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In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

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Grocery Stores and Churches

For a few years now I have been having discussions with colleagues about the way the church is perceived by those who regularly attend worship services. We have concluded that there is a parallel between where we choose to shop for groceries and what church we choose to attend.

In the years before cars, when walking and horses were the ready means of transportation, the local general store was the place where people gathered and shopped. It served as a kind of community centre. Churches also served the same purpose, providing the community with a place to gather, even while calling them to faith and faithfulness.

When cars became commonplace, the local general store lost its appeal. People would travel to a larger centre to shop at a larger store with more variety and better prices. By and large people remained committed to a particular store because it was familiar, and they still felt a personal connection. It would take something significant for someone to change stores. People began to treat their churches in the same way. Instead of attending the church down the street, they would be willing to drive a significant distance to attend one that was more to their liking. The churches tended to be larger but not so large that you couldn’t know everyone there. Community remained an important aspect of belonging to a church and, generally, people were committed to a particular church, and they would attend faithfully.

Small town grocery stores were replaced by big box stores where the shopper could find better prices and an even greater variety. People chose grocery stores because the store served their needs (and wants) the best. Commitment to a particular store waned because there was no personal connection. Churches soon followed with “big box” churches springing up in larger communities, and people would choose a church entirely on the basis of what it offered to them or (more often) their children and youth. Because of the size of the church, the feeling of it being a community disappeared sometimes almost entirely, and the connection that had been experienced before was weakened. People began to move more readily between churches.

But big box stores do not have the popularity they once had. On-line stores have taken a huge bite out of the market share of brick and mortar stores, for people can browse the selections and find the best price from the comfort of their own home. Already before COVID there was a movement toward people watching worship services on-line, often not really knowing anyone else who was “worshipping” with them. People today can and do choose what they watch based entirely on their preferences, and it is easy to switch out one worship service for another.

Churches and their leadership have responded to the changing culture. Realizing that many of those in attendance had become quite consumeristic, many churches developed methods by which they could attract the greatest number of attenders, or, to put it in business terms, the greatest market share. Getting the numbers up and keeping them high has been one of the main focuses of many churches, and they will do just about anything to keep them high, including adapting their message so that it become more likable to more people. In some churches, the Sunday morning sermon has become quite similar to a motivational talk, with the exception that sometimes there is reference to a passage of Scripture, more as a prooftext than as the foundation for the message.

I have wondered with my colleagues about what will happen next. There is a trend for people to “shop local,” being willing to pay a little more for the same product. People shop local for all kinds of reasons: they know the producer; they are concerned about the environment; they don’t like big businesses; they don’t trust that the product is safe. In other words, shopping local can be almost as self-seeking as trying to get the best bargain on-line. Without a doubt we will see churches positioning themselves as the “local option” to appeal to the kind of person that likes that option.

Where does the problem lie? We might identify the problem with the fact that people view churches as being a kind of business. We are taught to be consumers by almost everything we see, so it is understandable that we view the church as something that can provide something we can consume. “We want to be fed,” is what we hear so often, and that can be a good sentiment, to a certain extent. Perhaps the problem is with the people, but the solution lies elsewhere. Any time a church positions itself to be what people want, it is in danger of losing its understanding of being what people need. The church’s purpose is not to bring people through the doors, but, rather, to bring people to faith in Christ and faithfulness to him with the intent that those same people bring Christ to the world. People are always going to be influenced by their environment and our environment makes us consumers, but that does not mean that a church needs to meet their demands.

We do have a responsibility in this, and it is quite simple: we need to assess ourselves and ask the question, “Am I a consumer when it comes to my choice of church?” I should note when someone changes the church they attend, it may not be because they are acting like consumers. Perhaps there are other good reasons for the change, but if the change is motivated by consumeristic feelings, then the person has failed to understand the purpose of the church. More importantly, we should never expect a church to shape its practices so that it bends the knee to consumerism. As soon as a “greater market share” becomes what motivates a church, we can also expect to see compromise. The role of the church is to be a faith community wherein which its members are equipped to be Christ’s workers in his kingdom.

