Anchor Holding within the Veil

When in seminary, I was taught that pastors should avoid using biblical references and terminology without first explaining them. According to studies, while Christians have greater access to the Bible, they do not know it nearly as well as those from previous generations. Therefore, when we preach, we were told, we should avoid referring to people like David and Abraham and Paul without giving a few words of summary about who they are. Most of us have a good idea who these three men were, and perhaps when I refer to them, I do not need to explain when they lived and what role they played in redemptive history. Mentioning people like Apollos, Boaz, or Haggai might evoke a different response. We might not be able to immediately place them in the Bible or explain their role in salvation history.

The same can be said of words and phrases. Sometimes we throw around words like “atonement” or “justification” or phrases like “perspicuity of Scripture” assuming that those who are listening know what they mean. Some might, but not all will. Thus, we should avoid these expressions unless we explain them, we were told as pastors in training.

It might be helpful for songwriters to receive the same instruction. I have found that there are phrases that need to be explained before they can be understood. This is true of some older songs, “here I raise my Ebenezer” in Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” is one such phrase. Few of us know what “ebenezer” means and many of us cannot identify the passage where this word is found, leaving us uncertain about what we are singing. The problem also exists in newer songs. One example of a song which contains phrases which probably need explanation is Cornerstone, written and published by the Australian Hillsong, a church group that has received some harsh criticism over the past decade or so because of their adoption of the Prosperity Gospel theology (another phrase that probably needs explanation). Whenever a Hillsong song appears on the screen, I am somewhat cautious when I sing the words. I think a little more deeply about what I am singing.

In Cornerstone, we find the phrase “my anchor holds within the veil.” It is repeated twice at the end of the second verse. An astute Bible student will recognize that the reference comes from Hebrews 6:19,20 where we read, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.” The “veil” of the song is the “curtain” mentioned in the verse from Hebrews. Even having this verse quoted might leave some confused, for the book of Hebrews assumes that the reader has a deep knowledge of Old Testament teaching and practice, particularly regarding the role of the temple and its priests.

As we know, in the temple of the Old Testament, there was a thick curtain that separated the temple building into two rooms. The room behind the curtain, from which all but the High Priest were denied access, was considered an extension of God’s throne room which was located in heaven. From that room God ruled the world. To go behind the curtain was to enter into God’s throne room, and while the room in the temple was on the earth, to be in that room was to be in heaven or at least in the presence of God. The High Priest, in the Old Testament, would go into that room, and he did so as a representative of the people. In effect, when he entered that room, the people entered with him. He provided the connection to God.

In Hebrews 6, we read about some who were abandoning faith in Jesus Christ. Most likely the author of Hebrews is referring to Jewish people who were enduring persecution because of their commitment to Jesus, and they were thinking that they should abandon the Christian faith and return to Judaism. The author of Hebrews warns them and tells them that to do so was to abandon the salvation that God had provided. He then goes on to tell them that the only way to be secure in our relationship with God is to trust in his promise to save us, and to put our trust in Jesus Christ who is our High Priest. By ascending into heaven, Jesus has gone behind the curtain, figuratively speaking, and has entered into his Father’s throne room. If we put our trust in Jesus, we can have the assurance that we remain connected to God the Father and have access to his presence because our sins have been forgiven.

As I read and reread the passage from Hebrews 6, I came to realize that the author of Hebrews does the very thing that we, as pastors, were warned not to do when we prepared a sermon. The author of Hebrews uses phrases and terminology and references which are broader and deeper than first meets the eye. In fact, as I gave a few moments to studying Hebrews 6 and the reference to the anchor, I realized that I would need to do a lot more study if I am going to fully understand this reference.

I’m not sure that the writer of the song, Cornerstone, fully understood the depth of the biblical reference to Hebrews 6:19-20 when he wrote the words. It does seem that the line, “my anchor holds within the veil,” is meant to speak of the assurance we have in Jesus Christ, and that is exactly right. While the rest of the song does speak of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ, this one line is rather obscure, and it needs more explanation. Of course, that is not always possible in a song.

It does seem that when we sing songs, there are many times that words and phrases tend to need explanation. That is true of both old and new songs. So, what do we do? It would be good if song writers would heed the advice of my professors who said we must explain what we say and not assume that everyone knows what we are talking about, especially when we speak “Christianese.” At the same time, there is the responsibility for the singer (and the hearer) to do some research and try to discover what they do not know.

I attempt to make clear the references I use in my sermons, but I suspect that sometimes I refer to things that some do not understand. If that happens, certainly you can ask. Or, perhaps better, do some personal study and discover something new. I know that I was encouraged and strengthened as I took the time to discover what “my anchor holds within the veil” means. I also came to understand that there is much more to know, and I am fairly certain that I will be doing some more reading so that I can understand more fully this powerful biblical reference so that the next time I sing that song, I will appreciate more what those six words mean.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Planning for Retirement

When I was in my early twenties, someone advised me to plan for retirement, and he suggested a unique way: buy about 20 acres of marginal land and plant a variety of trees on it – black walnut, cherry, oak, maple, black locust, pine and some poplar. The softwood (poplar and pine) would be ready for harvest in about 30-40 years, providing extra income for retirement. The rest of the trees might take longer to mature, but if I needed the money for retirement, I could sell the acreage as a woodlot, earning a significant profit. I didn’t do that, and so I am not reaping the benefits of having an extra income from the lumber the woodlot would have provided. Nevertheless, then, as well as now, I understand the wisdom of this advice.

Not only would I have been able to have increased income from buying marginal land and planting a woodlot, there would have been other benefits. Marginal land, land that is not suitable for agriculture, could be given value. By putting trails through the woodlot, the community would have benefitted by having a place for nature hikes. School children could have learned about different species of trees. And, of course, the lumber would have created beautiful furniture. Even without the financial benefits, planting a woodlot on marginal land would have been a blessing for many, not only myself.

Such an investment would have had its costs along the way, of course. Making payments on the land, buying the seedlings, tending the woodlot, paying the taxes – all of these would incur costs of time, effort, and money. Investments for the future do incur costs in the present. This is a simple and unavoidable reality.

