A Baby’s Dedication in a Baptist Church

20 04 2015

Block-Party-9Yesterday morning Kathleen and I attended a Baptist church in the neighborhood called the Beaches on the east side of Toronto close to Lake Ontario. The occasion was to witness a dedication service for our ten-month-old great grandson, Lane.

The dedication was part of a Sunday morning worship service and the building it was held in was a big and old but well-kept edifice. It had character.

The sanctuary itself had a faded splendor. Attendance was sparse, perhaps 80 or so in a sanctuary that would seat 250. We were delighted that our grandchildren, Ian and Chloe, were eager to present Lane to the Lord in this manner and the pastor made the dedication ritual personal and meaningful.

He noted clearly at the outset that this dedication would not be a salvation event; that neither the parents nor the church could save this child; that Lane would have to respond to the Gospel himself when his understanding was adequate to know in some measure that he had a personal need for a Savior.

Nevertheless, the pastor went on to commend the importance parents acknowledge when dedicating a child to God in this fashion, noting that they along with family and church would be expected to carry out faithfully the teaching and training pledged in this dedication. Together they would instruct Lane in the admonitions of the Lord.

The pastor’s message was titled: How to Raise Children to Know God. It was fully outlined in the bulletin and delivered clearly and with personal warmth, mainly in a teaching mode. The flock listened attentively from their places scattered here and there in the sanctuary.

The community surrounding this church building was long-established; houses were close together but well kept in repair and in some cases refurbished. This narrow street and many streets throughout the community were lined on one side with cars. Their owners had parked to go to the beaches, or the shops in the area.

Because there was no available parking at the church our daughter and her husband, who had brought us, found a parking space about six blocks away and then walked back to the church.

It was clear from the bulletin that this church was actively attempting to reach beyond its physical boundaries to offer ministry in the area. According to the bulletin, there also seemed to be an active church prayer life.

I admired the pastor, a man of 45 or so, for his optimism and courage in ministering in this context. This Beaches area was a slice of the modern city. As would be true in most urban areas, there would be great need for the Gospel in the tightly spaced surrounding community. In its midst, to a remnant of Christian city dwellers, the pastor ministered gently and positively.

Before entering the church, I had scanned the densely packed dwellings of this middle class community. Remembering my pastoral experiences, with so many homes intact on the outside but reeling on the inside, I felt the brokenness of our world.

And I felt a little sobered to realize that here was a church building that had once served a robust congregation. Christian influence at that time was accepted and widely recognized. Now the throngs were in the shops or on the beaches nearby while this facility was challenged for its existence.

But the faithful ministry to our grandchildren and great grandchild reminded me that whatever state society chooses, whether postmodern or secular, God will continue to challenge chosen men and women to take up the task of preaching the Gospel and ministering faithfully to needy people

There is no pastoral ministry more challenging than to gather in young couples and aid them in establishing Christian homes. This may not seize public attention or fill church pews quickly. But it’s long range results are immeasurable. The dedication of a baby in the presence of the congregation is at the center of that task.

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Photo credit: waverleyroadbaptist.ca

Re-post: Is Meditation a Missing Ingredient?

13 04 2015

In North America, Christianity as it is practiced tends to make little difference in people’s lives. There is too little evidence of holy living, and professing Christians often show the same symptoms of enslavement as the population at large: pornography addictions, addictions to over-spending, out-of-control anger, domestic violence, rudeness in primary relationships, and surprisingly high levels of divorce.

Explanations are offered. For example, a fog of skepticism, possibly engendered by the Enlightenment and the rise of science, is said to have hung over the western world for most of two centuries and this tends to choke out a robust faith. The allure of materialism is blamed, or the preoccupation with “stuff.” Even post-modernism with its denial of objective truth comes in for blame.

But believers in China can live out a triumphant faith in Christ while risking severe governmental punishment. Believers in Egypt can thrive knowing they may be roughed up or worse for their faith. Why can there not be an inner life in Christ in our western world that can liberate us from our addictions, sanctify our temperaments, and sustain real faith in a land of freedom and plenty?

In his book, Knowing God, J. I. Packer says there is an explanation. And the fact that this book has sold more than one million copies since it was first published in 1973 gives testimony that there are souls aplenty who want to know the key to that more abundant life.

His book sets forth a Calvinistic doctrine of God.* Packer writes, “There can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge.” But his purpose is not merely to dispense doctrinal truth. His larger goal is to set forth Christian truth on this subject, making it a basis for meditation. It is to take the reader from knowing about God to actually knowing God.