Perhaps it would be best to understand the church to be a kind of training centre where we learn the skill of following Jesus Christ rather than a grocery store where we seek what satisfies our wants.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Overcoming Original Sin

Some years ago, I had parked my car, and I was just about to leave it when I noticed a young man on the other side of the parking lot. It was apparent that he was just passing through, but suddenly, quite randomly, he kicked out, smashing a side mirror off the car he was passing. From the way he was walking, it did not seem that he had a reason to target this particular car. I was too distant from him to identify him, and he was long gone before I had a chance to confront him, but I did wonder what made him damage someone else’s property without provocation.

Augustine lived 1600 years ago, and he tells the story that when he was young, he and a friend decided to steal some pears from a neighbour’s orchard. They weren’t hungry and they didn’t eat the pears. They didn’t even like that particular variety of pear, but that didn’t stop them from stealing a significant quantity. Why did they do that?

Augustine, who became a Christian and a theologian, reflected on his actions and drew this conclusion: “I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men.” In other words, Augustine discovered that he was a sinful human being and he often sinned for no other reason except, perhaps, to impress others. It was from this reflection that Augustine articulated the doctrine of Original Sin. Original sin is defined at the tendency to sin, a tendency that we inherit from Adam. In other words, we are oriented toward sin from our very conception onward.

This idea does not play well with people when they look at little babies. We might hear someone say, “Look at how innocent she is,” when watching their daughter or granddaughter as she sleeps. Little infants do look quite innocent, and it seems offensive to think that that beautiful little child is inherently sinful. But if babies were inherently innocent and did not have the propensity toward sin, then why can they become so difficult after they have celebrated their second birthday? (“The terrible twos” is an oft-used expression, and for good reason.) Do parents teach their innocent children to be rebellious and disobedient? I haven’t met a parent who would admit it. Or maybe their sweet, innocent children learn it from other children, perhaps in the nursery at church? To say that would be to say that other parents taught their children to be sinful, and that would be a false accusation. Even if we could completely protect our children from negative outside influence, they still adopt sinful behaviour.

Of course, not all of us have stolen pears from an orchard or dropped kick a mirror off a random car, but we all do things that are wrong, and we do them for no good reason except that we feel like it, or, even worse, because our peers encourage us to. It may be that we do not really understand why we did what we did, but we did it anyway.

The concept of original sin, namely that we are inherently inclined to commit sin, has long been rejected by secularists in the West and is increasingly being rejected by Christians as well. Replacing original sin is the question which asks, “Is this behaviour caused by nature or by nurture?” If we say, “by nature,” we would say that we do what we do because we are built this way. Or, to use Christian speak, “God made us this way, and there is nothing we can do about it.” On the other hand, if we say, “by nurture,” we can blame our inclinations, even our sinful ones, on our upbringing or on our peer group or on our experiences. Without a doubt, we cannot discount either nature or nurture as being influencing factors on our behaviour, for they both play a role in who we are. A sexually abused child, for example, will more likely become abusive him/herself, and some people, because of the way they are built are far more likely to become alcoholics. (I know of several families where alcoholism is rampant.) Yet, we cannot lay our sinful behaviour either at the feet of nature (how we were brought up) or nurture (how we are built). Even the person with the best environment and the best genetics still sins, so nature and nurture do not explain or give reason for all of our sin.

The best explanation is Augustine’s who said that the root of our sin is found in the fact that we every part of life is affected by the sin that first entered the world through Adam. God did not create sinful human beings, nor did he create an environment which would teach us to sin. Adam did that for us, and we follow in his footsteps.