Reading the Bible 1900 years after the last book was written, we might miss how God was making investments for the future. God created a nation, and he worked with that nation for about 2000 years, from Abraham until the birth of Jesus. It was not easy work for him, for he had to work with a rather stubborn and sinful people, people who are similar to us. As one teacher commented once to me regarding his vocation: “It would be a great job if it weren’t for the people.” God invested 2000 years into a people who rebelled against him, ignored him, and sometimes mocked him. He did so because he had made a promise about the future, a promise which he had to keep, a promise which could only be kept if he kept the nation of Israel alive. God invested his resources in a nation because he had a plan for the future.

But the investment in a wayward nation was nothing compared to the greater investment he made by giving his only Son to live in this world, a Son who was misunderstood, rejected, mocked, tortured and killed. He did this for us, and the investment was huge.

God continued to invest in this world, sending his Holy Spirit to equip, empower, teach, guide, rebuke, and encourage people from all nations of this world. We cannot calculate the hours of work that the Holy Spirit has put into us. The resources God has put into his church are beyond our comprehension. God continues to invest in this world.

But it is not for his retirement. I was encouraged to invest in a woodlot so that I could benefit, and although others may be blessed as well, it would have been me that was the first recipient of my investment. God receives no return from his investment. As we well know, God does not need to plan for retirement, and he does not need to have us around to make his life better. Everything that God did was for us, and nothing was for him. That is truly remarkable, for we would expect that God would want to reap some benefit from his investment. But any benefit that we might perceive is not really a benefit for God. God receives nothing that he can use or that he even needs.

His investment is not for himself but for us and our retirement, if we can think of it in that way. The Bible uses the term, “rest,” not in the sense of sleeping but in the sense of receiving all that we need to live without having to worry about anything. Rest does not mean sitting around doing nothing, but, rather, it means enjoying what God has provided for us. People with plentiful portfolios enjoy their retirements because they have more than they need and do not need to work to remain alive. Entering God’s rest is to enjoy God’s provision to the fullest, to not lack anything, to have all that we need without having to worry about tomorrow.

God provided for our retirement, our eternal rest, our eternal experience of his constant blessing. He invested himself entirely in us, not so that he could enjoy retirement (rest) but so that we could enjoy our rest with him. We enter into that rest because of Jesus Christ, as the book of Hebrews teaches us.

Perhaps we can compare what God has done for us to the woodlot. If I had bought an acreage and planted a woodlot, not for my benefit but for the benefit of the community, if I had invested time and energy and money in making that woodlot accessible and enjoyable for others, if I had harvested the mature trees and donated the money to the community, and if all of this continued on through the generations as my descendants continued to use the woodlot only for the joy of others – that is what God has done for us. All of his investments in this world that he has made so far are not for him but for us. He promises to continue to invest in this world until he brings history to a close and provides the forever retirement for all who belong to him.

It might be helpful for us to view our work in the same way. God is planning for our eternal retirement (our rest), so we don’t have to worry about that. If we don’t have to invest our resources in our eternity, then perhaps we can use our resources to invest in the eternity of others. In other words, all that we do is for the benefit from others, because if God is providing for our retirement, because we don’t have to worry about it, we can, with a high level of confidence, invest in the retirements (rest/eternal life) of others.

~ Pastor Gary ~



Few Old Testament stories are as well known as the story of Jonah and the whale. When we teach that story to young children, the focus tends to be on the fact that Jonah ran away from God by taking a ship in the opposite direction from Nineveh, Jonah’s intended destination. God stopped Jonah’s flight by sending a storm which resulted in Jonah being thrown overboard and being saved by God because he was swallowed by a big fish or whale. After three days in the belly of the whale, Jonah is regurgitated and proceeds to obey the Lord. All this is told in the first chapter of Jonah. What we often neglect is the rest of the story, a story that speaks of Jonah’s continued failure to do what God asked of him.

As we know God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against the city because of their sin. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrian Empire was becoming a mortal enemy of the northern kingdom of Israel. As we recall, the nation of Israel had split into two after Solomon, with the northern kingdom name Israel and the southern kingdom named Judah. Israel, being in the north, was next in the sights of Assyria, and Assyria had every intention of attacking and pillaging Israel to make itself strong. A man named Jeroboam II was king of Israel at that time, and Jonah was a prophet during his reign.

Jeroboam II, not a relative of Jeroboam I, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, continued to lead his nation in sinful rebellion against the Lord. Jeroboam I had built two golden calves, one in the north of his kingdom and one in the south, and he had invited the people of his nation to worship at these two shrines instead of going to Jerusalem to worship the true God. Jeroboam II did not change this practice and continued to lead the people away from the Lord by supporting the worship of those golden calves. We would expect that a prophet like Jonah would have had a few things to say about those golden calves, but he is silent on the matter. Instead, he tells his king, Jeroboam II, that the kingdom of Israel would be able to reclaim some of the land it had lost in previous battles. This, by the way, was a brief reprieve before the full attack of the Assyrians a few decades later. It wasn’t that Jonah was speaking from his own authority, for we are told that his words of hope to Jeroboam II were given to him by God. Jonah was a prophet of the Lord, but he seemed to want to announce only good news, and he seems hesitant to tell Jeroboam II to change his ways and turn from idol worship. Unlike the other prophets of his time, Jonah had no words of warning for his own people.

Jonah did have a word of warning for Nineveh and the Assyrians, the original message God had given Jonah, the one he wanted to avoid bringing. In spite of the fact that Jonah seems hesitant to deliver bad news from the Lord, we might think that he would be quite happy to go to Nineveh and announce God’s impending judgement but, instead, he runs away. It wasn’t that he was afraid for his life, for who wants to deliver bad news to a powerful and vicious nation? Jonah runs away for another reason.

