own, we remain hopeful because we are not alone in this. Paul reminds us that we can do it through the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We have been given all we need…

The Facebook post with the link to the summary notes on the Assembly said, “The best summary of all, though, may just be the Moderator’s words and call to action in the final sederunt. “And now the hard part…in church terms, this is called ‘passing the peace – seriously.’ I invite us all to do that, right now.”” (https://tinyurl.com/y7y4qz7w)

 

“Painting Peace”. Stories for Preaching. N.p., 2017. Web. 10 June 2017.

“Trinity Sunday”. Churchofscotland.org.uk. N.p., 2017. Web. 14 June 2017.


This is a little late getting posted, I preached it on Feb 5, 2017. We have now reached spring in NB, though there was snow a few days ago.

View from front door, February 23rd, 2009 stormIt is winter here in New Brunswick and with winter comes darkness. In the winter we have short days, cold, storms, and for those in the northern part of the province this past week, lengthy power outages (now at 11 days). Even though the days have been getting gradually longer since Dec 22nd, by February 2nd if we are not planning trips to warmer climes, we are looking with longing ahead to spring, the light at the end of the tunnel of winter. On the 2nd there were reports from around North America about whether or not famous groundhogs like Wiarton Willie in Ontario, Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia, Mactacaddy, of Mactaquac Provincial Park, and Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania, saw their shadows and thus predictions on 6 more weeks of winter or not. If we lived in the far north we would literally have been in the dark from early October and looking forward to the first sunrise in March. We do not like the dark!

If you have been following the news from the US and Canada in the past several weeks you are aware that there seems to be an increase in the intensity of the dark in the world: US President Donald Trump is still planning to build a wall between the US and Mexico, he plans to cancel trade deals such as NAFTA, the US Congress has a bill on the books proposing to withdraw the US from the United Nations, executive orders have been signed banning travel into the US by people from 7 majority Muslim countries for 90 days, and immigration from there for 120 days. On January 28th a mosque was burned down in Texas, and on the 29th Alexandre Bisonette opened fire at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Quebec killing 6 and injuring 8. And all along the way we have had facts, and alternative facts blurring the lines of truth so that it is sometimes hard to know what to believe.

While we may be particularly concerned with these events and trends, they are really not so different from the darkness that has always been at work in the world. Take heart in the words from the Psalm we just read,

“…those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments…They are gracious, merciful, and righteous…are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. (Psalm 112: 1,4,7)”

And look forward to see what we, as those who delight in God and as disciples of Christ, are meant to be in the world. In Isaiah we read what God wanted from  Israel rather than self-serving fasting,

“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

As Jesus moves on from the final beatitude, “11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matthew 5:11), he begins the next section of the chapter with, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world (Matt 5:13,14). There are a couple of things to note in those statements. First, he is speaking to a crowd, when he says “you” it is in a corporate sense, all of you. Second, he doesn’t say you will become, or you might be, but states as a fact already accomplished, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…”

What do salt and light do? Salt is used to enhance and alter the taste of food, to preserve food, and salt’s power comes from its distinctiveness when mixed with other things. If salt loses its flavour, its distinctiveness, it becomes useless. Scott Hoezee says,

“The implication for disciples is exceedingly curious: it means that we exist for mixing it up with the world. It means that for us to do our savory gospel task of making this world a better place, we need to be out there, being mixed up into people, culture, and society.   Following hard on the heels of his Beatitudes, Jesus is saying that if you’re going to live those grace-filled attitudes, then it’s not enough to work inside the church community, it’s not enough to nurture a strong interior life of spirituality. No, the result of all your piety must be pouring yourself out onto this earth so as to bring out life’s complex and beautiful flavors.

To be useful and true salt, you need to mix into the world, bringing with you gospel savor…But literal salt that never leaves the shaker does nothing to add zing to your French Fries, and likewise Christian disciples who never interact with non-Christian people have no chance of reaching those people with the influence of that whole new world of God that just is the kingdom.

– See more at: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-5a/?type=lectionary_epistle#sthash.7JOBOTlR.dpuf” Scott Heozee

Light has several uses. First of all it allows us to see what was being hidden in the dark, allowing dangers and deceits to be cleared away.  Light helps us to find our way in the dark, to recognize home, to keep ships off the rocks. It makes it so that we can delve into the dark places like mines to uncover their riches just as it allows people to find someone lost in the dark. Sunlight helps plants to grow and keeps us healthy. While we may individually be salty, it is the church, as it reflects the Gospel, which is the light. Marcia Y. Riggs puts the corporate nature of the light like this.

