The Marks of the Church (September 2002)
What does a vibrant, growing Christian church look like?
Churches come in all shapes and size. Beyond the building, though, a congregation is shaped by its people. Yet there
are often as many ideas as to what the church should look like as there are individual members. How are we to forge
a consensus on what the church is to be and to do? If the church does embrace common goals, how do we ensure that
they are in keeping with the plan and will of Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church?
Amid the change and confusion of the Reformation, the reformers held that there were three marks, or characteristics,
of the church of Jesus Christ: true preaching of God's word, rightful celebration of the sacraments, and faithful
discipline within the body of Christ.
Recently, Christian Schwartz surveyed a thousand Christian congregations on five continents, across many denominations.
What he found was that in congregations which were alive and growing, there were eight distinctive characteristics
which were easily observable: empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional
structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving fellowship.
These eight characteristics, along with the three classic marks, will form the focus for a sermon series this fall.
It is hoped that this will spawn constructive reflection upon our life and ministry as a congregation.
Looking forward to study and reflection, and labour and life together in Christ's service,
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"Where can I find the time?" (October 2002)
"Make the best use of your time, despite all the evils of these days." (Ephesians 5: 16 - J. B. Phillips)
For many, the fall season brings the challenge of crowded and competing calendars. Households with more than one member often have schedules that seem impossible to sustain. A cry that rises in despair from the lips of many is, "I don't have the time!"
When David in Psalm 139 celebrates being knit together in his mother's womb, he goes on to remind us that though we may be given years to live, they are measured out to us in days: "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." (Psalm 139: 16, NIV)
It is true that the length of our years varies according to God's secret wisdom, but God does put all of us on a level field: each day has 24 hours. How we use those hours will determine whether our lives are an asset or a liability in the judgement of eternity.
The best way to use time is to use the best time for the best things. We are challenged to celebrate the first day of the week as the Lord's Day. It is a day given to us for the refreshment and renewal of our souls. Concentrating on cultivating our relationship with God through worship is the first claim and best investment of that day. Correspondingly, capturing the first few minutes of each of the other days of the week to commune with our Lord in prayer and meditation upon the Bible will set the tone for the purposeful and productive use of the rest of the day.
Before we complain about not having enough time for what we want to do, let us ensure that we have taken time for what really matters.
Jesus had more callers clamouring for his time and attention than any of us ever will, but because He was firmly focused on doing God's will rather than his own, He was able with sanity and serenity to respond to each need at the right time.
God designs life not to enslave us to schedules; rather He seeks to have us celebrate salvation through His Son Jesus.
May God grant us grace to receive our time each day as a gift, and gratefully offer it in joyful service, without hurry, guilt, or regret.
With gratitude for the gift of every day, and a desire to savour the use of each hour,
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Life and hope in November (November 2002)
2 Corinthians 4: 8 - "We are hard pressed on every side, but not
crushed; perplexed, but not in despair." (NIV)
When I was in high school, one of my English teachers required us to
memorize poetry. I have forgotten a good deal of it, but one poem which
impressed itself on my mind and has remained there includes the line,
"On the branch of an oak tree in November".
The author and title of the poem now escape my recollection, but the
image of a solitary bird sitting "on the branch of an oak tree in
November" has remained with me as a picture of someone contemplating,
alone, the prospects of life and the future, shrouded in the mist of
dull and dreary surroundings. Adding overcast skies and the Maritime fog
or icy drizzle that so often accompanies the day of national remembrance
on November 11th completes a canvas which no thousand words can
Depression or despair is a real part of life for many, and the onslaught
of cold weather, the disappearance of the coloured flowers and bright
leaves, and the arrival of cold and íflu season can cause us to feel the
weight of other burdens in our lives more heavily.
Serious illness, sorrow accompanying bereavement or estrangement, the
pain of watching young ones being squeezed into the mould of a fallen
world, or the sadness of standing by while elderly loved ones slip into
confusion are very much part of life. Random terrorist attacks and the
looming clouds of war darken the horizon even further.
