The Power of a Special “Good Word”

How should ordained pastors close a service of worship? Dismiss the people with a hand signal? Announce a hymn? Offer a closing prayer? Exhort them to go out and be good witnesses for the Lord?

All four means have been used, but there is one better. It is to pronounce over them a benediction. In other words, bless them in the name of the Lord, and send them away with the assurance that the Lord will go with them.

That’s what a benediction is. It is a “good word” pronounced over the Lord’s people in the Lord’s name. Numbers 6:22-27 introduces us to the great priestly benediction. God ordered Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use this blessing to dismiss a gathering of his people. The priest was to raise his hands and say:

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

In this Old Testament blessing there is, by the way, a preview of the mystery of the Trinity. Note the threefold reference to “the Lord.” That is, as you go out from here, the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — will be with you.

God’s instructions to Moses for the priestly blessing make it clear that this benediction is not a collection of empty words. The Lord tells Moses that when it is pronounced, “So will I put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” It is a promise of God’s favor.

Some pastors may feel that this is all too Old Testament and priestly. It might help them to be reminded that, when rightly understood, the pastor’s ministry is both prophetic and priestly. Think of such priestly ministries as the pastoral prayer, the wedding ritual, the serving of the sacraments, or the graveside sentences. In these, pastors are carrying out the priestly aspect of their calling.

The blessing of God’s people at the close of a service of worship is one more wonderful privilege contained in a pastor’s ordination.

A benediction is important because a local congregation does not cease to exist when it disperses. A local church can be considered both a gathered and a scattered community. When together for worship, it is gathered. When its people disperse to their many locations, it is scattered. In both cases it is still a church. St. Peter, for example, wrote an epistle to the church “scattered” abroad.

How appropriate it is, then, that before believers leave their place of assembly they are sent forth to take up their varied stations with a promise that God will also be with them in their many and sometimes isolated locations.

During the week ahead of you, here’s my benediction for you, my dear reader, from Hebrews 13:20-21:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

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Finding a Woman of Noble Character

As Mother’s Day passes I think of Kathleen, my wife of 72 years, my daughter Carolyn, daughters-in-law June and Jan, and the younger mothers in the family seeking to follow in their train. I pay them all tribute with these words of wisdom from the passage behind this week’s blog.

Proverbs 31:10-31: Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all (verses 28-29).

This chapter is entitled in the New International Version “The Wife of Noble Character.” It is cast in the form of Hebrew poetry and is lodged in the ancient wisdom literature of the Bible.

There is nothing in this poem about faith or salvation or the life to come. Only once “the fear of the Lord” is mentioned. There is not even a word about romance. It focuses instead on the character and traits of the many noble women who are out there to be sought out.

Proverbs 31 was written well over two thousand years ago and yet appears to extol what I taught my children to look for in their life partners, whether husband or wife — strengths of head, heart, and hand. That is, look for someone who has a thoughtful grasp on life, who at the same time has deep moral and relational principles, and who is energetic and not afraid of hard work.

And in the case of this passage, when she is found she will bring blessings on her husband and family in their work and relationships. (The same could be said for seeking out a husband of noble character.)

I have read this wisdom poem many times across a lifetime, but my most recent reading left me at first perplexed: Where is the young woman who meets all these qualifications: She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family … (15). She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard (16). She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (26). And so on. The demands on her are overwhelming. Can such specific qualifications be met?

But looking deeper into these many fine qualities sheds more light. I look more clearly and see that the issue is not the specific actions but the traits they represent: she is to be energetic, wise, resourceful, noble, and so forth. She has much to bring to a marriage, family, the work world, and society: When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet (21).

The composer of this wisdom poem closes with a knife-sharp cautionary word plus a generous commendation.

The knife-sharp warning: Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting (30a). That is, as enticing as charm or beauty may be, don’t let them be primary goals in your search. Look rather for the deeper strengths of head, heart, and hand. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (26).

The poet’s commendation follows: But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (30b). Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate (31). And don’t overlook the central requirement that she have a heart that fears the Lord.

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Attention! The Elderly May Be Listening

The following story may remind readers that the aging body can often be accompanied by a surprisingly clear mind — and human dignity as well.

