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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Six Degrees of Separation

The phrase, “six degrees of separation,” was coined in the early part of the last century and is based on the idea that we can socially connect ourselves to any other person in the world through a series of about six relationships. For example, the theory states that any of us might be able to connect ourselves to the Prime Minister of Australia through a series of relatives, friends, neighbours, or colleagues. Each relationship has to be two-way, meaning that both persons have to be able to identify each other. Thus, I cannot use King Charles as a connection because I suspect he doesn’t know who I am. Studies have been done recently that support this theory, saying that it is most probable that a farmer living in a remote area of Southern Alberta can be connected to a Buddhist monk living in a remote region of Tibet through a series of a mere six relationship connections.

Because we are so interconnected, perhaps instead of using the phrase “six degrees of separation” we should replace it with “six degrees of closeness or interconnectedness.” We are closer to each other than we might think.

Perhaps we are even closer to each other today even with our rapidly growing world population than we were 100 years ago when the world population was just a fraction of what it is today. In the last century or so, the migration of people from across vast distances has become quite common. Even in a village like Nobleford we can run into people from several continents, Africa, Europe, Asia and South America, for example, who have immigrated to Canada in recent years. They connect us immediately to their homes, decreasing the number of steps needed to connect ourselves to people in distant lands. So, while we may not know the person in China who built our smart phone or have any idea who the Vietnamese person was who sewed together the parts of the shirt we are wearing, we can be rather certain that somehow we are connected to them with as few as six relationships.

This is interesting information, and for those of us who love finding connections between people, it can even be rather thrilling to think that there is a network of relationships which join every single person in the world to everyone else. But there is another side and that is one that asks what our responsibility is to others. We want our friends to do well. We also hope that the friends of our friends do well as well, even if we don’t know them. If a friend of a friend has financial needs because of an illness, we might contribute a few dollars to support them. It is the right thing to do after all. But what about a friend of a friend of a friend? Do we want them to thrive as well? Where may we stop? Is a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of friend of a friend too distant? That is how close the most distant person in the world is to us. Do we feel any sort of responsibility to them? Should we be concerned about their needs? Should we offer to help because we are connected to them?

When Scripture teaches us to love our neighbours, it is easy to limit that love to those who are in close physical proximity to us. In other words, our neighbours are only those who we know personally. Jesus had other ideas. When he was asked who he considered our neighbours to be, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. To fully understand that story, we need to know that not only did the Jews dislike the Samaritans, but that Samaritans had every reason to dislike the Jews. The Jewish people had done much to harm the Samaritans. They surrounded the region of Samaria with Galilee to the north and Judea to the south, thus potentially limiting trade and access to resources. They would not develop friendships with Samaritans, avoiding them whenever possible. And, sadly, Jews would not allow Samaritans to come close to God, excluding them from the temple even when the Samaritans claimed to (and did) worship the same God. When the Samaritans built their own temple a couple of centuries before Jesus walked this earth, the Jews attacked it and tore it down. The Samaritans had every right to dislike the Jews and even desire the worst for them. Yet, as Jesus tells the story, this unknown Samaritan man helped the injured man (most likely a Jew, for this was Jewish territory) by tending to him and paying for his ongoing care. While both Jews and Samaritans worked hard at keeping themselves separate from each other, this Samaritan saw the injured man to be his neighbour, and he did whatever it took to care for him. In telling this story Jesus widened the definition of “neighbour” to include everyone within it even when there is no direct connection. Our interconnectedness serves to reinforce the relationships we have with each other and thus moves us to accept responsibility for each other. Every other person on this planet is our neighbour and therefore we are obligated to show our concern for them.

Thankfully, many Christians have shown a deep concern for our neighbours. One of the biggest problems facing the vast majority of people who struggle is the lack of opportunity. Large western corporations pretend to bring opportunity to the developing world by moving their manufacturing facilities there, but the opportunities they provide often involve long hours, low pay, and poor and unsafe working conditions and tend to profit the corporation and not the worker. On the other hand, Christians have found ways to provide opportunities which have a lasting impact and profound impact on others. For example, I know someone who was involved with an organization called “Farmer to Farmer,” in which farmers from the West shared some of their expertise with struggling farmers, often providing them with small operating loans so that they could improve their buildings and buy equipment. As the loan was repaid, that money, in turn, was loaned to other farmers. Unlike some “helping” which is nothing more than a handout, Farmer to Farmer helped by giving opportunities, and over time, the farmers began to thrive. These efforts often take a lot of time to bear fruit, but when they do it is generally fruit that will last.