Thankfully, there is hope. When we speak of Jesus coming to this world to die for our sins, we can name some of the sins we have committed, although if Martin Luther is correct, we remember only a small fraction of them. We are thankful that all the sins we committed are forgiven by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, if we, through faith, ask him for forgiveness. But the death of Jesus on the cross did more than just provide forgiveness for each and every one of our particular sins; it also served to rid our lives of our sinfulness, thus removing even the tendency toward sin. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, the Holy Spirit makes us wholeheartedly ready and willing to serve the Lord. True, we all still fall back into the tendency toward sin, but we also know that as we seek to follow Jesus, the Spirit works in us to make us hate sin more and more, something that Paul alludes to in Romans 7.

The problem of original sin, therefore, which is the root of all our sins, is also dealt with at the cross, and we are set free. Our job, then, as followers of Jesus Christ, is to continually root out the individual sins from our lives so that we become more and more obedient to Jesus, becoming like him in all that we do. This process is called “sanctification” (becoming holy), and sanctification is only possible because Jesus also dealt with our original sin on the cross.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Progression or Transgression

From time to time, we hear someone say, “That’s progress.” They may be referring to the discovery of a new cancer drug, or they may be talking about the development of a new subdivision. Often times people will refer to changes in a culture or lifestyle or system of values as being a sign of progress.

The word, “progress,” has its roots in Latin, meaning, literally, to walk (gress) forward (pro). Progress, then, can be thought of as walking/going forward. There are other words that also contain the “gress” part of the word. Regress is the opposite of progress and means, “to go/walk backward.” Retrogress is similar to regress but it means “to go back to something that was before.” Egress (a way to go out) is the opposite of ingress (a way to go in). Digress means “to deviate from where one was going.” Congress is a gathering of people who have a common purpose or, as we could say, are going in the same direction. Aggress means to “to go against.” And transgress is to go or cross over to the other side. All of these are English words, some of which we use regularly and some which we may never use. But they all come from the same root which means “to walk or go or take a step.”

When we hear or use the phrase, “That’s progress,” we have to ask ourselves if what we have observed is really a step forward. Could we be observing regression or even transgression? Or perhaps what is happening is digression or retrogression. Just because something has happened does not make it progress. It may be just the opposite. Pushing back the topsoil on some of the best farmland in the world (in the areas surrounding nearly every major Canadian city, for example), to build subdivisions is called progress, but is it? I suspect that future generations will judge the people of our time for building big houses on tiny lots, thereby destroying environments uniquely suited for producing food. What we define as progress today may actually be considered as regression in the future.

This is just one example, but it does lead us to ask this question: how do we distinguish between progress (walking forward) and some other kind of walking/going? What standard do we use? This question is especially important when it comes to how we not only interact with the world around us but also how we relate to each other. We are told over and over that many of the changes in cultural values and practice (in our day and age, changes in understanding of human sexuality) are a sign of human progress and to speak against these changes is an act of aggression. Because opposition to what is labelled as “progress” is labelled as aggression, voicing one’s beliefs about human behaviour is seen as a transgression, and in every culture, transgressors are worthy of some sort of punishment.

And that brings us to that word, transgress (or transgression). With the exception of the above example (and parallel situations), we rarely hear anyone speak of transgression. To transgress means that we cross over to the other side, and to speak in that way is to admit that another side actually exists. Contemporary thought denies that there are two sides (good and evil), but Scripture speaks of two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. Adam and Eve, being tempted by the devil, the ruler of the kingdom of darkness, transgressed, meaning they gave into temptation and crossed over to the other side, leaving God’s kingdom and joining themselves to the kingdom of darkness. As transgressors they led the human race into becoming aggressors, so that under the leadership of the devil we, their descendants, actually go against (aggress) God and seek to destroy his work. Our transgression and the resulting aggression are worthy of some sort of punishment. Paul, Romans 6:23, writes that the wages (results) of sin (transgression) is death.