As Jonah goes to Nineveh, his warnings are rather abrupt. He utters just a few words (forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.), and he offers no solution in that he doesn’t call Nineveh to repentance. Yet, although to properly announce God’s warning would have taken a full three days, by noon of the first day Nineveh is on its knees in repentance. They take Jonah’s words seriously. (Contrast their quick response to the deaf ears of God’s own people who had thousands of words spoken by multiple prophets and yet did not repent.) Jonah quits his job early and goes to sit on a hill outside of the city, hoping against hope that God will still destroy Nineveh even though they did repent. When his own personal comfort is compromised by a rootworm which destroyed the plant that provided him with some shade, he shows his frustration and anger. God confronts Jonah and asks him why he is so angry. Jonah responds by saying that not only has his personal comfort been compromised but God has done the very thing that Jonah feared: God has relented from punishing Nineveh.

Jonah then explains why he ran away from the task of prophesying: “I know that you are a gracious and compassionate God,” he says, “slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). How did Jonah know this? Quite simply, he is quoting from the book of Exodus, Exodus 34:6. His use of that verse to describe God is quite ironic, considering the situation of his own people.

God reveals himself to be a gracious and compassionate God shortly after the Israelites have built a golden calf to worship as we read about it in Exodus 32. God had just made a covenant with his people, and they had promised to dedicate their lives fully to him and to him alone. They had turned their back on that covenant, and God made it clear to Moses that he intended to destroy his people. It is only after the coaxing and pleading from Moses that God finally relents from sending calamity against his people, and when asked why, God replies that he is a gracious and compassionate God and that he does forgive sin. The irony of Jonah’s use of this text is that Jonah depended on God’s grace and compassion for himself and his people, for Jonah was well aware that worshipping golden calves, as his nation was doing, should invite God’s anger. Jonah knew that his survival and the survival of the nation of Israel depended on the fact that God was gracious and compassionate. Jonah’s failure was that while he benefitted from God’s grace, he did not want to extend that grace to others, particularly his enemies, the Assyrians.

God has the final word in the book of Jonah. He asks why he should not have concern for the city of Nineveh where lived hundreds of thousands of people, among them those who do not know their right hand from their left (children) and many animals. God reveals that although Assyria was the enemy of his people, his preferred course of action was to forgive them when they repented so that they could experience restoration and salvation. God reveals himself to be gracious and compassionate not only to his own people but to the other peoples of the world as well.

And, it is clear, he expects the same from Jonah. Jonah should have responded quickly to God’s command to go to Nineveh to announce that God was angry with their sin. He should have hoped that God would be gracious and compassionate to the Assyrians. He should have longed for them to experience forgiveness, but he wanted none of that. All he wanted was for him and his own people to live in the assurance of God’s grace and let the rest suffer.

The book of Jonah is not about Jonah and the miraculous salvation of a man as he is swallowed by a whale. It is about Jonah, a small-minded, selfish man who wanted God’s grace for himself but didn’t want to extend it to others. It serves as a warning to God’s people and it serves as a reminder and warning to us. Stories about disobedience and rebellion are interesting stories, but wouldn’t it be better if Jonah had done what God asked, done it with joy, and celebrated God’s grace? If Jonah had not been disobedient, we might never have heard about him, but sometimes the lack of news is better for everyone by far. Just as our news media outlets would have nothing to talk about if nothing bad was happening in this world, so the book of Jonah would have not made it into the Bible if Jonah had been obedient. Or, if it had, it would have been a book of rejoicing that others besides the Israelites had responded to God’s grace.

~ Pastor Gary ~


The Bias of the Gospel

Journalists are under obligation to ensure that what they publish is verifiable. If what they put into print is incorrect, they and the media outlet they work for could be sued. Thus, a journalist might say, “The chief economist says that interest rates are going to rise.” That is a verifiable fact, and the journalist might actually have a recording of the chief economist saying those very words. The same journalist could write, “Interest rates are going to rise,” and if they did write that, they would have verified that fact. How do they know that interest rates are going to rise? A credible journalist will not make a statement without being able to support that statement with credible sources.

That being said, journalists can still shape the story by deciding what to report and what to leave out. Thus, CNN and Fox News can report on the same story, but their takes on the story are so different we wonder if they are living on the same planet. Yet, both Fox and CNN journalists will be able to give a list of credible sources. The reasons that the stories are radically different is not because they are reporting false facts but that they are reporting only part of the facts. They do this because they want to spin the story so that it matches the political leanings of the media outlet that is paying their salary. The journalist has something to gain by presenting a particular perspective. The media outlet, when presenting a story about the presidential campaign, for example, spins the story so that the political party they are backing will gain power and return favours to them. It is not very difficult to identify some sort of benefit the journalist receives by presenting a biased story. As consumers of media, we always need to ask, “What does this person/outlet gain by presenting the facts in the way they do?” Or, if the journalist or the media outlet spreads false information, they may be sued, thus incurring loss.

Some have accused the Bible of having a bias as well, and it would be difficult to deny it. John, in his gospel, actually states his bias: These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). At the end of the next chapter, John openly admits that he could have recorded much more of Jesus’ life and ministry, but that if he recorded everything, the number of volumes would have become overwhelming (John 21:25). John had a purpose for his gospel, and he picked things from Jesus’ life that supported that purpose. He also left a lot out, leaving us to wonder if perhaps we are left with an incomplete picture and therefore a biased picture of Jesus.

John put a certain spin on the life story of Jesus, and his spin is a little different from that of the other three gospels. In fact, all four gospel writers seem to have a purpose in mind that results in their telling the story in a particular way. This can lead us to ask the question: do the gospels give a fair presentation of who Jesus is? Or are they so biased that we can’t trust them fully?

Some will never be convinced that the biblical accounts of Jesus life and ministry are untrustworthy because of the biases of the authors. We can challenge that accusation with this one question: what do the gospel writers have to gain by presenting Jesus in the way that the do? Let’s consider John for example. What did John gain from presenting Jesus as he did?

John did not gain a position of power. When the mother of John and his brother James suggested to Jesus that they become the vice presidents in his kingdom, Jesus taught that those who wanted to be first in his kingdom had to become servants. Or, as Jesus said several times over, those who are first will be last and the last will be first. John did not follow Jesus for his own personal advantage. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead of gaining a position of power and influence, John was eventually arrested and exiled, being humiliated by the political powers of that time. None of the followers of Jesus Christ became rich from following Jesus. Peter and John, when asked for money by a beggar by the gates of the temple, told him, “We don’t have any money,” although, as we know, through the power of Jesus, they were able to give the man the ability to walk. That too led to a loss on their parts, for the healing led to a challenge by the religious authorities with the command to be silent about Jesus.