“Like light, the disciples as a gathered community have the overarching purpose of being the mirror that refracts God’s light so that all peoples and nations can know of God’s justice and mercy. As a gathered community the disciples are like light when they engage others in the world, enabling diversity (giving things color), nurturing a healthy, ecofriendly world (helping vegetation grow), generating policies for ecojustice (providing solar power), and restoring or repairing whatever relationships that need such (focusing for specific purposes). (Marcia Y. Riggs, “Theological Perspective” on Matthew 5:13-20 in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1)

This past Thursday evening I went to a play at St. Thomas University.  Titled No White Picket Fence the play by Dr. Robin Whittaker used the verbatim style to tell the stories of ten young women who consider themselves to be living well after being in the foster care system in New Brunswick. The women met individually with an interviewer, a researcher working on a study, to tell their stories and they agreed to allow their words to be used in a play which would bring their experiences into the light.  For ninety minutes the audience sat in the near dark with ten wooden boxes painted as houses and ten actresses. They sat on their houses, and of course they shifted houses periodically, and when it was their turn to share a part of their story the lights in the house turned on. Some of the houses had only one or two windows lit up, but the strength of those women lit the room, not in a warm cozy way but shining light on those uncomfortable, unpleasant corners so often left in the dark. The more this light shines the stronger the impetus to work for change may become.

Back to the news, growing out of all the reports of the dark we also see stories of light. There have been; rallies against Islamophobia around the world; all sorts of people have stated publicly that they will register as Muslim if registration goes forward in the US; non-Muslims are raising money to rebuild the Texas mosque; candlelight vigils have been held for victims of fires and shootings; and in Fredericton money was donated to help the Muslim community expand their area for worship.

So what are we to be and do in the world today? We start with the words of Isaiah, God wants us to,

  • loose the bonds of injustice
  • undo the thongs of the yoke
  • let the oppressed go free
  • share your bread with the hungry
  • bring the homeless poor into your house
  • when you see the naked to cover them
  • do not to hide yourself from your own kin

Be salty! Dare to be distinctive and speak out where others are silent. As you work to enhance and alter the world, God’s light will be seen reflecting off of you and the lost may see their way home.

The longest Psalm/ mindless repetition?


3631902258_3fab33242d_mI follow a reading plan through which, in 365 days, one reads the whole Bible. Most days there are 2-6 chapters to read each day. One day in June I came to a day that had only 1 chapter to read. Twelve columns later I had read the entire 119th Psalm in one sitting. The next day I looked for more information on the Psalm and read that it was intended to be read, like a devotional book in our day, rather than sung or recited. I continued thinking about this, the longest psalm, for days, weeks. I started thinking about the fact that we only ever encounter short sections of 119 in the lectionary cycle, and wondered how to include it all in one, or a series of services. So here we are!

This Psalm is different from other Psalms, not only because of its length, but because it was most likely written out rather than developed orally, and its focus is not on God’s acts and his rule over the world, but rather on his word or the Torah. This Psalm is a highly structured piece of poetry. There are 176 verses, 22 strophes or stanzas, each of which could stand alone with no problem!  The whole thing is an acrostic with each section beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I bet we have all been asked to write an acrostic poem at some point in our school years. “Write your name down a page and then have each line start with that letter.”

Every line of this poem has essentially the same message. How many of you have heard, or said, “You call that music!?! They just keep saying the same words over and over!” Much as people may complain over hearing the same thing over and over again, repetition is not always a bad thing. Think of music.  Composers work hard to keep a balance between repetitions, essential in order to hold the piece together as a single unit, and contrast to give variety. The first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is based entirely on one short rhythmic pattern and one interval; three eight notes and a half note, and a descending major third. It holds together so well, in fact, that even people with little or no music training could respond to the first pattern with the next.

With all 176 verses saying basically the same thing, the repetition is well in hand.  So where does the psalmist provide variety? First with vocabulary. In the Hebrew there are eight central words (seven when translated to English) used throughout the Psalm to give subtle tweak to the meaning of the one word, Torah, which could have been used in all cases. There are two different Hebrew words that translate as word, and then law, judgments, testimonies, commandments, statutes, and precepts. Rather than tell of God’s mighty acts, these highlight two aspects of God’s word, his directives for our lives, and his promises to us.