As we well know, once we have transgressed and have become aggressors, it becomes impossible to cross over again to the other side. Just as no general in any army would welcome back someone who went over to the enemy and took up arms against those he own people, so we cannot expect God to welcome back those who went over to the kingdom of his adversary. (Satan means “adversary.”) Once we have transgressed, we cannot regress or retrogress or even egress. That is why the Bible is so adamant when it teaches that it is only because of God’s grace in Jesus who came to this world, the world of darkness but, unlike us, became neither transgressor nor aggressor, yet bore the punishment for being a transgressor, that we can be brought over again to the kingdom of God.

Because there are two sides (kingdom of God, kingdom of the devil), we would have to say that anything that does not belong to the kingdom of God is transgression and therefore cannot be called progress. (The kingdom of God is identified as existing in any place where the reign of God is known, and where his reign is known we will also see obedience and trust.) Progress occurs only when God’s reign is restored on this earth. In Galatians 5:16 (paralleled in many other places in Scripture), Paul exhorts us to “walk by the Spirit,” meaning that we align ourselves to “congress” with the Holy Spirit, thus walking/going in the direction God desires us to go. Through the powerful working of the Spirit, we develop into faithful citizens of the kingdom of God, and that is true progress.

Understanding that there are two sides, two kingdoms, helps us understand our current cultural climate. Those who belong to the kingdom of darkness label what they believe as “progress,” even if it is contrary to God’s will, but progress in the kingdom of darkness is transgression from the reign of God and aggression against his kingdom. The devil’s work is to make everyone believe that transgression against God is progress, and if anyone stands in the way of progress, they are an aggressor and should be silenced. Thus, those who stand up for the kingdom of God are labelled as transgressors in our world and transgressors are subject to punishment. Labelling transgression against God as “progress” and opposition to “progress” as aggression has been a very effective tool in the devil’s hands, at least for the past few decades.

So, what is our response? First, we must be careful to distinguish between progress and transgression and identify it correctly. Progress is not progress if it transgresses God’s will. We always need to ask, “Does it conform to God’s will and purposes for this world? To which kingdom does it belong?” Second, we do not shy away from true progress, recognizing that true progress is seen in obedience to God as we keep in step with the Spirit. We remain committed to true progress, building the kingdom of God, no matter what anyone else might say. Third, and most importantly, we do not become afraid, nor do we cave in or compromise. Let’s remember that the ruler of the kingdom of darkness has been defeated, that everything that he passes off as progress will be shown for what it is and destroyed and that, in the end, the kingdom of God will be victorious. Yes, at this time we may be labelled as aggressors by those who are promoting transgression as progress, but let’s remember that to be an aggressor against the kingdom of darkness is to be a servant in the kingdom of God.

True progress is that which is done in the name of Christ, for the sake of Christ and in obedience to Christ. If that means we are labelled as aggressors, so be it. It is better to be identified as an aggressor for Christ against the devil than to become a transgressor and therefore an aggressor against God.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Texts in Context

Define the word, “MAY.” You might need a little bit of help with that, so let me use MAY in a few sentences.

  • MAY is the month after April. (MAY is a month the year.)
  • MAY I go to my friend’s house. (Here MAY means, “Do I have your permission to.)
  • It MAY rain. (Now MAY carries with it the idea of possibility or probability.)
  • MAY missed her bus. (MAY, in this sentence, is a girl.)

There are probably a few more uses for the simple three letter word, “may,” but I think the point is clear: how we define “may” depends on the context in which the word is used. If we don’t read “may” in its context we are not going to be sure that we have the right definition.

The same can be true of an entire sentence. “It looks like May is going to be cold.” Because “May” is capitalized, we can assume that it refers either to the month or the girl. Again, context is important, for in this case, May has left for school without a coat, and the temperature is going to plunge throughout the day. We cannot know what something means for sure without context.

This is why text messages and emails can be dangerous. Sending an address to a friend via a text message doesn’t pose any problems, but if we are trying to communicate something important, something weighty, something that might evoke emotions, a text or email may not be the best method of communication. Often our words need to have a context if we want to be fully understood.