In the first three centuries of the New Testament church there was no distinct advantage to being a Christian, at least not economically, socially, or politically. In fact, the early Christians found themselves at a significant disadvantage as they followed Jesus Christ. We cannot say that either the apostles or those who followed them gained anything by presenting Jesus in the way that they did. Anyone who says that the early Christians presented a biased view of Jesus for their own gain would have a hard time proving it. (This changed quite significantly when Christianity became the preferred religion of the west and the church gained tremendous political, economic and social power. Leaders presented very biased views of Jesus and the teachings of Scripture often for great personal gain. The world still suffers from some of those abuses.)

If we cannot say that John and the other gospel writers wrote what they did for personal gain and in fact suffered great disadvantage by believing what they did, we would have to say that the reason for their presentations of Jesus was for some other purpose. In fact, John’s statement that he chose to present certain parts of Jesus’ ministry and not others so that people would believe in Jesus and gain eternal life becomes very credible. John became a servant of the gospel not for his own benefit but for the benefit of others.

As a church we must be careful that we do not present the gospel for personal gain. The church growth movement in which churches seek to gain members by whatever means possible often results in a biased view of Jesus. The problem with the church growth movement is that the church presents the gospel to unbelievers so that it can fill the seats in the sanctuary and boast of the largest youth program in the community. We can sense that the efforts of such a church are not entirely altruistic (showing unselfish concern for the welfare of others). In the same way, our efforts as a church to bring the gospel to the world (VBS, Burger Bash, for example), should be entirely for the benefit of others without the thought that they come to our church. Rather, we do expend energy and time on the lives of others so that they also can believe in Jesus and by believing have eternal life. Our efforts should never be for our own gain.

If we do things as a church for our own gain, we will be presenting Jesus in a biased way that is unhealthy and maybe even incorrect. If, however, we go about the work of the church in making Jesus known to the world and we do so entirely as servants seeking the blessing of others sometimes at great cost to our ourselves, we will never be accused of presenting Jesus in a biased way.

Journalists work for media outlets which have a bias, and that bias results from the desire for personal gain or the avoidance of personal loss. As Christians we want those who benefit to be others, and we tell them about Jesus so that they too can have life in his name. And, for our efforts, we gain nothing and even if we are put at a disadvantage as were the apostles, we continue our work. If we gain nothing, it would be hard for others to accuse us of having a bias. Let it never be said that our church is doing something because we sense it will gain us something, but, rather, may it always be clear that what we are doing gains us nothing but gains others eternal life.

~ Pastor Gary ~


The Kingdom of God and Children

Some years ago, a friend took her daughter, Lucy, to a restaurant in a Jewish neighbourhood. Because of the neighbourhood, most of the people in that restaurant at lunch hour were Jewish, and the place was quite busy. When she was finished eating, this little girl, a very precocious sort, stood up on her seat, turned around and said in a loud voice, “I have something to say to everyone.” She attracted the attention of nearly everyone in the restaurant who then heard her proclaim loudly, “Jesus Christ was born King of the Jews.” With that she sat down. Her mother didn’t know how to respond, for while her daughter had told the truth, it created a very awkward moment. Most of the Jewish people in that restaurant did not believe that Jesus was their King, nor did they recognize them as their Saviour.

We often hear the phrase, “have the faith of a child” or “a childlike faith.” What people are often advocating for is a simple faith that is not “clouded” by deep theological teaching. Simply believe and that is enough, they tell us. They want to keep it simple, making straightforward statements like Lucy did. Those who use these phrases point us to Jesus’ teaching about children as is recorded for us in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 18:1-3, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). “The Bible teaches us that we have to have a childlike (simple) faith,” they say. A careful reading of these passages, however, reveals to us that Jesus is not speaking about having faith like that of a child but rather that we be like children when it comes to entering and living within God’s Kingdom. For us to fully understand what Jesus means, it is necessary to think about the context given to these discourses.

In Matthew and Mark Jesus’ teaching about children and the Kingdom of God takes place in the context of the disciples trying to determine who would be greatest in Jesus’ kingdom. It is at that point that Jesus brings a child forward and advises that whoever wants to enter the Kingdom of God must change and be like little children. What makes someone worthy of a position in God’s Kingdom? Jesus confronts the idea of meriting or earning a place in the kingdom by presenting to his disciples a little child. Children, in those days, had no rights and privileges, and they knew that everything they had was given to them as a gracious gift.

In Mark’s gospel, the context is decidedly different. There Mark gives us a glimpse of ongoing discussions in the Jewish community in which scholars tried to set boundaries for remaining in God’s Kingdom. How far can someone push the boundaries before they are no longer living by God’s principles and rules? In that context, Jesus confronts the idea that one can do things to become acceptable to God and remain so. Again, using a child as an example, Jesus shows that like children we can do nothing to earn a place in God’s Kingdom.

In all three gospels (John does not include this discussion), when Jesus puts a child forward as an example, he is not saying that we should advocate for a simple, straightforward kind of faith that allows for little deeper thought. Rather, he is saying that if we want to be part of God’s Kingdom, we must first realize that there is nothing we can do but merely receive what has been offered to us. Essentially what Jesus is teaching is that, like little children, we accept God’s grace, and his gracious act to include us in his Kingdom is not something we earn for ourselves.

A child can understand this, as Lucy did when she announced that Jesus was born King of the Jews. She knew that most of the people in the restaurant were Jewish, and she knew that Jesus came to save them as well. She was simply offering to those around her the same grace God had given to her. She could not have articulated God’s grace with greater depth because, after all, she was only three years old.

Children have a simple faith, this is true, but they also have no problem believing that they can do nothing to earn a place in God’s Kingdom. They are used to accepting gifts because everything they have has been given to them. What can a three-year old do to earn what they receive? They receive what has been given because they have no other means by which to survive.