Second, variety comes from the form of each statement. Within this one Psalm you can find examples of all the types of Psalms; individual prayers for help, “94 I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts,” petitions, “116 Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope,” expressions of ones troubles, “95 The wicked lie in wait to destroy me, but I consider your decrees,” assertions of trust, “103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” and vows of praise, “175 Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me.

            In the Interpretation Series book Psalms, James L. Mays lists four key points about the psalmist’s single-minded focus on God’s word. The first is that “God’s instruction is important because it is God’s.” This is a fairly simple statement. Having already read all the other Psalms which talk of God’s power in creation, in redeeming his people time and again, and in his rule over all the nations, readers of this Psalm should be ready to consider God’s word first in everything. The fact that he had to continually redeem his people is testimony to the fact that people did not, in fact, put it first but got caught up in the words of man, in the statutes put in place by human rulers and the tempting statements of believers in other gods. The Psalmist knows well that God’s word is most important, and yet throughout 119 we read that even he struggled with this. Pick a random verse after verse 8 from this Psalm and find the word used for Torah. What word goes with it? These nouns are always prefaced with the word, “his,” or “your” in order to maintain the readers focus on God. In the introduction and conclusion sections it says things like, “the law of the Lord,” or, “his statutes.” He never said our laws, or the laws, or the commandments.

May’s second point is that “The word of God requires obedience and faith and does not accept legalism.” Obedience is not a strong suit for many of us, and we know that we will fail in being completely obedient, but God’s word calls us to obey anyway. With respect to legalism, it is all too easy to lose focus on God himself and start watching out for any little infraction to his law in order to judge and punish the person responsible. This became so prevalent that perhaps it is why, long after this Psalm was written, Jesus simplified things into the New Commandment, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). Only God is to judge.

The third point is that, “God’s word is given but never possessed; we need to seek and study constantly and pray for teaching and learning.” So we read the Bible, at least in worship, and before we do so we ask that he reveal his message to us, that he use the word to teach us and that he help us to learn. I think of a part of Tevye’s song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I were a rich man…If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack to shit in the synagogue and pray. Maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the Holy books with the learned men seven hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all!” The usual connotation of the word rules would be of limits on freedom and on punishment. But, like Tevye, the writer of Psalm 119 clearly did not see the Torah as an onerous duty, but as a source of delight.

92 If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my misery.
93 I will never forget your precepts,
for by them you have given me life. 

May’s fourth point is that, “The word comes from God, but must become a part of us, it requires a conversion of the heart.” This Psalm itself is an example to us of what that means. “The author had a theme that filled his soul, a theme as big as life, which ranged the length and breadth and height and depth of a person’s walk with God.”(John H. Stek) And so his Psalm is not some arbitrary exercise in acrostic poetry but a pouring out of his heart. It is not a lifeless, repetitive annoyingly long reading, unless we make it so.

By the end of the service today we will have heard, read, or sung, not quite the whole Psalm, but at least a part of every strophe. Remember that God’s word is important, that much is required of us, that we need to study and reflect on it, and that we need to allow it to seep in and become embedded in our hearts, a part of us.

 

Abingdon Press.,. New Interpreter’s Study Bible-NRSV. Abingdon Press, 2003. Print.

Barker, Kenneth L and Donald W Burdick. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995. Print.

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994. Print.

 

Grace; what do we do with it?


Tool BeltSumming up the last three sermons about Grace; Grace may be defined as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; grace is available to all people, over 7 billion in the world today; and there is nothing we can do to receive grace for ourselves except make ourselves open to that forgiveness, and trusting that it will come.   

Since we have been justified by faith and forgiven for our sins, what are we meant to do going forward? Many people have questioned the doctrine of grace earned by faith alone as it seems to imply that, since we are already justified, we have no need to be good, or do anything in the world.  This is, of course, not the case.  As children of God, forgiven through Christ, we commit ourselves to live a Christ-like life.  As our Epistle reading this morning reads in The Message, “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it.  Pursue the things over which Christ presides.  Don’t shuffle along eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.  Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is.”   What does this life look like?

In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace Philip Yancey talks about, “tracing the roots of the word grace, or charis in Greek, and finding a verb that means “I rejoice, I am glad.”  He goes on to say that, “In my experience, rejoicing and gladness are not the first images that come to mind when people think of the church.  They think of holier-than-thous.  They think of church as a place to go when you have cleaned up your act, not before.”  As people of grace, we want our lives and our church to reflect this rejoicing and gladness, and we want people to feel free to join us no matter where they are on their journey of faith.