The beautiful thing about becoming involved in the lives of others is that the six degrees of separation becomes a personal connection as the farmers came to know each other through personal interaction. Not all of us can develop a personal connection with someone who is six degrees away, but we can certainly support those who do. Even one degree of separation is better than six. The positive side to loving our neighbours is that the separation between us and our six-degree separated neighbour is closed, and we become a close community. For me, as a person who loves finding connections, being able to cut down the six degrees of separation to one or two degrees of closeness is a foretaste of heaven. Being able to do that by loving our neighbour, no matter how distant, is not only a obligation and calling; it is a pleasure and privilege.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Bible Translations

Recently someone asked me what version of the Bible is the best translation. We have the New International Version in our church pews and on the overhead, but the translation we use is not the latest NIV. The one we use was published in 1984 while the most current version of the NIV was published in 2011, for it was felt that an update in the translation was needed. In addition to the NIV, we have multiple translations available to us that are all different from each other. How can we know which one we should use? There are several things we should consider when choosing a translation.

First, we must consider the text of the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). Since the original manuscripts have not survived, all we are left with are copies (and often copies of copies of copies). Thankfully, we have many copies from various places allowing scholars to compare the variety of variant readings and make very careful decisions about which readings are the most likely to have been the original. Variant readings do not often change the core meaning of the text, but it is important to get as close as possible to the words that the biblical authors used. Thankfully, because of centuries of good scholarly work, we can be confident that the texts we now use in the original languages are reliable. Nevertheless, some versions of the Bible rely on older, less reliable manuscripts. (The King James Version is one of those versions, having been produced in 1611 at a time when access to the best original language texts was not yet available, but even that text is reliable enough to give us no reason for concern.)

The work of ensuring that we have an accurate original language text continues and while we can anticipate some minor change, we can be assured that what we have is faithful to the original. That being said, translators have to make sure that they understand the original language and make themselves aware of the different meanings and nuances of a word. Some Hebrew and Greek words have different meanings, depending on the context. English is the same, for the sentence, “That man is gay,” means something very different depending on whether we are reading a sentence written in 1953 or 2023. Translators must be certain that they understand the meaning of the words they are translating. While the text of the original language remains stable, there is often discussion about the exact meaning of a particular word. (The word that is translated in Romans 3:25 as “sacrifice of atonement” is one of the words that evokes much discussion.) Again, we can be thankful that scholars generally agree on the meaning and usage of most of the Hebrew and Greek words. Even at that, we recognize that all translation is interpretive, meaning that the translators have begun the process of interpreting the Bible for us.

Translators not only have to be versant in the original language, but they must also be aware of nuances and meanings of words in English. As we are well aware, the English language changes over time (Shakespeare is difficult to read for most of us), and our language has regional differences (cars in England have boots and bonnets). This poses a challenge, for translators must choose language that their contemporaries will understand. This is one of the reasons that there are many translations available to us, and some of them have been updated more than once. What translators want to do is ensure that when we read our English translations, we understand the meaning as it was meant to be understood.

In translation work, translators must decide on a philosophy of translation, and their philosophy normally falls somewhere on a scale. On one of the scale we have more literal translations and on the other we have what some call a dynamic equivalent translation. In a more literal translation (no translation is fully literal), the original languages are translated word for word. Thus, in the King James Version, for example, we find the expression “bowels of mercy,” which is a literal rendering of the Greek. However, that makes very little sense to any of us, and we might miss the meaning of what was originally written. Thus, someone who is interested in getting the meaning across might decide to abandon literalism and substitute an equivalent idea and in the NIV, we find the word, “compassion.” That word we understand, although it might not get quite to the heart of the Greek word. In either a literal (word for word) translation or a dynamic equivalent (idea for idea) translation, there is always going to be a lack of precision in the translations, simply because we speak a different language. A literal translation can easily be misunderstood (and often is), but a dynamic translation can be a little looser than we might desire. Translations on both ends of the scale have benefits, but they also have their drawbacks.