As adults, we develop the idea that we have something to offer. In fact, we become less inclined to accept a gift freely given, and we want to find some reason to say that we merited what we received. So, when it comes to entry into God’s Kingdom, we like to believe that we have done something to earn a place there. But, like little children, we have done nothing, and we can do nothing.

This is where a deepening understanding of God’s Word is helpful. Rather than operating on a child’s storybook knowledge of the Bible, as we grow up, we need to read Scripture more and more and understand it more deeply so that we can counteract some of those feelings of self-sufficiency. As we grow in our theological understanding, we should become more and more convinced that we have nothing to offer to God to move him to give us a place in his Kingdom. The complexities of theology support the basic truths and give credence to the fact that we are like little children when it comes to providing for ourselves.

The Bible does not support a childlike faith, if by that we mean a faith that is not examined and deepened. We need more than that as we become adults. Rather, instead of depending on storybook understanding of God’s Word, we can be assured that as we study the Bible, we will become more and more aware of how complex and vast is the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And the more we know, the more we will realize how like little children we need to be, trusting fully on God’s grace and never on our own merit.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Strength and Weakness

I used to work with someone who said almost every day, “Your strength is your weakness.” For example, some people are very stubborn. They refuse to budge on their view of things, and they won’t try something new. Stubbornness is a weakness. But people who are stubborn can also be stalwart. Someone who is stalwart is loyal and reliable. If you ask a stalwart person to help you for a day, they will be there. Unfortunately, if their stubborn side reveals itself, you’ll end up doing it their way.

Of, as another example, we might meet someone who is disorganized, seemingly unable to make a decision and always living in a bit of a mess. That same person is probably also very creative and has the ability to think outside the box. Don’t let that kind of person take minutes at a committee meeting, but listen carefully to them as they come up with new ways of thinking about things. They may not be organized enough to be able to carry through with their ideas, but their ideas usually will be very novel and helpful.

When in a job interview, the potential employer will often ask, “What are your strengths?” Most people who are applying for a job have thought this through carefully enough, and they are able to give a clear summary of what they are good at. This same question is usually followed up by, “And what are your weaknesses?” We are less inclined to want to list those, and the interviewee may struggle. Perhaps the best answer he/she could give is, “I am not only dependable, but I can be a little stubborn.” Or, “I am able to think creatively, but I can’t always implement my ideas.” A good employer will appreciate the candidate’s strengths but will also understand that these same strengths can become a problem if not recognized and used effectively.

When I was in university, I took a course in which we filled out a survey which resulted in a strengths profile. We spent a couple of class periods talking about what we had discovered, and I quickly realized that I was fairly unique among my classmates. As the professor talked to us about our various profiles, he spoke of people of my type of profile in a fairly negative way. I went home rather dispirited because I felt that God had given me strengths that he could not use. I struggled with this for a few hours, and when I returned to class, I challenged the professor who continued to disparage my strength type, for I felt that he was concentrating the weaknesses of who I am rather than on the strengths. I don’t know if he heard my challenge, but I do know that I learned to accept myself for who I am, at least a little more. True, I don’t have the personality or strengths that pastors normally have, but I have something that God can use in his church.

We often talk about how the Holy Spirit has given gifts to all those who believe in Jesus. There is no believer who has nothing to offer. We would say, further, that all the gifts necessary for a local congregation to fulfill its calling are already present. God always equips a congregation to do the work that he calls it to do, and thus we can say with confidence that Nobleford CRC has all the gifts necessary to carry out the ministry that God has called us to. At the same time, we recognize that our strengths, among them the gifts of the Holy Spirit, can become our weaknesses. The very strengths that God has given me can also be used for harm, for the devil likes to take what God has made good and turn it toward evil. Thus, we would have to admit that all the gifts that God has given to us are not always used as they should be. As a result, the church does not always fulfill its calling.

This is precisely why we need each other. Again, because each of us has gifts, we need each other because none of us has all the gifts. But we also need each other to help us grow in the use of the gifts and strengths that we have. A stubborn person needs others around them to encourage them when the are stalwart and challenge them when they are digging in their heels. A creative person can make our church more beautiful but may need to be encouraged to keep working at the task at hand. We all have gifts, but we don’t always use those gifts as best we could, so we need others to help us grow.

It can be our tendency to notice others more when they use their gifts and strengths inappropriately and criticize them for their failings. We would do well if we could see how someone’s weaknesses can also become their greatest strengths and appreciate each other for how God made us. Further, we should always expect that as time passes, if we continue to rely on the Lord, we will grow in our strengths and our weaknesses will become less and less obvious. After all, the Holy Spirit not only gives us gifts that we can use, but he also causes us to grow in faithfulness. So, let’s be thankful for stubborn people, not because they’re stubborn but because we can be sure that as they grow in Christ, they will be the stalwart people our church needs.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Public Profession of Faith

In a few weeks, God willing, we will celebrate public Profession of Faith. A number of people have been taking the Profession of Faith class and most, if not all, will be standing before the congregation and they will be professing their faith. Profession of Faith is celebrated as an important step in the faith journey of baptized members of our congregation.

But what is Profession of Faith, and where does it come from? A formal profession of faith before the congregation is not commanded by Scripture, nor do we see any examples of professions of faith in the Bible itself. The closest biblical references we have to professions of faith are the adult baptisms of those who had not grown up in the church but had come to faith in Jesus Christ when they heard the gospel preached. The Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 is one such example of someone who came to faith in Jesus Christ and, upon his profession, was baptized by Philip. In churches where infants are not baptized, adult baptism takes the place of profession of faith. In churches which do baptize infants, profession of faith, or something similar, has become standard practice.

As is often the case with the practices of Protestant churches such as the CRC, much of what we do has its roots in the older church which gave rise to ours, the church we now call the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the European church which was centred in Rome had seven sacraments, baptism and confirmation among them. Confirmation arises out of baptism.