In our readings last week we read the story of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray in the words we now refer to as the Lord’s Prayer.  It is in this prayer that we run up against the first requirement of leading a Christ-like life.  Jesus instructed them to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  The first part is all good, forgiveness of our debts, grace, is central to our lives. The problem appears in the form of one of the shortest, and in this case most powerful, words in our language, “as.” Forgive us like we forgive. It is a powerful word because while we are happy to be forgiven, there is a clear link here between our forgiveness by the Father and our own forgiving of our friends, neighbours, and enemies. Our first task as Christians is to forgive, to pass the grace along, and this is definitely a counter-culture way of thinking. 

Yancey quotes Elizabeth O’Connor who puts the dilemma this way, “Despite a hundred sermons on forgiveness, we do not forgive easily, nor find ourselves easily forgiven.  Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than the sermons make it out to be.” The human tendency would be to brood over wrongs, hold grudges, plot revenge, and pray that the bad guys get their just deserts in harsh punishments. I have no intention of making forgiveness sound easy in this sermon.  It is not. I pray the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime and I often find myself tripped up in the middle and having to go off on a tangent to try to bring myself around to forgiveness for someone else before I can pray the remainder of the prayer. Luckily we have God to help us with our natural tendency towards unforgiveness.

Forgiving others is an emotional and spiritual challenge which we work out mostly internally and through the help of the Holy Spirit.  In more practical terms, let’s look at some of the other things we should be doing as recipients of grace, and to be as Christ-like as possible. I referred last week to the ‘means of grace’ which are a gift from God rather than a checklist to be completed in order to receive grace.  Steven Manskar describes them as, “… how we grow and mature in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength….This means of grace are divided into two general categories: works of piety and works of mercy.”  There follows a nice concrete list…

Piety                                                              Mercy

prayer (private and family)                   feeding the hungry

public worship                                           clothing the naked

the Lord’s Supper                                     caring for the sick

reading & studying the Bible                visiting the jails and prisons

Christian conference                               sheltering the homeless

fasting or abstinence                               welcoming the stranger

                                                                        peacemaking

                                                                        acting for the common good 

These are all things Jesus did and taught his disciples to do, not in order to receive forgiveness but because they were forgiven.

 In reading through several recent issues of the Presbyterian Record I saw many examples of these acts of piety and mercy; I read of the power of prayer; of many different styles of worship from Sunday mornings in the established churches to worship around the campfire at one of our many summer camps; I saw ads for different colleges and universities and the elders institute offering both Christian conference and study, I read of assistance given to people from Fort McMurray and the congregation there, of women’s retreats,  of congregations sponsoring refugees from Syria and Namibia, of young people identifying needs in the community and starting a program to help, of the church signing a joint statement stating that the church would work to implement the articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous; the discipleship is there, it is active and vibrant throughout the national church.

 Is discipleship active here at St. Paul’s?  I believe that it is.  You put an emphasis on worship through our Sunday services 52 times each year.  You regularly meet to share the Lord’s Supper and include in that everyone who attends worship. Worship is based on the reading and interpretation of the Word, and make available monthly books for daily devotion.  Meeting in Bible studies, coffee hours etc. there is a chance to share experiences, questions, and insights with each other.  You are always ready to welcome people to the congregation, collect for food banks, lead services and help with birthday parties at the Carleton Manor, send birthday and Christmas cards and fruit trays to seniors, celebrate PWS&D Sunday, support the Atlantic Mission Society and Presbyterians Sharing. 

Manskar stresses in his article the need to maintain a balance in our works rather than to, “always gravitate toward those that suit our temperament or personality. For example, an introvert may naturally be drawn to …private prayer, Bible study and fasting…and will tend to neglect worship, conference and works of mercy…while an extroverted person will naturally be drawn to those works of piety and mercy that suit his/her temperament but will neglect time alone with God in prayer and reflection.  Could we challenge ourselves to stretch and increase our involvement even in the areas with which we are less comfortable?  This is a question upon which every individual needs to reflect in prayer, and which our congregations need to discern in order to gain a vision for their continuing ministry within the community.

 In a world of ever bigger barns, as individuals and congregations we need to avoid the trap of the greedy farmer, filling our barns with stuff for ourselves rather than with God.  We need to look beyond ourselves to where Christ is looking. To the needs of those in hunger, in pain, in trouble with the law, everyone we meet, for as it states in Colossians, “Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing.  From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ. “

 We will know we are getting it right when people see a church which is active, vital, open and welcoming; a place to come for help, as well as to offer help, and a place to grow in the love and service of Christ. 

