P A S T O R ‘ S   B L O G

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

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Philanthropy and Profitability

Some time ago I read an article in which philanthropic activity was considered to be the opposite of running a business. Philanthropy (literally the love of humanity) is often viewed as “giving money to good causes.” Philanthropy is much more than that, of course, for any action we take which helps others is included in the definition of the word. Nevertheless, most philanthropy involves giving money to help fellow human beings.

Many philanthropists were at one time successful in business. Quite often a philanthropist has sold his/her business for a very large sum of money, and they commit themselves to philanthropy (giving to good causes) for the rest of their lives. The perspective seems to be that when they were in business, their goal was to make a profit but after they sold their business, their goal was to give that profit away. I think it is often fair to say that running a successful business to make a profit and philanthropy (loving fellow human beings) are seen as incompatible. True, many successful business owners give a substantial amount of money to “good causes,” and we can be thankful for that, but it would seem that the business can only be successful if it focuses on profit rather than philanthropy. It would seem that the common perception is that philanthropy (the love of humanity) is possible because of good business practices, but good business practices don’t work well if they have philanthropy built into them.

One example of this separation of business and philanthropy could be found in a seed company which developed a seed with what was called a terminator gene. The terminator gene in a plant resulted in crops (e.g. soybeans) being unable to reproduce themselves. Thus, a farmer who saved some seed from one year to plant the next would be unable to do so, for the seeds he saved would not germinate. This may not have been a big deal for farmers in Canada, but for many subsistence farmers in poorer regions of the world, this was devastating. They are in the habit of saving seed from this year to plant next year, and the added cost of having to buy new seed each year would result in a net loss every year. The company which had developed this terminator gene spoke about its increased profits and bragged about how they were using those profits to help feed poor people, but their boasts seemed hollow. Providing help for farmers who had been impoverished by company policy hardly seems philanthropic.

Another example may be planned obsolescence in many of the products we buy. If we buy a fridge, for example, we can expect that it will run for 5-7 years without defect. When it does break down, we discover that the replacement parts are expensive, and we may even discover that they are unavailable to the consumer and must be installed only by a certified technician. Or, as we may have experienced, parts are glued into place (rather than held in place by screws) so that they cannot be replaced and the consumer must buy a new machine. These are deliberate ploys used by companies to increase sales and thus also profitability. The companies advertise their products in such a way to imply that the consumer will be satisfied with their purchase, but are doing so only to gain a greater market share. Sadly, while the company may be more profitable, humanity does not feel loved.

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves. (Jesus could well have said that he expects us to be philanthropists, lovers of humanity.) It is a challenge to do so in our current climate, one that seems to be run by profit margins and return on investments. If the principles by which we make decisions are for our own profit and we assuage our guilt by giving to good causes, are we truly obeying Jesus’ weighty command? Are we being truly philanthropic? To be philanthropic is to obey the second of the two great commandments (loving our neighbours), and we must ask if we can do that in all areas of life.

I am not a businessperson, so I don’t know the challenges of making a business viable in today’s economy. Certainly, there must be a way for a business to run on the principle of philanthropy while still being profitable or else God would not call Christians to become businesspeople. Still, even while he issues that call, he does expect that those who heed that call do so against the background of the second great philanthropic command to love our neighbours as ourselves. (Loving our neighbour as ourselves means that we seek to ensure our neighbours have what we provide for ourselves.)

I am not a businessperson, but I am under the obligation to be philanthropic in all areas of my life. That means that my concern for others is at least as great as my concern for myself, and it means that I provide for others what I also provide for myself. That might not pencil out very well, but, of course, God’s accounting practices are not always ours. His don’t make sense on paper, or so we are told, because we have to look out for ourselves and our own viability and profitability first or else we cannot be philanthropic. Yet, we have to trust that when God says that he will look after us so that we can love others that somehow it will work out. To love our neighbours as ourselves means that everything we do is guided by philanthropy rather than profitability. We love our neighbours, and we leave the profit (that which benefits us) up to God. That must be true not only in business but in our personal lives as well for it seems to be one of the primary ways we respond to God’s grace to us.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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God’s Accomplishments in Spite of Us

Some years ago, when taking a seminar on the biblical teaching about marriage, the teacher asked this question: Which couple in the Bible had the best marriage? He listed a couple of parameters: we read about them interacting as husband and wife as they planned together, and together they followed through on their plan. They were unified in what they believed and what they did. We thought for a while, and we posed a few answers: Abraham and Sarah were quickly ruled out because of Hagar. (Allowing a third party into the marriage doesn’t work that well.) Someone suggested Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. They seem to have had a good marriage, but we don’t really see them interacting as a couple. Others suggested Joseph and Mary, but, again, we don’t see them interacting as a couple.