Roman Catholics teach that it is nearly impossible for someone to be saved if they are not baptized. Their logic is as follows: to be saved, one must believe the gospel, namely that Jesus died to forgive us our sins. The church has been entrusted with the message of the gospel and calls people to believe. Baptism is the means by which one enters the church and so can hear the gospel. Thus, we have this progression: baptism gives one entry into the church where the gospel is preached and it is through the preaching of the gospel that one comes to faith and so are saved. Thus, Roman Catholics would say that without baptism there cannot be salvation. Baptism is a gracious act God administered by the church by which it is conferred upon the individual the ability to hear the gospel and so believe.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, confirmation, also a sacrament in the RCC, follows naturally upon baptism. As the church, with the help of the parents, teaches baptized children to put their trust in Jesus, it is expected that the children will come to faith. When that child (who must be at least 7 years old) is able to say that he/she is ready to renounce the world and follow Jesus, believing that his death on the cross is God’s gracious act of salvation, that child is confirmed. In the ceremony the bishop (very occasionally the local priest), after hearing a profession of faith, confirms that the one before him has been granted eternal life and then confers upon that person the gifts of the Holy Spirit. According to the liturgy of confirmation, the Holy Spirit is given to the individual to be their Helper and Guide so that they can live with wisdom, courage, and reverence.

To summarize, in the RCC at baptism the church confers upon a child the ability and opportunity to believe and at confirmation, the church confers upon the ones who believe the ability to live their lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Both baptism and confirmation, thus, are acts of the church through which God graciously brings his people to faith and faithfulness.

There is much that is right and good in the Roman Catholic teaching, but the Reformers did not agree with these teachings entirely. We who adhere to the teachings of the Reformers (Calvin, in particular) understand things a little differently.

First, baptism is not a means by which God brings us into his church. Rather, to use the language of both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, through baptism we are received into Christ’s church, meaning that the church recognizes and welcomes the person being baptized as being part of God’s church either through faith in Jesus Christ or because they are born into a family of believers for, as Paul says, children of believers are holy. Thus, baptism recognizes what God has already done. It is God who confers upon individuals a place in his church, and the church recognizes what God has done. While the Roman Catholic teaching says that it is the church which has been given the right to confer upon a person the ability and opportunity to be saved, Reformation churches attribute this work to God.

Like the RCC, Reformation churches teach that we all need to believe in Jesus to be saved. When a person comes to faith (be they young or old), they are affirming and accepting that not only has Jesus died for sinners, but he has also died for “me” as a sinner. In other words, as we grow older, we are all required to believe in Jesus in order to be saved. We also believe that at the moment one becomes part of God’s family, the Holy Spirit is already living in them, giving them the ability to live faithfully. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to all God’s covenant children, young and old, and they do not need to be conferred upon an individual by the church. Again, while the RCC sees itself as being called to confer upon the believer God’s gracious gifts, the Reformation churches teach that it is God who acts directly in the lives of people, without the necessity of the medial role of the church. Thus, instead of practicing confirmation which is an act of the church, Reformation churches have adopted the practice of Profession of Faith.

In Profession of Faith an individual is given the opportunity to express publicly that they affirm and accept God’s gracious promises made to them in baptism. Profession of Faith is an opportunity to testify to what has already happened and should not be viewed as a life-changing experience. Profession of Faith is simply a public announcement that “This is what God has done in my life through Jesus Christ.” Further, it is an opportunity for an individual to say, “And I am publicly announcing that with the help of the Holy Spirt, I will live for Jesus.” And, importantly, in Profession of Faith, those professing their faith also make a formal commitment to the church to which they already belong, asking that the church hold them accountable in life and faith.

Reformation churches have abandoned the rite of confirmation and have, instead, adopted the practice of public Profession of Faith. We have also abandoned the idea that something “happens” to the individual at their Profession of Faith. We don’t look for a change in a person’s life, but, rather, we celebrate the change that has already taken place. When we hear the profession of God’s children, we should be filled with a spirit of wonder and awe that God has again been faithful to fulfill his promises. The Faith Formation Committee of the CRC has said that perhaps one public Profession of Faith is not enough. The committee suggests that our professions should happen often and regularly. But perhaps they already do, as we profess our faith using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Should we not be filled with a spirit of wonder and awe when we again testify that our Triune God has saved us into the covenant community.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Psalm Hymns and Spiritual Songs

In 1934 the Christian Reformed Church made a radical departure from what it had been doing for centuries: it gave permission for churches to sing hymns in public worship. Let me give a brief history:

  • 1957 – The Christian Reformed Church was established in North America when several hundred people separated themselves form the Reformed Church of America. The CRC, at that time, consisted of almost entirely Dutch-speaking people, and they used the Dutch Psalter (containing versions of the Psalms set to Genevan tunes). A few other songs found in Scripture were also included in the psalter, for example, The Song of Mary.
  • 1914 – As English became more common in the CRC congregations, the denomination adopted an English Psalter which had been developed by the United Presbyterian Churches. For the first time in North America, singing in public worship was heard in English. Outside of the worship service, hymns were sung regularly, but in church only psalms were permitted.
  • 1934 – The CRC developed its own songbook, and for the first time, hymns were included. Hymns were not based on the psalms but, rather, were written by Christians praising God using their own words. The argument was made that these hymns were suitable expressions of our praise for God and they gave opportunity for believers to express their faith in contemporary ways. Hymns celebrating the Christian year were also included, and thus Christmas and Easter hymns became part of the worship services in the CRC. This first Psalter Hymnal is known as “The Old Red Psalter Hymnal.”
  • 1959 – Two years after the CRC 100th anniversary, a new Psalter Hymnal, a blue book, was produced, expanding the number of hymns available for churches to sing.
  • 1987 – Another new Psalter Hymnal was produced, the Grey Psalter Hymnal, and it made some more changes. Unlike the previous red and blue Psalter Hymnals which contained several renditions of many of the Psalms, the Grey Psalter Hymnal included one rendition of each psalm and, if there was more, it included them, not in the psalter section of the book but later, scattered among the hymns.
  • 2013 – Together with the Reformed Church of America, the CRC produced a new songbook which contains renditions of all 150 psalms, but they are scattered throughout the book. Unlike the previous songbooks, this one is not called a Psalter Hymnal but, rather, is given its name: Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. It is the longest of all the songbooks, and it includes a number of more contemporary songs.