“Meditation,” he writes, “is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.”

Early on, the author explains how this is to be done: “We turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”

Meditation is done by Christians when they are alone, usually practicing it according to a plan and on a daily basis.

Is this a missing element in Western Christianity? Do Christians on a large scale make it a point to enrich their own experience with God every day? Do they set aside say 30 minutes or so each day to keep daily living in an eternal context? And in how many Christian homes are there family devotions that extend Sunday corporate worship to daily family worship? Furthermore, when believers come to worship on a Sunday, what spiritual energy do they bring with them?

I realize that some who come are like wounded warriors limping in from a hard-fought week. They come for renewal. Others whose faith is little more than an inherited tradition may not have much to bring. After all, a congregation is made up of people in all stages of Christian development.

But every congregation needs a core of believers who are inwardly energized daily by meditation, prayer, and praise, who bring the energy of the Spirit with them when they come to worship. This core may be found in the church board, or a Sunday School staff, or even among a number of fired-up young people, or seniors rich in faith – or all of the above. It’s this category of believers that needs to be expanded everywhere.

Years ago I read a curious story: In a sparsely-wooded area in Africa people walked from great distances to worship together on a Sunday morning. After the service it was their custom to light a large bonfire in the church yard, a sort of celebratory event. A visitor from North America witnessed this and asked how they could light such a fire when there was very little wood in the area. He was told, “All believers bring their own supply of wood with them, and that’s what makes the big fire possible.”

If we are twice-born believers, larger numbers of us need to commit or re-commit ourselves to the daily practice of meditation as a means of knowing God in personal and fresh ways. This would help greatly to deepen the faith of the church in the western world.

*I find great value in the book but I cannot square the author’s double predestination (P. 79) with the Golden Text of the Bible, John 3:16.

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Why I Believe in the Resurrection

6 04 2015

TombEvery now and then, either in person or through the media, I hear from someone who speaks scornfully of any who believe in life after death. Sometimes the scorn is blunt; at other times unbelief is equally strong but courteously expressed.

For Holy Week I want to put down as simply as possible four reasons why this promise of life everlasting – resurrection from the dead is a cornerstone of Christian faith, and makes me impervious to the unbelief and even scorn of others.

1. I have read the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – all of my adult life. They tell the story about Jesus in different ways (the first three as historical accounts, and the fourth historical but focused on theology). Also, details vary slightly at certain points (Was there one or were there two blind men at the roadside?).

Yet all four Gospels end at the same place: Jesus Christ was falsely condemned by a hateful and scheming religious hierarchy in partnership with Roman overlords; he was brutally killed by Roman soldiers, yet he rose from the dead on the third day.
Resurrected, he then spent 40 days among his disciples to dispel their doubts and release their joy until they were finally convinced he had triumphed over death. In his teaching he promised, “Because I live you too shall live.”

The death and resurrection of Jesus speaks a triumphant word against death ¬¬ the enemy man universally fears ¬¬ and our sin that is behind that fear. It also supports the New Testament testimony that at the end of human history all sin will be judged and all Christ¬formed righteousness rewarded.

2. Within those four Gospels, are recorded several consistent promises Jesus himself made to all believers: “If I go away I will come again and receive you unto myself.” “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” “He who believes in me, though he die yet shall he live.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but through me.”

What sort of man could offer such promises? Jesus appears in the Gospels as vastly more than a well-meaning man; a well-meaning person would not utter such promises if they were false. Nor is he a deranged man because his encounters with his enemies show him as clearly in touch with reality. And his knowledge and reasoning powers are always more than a match for them.

His claim, “I and the Father are one,” is either the boast of an incredible egotist, a deranged zealot, or a man who sincerely knows and speaks the truth. I choose the latter.

Each time I ponder the gospel accounts, my faith is refreshed. But I believe not only because what I read compels me. I believe also because God’s Holy Spirit confirms this truth to the believing heart. When I believe he seals my hope for life everlasting.

3. I believe his promise of eternal life because, even at the cost of their lives, his followers across the centuries have often stood by the truth they profess. Humans do not in large numbers give up their lives for myths or fables or fairy tales. I know of no one who would surrender to death rather than renounce faith that Santa Claus exists. Yet, of Jesus’ first 11 apostles, 10 were martyred for their faith. In the early centuries of the church martyrdom was common.