 

Manskar, Steven W. “Opening Ourselves To Grace: The Basics Of Christian Discipleship – Umcdiscipleship.Org”.Umcdiscipleship.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 3 July 2016.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002. Print.

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.

Grace; how do we get it?


checklistIn case you have not read the last two posts, we have been talking about grace.  The first week we defined grace as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God which means that, “God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love” (Yancey). And last week we focused on the issue of whom this grace is for.  Our answer from Colossians was that “God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing…”

 For today, we change our focus again and look at the issue of what we need to do in order to receive God’s grace for ourselves. Today’s quick answer is, say yes, thank you! “In his article entitled Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship, Steven W. Manskar said,

 “This life (of Christian discipleship) begins with forgiveness of our sins. When we acknowledge who we are (sinners in need of forgiveness), we can begin living into the lives God desires for us as his beloved children.  With forgiveness comes freedom – from sin and death – so that we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love those whom God loves; as God loves them, in Christ.  All this is God’s gift to the world – grace.”

 As we hear in that description, before we can receive forgiveness of our sins we need to admit that we are sinners in the first place.  This is why our service of worship always includes a confession of sins.  If we feel that we are justified in all our acts without God then we will not need grace at all. This admission of our sinful nature is also a part of the summary of Louis B. Weeks’ chapter on following Jesus in his 1941 publication To Be a Presbyterian, 

“In the sequence of trying to follow Jesus we are first enabled to repent, to recognize the sinfulness in which we exist and call upon God for forgiveness. We are then permitted to sense that God does not count our sin against us, because Christ intercedes for us.  Then we experience the falling away of sin, the restoring of our relationship as children of God.  Finally, we move in the process of following Jesus.”

Having accepted that we are in need of forgiveness, we move on to receiving the gift.  First, as a gift that is offered freely and without price, it must be received and accepted as a gift.  As our Gospel reading says today, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Think for a moment about the last time someone gave you a compliment. Maybe they thought you looked good, your clothes were nice, or your work was well done. How did you feel? Happy or proud right? Or maybe you felt awkward or undeserving. Does this sound familiar to anyone? “That is an awesome shirt!” “Oh, I’ve had it for ages.” or “I got it from a bag of things my friend was getting rid of.” Somehow in our society we have come to think that accepting a compliment with a simple thank you is somehow prideful, and pride must be avoided. If we have this much trouble with a simple compliment imagine the challenge in accepting that all the things of which we are most ashamed in our lives have been erased with no penalty.

 Some theologians say that if we are seeking God, it is only because God has planted in us the desire to seek him, and that it is God rather than man who seeks relationship.  God is looking for us, desires a relationship with us, and has grace waiting for us when we are ready to accept it, all we really need to do is ask, or knock and then stay on the step expecting the door to open.  When you ask for something, as I tell my kids all the time, you need to be prepared to accept the answer whether it is positive or negative. In this case you ask in faith knowing that the answer will be yes.  I think that when we ask for grace, in this context, what we are really asking for is God’s help with accepting the gift.

The reformed tradition of Luther and Calvin teaches us that justification, being made right with God through forgiving grace, is received through faith alone, that we do not need to make ourselves good enough through doing the correct number of good deeds in order to receive God’s forgiveness. In fact, none of us are capable of making ourselves good enough for God. Remember that grace is freely given and unmerited.  In our humanity and in this world of corruption and greed, it is difficult for us to accept that anything is freely offered, that there are no strings attached. 

 “Congratulations, you have won a free trip to the Caribean…”

The idea that anyone, even God, can love us despite our sins and flaws seems ludicrous and then adding that there is nothing in it for them is just more than we can fathom.  We have so much trouble forgiving ourselves and those who slight us in any way that it may be beyond our imaginations that God would forgive even the direst of sins.

Manskar points out that, “we are not always faithful, patient, or available to God.  God provided us with the means of grace, gifts given to help us make time and space for God in our lives.”  One of these means is in prayer, both private and public.  Through prayer we can ask for help with accepting grace.  Where faith is the only requirement for justification, we can follow the example of the father of an epileptic boy in need of healing who said, “”I believe; help my unbelief!”  We might pray the words of our call to worship from this morning, “May we drink deeply, and receive your grace. May we stand in trust, and receive your strength. May we open our hearts, and receive your healing love.” In public and in private we can not go wrong by praying the way Jesus taught in today’s reading from Luke.

 Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

 The bottom line today is that there is nothing we can do to receive grace for ourselves except for making ourselves open to that forgiveness, and trusting that it will come.  Our real struggle will be with our human nature and our inclination to doubt.  For help with that we have but to ask. In the words of John Wesley;

“O that we mayst all receive of Christ’s fullness, grace upon grace;

Grace to pardon our sins, and subdue our iniquities;

To justify our persons and to sanctify our souls;

And to complete that holy change, that renewal of our hearts,

Whereby we may be transformed

Into that blessed image wherein thou didst create us.”


S2856293801_b4fd8f405chepherds and Sheep

Our texts today refer to the relationship of sheep and their shepherds.  In Psalm 23 we read perhaps the ultimate statement of individual intimacy with God and the comfort and protection offered by the divine shepherd.  While it refers to troubles and the valley of death, it is more about God-centered living than about death. And in Mark, as in Matthew and Luke, we see God the Son as the compassionate shepherd who, even though he had been trying to avoid the crowds, could not turn his back on the people but taught them and healed them.

Let’s look at this image from both sides.  There are sheep…and there are shepherds.

Sheep are simple animals who spend their days grazing on grass and growing long coats of hair which are later sheared off.  Used for their wool, their milk, their hide, and their meat; they are of great value to their owners.  Sheep have a strong flocking instinct finding the greatest safety in the center of the flock.  Having no means of defence other than running away, sheep are easily startled, and when frightened don’t really pay attention to where they are going,  getting easily caught in brambles or finding themselves separated from the group. Lost sheep have a much lower chance of survival and need to be returned to the herd quickly.

Are we like sheep?  In our readings today the sheep in the texts were metaphors for the people of God.  In Psalm 23 we are grateful sheep, given rest and comfort and assured of the continued presence and guidance of the greatest shepherd.  In Mark we are the crowd, or the flock, seeking Jesus and his presence, teaching and healing.

Shepherds make their living by tending to the sheep.  They are responsible for making sure that the sheep are well fed, kept safe from predators, that ewes give birth safely, and making sure that none of the sheep get lost or stolen.  Shepherds live with the stock, they do not just put them in pens and go into nice cozy houses for the nights.  It is lonely work with no vacation days and certainly no storm days.  For these people, the sheep come first, they are their primary concern.  Think about the human shepherds in the Bible.  Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and King David all worked as shepherds of real sheep.  They also all made great contributions to the advancement and well-being of the Israelites.

Why skip over the stories of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water?  These are both great examples of shepherding. Jesus provided good grazing, if you will, for the people who had gathered around him and he walked out onto the water when he saw that his disciples were straining at the oars on their boat.  These are big front-page stories and risk taking the focus off of Jesus’ compassion.  We are not just an employer’s sheep here; we are his own sheep whom he loves.

Being of the television generation, several mental pictures immediately spring up when discussing sheep and shepherds.  First is the series of cartoons with the wolf and the big sheepdog checking in on their time clocks and heading out to work, the wolf to try to catch and kill the sheep, and the dog to protect them.  The second is of Babe the pig herding the sheep in the sheepdog competition into separate pens by communicating with them in their own terms.  He knew the magic words…”Baa-ram-ewe”

What dangers do we need our shepherd to protect us from?  We could list hundreds of temptations, and dangers such as muggings etc here, but the only real danger is that we become separated from God.  Sin separates us from God and so we need the shepherd to steer us away from sinful things…to keep us on the straight path.

God sent Jesus to live among us as one of us just as the sheepdogs and Babe did.  Jesus knew our own language.  He knew what we were going through because he lived it.  People could feel this, perhaps the reason he drew such large crowds of people wherever he went.  He knew the magic words.  He was one of us, not trying to make himself much more than us.

A shepherd is a guide.  If you have travelled to new places at all you will realize how much easier it is to get around, how much more comfortable you feel, with a guide who knows the area.  Whether this be a jungle safari or a trip to the Montreal Jazz Festival, it is easier to take in the event when someone else is taking charge of keeping you from straying off.  Someone who has been there before.

God knew this and planned to give us just this sort of guide.  Jesus is such a good shepherd because he also has been a sheep.  While Jeremiah foretells the shepherd, John 1:36 refers to Jesus as, “God’s Passover Lamb” and Acts 8:32, “As a sheep led to slaughter, and quiet as a lamb being sheared,”  Lambs are used to symbolize innocence and only perfect lambs were acceptable for sacrifice to God in the Old Testament.  He has been here before and He knows the way.  It is for us to put our faith in Him and follow in his ways.