It is important that when we choose a translation, we understand the intentions of the translators. If the translators tend toward literalism, we must not complain that their language is hard to understand and often difficult to read. On the other hand, when a translator intends to translate idea by idea, we ought not complain that their choices don’t necessarily reflect the depth or breadth of what was originally written. We must allow the translations to do what they were intended to do and appreciate them for that.

So, what do we do? There are several options. The first is to learn the original languages. I have studied both Hebrew and Greek, and I have a basic proficiency in them. However, I am far from fluent in either language, and must rely heavily on the work of others both in the meaning of the original word and way I should translate it. On my bookshelf is a 10-volume dictionary containing a discussion about the meaning of most of the Greek words used in the Bible. When I turn to these books, I must still decide which meaning and nuance is the best way for us to understand the word. Again, to do that well, I must rely heavily on scholars who are far more fluent in these languages.

The second option is to read several different translations. Most of us won’t learn the original languages, but most of also have access to different translations. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some reading about the intentions of the translators so that we can best understand what to expect as we use their translation. When choosing several translations, it is best to pick one which is quite literal (e.g. New King James Version), one that tends toward dynamic equivalency (e.g. New Living Translation), and one that is somewhere in the middle (e.g. New International Version). If you can understand another modern language, reading a Bible in that language can also be helpful.

Sometimes we hear people say that they will read only one translation of the Bible to the rejection of all the rest. For them, all the rest aren’t good enough. That is probably a short-sighted decision, for those who read only one version are not getting the whole picture. While all of us have a preferred translation, it is helpful to appreciate other translations, for by reading them in parallel, we will gain a better understanding of what the original authors intended. While we may become confused by all the translations available to us, we also should be thankful for them. I grew up having only the KJV available to me, and while the words and phrases became familiar, my Bible was about as easy to understand as Shakespeare, and for good reason, for Shakespeare’s plays were produced at about the same time as the KJV. Today, access to many translations gives us a better understanding of God’s revelation, and that really is our goal. Let’s use the tools God has given us and be thankful for those who made them available to us.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Attrition versus Contrition

Sometimes, when a public figure is caught in wrongdoing, they acknowledge what they did and they express sorrow or repentance. We can be cynical about their apology because we might believe that they would never have “repented” if they had not been caught. We wonder if they truly are sorry for their wrongdoing. We also wonder if their repentance is a result of their wanting to maintain their office, and “repenting” of wrongdoing is a way to gain support of those who put them in their office (usually voters).

Contrast this to someone who has wronged another and has not yet been found out and probably would get away with what they did. Perhaps it’s a contractor who has mistakenly overcharged his client for materials and when he discovers the error he can’t sleep at night. He goes to this client with a cheque, seeking to right the wrong.

There are two similar words that are used to describe these scenarios. The first is attrition. Attrition is sorrow for sin merely out of fear of punishment or a sense of shame. The public figure wants to avoid the fallout of denying his wrongdoing by lying, so he admits to being guilty, hoping to avoid further harm to himself. This is attrition. The word used to identify what the contractor did is not attrition, but, rather, contrition. Contrition is a brokenness of spirit or sorrow for sin with the intent of not sinning again. We might say that contrition is the result of internal struggle while attrition describes situations created by external circumstances.

Let’s consider these two words in relationship to the gospel. Both attrition and contrition result in faith in Jesus Christ, but one is more believable than the other.

In the Middle Ages, it was quite common for the church to preach a gospel based on attrition. Hell was a very popular subject, and much of what we think we know about hell comes from the imaginations of writers and artists and not from Scripture. Dante’s Inferno, for example is a 14th century poem which describes in great detail 10 levels of hell and/or purgatory, the most severe being the level reserved for the devil and his demons. The church used images such as these to scare people to the point that they would profess faith in Jesus Christ and commitment to the church. This kind of teaching was used as a means to encourage people to put their faith in Jesus Christ centuries ago, and it has not lost its attractiveness today. Sometimes we hear Christians saying to those who do not believe in Jesus: you don’t want to spend eternity in hell do you? Belief in Jesus becomes a means for one to escape punishment. It is a gospel of attrition, a gospel which uses the motivation of escaping hell as a way to get people to believe.

