Bibles in the church

Graphic found at Groundwork.ReframeMedia.com

Once upon a time there was a church that found itself in a global pandemic. In addition to physical distancing and mask wearing, health officials recommended removing items that could transfer germs from one person to another. So the church leadership reluctantly agreed to remove the Bibles from the sanctuary.

The devil on his dark and lonely perch took an interest in this development. And a smile cracked his pale, dry lips. “A church with no Bibles?” he laughed. It’s just what the devil had long hoped for – a place of worship (where people worshiped his archenemy) without the Story and Guide directing that worship.

The pastor and church leadership, however, remained confident. They knew that God’s Word is not contained to typed letters in justified margins on thin leaves of paper bound between two covers. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the Word works in the minds and hearts of those committed to that Word, helping God’s people recall specific verses and general principles. Moreover, the congregation remained free to bring their own Bibles, whether in print or in pixel. It helped people get in the habit of carrying a Bible with them, adding to their public witness of their allegiance to the divine Author.

Realizing these things erased the smile from the devil’s flinty face. But he took solace in his expert ability to watch for another opportune time.

Eventually the pandemic began to subside. Physical distancing and mask wearing were still encouraged, but the Bibles could return to the sanctuary.

From his perch, the devil watched each Bible carefully placed back in its spot. And a new smile cracked through his otherwise stern and joyless face. “A church filled with Bibles again?” he laughed. This too turned out to be a dream come true. No longer did members have to carry Bibles with them to worship. No longer would their allegiance to his enemy and the Word be so obvious to the world. No longer would biblical truth be easily at their fingertips with their Bibles in hand.

The pastor and church leadership, however, remained confident. They knew that God’s Word is not contained to typed letters in justified margins on thin leaves of paper bound between two covers. The same Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets and apostles also spoke through the words from the pulpit – memorable words that the congregation carried in their minds and hearts into the week. Moreover, the congregation was equipped by that same Spirit to live in light of the Word even in moments it wasn’t open in front of them.

Realizing these things erased the smile from the devil’s face and he looked a little less cunning than before. He would watch for yet another opportune time. But he found those opportune times were becoming more and more ineffective.

::– –::– –::

This is a little parable based on the decisions we’ve been making at Trinity CRC due to COVID-19. It was initially strange to see all the Bibles removed from the sanctuary. In the end, however, I would have been fine with them remaining out for longer: It encouraged people to bring their own Bible, to get used to having a Bible on hand. Granted, it was easy to forget and sometimes it feels awkward carrying a Bible in public. (We did begin keeping some in the back for people to pick up and return.) But I remain encouraged knowing that God’s Word works in the lives of the members of Trinity CRC regardless of whether they happen to have a Bible in their hands or under the seat in front of them in the sanctuary. The Bible is in the church (God’s people) even when the Bible isn’t in the church (the building).

Encountering Jesus at his table more frequently (part 3)

So why are we content with depriving ourselves or our children or new, freshly baptized believers of the nourishment God longs to give us at the Lord’s Supper table by not celebrating the Sacrament more frequently?

Maybe part of the answer is that we don’t fully appreciate how much God indeed longs to nourish us. The late Robert Webber once counseled a troubled student with this advice: “Flee to the Eucharist!” Jesus would begin to care for and heal this student’s heart at his table.

Hearing about this incident between Professor Webber and his student led Howard Vanderwell to pen these reflections: “How different, I thought, than the way we so often understand and present the Lord’s Supper as a rather stern and somber event we participate in only after we have carefully scrutinized ourselves to make sure we are prepared and ready to come. Here, instead, was the Sacrament with a wonderfully warm welcome where wounded and struggling people could find healing and peace, a table where people could find refuge” (Living and Loving Life, p. 70).

It seems to me that God is eager to welcome, care for, heal, and nourish us, and he will use as many means possible to accomplish this. He indeed speaks his grace to us through our senses of sight and hearing as we read and listen to the Word. Through the Word, “God makes himself known to us,” as the Belgic Confession puts it (article 3). But, as I mentioned in part 1, recognizing that we are physical and material beings, God graciously uses physical and material things (namely the water, bread, and juice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) to also communicate his grace to us.

As Leonard J. Vander Zee explains in his book Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God knows “we need more than talk, more than words on a page; we [also] need a touch, a smell, a taste – just as lovers need more than the words ‘I love you’ but also a kiss or an embrace… The Lord’s Supper is a physical handle faith grabs hold of, allowing us to grasp God’s promises with our bodies as well as our minds” (pp. 192, 193).

