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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Boxing Day and St Stephen

In Acts 6 we read that the Hellenistic Jews complained to the apostles because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (The Greek name for Greece is Hellas or Hellada.) Hellenistic Jews were Jews who spoke Greek and who had adopted more of the Greek customs and culture than had the Hebraic Jews who spoke Aramaic, a language more closely associated to Hebrew. Many of the Hellenistic Jews had migrated to Jerusalem over the years to be close to the temple, and they had formed their own community, and some of them had become Christians. Because the early Christians had pooled a significant portion of their possessions, they also relied on mutual support and could draw from the pot if needed. Hellenistic widows, because they were more likely to have migrated to Jerusalem with their husbands earlier in life, were often left without familial support structures and thus were reliant on the gracious donations of the Christian community. For some reason, they were being overlooked in the distribution of food, and they were starving.

The apostles, who were quite busy with leading the church in spiritual matters, decided to appoint seven Hellenistic men to ensure that the needy in the Christian community, in particular the Greek-speaking widows, had the care that they required. And, thus, it seems that the office of deacon was born. Deacons were to look after the physical needs of those who did not have resources to support themselves.

Among these early deacons was a man named Stephen. Not only did he have the kind of compassionate heart required of a deacon, but he also was an accomplished speaker. When he was arrested on trumped up charges of blasphemy, Stephen gave a lengthy speech (sermon) in which he accused the Jewish leadership of ignoring God’s Word spoken through the apostles just as the leaders of God’s people had ignored God’s Word spoken through the prophets centuries earlier. He so enraged the Jewish leaders that they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.

The Christian church has long recognized Stephen’s commitment to the Lord and his compassion for the poor, and centuries ago established one day every year to recognize him and celebrate his life. St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated on December 26, the day after Christmas. St. Stephen’s Day became a day when those who were rich blessed the poor with gifts of food, clothing, and money. It was also a day when employers gave their employees a bonus as a way of recognizing their faithful service.

Thus, Boxing Day was born. Although the origin of the word, “boxing,” is not certain, it appears that it was called that because alms boxes were placed in churches to collect donations for the poor. Boxing Day, thus, was a time when those who had received gifts on Christmas (the greatest gift being Jesus) blessed others from the blessings they had received. Boxing day became a day for intentional charity.

Scarcely anything of that history remains today, for Boxing Day, recently a holiday used by many to visit family and friends, has become a day when retailers open their stores so that people who have already received gifts can acquire more possessions. Boxing Day has been usurped by the retail world for the sake of profit, and people use the opportunity to buy things for themselves. Rarely, if ever, is Boxing Day thought of as a day when we intentionally give of our blessings so that others can be blessed.

Boxing Day (now Boxing Week) has become a retail event closing a month-long season that began on Black Friday. Black Friday, an American event which has spilled over into Canada, was developed by retailers to begin the Christmas shopping season. Black Friday falls on the day after American Thanksgiving, a day when people give thanks to God for his provision of physical blessing. Like Boxing Day, Black Friday is also a day when people who are full of God’s blessings are urged to acquire a little more for themselves. Similar in nature these two events, Black Friday and Boxing Day reveal the true heart of western culture. We are only too happy to forget the needs of others as we seek more for ourselves. When the economic growth is the mark if a healthy world, we should not be surprised that this has happened.

My mother used to tell how, in Holland, they would attend church on Boxing Day. I have always wondered what the pastor would have to say after having preached two services on Christmas Day (yes, she and her family attended those as well), but I think that I now know. I suspect that the pastor would take the opportunity to prepare a sermon that would encourage the congregation to engage in acts of intentional Christian charity. And, perhaps, he might use the story of Stephen, the committed, compassionate, godly man who gave his life as a martyr as he followed Jesus.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Growing Faith

A little more than a decade ago Charlie offered to take me for a ride in his airplane. Charlie was in his early 80s, and he had built the airplane himself after selling a couple of others he had also built. In other words, he knew what he was doing, and because of his years of flying, he was an experienced and confident pilot. When Charlie offered to take me on a half hour flight to another town (2 hours by car), I took him up on his offer.

