Is Anyone Listening?


As I do each year at this time, I’m drenching myself in my all-time favourite piece of music, Handel’s glorious oratorio, Messiah. Driving down the Queensway here in Ottawa, I sing along with it at the top of my lungs, conducting the London Philharmonic with my free hand. My absorption would probably be classified by an OPP officer as distracted driving–it would be interesting to argue that case in traffic court.

I never tire of this masterpiece, and can even forgive Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist, for taking some biblical passages out of context. One of my earliest childhood memories involves this music—but that’s another story for another post. I learn something new every time I listen to Messiah, and I am prompted to contemplate different aspects of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus the Christ as dots from all over the Bible are connected in my mind.

Last year, it was the fact that religion fails to offer any savior—the True God is mankind’s only Saviour! This year, I was struck with the the motif of the “voice of the Lord” in the early passages. After the overture, the tenor starts by calling out through Isaiah to the listener—and to the nation of Israel (which, unfortunately, is not listening):

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”  

On my recording, Philip Langridge continues through the early verses of Isaiah 40 and then the chorus breaks in and sings,

“And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

The next singer is Ulrik Cold, the bass, who dramatically connects the words of the prophets Haggai and Malachi:

“For thus saith the LORD of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.” 

Throughout human history, God has spoken—in fact, the universe itself is a product of the voice of the Lord. The phrase, “And God said…,” appears nine times in the first chapter of Genesis alone. The writer of Hebrews starts out with a summary of how God has spoken through the ages:

“Long ago, at many times and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (HEB 1.1-4)

Thinking of the voice of the Lord takes me to one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 29, which is a riveting description of a huge storm that moves across Palestine from north to south. It makes landfall on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and rips through Israel until it finally runs out of steam at Kadesh. As David looks on in awe, possibly from a cave, thunder cracks and roars through the valleys. Lightning splinters the stately cedars of Lebanon. Howling winds strip oaks of their leaves. Billowing black clouds obscure the sun. Driving rain drenches the land and causes the wadis and rivers to overflow their banks.

In contemporary Canaanite literature, Psalm 29 would have been considered an ode to JHWH, God of the Storm–much like one would encounter in Nordic sagas or Wagner’s operas. It is far more than that.

If the Bible is the metanarrative of history–and it is–then Psalm 29 is a metapoem. Using the storm as a palette, David paints a picture not of Mother Nature having a hissy fit, but of the eternal and sovereign Father God making a speech. The motif he uses is, “the voice of the LORD”, a phrase which is repeated six times between the initial call to worship and the closing petition.

The psalm opens with an exhortation not to people, but to angels. David commands celestial beings to observe a fearsome terrestrial event and join the people of JHWH in ascribing to God “glory and strength”. It ends with the benediction, “May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!”

The “heavenly beings” obeyed God’s command given through David. When they appeared to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth, these same angels shouted, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”  (Luk 2.14)

As the shepherd-king David heard the booming voice of God when He ravaged Palestine with that violent storm, so the shepherds who went to worship the King of Kings that night in Bethlehem of Judea heard His voice. But it sounded very different. The voice of the Lord was the wail of an Infant, and His contented cooing as His young mother put Him to her breast. Most appropriately, those shepherds heard the voice of the Lord as the helpless bleating of “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (JOH 1.29)

This Christmas may not be as festive as others have been. As I type this post through my tears, my wife lies in a hospital bed on the other side of the city, suffering through the effects of pancreatic cancer and its treatment. But even though it may not be a festive holiday, it can still be a joyous one. Because God has spoken–at creation, in that storm David watched, through the prophets of old, and finally, through His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ–as I drive down the Queensway to visit my wife, I can sing with the London Philharmonic Choir those tender, comforting words of Jesus recorded for us in Matthew 11.30:

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

God still speaks to us on the pages of the holy Scriptures. Oh, dear friend, I beg you: Listen to the voice of the Lord!

To read a longer essay on Psalm 29, click here.

Image is from ACT Emergency Services Agency.




Why does it take cancer to give such depth of meaning to the phrases, “I’m sorry,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” and, “I love you?”

Why does it take cancer to make our speech more gentle, so as not to crack the already fragile vessel of our emotions?

Why does it take cancer to get us to go to sleep holding hands, bodies entwined as they were in those first blissful newlywed nights?

Why does it take cancer to make us appreciate the huge contribution of our beloved ones to our lives and the lives of so many others?

Why does it take cancer to cause us to listen more carefully?

Why does it take cancer to impart the unparalleled joy of caring for another human being?

Why does it take cancer to show us the power of a tender human touch?

Why does it take cancer to unearth the treasure that is true friendship?

It shouldn’t.