Paul suffered too. While seeking to help those who were searching for
God and truth and reality in a world full of illusions, he was
misunderstood, mocked and scorned by the very people he was trying to
help. While striving to honour Jesus Christ, by preaching and teaching
Godís word for no personal gain, he was assaulted, arrested, and a vow
taken by many to kill him. If any had reason to despair, it was Paul.
Yet he writes in 2 Corinthians 4: 8: "We are hard pressed on every side,
but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair." What lifted him up?
What sustained him? He tells us, "We always carry around in our body the
death of Jesus." (verse 10) Paul identified with Jesus and his
suffering. Because Paul had opened his life to Jesus Christ and welcomed
him, he was never without the presence of Jesusí Spirit. As one of us,
Jesus suffered in his body much severe pain and in his spirit much
mental and emotional anguish. Yet Jesus himself had known the presence
and power of God to sustain him while in the crucible of his human
suffering, and he persevered, and ultimately defeated the demons of
discouragement, despair, and death. With Jesusí inspiration and with
Jesusí presence in his life, Paul was able to do the same. He understood
that "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this
all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." (verse 7)
Paulís struggles foreshadow ours. The grace of God which sustained him
is available for us too.
Let us not make light of the burdens that weigh upon those who sit amid
Novemberís barren branches. At the same time, though, let us not forget
that the leafless trees of November will produce the buds and blossoms
of another springís beauty. Jesusí bleak and barren tree on Calvaryís
darkened mount gave way to the glorious dawn of His resurrection. The
suffering and death he knew remains with us, but so does His life.
In Christ, and therefore hard-pressed but not without hope,
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What can we build with these blocks? (December 2002 - January 2003)
Asking children what Christmas is about often produces the answer,
"Presents!" The excitement and anticipation of the little ones often
builds in proportion to the growth in the size of the pile of packages
underneath the Christmas tree.
Regardless of our dis-satisfaction with the "commercialization" of the
season, the giving and receiving of gifts is a central focus for many in
the celebration of Christmas. There is joy in watching a child open
packages, or in remembering our own childhood experiences around the
Christmas tree. In recalling my own, the parcels which produced the most
satisfaction were those which provided the tools to make or build
Among the favourites for young children today are brightly-coloured Lego
blocks. A good-sized collection of Lego blocks in assorted sizes,
shapes, and colours provides the potential for constructing all sorts of
different creations. A childís imagination is usually very broad.
Houses, cars, garages, towers, and all sorts of other interesting and
attractive items are rapidly put together. When several children get
together to play, no one can predict what wild and wonderful creations
As we seek to focus on the deeper meaning of Christmas, and to place the
receiving of gifts in the context of Godís gift to us of Jesus Christ, I
am reminded of a few verses in I Corinthians:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are
different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds
of working, but the same God works all of them in all ... (I
Corinthians 12: 4-6, NIV)
The gifts God gives through the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers
provide the church with a wonderful collection of building blocks. We
have the tools and the potential to build all sorts of different
creations. When we come together as members of Christís body, we can
assist one another to use our gifts in creative and complementary ways
to do all sorts of things in ministry and service for Jesus Christ.
This is the best sort of Christmas celebration -- and one that is
designed to go on all year long!
May God enable us to unwrap the gifts He has given each of us, and,
inspired by the childrenís joy and enthusiasm, build with them Christís
church in our midst.
In Christ, and looking forward to what we will build together,
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The God of the Information Age (February 2003)
Psalm 139: 1-6 - O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know
when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You
discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my
ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You
hem me in -- behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such
knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. (NIV)
Keeping track of information in this age of information overload is one
big challenge. For some, advancing age means it is harder to remember
names and numbers. For others, managing data by computer means multiple
user names and passwords -- which we have to remember perfectly at
precisely the moment we need access.
We have so much information at our finger tips -- stored on personal
computers and accessible via the internet -- but our brains have a hard
time making sense of it all.
I remember vividly the first time I used the internet to access an
out-of-town telephone directory. I searched for a relative in a distant
city, and a whole long list of people with the same last name appeared,
complete with addresses and telephone numbers. I was intrigued, however,
that in some cases only the name appeared, and instead of the seeing the
address and telephone number in the appropriate columns, all that I saw
was "Information suppressed". Evidently some people had given direction
that their information was not to be published, and the telephone
company had taken steps to "suppress" it.