When we had exhausted all possibilities, the teacher gave the answer: Ananias and Sapphira. We meet this couple in Acts 5 where we discover that they had agreed to sell a piece of property and donate the money to the work of the newly formed church. But, sadly, although they pretended to give all the money from that property to the work of the Lord, they had decided to keep a little back for themselves. For this sin of lying and cheating, both of them lost their lives. Yet, as marriages go, Annanias and Sapphira had a pretty good marriage in that they were united in both planning and carrying out the plan. They had a good marriage, but they did not have a good relationship with the Lord.

A few years later, after this teacher challenged me to reflect on this, in one of the churches I served we had a marriage enrichment weekend. The presenters spoke at the morning church service, basing their text on a passage from Song of Solomon in which they spoke of the beautiful relationship Solomon and his wife had. What was missing was mention that Solomon had over 700 wives and 300 concubines (women he slept with but to whom he was not married). On the way out of church, two people gave a one-line response to what they had heard that morning, “Which one?” They were rather cynical about the message that had been given, for Solomon does not seem to be the best example of someone who has a good marriage.

The point that the teacher of the marriage seminar who challenged us about biblical examples of good marriages (there are very few, if any), wanted us to think about the greatness of our God. Isn’t it amazing, he said, that throughout the 4000 years of post-flood biblical history, that the people were so sinful and yet God accomplished great things through them? It truly is amazing. I doubt that we would let Abraham or David, and certainly not Solomon become members of our church, but that didn’t stop God from advancing redemptive history anyway.

I am not advocating that we allow every kind of person, no matter how sinful, to be part of our church. There is no doubt that God has given us excellent and clear instruction about what marriage should look like: a lifelong commitment made before God and his people between a man and a woman. That is the biblical definition of marriage, and we are obligated to follow it, and if we don’t we are, in essence, ignoring God’s will. When people refuse to do as God commands, we must say something about their lifestyle, and, if they are unrepentant, we must they should not be members in good standing in any church. We must make it our goal to develop marriages that honour God, but we do so from biblical teaching, not biblical example, for there are few biblical examples of marriages that we would classify as being appropriate and proper.

The point of these paragraphs is not to criticize marriages of the Bible, and it is not to help us understand what good marriages are. Rather, the point is that we marvel at God’s ability to accomplish salvation history through sinful people.

Samson is another case in point. We can’t point to him as a good example for us all, for not only was his marriage rotten, but much of what he did was badly tainted by sin. Samson is the last of the judges (leaders of God’s people) in that book, and he the worst of them all. God didn’t have much to work with in Samson, but he still used him to bring relief from oppression through the defeat of the Philistines. God sometimes has to use pretty broken tools, but the amazing thing is that he can bring salvation through brokenness and in spite of brokenness.

Last week I wrote about competency, urging us to become competent, experienced Christians bur recognizing that when we are incompetent the Holy Spirit can still use us. This week the topic is somewhat the same but with a bit different perspective. Even if we are poor tools (pliers, duct tape, and WD40 are not the best tools with which we fix a car), God can still build his kingdom. And this should give us confidence in God.

We cannot doubt that there were good marriages in biblical times, marriages which we might want to emulate. We cannot doubt that there were good and faithful people who lived in joyful obedience to the Lord all the days of their lives. But the Bible does not put them forward as examples of how we should live so that God can build his kingdom through us. The Bible presents to us people who are sometimes grossly sinful but are still used by God.

Again, that does not give us the right to sin just so that we can see how powerful God is. But we can see how powerful God is when we consider what he has to work with. In Canada, at present, the church seems to be waning and there are many within the church who are unfaithful, but that should not make us think for a moment that God’s hands are tied. They aren’t, and he will continue to bring people to himself in spite of who we are and how we live rather than because of who we are and how we live. For that reason, we can continue with confidence, seeking to serve the Lord and live for him faithfully, all the while trusting that God’s will get done what needs doing. What he asks, of course, is that we be willing and not rebellious. Annanias and Sapphira wanted to appear willing but were rebellious. David appeared rebellious but was willing, and through him God accomplished great things, in spite of his sin.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Competency

Some time ago, I disputed the charges on a utility bill I had received. Because the issue was not resolved immediately, I had to make a number of phone calls, and each of those phone calls went to the same level of support staff. None of the support staff I talked to had the capability to address my claims. As I dealt with them, I came to realize that they were reading from a manual, and because what I was asking was not in the manual, they were not able to give the information that I needed nor could they make corrections to the charges. It became evident that as they referred the problem to another level of support staff, they did not communicate my concerns appropriately, and I continued to receive inadequate answers to my questions.