And in our world today Christians are being slaughtered for their faith in great numbers. Consider what’s going on in the Middle East. If those Christians facing their death would utter just a few simple words of renunciation their lives would be spared. They refuse. We have seen over and over again in recent weeks Christians will die for the truth as it is in Jesus.

4. I have had contact with Christian community all of my life. I know we don’t all measure up. For observers with a searching eye, faults are easy to find among us. Those who disagree with Christian claims always have the Crusades to cite in scorn.

But that said, I have seen the power of God’s grace displayed in abundant measure among God’s people, demonstrating resurrection life in the here and now – in their generosity, their willingness to forgive, their passion to serve.

Kathleen and I have just spent the winter in a Christian community where the love of Christ fills many of the people with readiness to find and meet human need in His name. Some of this ministry is even dangerous. But it’s our Lord’s resurrection power here and now that prompts such service.

So, this week I review again the suffering and horror of our Lord’s passion, bearing the sins of the whole world but reaching on through to the glory of the resurrection. And I say, I believe.

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Photo credit: James Emery (via flicker.com)

Re-post: It’s Holy Week — Who Cares?

31 03 2015

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lamentations 1:12). What a searching question to ask ourselves during Holy Week!

I visualize the Book of Lamentations as written by the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, after Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.

I picture him as sitting on Olivet overlooking the ruins – the temple is smashed and burned, the walls of the city lie strewn along the steep embankment of the Kidron Valley, and almost all human life in the city has ceased. It’s the picture of desolation.

At some point he must have noticed that travelers who passed the ruins went about their business as though nothing had happened and he sobs out, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”

There’s a place for that lament in our lives too. Sunday, March 28, for Christians is Palm Sunday and the beginning of what we call Holy week ending with Resurrection Sunday on April 4. To us today, Jerusalem is the city where, six centuries after Jeremiah, Our Lord was arrested, falsely accused, flogged unjustly and then put to death on a cross by the Roman authorities.

May we never forget that his death bore a two-fold testimony to the world. First, it bore witness to the exceeding sinfulness of sin. It was the sins of the world that put Jesus there –- greed, lust, selfishness, deception, pride — sins we all know about by shameful personal experience.

But, against all that darkness, the cross bore witness to the immeasurable greatness of God’s love for sinners — “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). John the Baptist dubbed Jesus, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

It is fitting for us to hear Jeremiah’s question in a personal way: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” That is, when we see the devastation of sin portrayed in the cross and at the same time the redeeming love of God, how much does it matter?

Here are references to key happenings during the original Holy Week. You may wish to use them for your daily meditations:

SUNDAY. This was the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem cheered on by the mistaken notion of the throngs that he would use his great powers as a national king to drive out the Roman occupation. (Matt. 21:1-11; Lk. 19: 28-44)

MONDAY. Jesus curses the fig tree. It was a shocking “acted parable” of judgment against the nation that had failed its divine assignment. (Matt. 21:18,19)

TUESDAY. The Olivet discourse upon his return from Jerusalem to Bethany (Lk. 21:5-36)

WEDNESDAY. It is thought by some to be a day of silence. But his enemies were not silent. The ruling Sanhedrin plots to kill him. (Matt. 26:3-5; Lk 22:1-2)

THURSDAY. Preparations for his observance of the Passover meal and at the same time his instituting of communion in connection with the Last Supper (Matt. 26:20-35; Lk 22:14-30).

FRIDAY. This is the day of our Lord’s crucifixion. He is betrayed and arrested (John 18:2-12); tried before Annas (John 18:13-24); before Caiaphas (John 18:19-24); before the full Sanhedrin (Lk 22:66-71); before Pilate and Herod (Lk 23:1-25) He was on his cross from 9 A.M. To 3 P.M. (Jn 19:16-37); then hastily buried (Matt.26:57-61)

SATURDAY. The Jewish sabbath, a day of silence.

SUNDAY. Resurrection appearances (Matt. 28:1-20). The day of astonishment, joy, and the rebirth of hope. To prepare us properly for the Day of Resurrection we need the whole week for Bible reading, meditation and prayer.

Holy Week is the week in which Our Lord was betrayed into the hands of his enemies, forsaken temporarily by his nearest followers, flogged by the Roman authorities and eventually nailed to a Roman cross on which he felt forsaken by the Father because a holy God cannot countenance sin.