I have often thought how sometimes we may attempt to hide or withhold
information. We may succeed (rightly or wrongly) in keeping it from
others, but it is futile to hide it from God. He is the one who knows it
all. When we talk to Him in prayer, as the psalmist does in Psalm 139,
we may have confidence that all the facts are at his recall and His
It is comforting to know that He knows. Without all relevant
information, we may make a wrong decision. The electronic telephone
directory may have multiple listings for individuals with the same name;
choosing the wrong one may result in embarrassment or mis-directed
information. It is a blessing to realise that not only does God know all
things, but He remembers things appropriately, and can access precisely
the right information when it is needed. No wires are crossed in His
mind; nothing is mis-filed in His computer. Every needed piece of
information is preserved and brought to bear at precisely the
We cannot know all things, but we are called to seek the mind of Christ,
and with the aid of the Holy Spirit we may gain both knowledge and
wisdom. With wisdom comes discernment, and in part that means using what
we have at the right time and in the right way.
Let us not be overwhelmed by the mountains of information accessible to
us in these days; neither let be disturbed when information is withheld
from us. May God remind us that He knows all things, and that He will
reveal to us what we need as we need it.
Sincerely, in Christ,
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God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." (March 2003)
Exodus 3: 14 (NIV)
One of the developments in physics which has provided a new tool for our technological age has been the production of holograms. The concept is simple. A shiny surface reflects light, but an object in a beam of light interferes with the beam of light, diffracting it. Viewed from different angles, this allows an image imbedded in the surface to appear as a different shape or colour, depending from which angle it is seen.
One of the most popular recent holograms was the large square unperforated silver postage stamp released by Canada Post to mark the millennium. At one angle, the stamp appears to have the date "1999"; at another angle, the date "changes", and says "2000".
Holograms are now used as a security feature on credit cards -- among other things -- and help to prevent fraud. On mine, a bird in flight usually shows up as a silver outline on a silver background. Holding the card to the light, though, the bird can appear blue, green, orange, or red, depending on angle at which light is reflected off the surface. Duplicating cards with holograms is much more difficult.
It seems odd, though, that something which is capable of "change" can be an aid in maintaining something constant -- in this case, one's identity.
I would suggest that a hologram is a help in understanding God. God is, as the Shorter Catechism reminds us, "unchangeable", but seen from different "angles", He looks different. There is one God, but many sides to His being.
Paul, in reflecting upon the challenges of integrating Jews and Gentiles into the body of Christ and proclaiming the gospel to both, speaks in Romans 11 of both "the kindness and sternness of God" (verse 22). The Father is both just and merciful, punishing sin and forgiving sinners. Jesus is both Saviour and Judge, dying for those who believe and returning to judge the unbelieving. The Holy Spirit both convicts us of our failings and comforts us with the peace of the presence of God.
Since God as a spirit is invisible, we "see" Him through His works, and through other people, who, in the beam of His light, cause His image to be seen in different ways. God has, of course, revealed or disclosed Himself most clearly in Jesus Christ.
It is wise for us to remember that He remains constant and unchanging, though how He appears may vary, depending upon the angle from which we see Him. When Moses had trouble comprehending how God could command and control the bush which, though burning, was not consumed, God said to him, "I am who I am".
Thankful for God's unchanging nature, but also thankful for the privilege and blessing of seeing Him from many angles while we here below still see only in part.
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Serving the Prince of Peace in an age of War (April 2003)
Psalm 120: 7 - "I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war." (NIV)
On the dark and overcast afternoon in October 2001 when the ships of Canada's navy set sail for Afghanistan, I stood overlooking Halifax harbour. As the ships slipped out of sight on the horizon, a few small groups of people stood on the shore, huddled together, comforting each other in silence. A few stray and solitary individuals sat on the grass, heads bowed, absorbed in themselves, undoubtedly in thought, perhaps in prayer.