The plane was small, a two-seater, one behind the other. I sat in the back seat, my legs on either side of Charlie’s seat which was in front of me. There was a joystick that was uncomfortably close to my belly, and the canopy that covered us was made of thin plexiglass. The wings seemed to be little longer than my arms, and I guessed the steel body was less than a millimetre thick. As we took off, we were not more than 10 feet into the air, and I realized I was in trouble. As we quickly climbed, my fear of heights began to manifest itself. By the time we had reached 2000 feet, the maximum there because of proximity to the Toronto airport, I was terrified. Charlie, sensing my fear, asked me three times over if I wanted to return, and three times I refused. However, when he asked the fourth time, I could not refuse, and knowing that if I got out of the airplane at our destination, I would never get back in. We returned, and we landed about 15 minutes later.

Charlie invited me to the small airport lounge for a cup of coffee, and we discussed why I had become so afraid. He had experienced this before, and he told me that it was because I had to put my life in the hands of another. I assured him that I thought he had done a good job building the plane and I found him to be a competent pilot, but it was still difficult for me to put my life in his hands and my body in his plane. My fear of heights was the real problem, and as competent as he and the airplane were, my fear could not be overcome by trust.

This past Sunday in the catechism class, we talked about growing in our faith, and I used this illustration to talk about what faith is. Faith is putting our lives into the hands of another. It is one thing to say that we believe, it is often another thing to put what we believe into practice. There is a song that contains these words, “Faith begins by letting go, giving up what had seemed sure, taking risks and pressing on, though the way feels less secure: pilgrimage both right and odd, trusting all our life to God.” When we put our faith in God, we also are making the commitment to follow him where he leads and to live in a way that pleases him. This kind of lifestyle might feel odd, and following Jesus may take us places where we would not go if we relied on ourselves. Living faithfully, in fact, can be a little bit scary.

While our ability to believe in Jesus Christ is a gift of the Holy Spirit, we also have a responsibility to cause our faith to grow, and there are several methods we can use to do exactly that. The first would be to know who God is and understand what he has done. I am fully convinced that the first cause of little faith is a lack of understanding of who God is. The best way to know God, of course, is to turn to his revelation of himself and listen again to the stories of what he has done and hear again the promises he made to us. I would never have gotten into the airplane if I didn’t trust Charlie. (I did ask around to see what others thought, and they gave good reports.) In the same way, we are not going to trust God if we don’t really know who God is or what he can do. Thus, if we feel our faith is weak, a good starting point might be to discover again who God is.

But when we have done that, we also need to practice our faith. I could probably overcome my fear of flying in little planes (big ones don’t bother me) if I would do it more often. It is one thing to say that I believe that an airplane and its pilot are qualified to take my high off the ground, but it is another thing to feel confident. Head knowledge is great, but experience makes head knowledge real. If we want our faith to grow, we need to step out in faith. The song that I just mentioned tells us that we need to live as God called us to live, caring for others, often sacrificing ourselves to do God’s work so that we can learn experientially that God is faithful. I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I know a lot about God from the Bible but I don’t always live as if what I know is true. When called by God to live selflessly, to perhaps give up the sure and tested way, we find that difficult, so difficult that we may well ignore God’s calling on our lives. Saying we are Christians and living the Christian life may become two different things for us, and, of course, that is not at all what God expects from us.