When the Apostle Paul reflected on the event he wanted to fellowship Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10). May we be saved from any nonchalance this Holy Week and rather deepen in our identification with Christ in his life, death, burial and resurrection.

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Five Reasons You Should Read the Gospel of Mark Straight Through

23 03 2015

4543063042_6fdfde32e4_mMillions of Christians around the world are celebrating the season of Lent by denying themselves something — chocolate, a daily coke, or even one or more entire meals each week.

I have a different suggestion. Instead of going without something for 40 days why not add something? For example, why not read the Gospel according to Mark–the shortest of the four gospel accounts–in one sitting each of those 40 days?

Or, if reading the whole is too much, read four chapters at a time for a four-day read-through or, if not that, whatever fits your reading span. But, whatever the amount at a sitting, make it a point to keep the whole account together as a unit in your thoughts. In my Bible, Mark takes up 25 pages, the length of one chapter in a good novel.

Here are five reasons for reading so.

I. Mark is the first of the gospel accounts to be written. Matthew, Luke and John followed. Put into writing in the early 60s AD, the gospel of Mark is the story recorded closest to the actual events that took place when Jesus was on earth. According to tradition John Mark got his information from Peter when they were together in Rome toward the end of the apostle’s life. Peter had been one of the inner circle of our Lord’s disciples. All of this makes Mark’s account compelling.

II. Mark is the most action-packed of the four gospels. It reports more of what Jesus did than what he said, which means you move smoothly from one incident to another. The stories of Jesus’ ministry are vivid, told simply, and engaging to the heart. The story is fast-paced. That means even if you say you are not a reader the story is told so as to make it interesting to you.

III. Mark was steeped in early Christian history. His mother was a woman of means whose house in Jerusalem was a center for the early church (Acts 12:12). He was also cousin to Barnabas, one of the first missionaries (Colossians 4:10). Peter’s sermons, heard by Mark when Mark was with Peter in Rome in the latter days of Peter’s ministry, supplied the content for Mark’s gospel account.

As one might expect, given the above background, Mark wrote from the perspective of a personal faith. There’s no fluff and no “perhaps,” or “maybe” in his writing. He opens his account with this simple declaration: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). He closes his gospel with the affirmation, “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to (the disciples) he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).

IV. The gospel by Mark can support a stable faith in God during troubled times such as ours. According to early church tradition, Mark was written in Italy, very close to the time (64 AD) when Rome experienced the fire that Nero had likely set and then blamed on the Christians. Persecution ensued. Then or now, this gospel, assembled with its economy of words, can be a stabilizer to the troubled heart.

V. Reading Mark’s account in the straight-ahead fashion I’m recommending will bring you to the core of the gospel with each reading — Christ’s death and resurrection, and his call to belief and discipleship. After the stories of Jesus’ healing presence and his power over evil, we learn about our Lord’s crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Without them there is no gospel.

Thanks to Mark’s account, as disciples living today, we have a trustworthy message for this life and an eternal hope for the life to come. How better to observe Lent and prepare ourselves for the celebrations of Easter?


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Photo credit: Ryk Neethling

Resisting the Plague of Narcissism

16 03 2015

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissism has been much in the news during this past week. I heard about it from the media in full detail three times.

Narcissus was a mythological figure known for his beauty who, it is said, looked into a pool, saw a reflection of himself, and fell in love with what he saw.

So Narcissism is the term used of people who are self-absorbed and pre-occupied with their own imagined superiority. They may come across as strong and self-assured but when that self assurance isn’t honored as they expect they are likely to react in a surge of punishing anger or even violence. The so-called big ego turns out to be amazingly fragile.

Narcissism has been on the rise in western youth in recent years. It often is manifested by a strong sense of entitlement. “I’m special and I deserve special treatment.” “I’ll not take just any job.” So why is this in the news especially this week?

A study on Narcissism has been released that gives a fresh understanding of the cause of this dominating state of mind. Co-authored by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, the study surveyed 565 children ages 7 through 11 and 415 mothers and 290 fathers.

Narcissism, the study shows, can be traced to parents who “overvalue” their children during the developmental stage of their lives. Children between 6 and 8 are especially sensitive to parental influence. This inflated self-image of the Narcissist can be buried deep in the psyche.

If during those years children are told in one way or another they are superior, they are more than special, they do things better than others, and they are thus put on a pedestal, they internalize an undeserved view of their superiority. And other people come not to matter.