A gospel of contrition appears to be quite different. Instead of showing people a vision of what hell could be and offering them a means of escape, a gospel of contrition reveals to people a holy, powerful, just, loving and gracious God who we have offended with our sin. Instead of emphasizing the consequences of remaining steeped in sin (a one-way ticket to hell), the presenter of the gospel talks about God’s love and grace for this world, love and grace shown to us in spite of our sin, and it calls people to repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ who came to this world to die for us (the ultimate act of grace) so that we could be restored to God.

Which method of evangelism is better? We might be pragmatic and say that it doesn’t matter too much, as long as people put their faith in Jesus Christ. There is some truth to that. But just as we might be a little skeptical about someone’s repentance when they are sorrowful only when caught, so we might be skeptical about whether someone truly believes in Jesus or if they are merely trying to avoid eternity in hell or gain a life of bliss in heaven. While we shouldn’t question anyone’s profession of Jesus, regardless of why they professed, it is harder to believe that a faith based on attrition is real. It sounds too much like they could have faith only because they are looking after themselves and their own eternal wellbeing.

On the other hand, when someone comes to faith because of who God is and responds to his grace and love, their faith seems much more credible. As a way of comparison, we might know a beautiful young woman who married a rather ugly guy who happened to be very rich, and we would question her motives. On the other hand, we can believe it is true love when a beautiful young woman marries an ugly poor guy. Why else would she want to spend the rest of her life with him? In the same way, when someone puts their faith in Jesus Christ because of who he is even without fully knowing the benefits we receive from him, we can believe that they believe because they truly love Jesus.

This may be reflected in our motivations for how we behave as well. If we obey God’s commands because we are afraid of what might happen to us, we are obeying out of fear. If, on the other hand, we live obedient lives because we know God and his grace and love for us, we are obeying out of love. Being fearful of God and loving God might result in the very same behaviour, but the reasons behind that behaviour are vastly different.

Several times in the last years people have commented to me that pastors don’t often speak of hell from the pulpit. There may be good reason for that, for we want to avoid a gospel of attrition wherein we scare people into believing and, instead, preach a gospel of contrition where people come to know their sin and see it in the light of God’s grace and love, and fall before him in faith because of who he is and what he has done. The gospel of contrition tends to last while the gospel of attrition needs to be reinforced. To continue to mention hell as a punishment (or heaven as a reward) is to rely on a gospel of attrition. To preach Christ crucified is to bring people to Christ because of who Christ is. It is quite likely that someone who comes to faith because of contrition would believe even if there was no such thing as hell or heaven. They would believe simply because of who God is, with no regard for their own wellbeing.

True, pastors may need to mention hell more often. We cannot avoid this biblical topic. But should hell (or heaven) be mentioned as a way to motivate people to correct behaviour and move them to faith? There may be a place for that, but it does seem that the gospel of contrition is more effective and perhaps even more biblical.

Attrition versus Contrition: In attrition, we regret sin and seek God primarily from a perspective of fear for our fate: eternal loss of God is, obviously, existential failure, while eternal Beatitude is existential fulfillment. In contrition, we regret sin and seek God primarily from a perspective of love for God: sin is ingratitude to God, whom one “should (and wants to) love above all things.”

~ Pastor Gary ~


Mirroring God

Our mirrors today are so well-crafted that they reflect, almost without a flaw, whatever is before them. There are two things that can change the image that is reflected from a mirror: the mirror becomes distorted or broken in some way, or the image before the mirror changes.

In Genesis 1, we learn that when God created humankind, male and female, in his image. Of course, God is invisible, but when he created us, he created us to be an image of himself. In a sense, at creation humanity was a reflection of God. (We could spend a lot of time reviewing all that has been said about the image of God and what it is that we reflect, but that goes far beyond the point of this blog.) Again, God created human beings in such a way that we were meant to reflect his image. God meant himself to be seen in his image bearers.

We do not have to read much further into Genesis to discover that the image that we reflect has become distorted. A mirror that is smashed into hundreds of pieces still reflects that which is before it, but it does so improperly. Likewise, a mirror that has become warped will reflect an image, but the image will be distorted, often mocking that which it is meant to reflect. (We think of curved mirrors in fun houses as an example.) As image bearers of God, because of sin, we no longer faithfully reflect who God is. The images people see of God in us are broken and distorted, and although something of God may be seen in us, they can’t see what God intended to be seen had sin not entered the world.