Our gracious God engages all our senses: He invites us to listen attentively to his Word; to feel the cleansing baptism water flow over us; to smell, taste, and see his goodness through the Lord’s Supper. It’s as though he’s eager for us to “get it.” It thus seems counterintuitive to suggest that we should be skimpy with any of these modes of communication, particularly with the Lord’s Supper. What better way for us to “get it,” to better grasp God’s grace than by frequently availing ourselves to the Sacrament?

Writer and pastor Thea Nyhoff Leunk makes this warm observation in A Place at the Table, her book on welcoming children to the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord delights in nourishing His people, and we respond by coming with grateful, but empty hearts to His bountiful table” (p. 18).

I for one would be grateful to experience more often God’s delight in nourishing me at his bountiful table. So I am grateful that the elders of Trinity CRC have decided to increase the frequency we celebrate the Sacrament as 2018 progresses and I look forward to seeing and hearing (and maybe even smelling, tasting, and feeling) how God will bless that decision in our congregation.

Lord's Supper graphic found at thebanner.org

The leadership at Trinity CRC found this article in The Banner
on weekly Communion helpful in our conversation on the subject.
See also my blog post titled
“Physical.”

Light in the darkness

There’s this guy walking down the street who suddenly falls into a deep hole he did not see coming. It’s dark in the hole and the walls are steep.

Graphic found via Google

A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me out here?” The doctor writes a prescription for Prozac and throws it down the hole.

A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down the hole.

Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the guy says. “Now we’re both stuck!”

“Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

::– –::– –::

I love the way this story (retold here by Scott Hoezee) describes my life. Sometimes things feel very dark, like I’m in a deep hole. I’ve felt this way when someone has died, when I’ve been stressed out, when the future looks uncertain. And that says nothing about the darkness in my life caused by sin – my own stupid mistakes as well as all the brokenness in the world that impacts my life. Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in a dark hole.

Even more, I love the way this story expresses the power in relationships. Things are never quite so sad, so strained, or so scary when there’s someone with me. And when things are going well for me, this story reminds me to be the friend for someone else who feels stuck somewhere. My love and care may very well help this person make his or her way back into the light.

Mostly though I love this story because it reminds me of how Jesus is the best Friend who has come down to where I’m stuck. No matter what dark hole I find myself in, he knows what I’m experiencing and offers me a peace that passes understanding. More than that, he’s strong enough to fight the power of sin in my life. In fact, he’s been in the darkest, scariest hole ever: the grave. And he even knows the way out of there!

Much of the time I feel like I need to figure out a way to get up to God. Like I need to get his attention or impress him before he’ll notice me. The fact is God came down to me in the person of his Son, Jesus. And now his Holy Spirit moves in my life, often long before I even realize it.

Jesus is the light of the world and of my life, bringing hope to the dark places. His is the light that shows the way and illuminates God’s love for me even when my love for him is shaky and unimpressive. And he is the friend who takes away my loneliness, forgives my sin, and even promises me eternal life.

You can’t find a better friend that that.

This is my latest contribution to the faith column in The Rock Valley Bee. It was published this past week. Here’s another one from a couple months ago.

Surprised by grace

Pastor Bobby and I just finished our series at Trinity CRC focusing especially on grace. Somewhere along the way I had hoped to share a story Pastor Bert Slofstra told years ago at Gateway Community CRC in Abbotsford BC. Sadly, it didn’t fit anywhere, so I’m sharing it here…

Grace graphic found via Google

A man was shopping in a superstore warehouse. He didn’t need much – just coffee and a loaf of bread – which is all he had in his hands when he got to the checkout counter. Standing in line, he noticed the woman behind him with a cart filled to overflowing: all kinds of groceries and clothes, even a new TV. He breathed a huge sigh of relief at being in line ahead of her!

To his surprise, when it was his turn to pay, the cashier invited him to draw a slip of paper out of a jar he hadn’t noticed when he first got in line. “It’s a store promotion,” the clerk told him. “Draw the winning slip and everything you’ve brought to the checkout is free.”

So he reached in and – wouldn’t you know it? – he pulled out the winning slip! Wow! Except, as he immediately realized, all he had was coffee and bread. What a shame. But in the same moment it took for that to register, he remembered the lady with the mountain of stuff behind him. And with no noticeable hesitation whatsoever he turned to her and announced: “Well, what do you know, honey? We won! Look!” he shouted as he waved the winning slip at her, “we don’t have to pay for any of this stuff!”