It used to be believed that Narcissism shows itself in children who are shown little parental warmth. The new insight from this study pointing to “overvaluing” supplants that understanding.

One might assume from the findings of the study that the condition is planted by parents who have a need to reach some personal star achievement of their own in their children. “My child can do no wrong; my child is unusual in every respect; my child deserves special attention from kindergarten on.” These can be damaging assumptions.

The felt need to foster self-esteem in their child is an entirely different matter. Self-esteem develops when children are helped to internalize within themselves the sense that they are valuable individuals but not superior to the extent that they can do no wrong. In the raising of them they will get the appropriate amount of teaching, correcting, disciplining, and such otherwise character-shaping treatment as needed, all within the context of warm adult parental love. It is “overvaluing” that does the damage.

Christian parents may foster Narcissism in their children if they adopt certain cultural modes of parenting rather than taking their teaching from the Scriptures and Judeo-Christian understandings of humanity.

Christian parents believe that children are not a possession; they are a trust from God and must be raised with that in mind. Valuable as we are to God and one another we are all flawed and that fact should be kept in sight as we raise children.

We should not be surprised when we catch a child in the first lie, or see the first tantrum, or discover the first amazing deception. Dealing with these with love and firmness is important.

Christian parents will affirm their children’s achievements to a degree appropriate to their ages and commensurate with the actual achievement. When a four-year-old makes his bed or a seven-year-old sets the table they are thanked, but not raved over as if that was the most amazing thing anyone had ever done. And when they do wrong, the call to account should be real.

Christian parents pray daily with their children and in this setting where the Christian view of human nature is shared children can be helped to face their failures as well as their successes. The early teaching of a developing child to worship God who is majestic and holy and far above them, is a first line against the development of Narcissism.


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Why Be Determined to Teach Children to Obey?

9 03 2015

1384954600_483e7e4698_mTeaching children to obey is often a wearying task, for the components of obedience are many: wrestling with a little one’s will; uncovering little deceptions; administering encouragement and rewards — and occasional punishments.

These and a score of other challenges make raising children demanding. Thankfully, the years for instilling the ability to obey are also replete with good times and pleasant parent/child exchanges.

The lessons for instilling obedience require constant teaching, whether we do it by calculated instruction, or by quiet example.

The responsibility can wear parents out, and there are times when they could find it easy to say, “Enough!” and leave the rambunctious child to his or her own devices. But the task is too important for parents to allow themselves to quit or even take breaks. The wise parent must carry on in hope even when the task seems exhausting.

The reasons teaching obedience is important, even crucial, are more numerous than might appear. One could say we must teach obedience to have peace in the family, or to help the child develop a sense of boundaries. Both goals are worthy, but I mention a broader reason in my book, God’s House Rules.

The larger and lifelong goal is to prepare children to live wholesomely under a complex pattern of authorities that are sure to shape their environment wherever they are for an entire lifetime. I write:

Imagine a husband and his wife with two children living in an apartment building. On the one hand, the parents exercise authority over the children. But at the same time, the parents are under the authority of the building manager and the building’s rules.

When that mother drives to her job in the morning she respects the authority of highway ordinances. The policeman in a cruiser tucked behind a bridge abutment is there for a reason.

Then at her work as a department manager, she oversees the work of her team; but at the same time she is under the authority of the superintendent of the plant. The multiple authority structures we all live under are many and require balance.

Isn’t it true that if children learn obedience at home they will function better in their childhood world – school, summer camp, Sunday School class, scouting programs, baseball leagues – not to mention how they will do later as adults?

In passing, I note that focussing on the Apostle Paul’s one word of counsel (Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right (Ephesians 6:1) leaves room for lots of play, pleasant exchanges, and fun-filled surprises in the home. In fact, fun experiences are even more likely when there is good order.

Some secular voices might counter that “obedience” is old-fashioned and overrated: after all, they say, children need to be free to be creative, to experiment and to test their wings. The two ideas of obedience and self-actualization are not mutually-exclusive, but creativity and experimentation need some degree of supervision.

Obedience goes to the heart of the matter, and if obedience is not viewed as fundamental other less wholesome styles of relating — chaotic or combative or competitive — will battle for dominance and prevail.

Above all, Christian parents understand that they are accountable to God for the task. And they know they are equipped by Him for the stewardship of parenting. They also know there are rewards to children when they are helped to live ordered lives (Exodus 20:12). God makes his promises.

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