This latest songbook may be the last produced by the CRC. Today, almost all churches project the words of the song onto a screen and few pick up the songbook with the exception, perhaps, of those who read music and enjoy singing in harmony. Many churches in the CRC today select their Sunday worship music from websites such as Song Select which contains thousands of Christian songs both old and new. More are added each week. A new songbook is unlikely to be perceived as necessary or desirable by many congregations.

There are advantages to being able to choose songs from the Internet. There are many beautiful songs which express biblical truths very well, and they have become a blessing to many. Singing only from a songbook, as was done in the past, limits the options for congregational singing, and may prevent believers from expressing their praise to God in ways that are meaningful to them.

But there are concerns as well. When the CRC published a songbook, it did so under the guidance of theologians who carefully evaluated the lyrics of each song to ensure that they were true to Scripture. Sometimes they would change a few words to make them more appropriate. One example of such a change can be found in the beautiful song, Amazing Love. The chorus originally contained the words, “That you, my God, should die for me,” but that is theologically incorrect, for God did not die. One word was changed, and now the line reads, “That you, my Lord, should die for me,” making it biblically sound.

Not so long ago, when musicians chose songs for public worship, if they were not included in one of the official denominational songbooks, before they were sung in church, the elders would evaluate the song to ensure that it was theologically correct. Usually this work was passed off to the pastor, but eventually that requirement was dropped altogether. Today, in most churches, songs are chosen by musicians who may or may not be theologically trained.

This concern was raised already in 1934 in the Foreword of the Old Red Psalter Hymnal, and I quote:

We were aware of the unsound or unsatisfactory character of many current hymns, and we feared that in an environment where the Psalms are seldom sung, the introduction of hymns in public worship would lead to the neglect of these deeply spiritual songs of the Old Testament which the Church should never fail to use in its service of praise.

Nevertheless, in spite of this concern, the denomination proceeded to produce a songbook which included songs not found in Scripture, but it was careful to ensure that those songs were biblically rooted.

We rarely sing psalms in church anymore and when we do, we are probably not aware that we are doing so. The old Genevan tunes don’t connect with us, and we find them difficult and even a little boring. Our experience and attitude is not unique, for others feel the same. And some are doing something about it. There has been a resurgence of the desire to sing psalms again, and some talented young musicians are setting the old psalms to new music. Interestingly, they have discovered that some of the old Genevan tunes had their roots in famous composers like Beethoven and Bach, and they are going back to those old tunes and reworking them to give them a modern feel. There is a lot of work to be done, but we can look forward to singing the beautiful biblical songs again but in ways that are new and vibrant and edifying.

In the meantime, we have many songs by which we can express our praise to God. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs give us an opportunity to praise God for all that he has done.

~ Pastor Gary ~


An Unforgettable Experience

I have had a few experiences that I will not forget. About a year ago, I had one of them, and it has become a fond memory. It involves four people: Ken, Cliff, and a guy of about 30 whose name I cannot remember. I’ll call him Craig.

Ken had invited me to go with him to look at a new pulpit, baptismal font and communion table at a church in another town, the town where I had grown up. He had supplied the wood from a maple tree he had cut down and sawn into boards. My brother had built the furniture, and I wanted to see the finished produce. Ken is in his early 70s, a farmer whose family has been in Canada for a couple of hundred years. He was a member of my former church. Ken lives with his wife in a small cabin in the woods, a beautiful spot if you like that kind of thing. They have four children and a bunch of grandchildren but no great grandchildren, yet.

Ken had invited Cliff to join us for the excursion. I knew Cliff from years back when he as an English teacher at the high school I attended. While I would classify Ken as being a big guy, Cliff was the opposite. Cliff is quite short, compared to Ken and me. Cliff lives in an old farmhouse in the country and, as far as I know, never married. Cliff had the unique ability to gather people together to display their various talents, and how he found people in the community who could sing, play instruments, and generally entertain the rest of us, I don’t know, but he knew them and gave them an opportunity to share their gifts with others. He used just about any excuse to hold a talent show – a random birthday, anniversary of his retirement, etc. – and he would pack the hall with people from the community. When I knew him as a teacher, I did not know that he was a Christian, but he is. Cliff joined us for the excursion because he simply enjoys that kind of thing, and since he cannot drive anymore, he depends on others to get out and about.

The third individual to join us was Craig. I knew Craig’s parents from years back, but I didn’t know him. Craig had grown up in a Christian home, but he had a bit of a rough patch. He lived on the street for a time, but he had since found a permanent residence in the town we were visiting. Craig had tattoos and body piercings, reminders of his former days. They remained an expression of his identity. Craig did not join us for the excursion, but we picked him up at the local Walmart. From the way he looked, I would not have identified him as Cliff’s friend, but they were obviously close.

And then there was me, a pastor of Dutch descent, living a fairly conservative life in rural Ontario. I was along for the ride. More accurately, I acted as the driver, so perhaps the others were along for the ride.

After we picked Craig up, we went to a local restaurant for supper. After we ordered, I was about to suggest that we pray before the food arrived, but before I could get to it, Cliff said to Craig, “Why don’t you ask for a blessing on the food?” We bowed our heads together and this tattooed, pierced, 30-year old man who had lived rough, prayed the most beautiful prayer, thanking God for his provision, and asking for his blessings on our lives. I should note that I expected that I would be praying for the meal, being I was the pastor and people seem to expect that of me. Cliff was wiser and he chose the right person to lead us in prayer, and I was blessed, and God was glorified.

As we ate, we talked among ourselves, and I learned something about what living on the street means. I also gained some insight into the graffiti that we find on train cars that are loaded with grain and fertilizer. Craig was familiar with some of the artists who take it upon themselves to paint these cars. He himself was also an artist and perhaps his art has crossed the Lethbridge tressel at one time or another. During our meal, a woman approached our table and she acted like she knew us. We talked with her for a while, and all of us assumed that she knew one of us. She didn’t, and we don’t know why she picked us to have a conversation with, but she did, and it was pleasant.

As we spent time together, I could not help but marvel at the picture we must have presented to those around us. We sat together, an 80-year old retired teacher, a 70-year old retired farmer, a 55-year old pastor and a 30-year old tattooed and pierced former street person. Anyone seeing us would have wondered what brought us together.