Those serving in our armed forces and their families know that travel, danger, and separation "come with the territory". Nevertheless, the prospect of prolonged separation in the face of an international conflict of undefined scope and uncertain outcome means that those personally involved face significant challenges to the peace, order, and stability of their lives and those of their families.
With the elevation of hostilities and the change in international focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, the news that fills radio and television broadcasts as well as our papers is largely news of war.
Public opinion in Canada has been much divided over the wisdom of the United States and the United Kingdom in invading Iraq. Regardless of the convictions of political leaders or individual citizens, all Canadians, including confessing Christians, are confronted with the reality that our two nearest and closest allies are now waging war together against Iraq, and it is far from certain as to what the extent of the conflict or its consequences will be.
As those whose first allegiance is to Christ the King of Kings who is also Christ the Prince of Peace, Christians are confronted with many challenges in trying to come to terms with the events unfolding around us. What can we do amid the uncertainties?
The author of Psalm 120 lamented the onslaught of war which had enveloped all around him. "Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war." (verses 5-7)
Reading and reflecting on the psalms helps us to resist the temptation to take the world's problems onto our own shoulders. Yes, the events are serious. The war has affected and will affect us. We are deeply distressed by the images of smoke and fire, of bodies and prisoners, of homeless refugees plucking among the ruins and children suffering a lack of food and water. Yet God too is distressed, for they are his creatures, and ultimately He must and He will intervene for the deliverance and salvation of His own. The lament of Psalm 120 is followed by the song of faith in Psalm 121: "I will lift up my eyes to the hills -- where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth." (verses 1-2)
The psalmist also helps us realise that one of the first causalities of war is truth. All that is broadcast through the news media is not necessarily true. The context for interpreting what is being reported is not always clear. The psalmist in Psalm 120 is wilting under a barrage of voices which confuse and confound. "Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues." (verse 2) Christians are assured that God knows the truth, even if it is disguised or hidden. Our confidence must be in God's perfect knowledge. His judgements, which will be made in the full light of all the facts, are the only ones which really matter.
Understanding Psalm 120 in its context also helps us to remember our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and elsewhere who are caught in the midst of events not of their own making, and to pray with them for a speedy end to hostilities. What often sustained the scattered Hebrew tribes and families in days of Old Testament history was the encouragement drawn from the thrice-annual festivals which brought them together in Jerusalem. Christians draw our strength from the spirit of Christ living in us. That strength is multiplied as we draw strength from one another, together seeking to represent Jesus -- in whom our faith rests and by whom the peace and shalom of our souls is guaranteed.
At the meeting of the Presbytery of Ottawa held at St. Timothy's Church last week, a young soldier, walking through the neighbourhood wandered past the church door. Finding it open, he came in, glad of a sanctuary for prayer, as he pondered his posting to Afghanistan. Amid our business, the moderator took time to lead in prayer for him and many others facing the present and future challenges of war.
The clouds of war do darken the skies of spring. The light of Christ, though, still shines in the darkness. He will see us through. In the light of His presence and in the strength of His peace, let us come alongside those who are apprehensive of the future, and invite them to join us in serving the Prince of Peace in an age of war.
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Jesus ... for a whole world (May 2003)
Are we "whole world" Christians?
The young children of our Sunday School recently illustrated that "He's got the whole world in His hands". As they sang, they tossed into the air balls coloured green and blue, depicting land and water. What did we see: an entertaining picture? (which worship is not), or a challenge? -- to see God's mission in global terms.
Increasingly, we are challenged to think in "whole world" terms. In this age of "globalization", those planning competitive ventures in business and commerce must consider international trade, aiming for impact in markets throughout the whole world. In a world of inter-continental air travel, the practice of medicine and the protection of public health require doctors and health authorities to grapple with the rapid spread of viruses across the whole world. Television and satellite and internet transmissions bring into our living rooms the sights and sounds of the wars of the whole world.