The longer I spoke to the support staff, the more I became convinced that their competency was based on their ability to read a manual. Sadly, they did not have the level of competency I needed to deal with my dispute of the charges. They had stock answers, but those stock answers were not based on real experience. I do not fault them for their lack of competency, but, rather, the fault lies with the ones who had trained them. To become truly competent, they would have had to have a deeper understanding of the billing process, and it was clear that they did not. In other words, experience would have helped their competency. Understanding a manual gets one only so far.

Competency is important in many areas of life, and that also includes our faith. A colleague, one who works with a Muslim community in a large Canadian citizen, is often asked to speak at a church. When asked to do so, he requests that he bring along a Muslim imam (equivalent of pastor in Islam). On the appointed day, the imam arrives and apologizes and says that the pastor is running late but that he would like to engage those in attendance in conversation because he has some questions about Christianity. With permission given, he begins to ask those in attendance what they believe and why. His questions do not require answers that demand a deep understanding of theology, but they do require a basic understanding of Christianity. It becomes quickly apparent that many Christian believers do not really know how to give answers to his questions. They prove to be somewhat incompetent. My colleague is concerned that many Christians are not fully aware of what the manual (the Bible) teaches.

About half an hour into the presentation, the imam begins to remove his Muslim garb, and it becomes evident that it is not an imam who is speaking to them but the pastor himself. In taking the role of a Muslim cleric, he is able to reveal to those gathered that they do need to know what they believe if they are going to talk about their faith with unbelievers, especially those who have questions. He emphasizes how we not only need to be ready to give an answer to those who question us on the hope that we have, but we also need to know what the answers are. In other words, we do need to exhibit more than a competency we gain from a child’s Bible story book. This pastor is convinced that most people have heard the answers at one time or another but that was during the catechism class they took as a teenager or heard in a second service in which the Heidelberg Catechism was being preached. What concerns him is that many have not used those answers in everyday life. In other words, the book learning that we once had has faded into obscurity because we have not made it part of our experience, at least not intentionally so.

In a way, those learning situations, while important, are rather like learning the vocabulary of a second language. We can learn the vocabulary and even the grammar of another language but until we put it into practice, we won’t ever be fluent. In the same way, unless we speak of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, we might have learned the words, the facts, but we won’t have the answers. Competency comes with experience, real life experience. It comes from more than just learning how to read and quote a manual. If we are going to be competent Christians, then, we need to be living and speaking our faith. We must apply the gospel in every situation, thus making what we learned from a manual a part of our experience. We will then become competent.

But, thankfully, we are not alone. When I was a student at Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), one of the required courses was an evangelism course. We had to learn a method of presenting the gospel, and then we were required to partner with an evangelism committee from a church which was involved in door-to-door calling. It wasn’t a great experience for me, and I dreaded those Tuesday evenings. But one day, my partner and I were invited into the house, and my partner asked that I give the presentation of the gospel. I fumbled around, looking for the words and trying to remember the Bible verses. When I came to the part where I asked him if he wanted to accept Jesus as his Lord and Saviour, he said, “Yes, I do.” I was quite astounded, sure that he didn’t really understand what I was asking, so miserable had been my presentation of the gospel. But he was adamant: he understood, and he wanted to put his trust in Jesus, and he wanted to follow his Lord. After trying to convince him otherwise (I actually tried to dissuade him!), we prayed together, and he gave his life to Jesus.

Clearly the Holy Spirit was present that day. Thankfully he was, for I certainly did not do a competent job in talking about Jesus had done. But the Spirit was competent where I was not.

The present of the Holy Spirit ensures that even when we are weak (or maybe especially when we are weak) he is strong, and he can accomplish what we cannot do. This story I just told reminds me of how weak I am. This does not excuse us, of course, of learning and growing in our competency. To give answer to the hope that we have, we need to speak the language, and to speak the language, we have to actually live it. But we can be confident that even if we do not speak the language of the gospel clearly or proficiently, the Spirit can take what we say and make it good. For that we can be thankful. I’m guessing, however, that the Holy Spirit, though fully able to use incompetent people, would prefer that we make ourselves competent. It works a little better that way.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Ineffably Sublime

Recently, I believe it was in the evening service, we sang the song, Crown Him with Many Crowns. In the fourth verse of that hymn, we find these words:

Crown him the Lord of years, the potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime.
All heal, Redeemer, hail, for you have died for me;
Your praise shall never, never fail throughout eternity.