In this story, an elderly man of great wealth suffered from some of the physical effects of aging, and in particular, from hearing loss.

He sat in the family room much of the time, eyes usually cast down, while his household buzzed with the comings and goings of two succeeding generations. He took little part in the conversations, largely because family members seldom made the effort to include him.

One day he learned about a hearing specialist in a nearby city who had developed a simple procedure to greatly improve the hearing of his elderly patients.

The wealthy man made an appointment and had the procedure done.

He returned to his home to resume his position in the family room — eyes still cast down and sitting in silence amidst the sea of chatter that washed back and forth constantly.

When he returned to the physician’s clinic six weeks later he was asked if his hearing had improved. He replied, “It certainly has, and I’ve changed my will three times.”

For ancient Israel, respect for the elderly was a holiness issue. It is addressed in the holiness code found in Leviticus 19 along with the sins of defrauding a neighbor and spreading slander.

Late in that chapter we learn that where the elderly are involved, the Lord is watching. Leviticus 19:32 says, “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God; I am Jehovah.”

For Christians both young and old, this admonition doesn’t necessarily mean that we literally stand as in days of old. It does instruct us, however, to respect in appropriate ways those who are elderly and frail, because the Lord God is observing the degree of our respect.

And people around us are, too. Taking the extra effort to respect and include the elderly will bring grace to relationships and a powerful witness to society at large of God’s work in our lives.

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How to Deal with Our Afflictions

Suppose a social worker interviews fifty people from a fine apartment building. He asks each person if he or she is dealing with any sort of affliction. We would expect a “yes” from most if not all of them.

The word affliction is defined broadly, for example as “a state of pain, suffering, distress or agony.”

Some might mention a physical affliction: complications of diabetes; macular degeneration; or perhaps arthritis, hearing loss, an autoimmune disorder, gluten intolerance, seizures, cancer.

Others might add a material affliction: a lost job combined with an empty emergency fund, hail damage to a car, or a flooded basement.

Yet another group might contribute examples of psychological affliction: a failed marriage; phone calls ignored by an alienated child who has in effect disappeared; the stress of an abusive or narcissistic boss.

Affliction comes to us all in one way or another over time. Nobody escapes, including those who appear to have it made.

The classic sufferer, Job of the ancient Biblical account, knew about mankind’s pervasive afflictions. Chapter 5, verse 7, asserts: Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. And consider a New Testament sufferer, the Apostle Paul, who shared with the Corinthian church, in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, a catalogue of his many sufferings for the gospel: shipwreck, undeserved whippings, three times beaten by robbers, in peril of being murdered, and on several occasions confinement in jail or under house arrest for months for no good reason.

What enabled Paul to successfully fend off gloom, self-pity, and despair when so many afflictions settled on him? He shares his secret in the same epistle.

Earlier, in chapter 4, verses 16 and 17, he shared the big picture about suffering. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles [afflictions] are achieving for us an eternal glory which outweighs them all.

Note three ways in which Paul reduces fear and supports the certainty of victory whether in life or in death.

First, he sets, side-by-side, two processes that Christians experience at the same time. One is that time is taking its toll on all of us and we are “wasting away.” This sobering reality is visible to each of us as birthdays mount into multiple decades. But Paul adds that, at the same time, inwardly we are being renewed day by day (16). The anniversaries that tick off our years also can deepen our character and our lives in Christ and awaken our awareness of a radiant future.

I heard a former bishop of the Free Methodist Church, Rev. William Pierce, then in his eighties, tell a large congregation at the 1947 General Conference, “Every day I live I am one day nearer to eternal youthfulness.”

In 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul gives us a second secret to a life that can triumph in the face of mortality: So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. There is so much to be seen (and desired) in our world of material abundance. Fixing our eyes on the unseen — regularly looking “beyond” to the next world — fuels our confidence when serious adversities come calling.

Third, in verse 18 Paul introduces two words to underscore the assurance that we can triumph over our afflictions: current troubles, he says, are “light” when compared to our eternal future, and they are “momentary” by the same comparison.