But what if we move the mirror so that it is no longer facing God? In the Old Testament, the people began to worship other gods, the gods of the nations around them. In effect what they were doing was point themselves at something other than the Lord, and they began to reflect that image to the world. They became image bearers, not of the God who had created all things but, rather, of the gods they themselves had created. Not only was the image that they reflected distorted and broken, but it also didn’t reflect anything of our Creator God at all. What we might say, then, is that the god we worship becomes the image that others see in us. If we worship the Lord, then even though we reflect a broken image, it is still an image of the Lord. If we worship other gods, the image we project resembles the other gods.

In the second commandment, we are told that we may not make an image of any created thing for the intention of worshipping it. The commandment is broad enough to include not only images of other gods but also images of the Lord. There is good reason for this. In the Golden Calf narrative (Exodus 32ff.), the Israelites construct a statue of a calf and they proclaim that this image represented the gods (or, perhaps, God) who had brought them out of Egypt. At first it appears that they have switched gods, but in verse 5 of that same chapter, Aaron declares that there will be a “festival to the Lord,” indicating that this golden calf was probably meant to represent the Lord.

We can understand why the people would have wanted such an image. The golden calf (picture a muscular yearling bull) depicted that their God (god) had power. Already he had displayed that power when he defeated the Egyptians and freed the Israelites, but the Israelites were unsure of the future, and they wanted to be assured that the God (god) they followed would lead them onward to the Promised Land and provide them a home there after displacing those who already lived in the Land. A yearling bull (bulls were among the most powerful animals of the time) seemed to be a perfect image by which the Israelites could gain assurance. Who doesn’t want a powerful God?

But there was one thing they didn’t consider. When they made the golden calf, they were hoping to say that they would appear powerful to their enemies, that the image they reflected to the world was powerful because their God (god) was powerful. The nations would see them with their god, and they would be afraid. But the thing that they didn’t consider was this: by making God into a statue, they had also made him unresponsive. It doesn’t matter how much they prayed, sacrificed, pleaded, threatened, cajoled or otherwise tried to convince the golden calf to respond, it would remain unmoving and unresponsive. And that is not who God is.

It is because the Israelites made this image, that God begins to use a term that sticks with them through the centuries: they are stiff-necked. Stiff-necked is not stubborn, although it can be that; it is better thought of as being unresponsive. The covenant God had made with his people involved their response of service and obedience, but they were doing nothing of that. They had become like the statue of the calf, unresponsive and uncaring, refusing to be thankful to the Lord for what he had done for them. Most of the times that the phrase, “stiff-necked,” is used in the Bible, it is used in reference to the casting of the golden calf. It becomes a way for God (or his spokespeople, the prophets) to say that the people are not responding to God’s covenant as they had promised to.

As we know, the Golden Calf narrative follows upon God’s covenant with Israel in which he promised to provide for his people, as long as they heeded his voice. In building the calf, they had decided to ignore God (be stiff-necked). In not responding to God, they neglected to love God or their neighbour. They had become unresponsive to the covenant, thus rendering it null and void. It was only because our gracious God decided to keep the covenant in spite of their being stiff-necked that he did not abandon them. It is because of sin, in fact, that God the Father sent a new image-bearer to be his reflection in this world. Jesus, who is the exact image of God, became what we could not be, making God known to this broken world.

The God we worship is not unresponsive as was the golden calf. Our God not only responds to our needs when we ask him for help, but more often than not he anticipates our needs and provides for us long before we even think of asking. When it comes to our salvation, God’s, “I will save you,” came long before our “Save us.” And when it comes to daily needs, if God didn’t provide for us even before we asked, we would be a worse situation that we could imagine.

Because we worship a God who is responsive to our needs, we begin to reflect that responsiveness in the way we treat others as well. Thus, the apostles would agree that it is somewhat ludicrous for us to say that we love God while at the same time doing nothing to care for our neighbours. God’s responsiveness causes us to become responsive as well as we worship him.

Perhaps one way to determine if it is truly God that we worship is to ask this question: is the image I am presenting an image of grace, love, and provision? Or am I uncaring about the needs of others? If the latter is the case, perhaps it is not the God of the Bible that we are worshipping.

~ Pastor Gary ~