What, though, of the practice of Christian faith? The God whom we know as Creator of the whole world addresses that world, and calls its citizens to think and speak and act in global terms. "Now the whole world had one language and a common speech," we are told in Genesis 11: 1. Our speaking and acting, however, must be according to a divine agenda, and not merely a human one. Trying to build the tallest tower and to gain the biggest reputation led the global builders at Babel from confidence to confusion, and not the reverse. There are spiritual forces at work in our world. The book of Revelation reminds us that "the great dragon was hurled down -- that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray." (Rev. 12: 9)
God has addressed our human predicament on the broadest scale. "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3: 16) Jesus is a "whole world" Saviour, as John reminds us: "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (I John 2: 2). Does that mean that everyone is saved? No, for clearly the Bible teaches that hell is not an empty place, but it does mean that this "whole world" Saviour is for people of every language, tribe, and nation.
We are often willing to acknowledge that Jesus is a "whole world" Saviour, but when it comes to our involvement in the mission of the church to that world, we are often content to let each one shine the light "you in your small corner, and I in mine". The consequence is that we tend to be absorbed in our own little worlds, and not engaged in whole world issues.
"He's got the whole world in His hands": Who's in our hands? Who is in our minds and on our hearts? Our mission is His mission, and that includes the neighbourhood around Parkwood, which increasingly is a global community, with immigrants from every corner of the world. We are also called to partnership with His church in the whole world, across the length of our nation and encircling the globe. As we reflect on our Missions Conference, and as we pursue the opportunities set before us, let us seek to be "whole world" Christians, for we serve a "whole world" Saviour.
He's got the whole world in His hands? Who's in yours?
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Travel (June 2003)
The summer season brings for many an opportunity to travel. Even for those who are themselves not able to travel, there is the possibility of receiving visiting travellers from elsewhere.
The Bible has some interesting and insightful things to say about travel, which has been part of human life ever since Adam and Eve were sent away from the Garden of Eden.
Men and women of faith are often led to travel. It was clearly God's call that led Abraham to journey from Ur of the Chaldeans through Haran to Canaan, where God wanted him to view the land his offspring would possess. (Genesis 11: 31; 12: 1-5) Generations later, God summoned Moses to lead his people on a great trek back from Egypt to Canaan. (Exodus 3: 7-10) The apostle Paul planned and undertook at least three great missionary journeys throughout ancient Greece and into Europe to establish many Christian congregations.
Some journeys are forced, and for sad or difficult reasons. When the Israelites were carried off to captivity in Babylon, they wept. (Psalm 137) On other occasions, travels began with deliberate purpose and hope. Nehemiah returned from Babylon aiming to rebuild Jerusalem. (Nehemiah 1: 1-3; 2: 11-12)
From the beginning, travels have sometimes involved "running away". Refugees have had need of resting places. Cain started travelling after killing his brother Abel. He ran, roaming the earth, but he told God that travelling all the time would be too exhausting. (Genesis 4: 13) When the Israelites were preparing to take possession of Canaan, God directed Moses to ensure the creation of detention centres, where accused murderers might find shelter until the day of a fair and lawful trial. (Numbers 35: 9-15)
Not all journeys are undertaken in the best of circumstances, but in the care and company of God wonderful things can happen. One of the most famous journeys in all of human history involved a pregnant woman named Mary, who accompanied her husband Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, to fulfil a government requirement for census enrollment. (Luke 2: 4) I suspect that Mary was less than enthusiastic about undertaking the trip! Yet, in the perfection of God's providence, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem fulfilled ancient prophecy, and even though the journey led to another trek to Egypt and back (Matthew 2: 13-19), in God's time Jesus was in the place of His appointment, and revealed in speech and in action the divine plan for our salvation.
What travels will you undertake this year? As we celebrate the opportunities to view different parts of God's creation and to join or rejoin family and friends at the end of happily-planned journeys, let us give thanks. As we contemplate with sadness journeys which we might rather not make, let us remember God's grace to His people who have made similar journeys in difficult circumstances. In all our travels, and in our reception of travellers who come our way, let us reflect on what God intends for us, and the provision He makes for us.
Our travels are physical, but also spiritual. We are called to journey with and to our God. The ultimate destination to which He wishes to lead and accompany us is His home -- and ours -- in heaven. The scenery along the way, and the people, are part of God's rich blessings for us!
May the Lord grant safety and satisfaction in your summer travels and among travellers who come your way, and even a surprise or two!