A few years ago in another church, after we sang these words as a doxology, a member of the congregation approached me and said, “I sang those words, but I had no idea what I was singing.” I understood why, for there are words in that verse that we rarely, if ever, use day to day.

I didn’t know exactly what they meant, but our daughter looked them up and explained them. A “potentate” is someone who is very powerful. We get our word, “potent,” from the same Latin root word. “Sublime” is a word that we might have heard. I recall hearing it in a commercial once, perhaps to describe some sort of dessert. It tasted sublime, which means that it was absolutely wonderful. They used the word “sublime,” but they did not say “ineffably sublime.” That’s the word that gives me the most trouble, for I have never heard “ineffably” used except for in this song. Maybe back in 1851, when the song was written, Matthew Bridge, the author of the words, made a trip to the local library to find words in the thesaurus that would help him write the song. Or, more likely, they used the word, “ineffably,” more often then than we do now.

“Ineffably” means something like “in a way that causes so much emotion that we cannot put into words what we are feeling.” That phrase doesn’t fit very well into the metre of the song, so the author had to say “ineffably.” Maybe there have been times when we were so full of emotion that we could barely speak. I could say, “My feelings were ineffable when my daughter was born, and I first held her in my arms.” I didn’t have the words to express how I felt. Or, as a friend told me when he met the woman who was to become his wife, he found her so beautiful that he was beyond tongue tied. Sometimes we find ourselves unable to express our emotions because what we are experiencing is beyond description. When Matthew Bridge contemplated who Jesus is and what he has done, his emotions ran so deep that they were beyond description.

As I worked through the definition of these words, I began to see that the words, “ineffably sublime,” connect two very different ideas. The verse I quoted above speaks of Jesus being the Lord of years, meaning that there never was and never will be a time when he is not sovereign over all. He is the “potentate of time,” meaning that he has always and always will be more powerful than any other power or authority who has existed or will exist. He is the creator of the rolling spheres, not only earth but also of the planets and the stars. The incredible number of spheres located in what we call outer space is beyond our comprehension, and they were created through the one we know as Jesus. When we contemplate who Jesus is, we certainly should be in awe, for he rules over all that he has made.

But what follows the words, “ineffably sublime,” is what is truly amazing. The verse continues: All hail Redeemer hail, for you have died for me. If we had never heard the teachings of the Bible before and if we were told that the one through whom all things were created and who rules over the entirety of all that is came to this earth and died on the cross so that we could be saved, we would wonder at that. Can it really be true that God the Son, who has always existed, became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and he did it through his death? This is what is ineffably sublime, according to the author of this song.

If we do not find this outstandingly amazing, and if this does not make us tongue-tied and if we do not feel any emotion because of what happened 2000 years ago, then we have either become so accustomed to the gospel that it has become almost humdrum, or we don’t really understand who Jesus is and what he has done. But if we do understand, and if we have taken time to contemplate what Jesus has done for us, then we can say with Matthew Bridge that our praise shall never, never fail through all eternity. When we realize for the first time or when we contemplate again the import of what God the Son did by taking on human nature and become Jesus, the Saviour, we cannot help but turn to praise, and that praise will never, never fail for we will live for all eternity.

When I was a young adult, I attended a Bible study there, and most of us there had grown up in the church. I forget what it was that we were talking about, but I do remember that the discussion had deteriorated into a rather heated theological debate about some important aspect of biblical truth. Almost all of us had grown up in the church, but one guy had recently become a Christian. After the debate had continued for some time, he, with tears in his eyes and a broken voice said to us in words something like this, “You’ve grown up knowing these truths, and they have become commonplace to you, and you argue and talk about them as if they are just points to be debated. You don’t know how wonderful the gift of God’s grace that you have experience all your life is. And you have forgotten how wonderfully amazing it is that God sent his Son to this world to die for our sins.” He couldn’t express his emotions as he contemplated what Jesus had done, but they were truly ineffable, for what Jesus did is absolutely sublime. We who had grown up knowing and trusting in Jesus were rebuked that evening, and rightly so. Sadly, when he was overcome by emotion, he left the room, and someone commented that he was over-reacting. Reflecting on this years later, I don’t think he was. He was trying to express how indescribable God’s grace is, and he wanted us to have the same emotions as well.

Jesus, the Potentate of time, Creator of the rolling spheres died for me. He is truly ineffably sublime. Our praise may never, ever fail for all eternity.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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