As she stared at him with a shocked look, he winked at her, which is when his suggestion sank in. And as natural as could be, she stepped up beside him, put her arm in his, smiled, and said, “Oh sweetheart, I can’t believe it. We really won! This is awesome.” A little later, in the parking lot, the lady consummated their temporary “marriage” with a hug, and then each went their own way. But what a great story this lady now had to tell her family and friends!

Now you may argue that what they did was pretty sneaky, that it wasn’t really right; you might even call it a clear case of fraud. He shouldn’t have lied and she shouldn’t have pretended. Then again, as you know if you’re familiar with Jesus’ story of the unfaithful steward, even a story with some sneaky characters in it can make a good point, can’t it?

Like the woman in the story, we too have been blessed with a surprise – much more so even than her. For while her debt might have been high, we can assume she could pay it. We cannot, however, even begin to pay our debt to our holy God – our debt created by our sin. But we’ve been given a wonderful gift: not at a checkout stand, but at the judgment seat of God. And not just of goods and groceries, but of grace and eternal life.

Love and beauty

Yesterday at Telkwa CRC, I spoke about how love is not only an emotion, but also a decision, a choice that God calls us to make every day even if it’s costly.  Frederick Buechner defines love as “an act of the will.”

I like this story of one man’s costly love for his fiancée and its beautiful consequences.


Johnny Lingo lived on an isolated Pacific Island. The custom on his small island was this: When a young man found a girl he wanted to marry, he paid his future father‑in‑law a certain number of cows for the daughter’s hand. Two or three cows could buy you an average, perfectly adequate wife. Four or five cows could get you a highly satisfactory one.

Now, Johnny loved a girl named Sarita. Sarita had always been very plain. She was thin, her shoulders were hunched over, and she walked with her head down. Yet Johnny paid Sarita’s father eight cows.

The islanders said to one another, “Eight cows? This is ridiculous. He got cheated.” It was the talk of the community.

A visitor who had heard of the eight‑cow betrothal came to Johnny’s house to do some business with him. As they were talking, Sarita entered the room to set a vase of flowers on the table. And it seemed to the visitor that the flowers weren’t nearly as beautiful and vibrant as the wife of Johnny Lingo. She was not at all like the Sarita he had heard about. She was one of the loveliest women he had ever seen. There was something in the lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, and the sparkle of her eyes.

Johnny noticed his guest’s wide-eyed response to his wife. When Sarita left the room, Johnny said to his guest, “Have you ever thought about what it must mean to a woman to know that her husband had settled on the lowest price for which she could be bought? Did you ever wonder what it must feel like to her, when the women talk and boast of what their husbands paid for them? One says, ‘four cows,’ another ‘five cows,’ or maybe even ‘six cows.’ How does she feel, the woman whose betrothal cost one or two?

“I decided this must not happen to my Sarita,” continued Johnny. “I wanted to marry Sarita. I loved her and no other woman. I wanted Sarita to be happy, but I wanted more than that. I wanted her and everyone else to know that she is worth more than any other woman to me.”

What a wise man. Because of his love, Sarita became the most beautiful woman on the island.

Credit and more:
Adapted from Ron Mehl’s telling of this story in his book
The Ten(der) Commandments: Reflections on the Father’s Love, p. 182-183.  You can read the Frederick Buechner quote its context here.

“Feed Your Starving Soul”


Not just the nibble
we remember eating yesterday,
or that meal last Sunday
the pastor spoon fed us
as he waited for us
to want meat and potatoes.


We feed our bodies
more fuel than they can burn
but starve our souls
with skimpy feedings:
a little here
a little there
when a feast of wisdom and comfort
is in our grasp.


“Come and eat,” the prophet urges.
“Buy wine without money that your soul may live.”


Taste the honey of Psalm 139,
a platter of Isaiah 55,
the comfort food of Philippians 4,
the meat of Romans 8.
Chew the pithy parables.
Taste samples of the stories of those
who have wrestled with God.


Tomorrow dish it up again;
digest it so you may thrive,
grow strong,
mature and produce fruit.


by Linda Siebenga
originally appeared in the 9 May 2011 edition of Christian Courier, p.13
reprinted here by kind permission of the poet

Train ride home

Today I rode the VIA train from Prince George back home to Telkwa.  What a fantastic way to see familiar yet spectacular terrain from a new perspective!  I wrote down some of the things I saw and arranged it into a poem…

Wise-cracking stewards
and amiable travellers
see
birds in flight,
islands in lakes,
bear cubs in trees,
an eagle high above,
lily pad-filled ponds,
hay bales in the fields,
trees pointing to the sky,
reeds standing in swamps and
antiques behind forgotten sheds
while surveying gently rolling farmland,
curving around water’s shores,
hugging mountain cliffs and
passing freight trains
as parallel steel rails lead the way.

