Bibles in the church

Graphic found at

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).

Praying the psalms unselfishly

If the psalms cover all the different emotions I experience in life, chances are good that there’s at least one psalm that expresses what I’m presently feeling. But because there are so many different emotions and corresponding psalms, chances are also good that the particular psalm I read today will not directly connect with what I’m feeling. For example, today’s psalm in my daily psalm reading may be a psalm of lament which does not match my good mood and general optimism at present. Or today’s psalm may be filled with praise even though I may be nearly in tears with frustration.

There are at least two ways to deal with discrepancies between the tone of a particular psalm and how I am presently feeling. One way is to simply skip ahead to another psalm until I find and can pray one that more accurately expresses the state of my heart and mind. The despair in Psalm 22 is followed by the hope of Psalm 23. At least one line in one of those two psalms ought to resonate with me!

But a way to stick with a psalm that doesn’t happen to match my present mood is to consider how it does perfectly match the feelings of othersHolding hands graphic found via Google near or far in the faith community. I may not feel like lamenting at the moment, but I can still express the lament in solidarity with sisters and brothers in Christ who are presently experiencing pain. Or if today’s psalm in my daily psalm reading is one filled with praise despite me being in foul mood, I can still read and pray it thinking of others who are having a great day, learning to thank God (and not complain to him!) for their happy circumstances. A suitable prayer to accompany reading a psalm in this way goes something like this: “God, these words do not reflect my present experience or state of mind, but there are others in the world for whom these words fit perfectly. I lift them up before you and pray these words in solidarity with them knowing we are united in Christ.”

Moreover, reading and praying a psalm that doesn’t match how I’m presently feeling may help me better identify with someone who is feeling the emotions the psalm portrays. For example, reading a pain-filled psalm may help me better understand and relate with someone who is presently filled with anguish. When I skip over such a psalm to find a cheerier portion of Scripture, I deny myself the opportunity to grow in empathy by putting myself in someone else’s shoes.

Instead of finding a psalm I can more easily relate to, I hear the Holy Spirit inviting me to read each psalm unselfishly, praying for and identifying with those for whom the words may hit closer to home. The Spirit may even surprise me from time to time by showing me how the words are more applicable to me than I originally presumed.

This post is inspired in part by Martin Tel’s comments
in the webinar he led last month for CRC Worship Ministries
titled “Creative Use of the Psalms in Worship.”

There’s a psalm for that

Years ago the Visine marketing people produced clever commercials saying that no matter what problem your eyes were having, a Visine product offered relief: Red, irritated eyes? There’s a Visine for that. Itchy, allergy eyes? There’s a Visine for that. Irritated by contact lenses? There’s a Visine for that, too.

The same marketing campaign could work for the book of Psalms: Happy with how life is going? There’s a psalm for that. In the depths of depression? There’s a psalm for that. Worried about the injustice in Psalms graphic found with Googleour society? There’s a psalm for that. Angry with God? There’s a psalm for that, too.

It was Martin Luther who made this observation: “The Psalms is the book of all saints, and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”

I suspect this at least partly explains the popularity of the Psalms: Read long enough and I read myself – I read words I could have written at this very moment of my day and of my life. But more than reflections written in a journal, each psalm is inspired Scripture filled with words the Holy Spirit invites me to pray. Through the psalms, instead of bottling up what I’m feeling, I express back to God the joy or angst of my heart. I’m not left to process it on my own but to and even with the One who gave me my emotions in the first place and loves me more than words can describe.

Reading a psalm a day has been a habit of mine since before that Visine ad campaign. Try it for a while and let me know what you think of the practice.

A matter of time

Star Trek Time Travel Fan CollectiveA few weeks ago I bought the Star Trek: Time Travel Fan Collective.  It’s a collection of Star Trek shows from the different series that features tales of our Starfleet heroes going forwards and/or backwards through time.

The concept of time travel has always intrigued me.  I have awoken on more than one occasion from dreaming of going back to my high school or university days with knowledge of 2011…  Would I change anything?  Or would I make sure to leave everything the way it was?  I wonder, if you were given a time machine, would you visit the future or relive November 5, 1955?

Sometimes I think that the Word and Sacraments make time travel possible.  The Bible tells me what God has done in the past, who I am in the present, and the hope God’s people have for the future.  I exist in a continuum, blessed by those who have gone before and confident of God’s help and strength in the future.  Similar with the sacraments: Baptism gives us a picture of having died and been raised with Christ in the past, of Jesus washing us clean and renewing us for service in the present, and of us crossing the river into glory in the new heaven and new earth.  And the Lord’s Supper is a memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in the past, a means by which the Holy Spirit nourishes us in the present, and a foretaste of the wedding banquet of the Lamb in the future.

Last but not least, the Word and Sacraments remind me of how God holds the past (which I cannot change) and the future (which I cannot predict) in His hands, freeing me and equipping me to serve Him with all I’ve got here and now.

PS: If you know why I chose November 5, 1955, let me know… We can be geeks together!

“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

The Gospel according to Isaiah

When I was at Regent College, Professor Rikk Watts repeatedly emphasized how themes in Isaiah repeatedly show up in the Gospel of Mark.  At the time, I heard how many different passages in Isaiah align with Mark’s writing.  As I was preparing for this past Sunday’s latest instalment in my sermon series on Mark at Telkwa CRC, I saw in David E. Garland’s commentary on Mark how a single chapter in Isaiah serves as a backdrop to virtually everything we learn about Jesus in Mark.  It’s as though Mark was reading Isaiah one day, came upon chapter 43, and said, “Hey, this tells the story of Jesus!”  Having an outline of themes, Mark then went to work in writing the Gospel that now bears his name.

Garland’s presentation of Isaiah 43 in the Gospel of Mark not only affirms things I learned at grad school, but also affirms for me again how the Bible is unified and presents a consistent message (some call it a “love letter”) from God throughout.  It’s stuff like this that makes me excited to dig into God’s Word, making connections between different sections and making connections to life today.

Isaiah 43:1-12

Gospel of Mark

But now,
this is what the LORD says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear,
for I have redeemed you;
——I have summoned you by name;
——you are mine.

Jesus has created the Twelve (3:12) and summoned disciples by name (1:16, 20; 2:14; 3:16-18).

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you
pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

Jesus is with them when they pass through the waters (4:36) and saves them from peril at sea.  The assurance that they not be harmed by fire is echoed in 9:49.

For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
——your Saviour;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honoured in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give nations
in exchange for you,
and peoples in exchange
for your life.

Jesus announces to the disciples that he gives his life as a ransom for many (10:45).

Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children
from the east
——and gather you from the west…”

Jesus rebukes the cowardice of the disciples and tells a synagogue ruler (5:36) and the disciples not to be afraid (6:50).

Lead out those who have eyes
but are blind,
who have ears but are deaf

See 4:12; 8:18; Jesus heals two blind men (8:22-26; 10:46-52) and heals a deaf man (7:31-37).

“You are my witnesses,”
declares the LORD,
“and my servant
whom I have chosen,
so that you may know
and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.

When Jesus comes to this disciples walking on the waves, he announces “It is I [or, I am he]!” (6:50).

I, even I, am the LORD,
and apart from me
there is no saviour.
I have revealed
and saved and proclaimed—
I, and not some foreign god
among you.
You are my witnesses,”
declares the LORD,
——“that I am God.
Yes, and from ancient days
——I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
——When I act, who can reverse it?”

Mark would have the readers draw the same conclusion about Jesus.  Jesus is the one who delivers his people, and in his hands they (we!) are safe.

From David E. Garland, Mark (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), pp. 196-197