Image from

So, Who’s Your Daddy?

polls_daddy_boy_blond_5543_981702_answer_2_xlargeMy wife was recently diagnosed with cancer for the second time. Once again, we are walking a steep, rough path through dark woods. When the doctor utters the “C” word, everything changes. Life’s priorities seem to tumble almost by themselves into their proper order, and–all of a sudden–one has a different perspective on this world.

Which is why a phrase in the Bible brought me up short when I thought of it again the other day. Writing to the Corinthians, a First Century church that was once obsessed with this world, Paul says:

“But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 COR 4.2-4, emphasis added)

There are several notable items in this text.

First, Paul talks about his forthright proclamation of the truth, as opposed to what was already taking place in his day and is still taking place now–disgraceful, underhanded tampering with God’s word. “Enlightened” people view the Bible as unreliable–yet, most of them have never read it. Others claim the Bible has been corrupted, and I couldn’t agree more. The real question is, “When–and by whom?”

A second important truth here is Paul’s observation–the Holy Spirit’s observation, really–that the gospel (the “good news” about Jesus Christ) –is hidden from many people. Actually, from most people. Is it because they are stupid? Of course not.  Is it because they have never heard? Perhaps. But mainly, it’s because they are blind.

If I had been born blind–if I had never seen even a pinprick of light, and you were trying to convince me that the sky is blue, how would you do it? A physics lecture on refraction? A field trip? An afternoon in a landscape exhibit at the National Gallery? Testimonials by sighted people? A special on the Weather Channel? A nice, mellow rendition of the Irving Berlin song, “Blue Skies?” None of these would help. I don’t even know what blue is, remember?

There is only thing that will allow me to understand this phenomenon. Sight.

The consequences of spiritual blindness are far more severe than those of physical blindness, and they last forever. Did you get that last word, “forever?” (Remember it, because we’ll come back to it.) This text tells us that the gospel is veiled–hidden, or unable to be grasped–by those who are perishing. If that sounds serious, it’s because it is. The reason people are spiritually blind is because they are perishing–doomed to spend eternity apart from God in hell–and the reason they are perishing is because they are spiritually blind.

And why are they spiritually blind? Check the text. It’s because the god of this world has made them that way. He doesn’t want them to see even a pinprick of light.

So, why is Satan called, “the god of this world?”

daddy-girl-brunetteOne reason is that when he was cast from heaven, Jehovah, the Eternal God, gave him dominion over this world–what the New Testament calls, the kosmos. Until he is finally cast into the Lake of Fire with his demonic hordes and those who have not believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, (MAT 25.41; REV 20.13-15) he will exercise authority over this world and everyone in it. Jesus taught us that there are only two families on earth–the family of God and the family of Satan. He even told unbelieving Jews–His own people, God’s Covenant people–that they were “of their father, the devil.” (JOH 8.44) And every child of the devil is born blind.

But that phrase, the god of this world, struck me a different way this week. Satan, that Great Deceiver, wants his children to be concerned only with this world. He doesn’t want them even thinking about life after death, about eternity, about judgment. He wants them to swallow the delusion that all that really matters is…this world. He convinces them that morality is relative, and they themselves can be the arbiters of truth and the masters of their own fates. He urges them to accumulate wealth, pursue pleasures of every sort, seek fame and prestige, gain power, and expend their energies on things with no eternal value. Parading as an “angel of light,” he encourages well-intentioned and socially conscious people to spend their lives doing commendable things in unbelief. He is especially pleased when people become devoted to religion–any religion–since religion distorts truth and gives people a false sense of security. He relishes the philosophical notion that the spiritual realm is non-existent, so  death results not in condemnation, but merely in compost.

If your biggest concerns in life–your fears, your goals, your urges–only involve this world, it’s because the god of this world has you right where he wants you. He’s going down, and he wants you going down with him.

When we lived in Atlanta, a common greeting on the street was, “Who’s your daddy?”

That’s a good question to ask yourself.

20 Go Ahead–You Deserve It!


What do you think you deserve?

You just bought yourself a new wardrobe, because you deserve it. McDonalds says you deserve a break today. Perhaps, even as you read this, you’re on a “much-deserved holiday” in some exotic locale. You deserved higher marks in that course. You deserved the promotion more than the colleague who got it. You deserve greater understanding in your relationship. You deserve more assistance due to your circumstances. You deserve “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What you really deserve–what I really deserve–is eternal condemnation in the fires of hell.

Whether or not we choose to admit it, every one of us was born in sin. Every one of us–even those who have a relationship with God through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ–will commit adultery of the soul, covet, and seek friendship with the world on occasion. (JAM 4.4,5) God’s hatred of sin is measureless, and His holiness demands holiness from us–holiness we are powerless to provide.