Talent

Christian Courier published a (very) short story I wrote.  You cannot access it at their website unless you have a paid subscription, so I’ll reprint it here…
  

“Talent”

     Teeth clenching his pencil, one hand is hovering the bass range of the grand piano’s keyboard while the other is carefully clasping the upper right corner of the sheet of music on the music rack. Stephen is staring at the music, carefully, painstakingly handwritten. A bead of perspiration forms on his forehead.

     It is half past supper dishes and quarter to bedtime. It is a precious moment of peace and passion.

     Nearly rhythmically, the pencil moves from his mouth into his hand. It stands poised, millimetres away from the paper, ready to add a note, or adjust the key, or change the tempo, or perhaps even scratch the entire measure. Any addition, correction or deletion is weighted with purpose. Twelve pages of music scattered around the piano prove it. He has been working on this in free moments for as many years. It is complex. This is Stephen’s opus.

     Pencil lead suddenly makes decisive contact with his composition. Stephen tightens his grip, prepared to translate the full orchestra in his mind into the language of staves and notes on his paper.

     And the telephone rings.

     The pencil lowers without leaving a mark. Stephen reaches for the Talk button. His pastor’s call is punctual if not painfully predictable. The voice on the line is cordial, maddeningly grateful; it is hard for Stephen to be angry with the interruption.

     “Numbers 287, 135, 547, 512 and 288, please.” Hymns for Sunday’s service.

     Phone call over, Stephen rubs his eyes with the thumb and index finger of his left hand. The other hand still holds the pencil, filled with unknown potential, having just jotted down hymn numbers.

     Sheet music is gathered up again and carefully placed in the black folder. The pencil now neatly rests on top of it. It must wait for another day, or, more likely, another week or another month.

     The notes in the hymnal are large, the melodies simple. Stephen practices, but certainly not out of necessity.

     He is looking forward to Sunday morning.

“Honey! Quick! Help me clean up the place… Jesus is going to be here in 8 minutes!”

Jesus called the other day to say he was passing through and wondered if he could spend a day or two with us.

I said, “Sure. Love to see you. When will you hit town?”

I mean, it’s Jesus, you know, and it’s not every day you get the chance to visit with him.  It’s not like it’s your in-laws and you have to stop and decide whether the advantages outweigh your having to move to the sleeper sofa.

That’s when Jesus told me he was actually at the convenience store along the highway.

I must have gotten that Bambi-in-headlights look, because my wife hissed, “What is it? What’s wrong? Who is that?”

So I covered the receiver and told her Jesus was going to arrive in 8 minutes, and she ran out of the room and started giving guidance to the kids in that effective way that Marine drill instructors give guidance to recruits.

My mind was already racing with what needed to be done in the next 8 – no, 7 – minutes so Jesus wouldn’t think we were reprobate loser slobs.

I turned off the TV in the den, which was blaring some weird scary movie I’d been half watching. But I could still hear screams from our bedroom, so I turned off the reality show it was tuned to. Plus, I turned off the kids’ set out on the sun porch, because I didn’t want to have to explain Jon & Kate Plus Eight to Jesus, either, 6 minutes from now.

My wife had already thinned out the magazines that had been accumulating on the coffee table. She put Christianity Today on top for a good first impression. 5 minutes to go.

I looked out the front window, but the yard actually looked great thanks to my long, hard work, so I let it go. What could I improve in 4 minutes anyway?

I did notice the mail had come, so I ran out to grab it. Mostly it was Netflix envelopes and a bunch of catalogues tied into recent purchases, so I stuffed it back in the box. Jesus doesn’t need to get the wrong idea – 3 minutes from now – about how much on-line shopping we do.

I plumped up sofa pillows, my wife tossed dishes into the sink, I scolded the kids, and she shooed the dog. With 1 minute left I realized something important: Getting ready for a visit from Jesus is not an 8-minute job.

Then the doorbell rang.

  
Written by Doug Mendenhall.  Doug is an instructor of journalism at Abilene (TX) Christian University and the author of How Jesus Ended Up in the Food Court.  He writes a column for the Abilene Reporter News and the Huntsville (AL) Times.  Reposted from the Abilene Reporter News with the author’s kind permission.