The same is true of the Bible. One of the things we can be quite sure about is that the biblical authors, even as they were guided by the Holy Spirit, knew exactly what they were writing. The biblical authors, all of them, were inspired by the Holy Spirit to put down to paper what the Spirit had put in their minds. We call it “organic inspiration,” meaning that the Holy Spirit did not merely take control of the hands of the biblical authors and force them to write down letters which became words and then sentences and then paragraphs. Rather, the Spirit worked in their minds, and the human authors of the Bible wrote in a style and form with which they were familiar. Even a novice in the Greek language can discover significant differences in the writing styles of Peter and Paul, and we can detect a common thread of who John is in the books that he wrote (the Gospel of John, the three letters attributed to him, and Revelation).

When we study a particular book of the Bible (for example, John’s gospel or Isaiah’s prophecy), we not only discover something about the human author, but we also see that the book fits together, that it has an internal cohesion and consistency. In other words, the parts of the book fit together because the biblical authors were not only inspired by the Holy Spirit but they were also thoughtful, sane, thinkers who made it their purpose to communicate an important message.

There is an important implication to this: it is inappropriate to take a particular verse, sentence, paragraph or verse out of context. As is illustrated with the word, “may,” taking something out of context may lead to us wrongly interpreting what is being said. It is very easy to make a verse of the Bible say something it is not meant to say.

Let me give one example: In Philippians 4:13 Paul says, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (NIV, 1984 edition). If I take that verse out of context, it is easy to find that it is not true for me. For example, I find it very difficult to change people’s minds, although the verse, taken out of context, seems to indicate that if I find my strength in Christ, I should be able to. And, sadly, I cannot make myself like anything that has bananas cooked into it, try as I might. Again, the verse fails. I am unable to paint a picture, and I cannot get more than a few inches off the ground in the high jump. Frankly, I would be deceiving myself if I said that I could do any of these things if I just found my strength in Christ. So, either the verse is wrong, or I am missing something.

Context makes the verse clear. Paul is writing about his sufferings (he is in prison when he writes Philippians), and he is referring to the work that Jesus Christ had called him to do. Throughout the letter to the Philippians, he speaks about the power of the gospel, and he mentions that because he is in prison, he has been able to witness to his guards, and some of them have come to faith. In other words, Philippians 4:13 is best understood to be saying that when God calls us to a particular task, we will be able to fulfill his calling because he will provide us with all the resources to fulfill our calling. (Incidentally the 2011 version of the NIV recognizes this problem and translates the “everything” as “all this,” making us ask the question, “What is this?” thereby inviting us to look at the context.)

It is very tempting for us to read verses in Scripture without considering the context. We may get them right, but there is also the significant possibility that we miss the intended meaning, and that could lead to making great mistakes about what God is saying to us. That is something we don’t really want to do.

In my years as a pastor, one of the most prevalent ways I find people making this mistake of misreading the Bible is through “prooftexting.” Someone might say, “I believe this (whatever point they are trying to make) because the Bible says so,” and they quote a particular verse. More often than not, in my experience, they have not carefully considered what the verse is actually saying in its context, and they end up making the Bible conform to their beliefs rather than the other way around.

So, how do we avoid the problem of misreading the text? It’s simple, really, for all we have to do is consider the context. What are the surrounding verses saying? What is the line of reasoning of the biblical author? What subject matter does the chapter address? What is the book itself addressing? Is this verse appear in the Old Testament, or is it from the New Testament (and sometimes that makes a huge difference.)

It’s not hard to avoid misreading the text. It’s simple, but it is a lot more work. In other words, we might have to put some effort into completing this rather simple and straightforward exercise. The results will be rewarding if we do. If we don’t, of course, we might be misrepresenting Jesus, and we don’t want to do that..

~ Pastor Gary ~

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