The Apostle Paul faced his afflictions bravely and with strength — with a transcendent view not only of the current world but also of the world to come. His words and example encourage us to do the same — enabled by the abundant grace of God!

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Have You Said Amen With Fervor Recently?

I like the word Amen and wonder if we use it in Christian worship as often and with as much intensity as we should.

After all, it is used in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments 100 or more times.

Amen is a strong word of affirmation. It is like a verbal stamp of approval or a solemn declaration of truthfulness. It means “So be it” or “May it become true.”

In 1 Chronicles 16:7-37 we see how the term was used in worship. David is now king. He is putting the country in order. He has constructed a tent to give cover to the Ark of the Covenant. Structured worship is being revived. Offerings are restored, and musicians are on hand.

A great gathering of the nation had been called and the celebration is underway. An extended prayer in poetic form is the climax of the occasion. David assigns Asaph and his company to lead in the praise.

The specially composed psalm is filled with declarations that elevate emotions. It begins, Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done (16:8).

Such a prayer would certainly introduce a review of restored blessings. More exaltation of God follows: Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice (10). Yet again: He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth (14).

Again and again the words of the priest declaim, Our God reigns! Emotions of praise have become strong.

The congregation, not the priests, conclude the prayer. Chronicles tells us in verse 37 that all the people said Amen and Praise the Lord. I can imagine the sound of thousands of inspired voices rending the air with that response: Amen and Praise the Lord!

They had focused their praise on the Lord who ruled over all the earth. They had also affirmed the truth about the Lord and his world. And then … they said, Amen! — May it be so!

The New Testament reports no similar liturgical event to this one convened by King David. But in the New Testament there is also abundant use of the word Amen.

For example, the word is repeated in the Gospel of John twenty-five times. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus introduced his teachings with a declaration of their truthfulness: Verily. Verily I say… (In the King James Version this is the translation of Amen, Amen.) Jesus over and over again affirmed his own teachings as the truth that is eternal.

Paul also included the word in some benedictions: For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:36).

In my opinion, we need more Amens from the body of Christ’s followers during worship in this fallen world. In both Testaments it is uttered as a strong and solemn response to words of divine truth. The substitution of applause is second-best, in my view. What better way to respond to truth, than to say Amen! when it is uttered?

In heaven the word will ring out often. I imagine a throng of countless resurrected believers. They reach far beyond sight. Perhaps Moses or Isaiah or someone we worship with on Sunday will speak words of truth and the throngs in response will fill the heavens with the one word: Amen! It IS so!

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On Remembering the Horrors of Holy Week

The celebration of Easter is over, but the events that created Holy Week never cease to confront the human conscience. “Christ died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous,” writes Peter (1 Peter 3:18).

The cross, some say, was a preposterous event, but Christians know it was for their redemption. It is the core of our eternal rescue. We know that “Christ died for our sins,” and that is worthy of heart-felt meditation the whole year round.

Paul writes of the gospel’s seemingly surreal claim: Christ died according to the Scripture; He was buried; He was raised again the third day according to the Scriptures; He was then seen alive by well over 500 witnesses — including Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Our Lord’s death was real as was his resurrection.

In his book The Cross the late John R. W. Stott reviews the various Christian symbols to show which of them was most focused and compelling for the early Christians. Eventually, he notes, the cross crowded all others out to become the symbol that dominates the preaching of Christ’s sacrificial suffering across the centuries and to this day.

The cross of Christ is often named in Christian hymns, printed on church literature, worn pinned to lapels, stamped on church pews, placed above church entrances and chiseled into gravestones.

The gospels record the various events of Holy Week and in doing so hold before us two fundamental truths: First the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Our sins put Christ on that cross. Second, the immeasurable wonder of God’s love for sinners. The sinless one offered himself as a sacrifice for sin that we might be spared our penalty and set free. This we are called to believe and proclaim.

As we leave the celebration of Holy Week behind I lay out here prompts for occasional recalls in meditation. My outline scans the core of the gospel story and will help us remember what immediately preceded our Lord’s brutal trip to his cross.