 

Psalm 23  The Gospel- Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

Grace/ Whom is it For?


Last week we dealt with the question, “what is grace?”  Our conclusion was that grace is difficult to define, that it is best known through our experience. The dictionary’s theological definition was, “the freely given, unmerited  favour and love of God” and Philip Yancey’s definition was, “Grace means there is nothing  we  can do to make God love us more-no amount of spiritual callisthenics and renunciation, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes.  And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – no amount of racism, or pride, or pornography, or adultery, or even murder.  Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.”

Today wKingsclear-20110524-00031e address the question of whom this grace is for.  When preparing this message my husband and I were talking and agreed that the answer is simple.  Grace is for everyone.  Ok, now that the sermon is done…

I had my first debate on this topic when I was in grade six. My Sunday school teacher was going to great lengths to make it clear that all Jews were going to hell unless they converted to Christianity. Armed with my twelve years’ experience and knowledge of God’s love, creation of all, and his specific relationship with Israel as his chosen people, I argued that God would not just abandon his people.

We know that there is no easy answer to today’s question.  While it is absolutely true that God’s grace is for everyone, this is not an answer with which we are readily satisfied.  It is hard enough for us to grasp that, despite all our faults, God still loves us and forgives us but what about thieves, murderers, and rapists? Grace can’t possibly be meant for people like Hitler and Pol Pot!  We get hung up in our call for justice, by which we often mean retribution! Mark A; McIntosh says that starting out study of theology from salvation means that we don’t have to accept and be distracted by all that is bad in the world, because we know it is in the process of being transformed.

Let’s start with the slightly easier question of who needs grace.  Again, there is an easy answer.  Everyone who has sinned needs grace.  Remember how many people threw stones when Jesus said in John 8, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  We could now branch off into a discussion of the doctrine of original sin, but we will leave that for another day.  We will take for granted today that we all have sinned in some way in our lives and move on from there.

There are, depending on your basis for inclusion, between 192 and 194 countries in the world. The Vatican City is a country but not one of the United Nations.  As of July 2016 the world population was approximately 7,336,390,000.  Current estimates are that there are approximately 4200 different religions in the world.

We may think that people from some countries, continents, races or religions are vastly different from ourselves and that this would mean that the number for God to care for would be lower than that.  Our Epistle reading this morning tells us, though, that, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross…to every creature under heaven.”   God made every one of those more than 7 billion people. Scientific research demonstrates that, “all humans around the world today are biologically very similar despite our superficial differences.  In fact, we are 99.9% genetically identical.  When we are compared to many other kinds of animals, it is remarkable how little variation exists within our own species.”  So, here today on the planet earth there are 7,336,390,000 people in 192 countries whom God loves and to whom his saving grace is available.

Paul reminds the Colossians that (in The Message paraphrase) “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of (Jesus’) death, his blood that poured down from the Cross.” (1Col:16) When we clean out our garages and storage rooms we usually have three categories; garbage, keep and sell (or give to charity).  Within this system we would automatically throw away anything that is actually broken without a second thought.  If things are broken, they are of no value to anyone.  Our landfills are silent testaments to this reality.  But God doesn’t use a human value system, he doesn’t have a garbage pile, he doesn’t throw away those of us who are broken by sin.

The Pharisees asked about this different value system when they asked why Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners rather than good lawful people like themselves. They actually asked the question of one of his disciples. But when (Jesus) heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mat 9:12-13

Forty years after my debate with my Sunday school teacher, and armed with more information and experience, here is my view on the idea that all people will be saved.

  1. God created all and declared that all was good
  2. Jesus died for the sins of all
  3. For present salvation and life as transformed people, and participation in Christ in the present, on must accept the gift of grace that is offered.
  4. Future salvation is available for all individuals.
  5. It is God’s intention to reconcile all of creation which would include all individuals.
  6. All individuals will be saved through God’s power and love in some way we are not yet able to perceive or accept.

“God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing…Christ is in you, therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory.  It’s that simple.” (Col 1:27 MSG)

 

McIntosh, Mark A. Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002. Print.

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.

Grace, what is it?


Kingsclear-20110612-00079

I really started thinking about grace one summer, around nine years ago, when I was visiting my sister outside Montreal.  She said that she had heard the term used in church for years but realized she didn’t think she really understood it. I had been doing some theology courses and she asked me what I knew about it. I shared the little bit I knew about the grace of God as shown in the forgiveness of sins, but it felt a bit lame, lifeless somehow.  A seed had been planted. Since then we have both watched out for books and articles on grace. One of the first books I read was Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.