Of all the meals I have shared over the years, this is one I will not forget. The food was no more than average, and the restaurant is not memorable. But the company was excellent. And what brought us together was an opportunity to view a newly built pulpit, communion table and baptismal font in a church none of us attended. But you would not know that from looking at us.

Circumstances brought us together, but what made the meal great was our common faith. All of us believed that it is by God’s grace that we are saved through Jesus Christ. Our life journeys were radically different, but our common faith made us brothers in the Lord. And while we may have all started in different places and had very different experiences, our destination is the same. I don’t expect I’ll sit at the table with the four of us again while here on this earth, but perhaps in heaven, we’ll share a meal together once more. And just as Jesus was present among us then, so he will be present among us on that day as well.

My advice: if you are invited to look at some newly built church furniture (or some other seemingly random reason to take an excursion), take a few hours out of your day and do so. Maybe God will give you an experience you will be stamped into your memory.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Straw Man Arguments

Some years ago, I attended a church service in which the speaker spent about half an hour refuting the “L” or TULIP, “Limited Atonement.” (In case you are unfamiliar with them, TULIP is an acronym which makes it easier to remember the five points of Calvinism. If you don’t know what they are, I encourage you to look it up.) Without going into any detail, what the speaker did was give a rather distorted version of what “Limited Atonement” is and then went on to say what it wasn’t biblical. I agreed with him that his version of Limited Atonement wasn’t biblical because what he had said Limited Atonement was is not what it is. He would have had a much more difficult time refuting Limited Atonement had he actually defined it correctly.

A few decades ago, several well-respected theologians in the Christian Reformed Church engaged in a conversation with some Roman Catholic theologians to talk about Lord’s Day 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the one that calls the Roman Catholic mass a “condemnable idolatry.” In their conversations, the Roman Catholics stated quite clearly that the way the Heidelberg Catechism describes the Roman Catholic mass is incorrect. The Roman Catholic theologians said that if what the catechism said was what the Roman Catholic Church taught, they too could agree that the mass is a condemnable idolatry. “But that is not what we believe or teach,” they said. As a result, the Christian Reformed Church, while not removing the suspect statements in the Catechism, did bracket them and place a footnote under them saying what they are incorrect and we should make ourselves aware that they have misrepresented Roman Catholic teaching.

What I have just described are two examples of a “straw man argument.” A “straw man argument” is one in which we distort or weaken another’s position so that we can argue against it. By misrepresenting someone else’s beliefs or teachings, we can easily refute them and quickly condemn them. Arguing against someone after first distorting their belief is called “attacking a straw man.”

It’s a fairly apt description. If we take a bunch of straw and pack it into Samuel’s clothing and we put Samuel’s face on our creation, we are building a straw man. We might name that straw man “Samuel,” and we might then proceed to attack it with bayonets, saying that we are “killing Samuel.” Of course, we aren’t killing Samuel, for the straw man is not Samuel. We are making ourselves look foolish if we continue to say that we are attacking Samuel.

When we do this is a debate situation, the same thing happens. Instead of accurately representing Samuel’s position, we create one that looks a lot like Samuel’s position but is missing some significant components. It is easy to attack Samuel’s position because it is not what Samuel said. The problem is this: while it is easy to see the difference between a straw man and the real Samuel, it is often harder to see that the argument presented is not Samuel’s but, rather, a misrepresentation of Samuel’s argument. We might be inclined to join in the attack against Samuel’s argument and so attack Samuel himself. Unless someone points out that what we are attacking is not Samuel’s argument but a fictitious misrepresentation, Samuel’s credibility will be destroyed.

Sometimes within the Christian church, we cannot be bothered to spend the time to develop a misrepresentation of another’s argument so that we can more easily refute them, so we simply use a short cut and label them as “liberal.” In many circles, that label is enough to destroy someone’s credibility immediately. In calling someone a “liberal” without having taken the time to hear what they have to say, we have created a straw man, and we feel that we can attack that individual without hesitation because, after all, we don’t want liberals to ruin the church. Naming someone as a liberal without ever really engaging them in conversation is the most egregious form of a straw man argument, at least in our circles.

As Christians who seek truth, we should recoil in horror at the very idea of setting up and attacking a straw man. Not only will we eventually look foolish, but we may even destroy the reputation and integrity of one of God’s children. That goes against the very core of who we are.

It is true that there will be people we disagree with and sometimes we disagree on very important points. However, before we write them off a “liberal,” the most egregious straw man argument or misrepresent them by distorting their argument, we must first listen carefully so that we understand. In fact, we have not listened well enough if we cannot accurately reproduce their argument. It is only then that we can give answer to what they believe, carefully using Scripture to guide us in our refutation of their argument. This whole process can be rather frightening, for we might find that when we truly understand someone’s position, we might find that we have to change our own. None of us does that easily. But, if we are going to be people of integrity and honesty, we cannot set up straw men and attack them so that we are never challenged in our beliefs. There is also the real possibility that when we engage people in their beliefs, and if their beliefs do not align with Scripture, we can bring them around. But that will only work if we have honest discussions and are willing to listen first.

It was difficult for me to listen to the speaker who attacked Limited Atonement by first misrepresenting it. As someone who holds to the five points of Calvinism, I wanted him to represent what I believe fairly so that I could hear his argument against it. Because he built a straw man first, I found that I could not engage him in conversation. I found myself frustrated and even a little angry because what I believe was misrepresented, and if I had announced that I believed in the doctrine of Limited Atonement, I would have been condemned as believing a non-biblical teaching.

The CRC was right in listening to the Roman Catholic theologians. And it is good that a few lines are bracketed and noted that they do not inaccurately describe someone else’s supposed position. While the CRC might not agree with the Roman Catholic position on other things, at least on this one, we are being honest.

Being honest does not weaken our position; it strengthens it. If we have integrity, we will be able to have good discussions with others, and, most likely, we will all become more aligned with the teachings of Scripture. If we set up straw men and attack them, we will never help those who we perceive are straying, and we will look foolish in the process.

~ Pastor Gary ~