Faith in God means that we put our lives in his hands, and we make ourselves willing to do and be whatever it is that he asks. Is that a frightening prospect? Yes, it is. But, again, this becomes more and more possible if we have been learning about who God is, what he has done for us, and what he promises to do. If we can trust that God is faithful, we are far more likely to be able to step out in faith. We might think of growing in faith as an upward spiral in which, as we learn more about God, we intentionally put our lives in his hands, and, as we do, we experience that he is faithful. As we experience his faithfulness, we come to know him more, and as we know him more, our faith grows. Our faith should never stop growing, and it never will stop growing as we put our lives into God’s hands, trusting that he will be faithful to who he is and what he has promised.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Why Are You Here

Why are you here? This question seems too open-ended, and if asked the question we will try to narrow down the “here.” Is “here” being on earth or is “here” being in the room where you are now sitting? Depending on how we define “here” will determine how we answer the question, “Why are you here?”

Genesis 3 gives us the account of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. They ate the forbidden fruit, discovered they were naked and made rudimentary clothes for themselves, sewing fig leaves together. As evening fell, they heard the footsteps of the Lord God as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid among the trees of the garden. Although we can be sure God knew where they were, he called out, “Where are you?” Adam and Eve could have responded with the obvious answer, “We’re over here, hiding among the trees,” to which God could have replied, “And why are you there?” Adam seems to have anticipated God’s obvious second question and he answers it first: “We heard you in the garden, and because I was naked, I was afraid.” God’s interrogation continues: Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat the forbidden fruit? What is this that you have done? Adam and Eve’s answers were unsatisfactory. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. And, as we know from the opening verses of Genesis 3, God had made the serpent. Was Eve inadvertently blaming God?

If we go back to God’s first question, it is as if he is asking, “Why are you here?” What are the circumstances that led you to this situation? Adam and Eve refuse to take responsibility for what had happened, not repenting of their sin, but we know it was only because they disobeyed God and ate the fruit that they found themselves in their new and undesirable situation. Even though they refused to take responsibility, it is evident that they were where they were because of what they did, not because of what God had done.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to refusing to take responsibility, for we can be found doing the same. Increasingly we lay the blame at the feet of others or upon circumstances or even on God. Psychology does a good job of helping us understand why people behave as they do, but psychology can also go a step further and use that understanding to say that we have little choice in the matter. We are victims of circumstance, we are told, and no one should judge us for acting as we do. In other words, we have used science as a justification to pass the blame so that we can excuse ourselves of sin. We tend to be quite like Adam and Eve, blaming others. Yet, we cannot avoid the reality that we must shoulder the blame ourselves. We are “here” because of what we have done.

A Christian can also ask the question, “Why am I here?” Why am I part of God’s family? Why have I been brought close to God? Why am I not hiding from him anymore? Strangely, many people, though they are loathe to accept responsibility for sin, are quite happy to accept credit for why they have been brought close to God. “I have lived a pretty good life.” “God accepts me as I am.” “I’ve made some good decisions, including the decision to follow Jesus.” It is ironic that while we have little desire to take responsibility for what leads us to hide from God, we are quite happy to be at least partial responsible for being close to God.

If we are honest, however, we would have to admit that we are here, in Christ, not because of what we did but because of what God has done. We were “there” because of what we did, and we are “here” because of what God has done. God cannot be blamed because we hide ourselves from him, but he can be praised for calling us back to himself.

I find God’s response to human sin to be quite profound. His “Where are you?” is designed to have us confront our present reality, but it also begs the question, “And why is it that you are where you are?” If we are distant from God, we can blame no one but ourselves. If we have become close to God, it is because God sought us out, asked his Son to carry our blame, and drew us back to himself. The “Where are you?” is a probing question, but it is also a question that God asks us so that we can be confronted with our sin but, at the same time, be drawn back to his presence. When we ask the question, “Why am I here?” let’s be sure to take responsibility for what our contribution to our situation is and give God credit for his.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Description and Prescription

There is a big difference between two similar words: description and prescription. When we have a sore back, for example, the doctor, after doing all the necessary tests, describes the problem by saying that an injury from years ago has caused deterioration in one of the disks, and that is what is causing the pain. A description often leads to a prescription: surgery will most probably correct the problem. We have little problem differentiating between description and prescription, especially when it comes to our health.