When dealing with a concept such as grace, people often start with the word itself.  I was surprised that when I Googled for definitions of grace the first seven definitions were secular; it wasn’t until the eighth definition that God was connected with the word.  Of course, from my egocentric view of the world, it is hard for me to imagine why the people writing these dictionaries didn’t understand that without God’s grace the other meanings might not exist and certainly wouldn’t be as powerfully positive.

As a noun, grace is defined as; elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action; a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment; favour or good will; a manifestation of favour; mercy/clemency/pardon; favour in granting a delay or temporary immunity; an allowance of time after a debt or bill has become payable granted to the debtor before a law suit can be brought.

When I look in my five volume Bible dictionary, the entry for grace is ten columns long. I will spare you the details. Theologically, grace is defined as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them; a virtue or excellence of divine origin.

For most people, even those who are not Christians, the first thing they are likely to think of when asked about grace would say that it is the thing you say before you eat a meal.  This was definition 10 in the dictionary listing. The next most familiar references may be the many idioms in English.  We think of ‘falling from grace’ when we have done something wrong or disappointed someone; of having grace to do something like hold the door open for someone; of being in someone’s good graces; of doing things with bad grace making it clear even as we comply with a request that it is against our will; and the very familiar idiom, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.”

In an article entitled “Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship”, Steven W. Manskar says of grace. “Grace is God’s unmerited, unconditional love and acceptance freely given to all.  This grace is incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This grace is free, but it is not cheap.  It comes to us at great cost to God: the suffering and death of God’s Son on a Roman cross.  We must always remember and be reminded that the grace God gives is a costly grace.”

We read a story of grace in Luke 10:25-37.  A familiar story in which we usually focus on the fact that a Pharisee was trying to trick Jesus once again, and that we are to love everyone, not just those who are the same as we are, but there was grace.  The poor beaten up naked man lying in the ditch did nothing whatever to deserve anyone’s help.  We don’t even hear that he cried out, presumably he was little able to do that as he was left “half-dead”. 

The first two people who walked by were religious men a priest and a Levite.  We read that they went by on the other side of the road. Perhaps they were afraid of being seen with this naked man, afraid that he might indeed be dead and would cause them to be unclean, or perhaps they were just busy and distracted and didn’t want to take the time.  Imagine them muttering to themselves as they continued on their ways, “there but by the grace of God go I.” They may have been thinking about grace, but did not carry it through beyond themselves to their neighbour.

This Samaritan man, who by rights should not even have been seen talking to a Jew, covered his body, cleaned his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn.  He cared for him until morning and then, without promises of being paid back, he arranged for his care at the inn until he recovered, even if it ended up costing him more than he had already given, which according to one source was enough money to pay for a month’s stay at an inn at the time.  This story illustrates grace; unmerited, unconditional love, free but not cheap.

Amos 7:7-17 seems, on the surface, to present a view of God who was vengeful, the antithesis to grace.  In this passage God sent his prophet Amos to bring a message of doom.  When the king attempted to make Amos stop doing what God had told him to do, the message became even worse.  Having already allowed for intercession on their behalf, God said this time that he would not pass over Israel again. They would have to pay for abandoning the faith and practice of their ancestors. The judgement declared was focused on three places; the high places where they had been worshipping false gods, the sanctuaries where they were no longer worshiping, and the house of the king whose line was to be destroyed by the sword. 

During a discussion about what makes Christianity unique, at a British conference on comparative religion, C.S. Lewis summed it up, “Oh that’s easy. It’s grace.”  It is in Christianity alone that we find the love of God poured out for us freely without merit.

So, what is grace?  After 69 pages Yancey “…attempts something like a definition of grace in relation to God.  Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more-no amount of spiritual callisthenics and renunciation, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes.  And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder.  Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.”

Defining grace may be very difficult, but experiencing grace, if we are open to awareness of it, is not.  John Newton, a reformed slave captain, certainly knew what grace was in his life.  He knew just how low he had gone, and knew the feeling of being lifted out of that dark place and being given a new start.  He did not write a definition of grace, but he wrote of his experience in the now famous and well-loved hymn with which we began our worship today;

Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

 

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.

Manskar, Steven W. “Opening Ourselves To Grace: The Basics Of Christian Discipleship – Umcdiscipleship.Org”. Umcdiscipleship.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 3 July 2016.

Hymn page update for July 3