“But he gives more grace.” (JAM 4.6a)

What a wonder it is to be on the receiving end of God’s grace! Despite His perfection and the offense our sin is to Him, He provided a way for us to be His children through faith in Christ–God in flesh, “born to die, that man might live.”*

Paul writes to the believers in Rome during the First Century:

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (ROM 3.23,24)

There is no grace in religion–only slavery, uncertainty, and hopelessness. Yet, by God’s grace, none of us need get what he or she deserves. By His grace God does not overlook sin–not at all! In fact, Romans 2.5-11 describe in sobering terms how God’s wrath and fury will be poured out on those who reject His grace. What He does is provide the full payment for sin–something we, the perpetrators, cannot do on our own.

Even in our churches today, we have misunderstood grace. Grace is not without cost. In fact, what God’s grace provides was more costly than anything in history–the very life of the Redeemer was the only acceptable payment for our sin.

Grace is not bestowed by God arbitrarily on those who prefer to reject it. It is appropriated by faith:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. ” (EPH 2.8-10)

In the text above, the stated purpose for our being “created in Christ Jesus”–to walk in obedience to God–leads us to consider two more aspects of grace. Grace is available to all people, and grace does not free us to do whatever we like:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” (TIT 2.11,12)

James, Jesus’ younger half-brother, understands better than most the nature of the human heart. He can compare his own life to that of the sinless Son of God with Whom he grew up. He, better than most, can appreciate the magnificence of “God’s varied grace.” (1 PET 4.10 ) He knows God “gives more grace”–grace that is greater than all our sin.

*From the Christmas song, “Ring the Bells!” by Harry Bollbeck.

Upstream–In a Swift Current

Migrating salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Katmai National Park, Southeast Alaska
Migrating salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Katmai National Park, Southeast Alaska

Sitting out on my deck in the morning is not as serene an experience as it once was. There is a massive construction project underway across the street, so at the crack of dawn the morning’s quiet is fractured by the growl and clang of heavy equipment and the insistent beeping of machines rolling in reverse. I understand 3,000 people will be employed here, and I’m sure it will be a very attractive space. (It will also increase the value of our property, which I view as a good thing!) Progress has its price, and the noise is  only temporary.

The noise was not loud enough to keep me from noticing something in the Gospel of Mark this morning, however.

In Chapters 1 to 3, Mark arranges the material in such a way that it’s fairly easy to notice this upstream quality.

In 1.4-45, Jesus cleanses a leper. He could have simply said something that would have cured this man; instead, he stretches out His hand and touches him–an unthinkable act contrary to every convention, given the nature of this dreadful disease and the stigma attached to it.

The next healing Mark records (2.1-12) is that of a paralytic. Jesus prefaces the healing of this man, who was brought to him by four devoted friends, by telling the man that his sins are forgiven. Immediately, the Scribes view this as blasphemous, since only God can forgive sins. Jesus demonstrates His power to do so by asking, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?'” To display His deity in an unmistakable way, Jesus then tells the paralyzed man to do just that.

Calling Levi, a reviled sinner in the eyes of the Jews because he collected taxes for the Romans and gouged his own people in the process, Jesus stops at his house for dinner and eats with a collection of ne’er-do-wells the likes of which could only be expected to gather in the home of a man like Levi. Again, the Scribes and Pharisees complain to Jesus’ disciples about his unsavoury companions. Jesus reminds them that He came to heal the sick, not the righteous. (2.13-16)

Jesus’ disciples do not fast when John’s disciples fast. (2.18-23) Again, the Pharisees and others question why they do not observe this Jewish tradition. Jesus uses several practical analogies to explain that this is unique time and He a unique Person. “Can the wedding guests fast,” He asks, “when the bridegroom is still with them?” The time for fasting will come later, He assures them, when the Bridegroom is taken away.

At the end of Chapter 2, Jesus’ disciples pick some grain to snack on during the Sabbath. This is viewed by the Pharisees as a blatant violation of the Law. After citing David’s receiving shewbread from the priest at the time of Abiathar (1 SAM 21.1-9), Jesus replies to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (2.23-28)

The Pharisees are incensed. But, as Chapter 3 opens, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, again on the Sabbath. Since healing was viewed as the work of a physician–and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath–the Pharisees go ballistic and consult with the Herodians for a way to eliminate Him.

Jesus is certainly swimming against the current. He ignores the medical and social rules related to leprosy and, moved with compassion, touches a leper to heal him. He demonstrates His deity by not only healing a paralytic, but also telling him his sins are forgiven. He enjoys a meal in the home of a wealthy shyster in the company of all the man’s disreputable friends. He allows His disciples to forgo fasting, and then to pick grain on the Sabbath–something that is verboten in the Jewish religious tradition and even prohibited by the Law. To settle the question of His lordship over the Sabbath, the Law, and the Jews themselves, He then heals a man on the Sabbath, right in the synagogue.