Sunday: On this day Jesus entered Jerusalem cheered by crowds with the mistaken notion that he would use his great powers as a Jewish king to drive out the Roman occupation (Matthew 21:1–11; Luke 19:28-44).

Monday: Jesus cursed the fig tree. This has been called an “acted parable” of judgment against the nation that had failed its divine assignment (Matthew 21:18,19).

Tuesday: His return to Bethany and his long discourse on things to come plus the response his followers should be prepared to make (Luke 21: 5-36).

Wednesday: Likely a day of silence; but his enemies were not silent: The ruling Sanhedrin plotted to have Jesus killed by the Romans (Matthew 26:3-5; Luke 22:1-2).

Thursday: Preparations for his observance of the Passover meal and at the same time he is instituting “communion” in connection with the last supper (Matthew 26:20-35; Luke 22:14-30).

(Good) Friday. This is the day of our Lord’s crucifixion. He is betrayed and arrested; He goes before Caiaphas (John 18:19-24) and before the full Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71); before Pilate and Herod (Luke 23:1-25). He was on his cross from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (John 19:16-37); then hastily buried (Matthew 26:57-61).

Saturday: The Jewish Sabbath — a day of frightened silence.

Sunday: Jesus’ resurrection appearances (Matthew 28:1-20). The day of astonishment and joy and the rebirth of hope.

To keep faith focused properly on the day of Resurrection, we need to return often in our Bible reading to the special week that led to Christ’s sacrificial ordeal.

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How Family Values Dispelled the Shadows

On Tuesday, March 17, Kathleen and I got into the carefully packed Honda van of our daughter Carolyn and son-in-law Doug and headed south from our driveway in Brampton, Ontario. Daughter-in-law June followed close behind in her car carrying breakable items.

Kathleen and I were being driven to our first overnight in our new dwelling in Mississauga, Ontario — Walden Circle Retirement Centre.

This was according to a plan that had gradually formed out of many family conversations. Our children had done their research. Jan, Robert’s wife, and her siblings had recently moved their 92-year-old father into a similar community in Kingston run by the same organization; his move had proved successful.

During the prior several months, our children had discussed the possible move among themselves, and with us. They believed the time had come for us to give up the responsibilities of maintaining our home. Their recommendation was persistent but not pushy. The decision would be ours, they said, and if we chose to remain in Brampton, they would do what they could to help us keep up that living arrangement, though this did not appear to them the better option.

As we traveled southward along the busy highway — minutes behind the moving van carrying some of our furniture — we talked freely, though with periods of silence when it seemed a hundred thoughts jostled one another.

There is in all of us, to be sure, an age-related lack of appetite for major change, and especially so at age 94, the age my wife and I have reached. And there is less energy for the hundreds of decisions involved in selling a home and moving. We testify that to time-weary seniors it all seemed a daunting assignment. Why not rest in place?

But in discussions our children assured us that they would take over the whole momentous task though relying on our counsel for details. Their assurance that they would take over the sorting, dispersing to family, selling, and moving us was no empty promise. Three children and their spouses turned out to be an enterprising team. The energy they expended was amazing and tireless.

When we finally agreed to “take the plunge,” our daughter, Carolyn, became the manager of the project. She lived near us and ran countless errands. She and Doug, with initial input from Robert, helped us select and interview realtors, took us to appointments, and accommodated the questions of others who came and went. Doug was the packer and advisor to keep us intact with the world via cable and internet.

Daughter-in-law June volunteered to find the buyers for whatever furniture and furnishings were to be sold. She had skill and experience in this sort of task. As a bonus she bought and assembled by herself a simple transparent glass-like desk for me to use in our new setting.

Our son Don found professional movers, oversaw one or two electronic glitches with grandson Jonathan Gonyou, took on the task of dispersing my many books and helped get the house ready for closing. Robert and Janice had found the specific Mississauga community that would suit our needs and were invested in the details of the move by telephone.

All of this energy and consultation diminished our apprehensions a little at a time and smoothed our path. Praise God for their every contribution. Our God is the giver of every perfect gift right down to the energy to attempt hard tasks. Facing the task pushed us toward shadow land, but family values, in full display, have dispelled the shadows.