When it comes to how we use the Bible, however, we seem to have more trouble. When reading the Bible, we have to ask ourselves if what we are reading is description or prescription. For example, we read numerous times that the Israelites went to battle against neighbouring nations, often taking over their territory, confiscating their possessions and making them slaves. Some, when they read these stories, which are entirely description, want to make them prescriptive. During the time of the crusades, about 1000 years ago, these descriptive passages were used by church leaders to rally the people, and thousands joined ragtag armies to go and “liberate” Jerusalem from the “infidels.” Not only were people misled in their quest to Christianize Jerusalem, but on the way, sadly, they also killed many innocent people, causing great harm to the name of Christ and of Christianity in general. This is one example of making biblical description in prescription, and there are many, many more.

The Bible is not only descriptive; it also contains prescriptive passages. The 10 Commandments, for example, are prescriptive. They prescribe a certain kind of behaviour, one that Jesus says is rooted in love for God and neighbour. Paul’s letter, likewise, are full of prescription, calling us to live in a way that is worthy of the calling we have received.

When we read the Bible, there are two pitfalls we must avoid. As was already mentioned, when we confuse description for prescription, we run into serious problems, for we tend toward randomness. One rather common example is the current trend to base diets on food described in the Bible, calling it a biblical diet. This is random, for seldom do we see people using biblical descriptions of transportation or battle armaments as prescriptive. We don’t go to battle with spears and swords or walk or ride donkeys because we say that these are better because they are described in the Bible. Even more dangerous is to take someone’s actions as prescriptive. We may emulate David as he writes and plays music that honours the Lord, but do we follow him as he and his men annihilate entire villages so that no one remains who can say who led the attack? If we make descriptive passages prescriptive, we must do so consistently, and we will find that to be impossible.

A second error which we must avoid is making prescriptive for them prescriptive for us. As an example, the Bible says that the Israelites may not mix two kinds of thread together as they weave cloth for a garment. That is prescriptive for them, but if we make it prescriptive for us, most of us are sinning at this very moment, for almost all of our clothing is made up of a combination of fibres. We end up becoming random in our choice of which prescriptions we will obey because we tend to focus on some and ignore all the rest. Another prescription which we have ignored completely is “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” a command that appears several times in Paul’s letters. I haven’t seen that happen lately, not even in the council room on a Sunday morning, although we do shake hands.

When thinking about a prescriptive passage, we always need to ask the question, “To whom is this addressed, and what is the situation that it is addressing?” Further, we must ask, “Is this prescription meant to be universal or situational?” It is not always easy to find the right answer, although some helpful attempts have been made. For example, many people will say that we can divide the various commands (prescriptions) in the Old Testament into three categories: religious, civil, and moral. They go on to say that religious commands have been fulfilled in Christ (sacrifices, etc.), that civil commands are only for the nation of Israel (boundary stones, etc.) but that moral commands (don’t murder) are still in force. It is convenient to differentiate biblical prescriptions in this way, but it is also artificial, for the Bible does not recognize or practice this.

The best way to determine whether a prescription is still in force is to seek to understand it in its context and determine its force for the people then. For example, greeting one another with a holy kiss is a way of expressing unity, something that we can replace with a handshake. Commands about dress (women wearing head coverings or men having short hair – Jesus probably had short hair) also have some cultural background, and we must make sure that we understand as completely as possible the reason these commands were given in that culture and place before we apply them universally to all people. This does take some hard work and careful research, recognizing that while we can gain insight into most of the prescriptions in the Bible, we cannot into all of them. We simply are too removed from that culture and place.

So, to summarize, we should never make descriptive passages into prescription for us. That is a blatant misuse of Scripture and can create all sorts of problems. And second, when the Bible prescribes something, we must be careful that we understand fully what the force of scope of the command is before we apply it to our situation. All of this requires serious Bible study, something that we should always be ready to do.

~ Pastor Gary ~