In Chapter 3, Mark twice uses the phrase, “…for they were saying…” In vv. 20-21, Jesus’ own family members are saying, “He is out of His mind.” Certainly, to publicly do and say the things He has seems like the work of a madman, someone with a death wish. It is unfathomable, and embarrassing to the family. Recognizing that Jesus’ power is unearthly and refusing to acknowledge His lordship, the religious leaders attribute His miracles to the devil, saying, ,”He has an unclean spirit.” (3.22-30)

Mark demonstrates that Jesus was willing to defy convention and show compassion; to expose religious hypocrisy and exhibit divine authority.

Any follower of His should be willing to do the same.

19 Caught in the Act!


Imagine coming home, walking up the stairs, and finding your spouse in bed with someone else. It happens–all too often–and leads to deeply fractured relationships, divorces, and even crimes of passion.

James tells his readers, after having rebuked them for contentiousness and covetousness in JAM 4.1-3, that they have been “caught in the act”:

“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (JAM 4.4)

In our minds, adultery goes way beyond friendship. But James is pointing out what these Jewish readers have known all their lives. For centuries, the Old Testament Scriptures had been taught in the Temple and in the synagogues. Many times–and especially in the book of Hosea–God compares Israel with an adulterous woman who has scorned her devoted husband to consort with other lovers. This bold, clear analogy illustrated for the Jews–and it illustrates for us–the ease with which we can slip into spiritual adultery by pursuing worldly wisdom (JAM 3.13-18) and pleasures (JAM 4.1-3). Here, James gets at the very heart of his letter by making it clear that abandoning the truth of Scripture in favour of earthly values is adultery of the soul.

Notice that James says, “…whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Adultery is not rape. It’s consensual–a conscious decision to break one’s vows, abandon one’s spouse to lust or misguided affection, and commit an act of defiance against God. But God is immutable–His character doesn’t change and He doesn’t vacillate between one position and another. He is always our Friend–He is the “Friend of sinners”–and is always there waiting for us when we repent and seek his forgiveness for our sins. (1 JOH 1.9)

James tells us why our sin is such a serious matter to God:

“Or do you suppose it is to no avail that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? ” (JAM 4.5)

Jesus, as the Lover of our souls, as the Bridegroom of the Church, yearns for our affection, our devotion, our obedience. In fact, the love between married people is a mirror–albeit cracked and hazy and blemished–of God’s love for us. When we wander, like Hosea, He pursues us and longs for our return to His embrace.

With all we have in Him, it’s a wonder we would ever want to leave.

18 Knock-Down, Drag-Out Religion


Mrs. Ella Sanderson’s wide-brimmed pink hat drops to the floor and is stomped flat by Ms. Florence McHenry’s patent leather pumps with 4″ heels. Florence tries to wrap her arms around the buxom Mrs. Sanderson and wrestle her onto the front pew. For her part, Mrs. Sanderson digs her talons–she just had them done yesterday at Uncommon Nails on Spruce Street–into Florence’s chiffon frock and yanks hard in opposite directions, tearing the dress and drawing blood.

The pastor sputters, “Ladies–n-now, ladies! Please! This is neither the time nor the place…” just as Ella’s husband, Mort (who boxed in the Army) jumps up and assumes a menacing stance. His ham-sized dukes are poised, ready to apply a neat left jab to the thrusting jaw of Florence’s fiancee, Mr. James Quincy Jackson, Esq., Attorney at Law. Mr. Jackson is quoting the criminal code and wagging his finger.

A few rows back, a loud argument gets louder, peppered with language that sounds like it may not come from the Bible. Malcolm DePriest has accused Deacon P. J. Albert of scuffing the left front fender of his new Mercedes last Sunday in the church parking lot. Deacon Albert denies it, and threatens to visit Mr. James Quincy Jackson first thing Monday morning to seek legal counsel. (Please let it be pro bono. I’m a deacon!)

In the narthex, Mike O’Leary has Finn Peters in a headlock. Finn is red-faced and gasping, and Mike is screaming at Heather Gilmour, his hot babe. He just caught Finn and the lovely Heather kissing hungrily in the stairwell of the church. Heather stands aghast in her less-than-adequate attire, with the fingers of one hand entwined in her hair and the other hand clamped over her mouth. She is weeping hysterically, big tears rolling down her beautiful face. Fortunately, her  waterproof mascara is holding.

This is a parody–at least, it is meant to be. But James opens the fourth chapter of his letter with a first-century scenario that reflects the attitudes, if not the actions, demonstrated in the Sunday morning brawl at Peaceable Kingdom Community Church:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (JAM 4.1-3)

Not a lot has changed. It appears some professing Christians in the first century could be as shallow and materialistic as we can be in our culture today. James has just explained how destructive the tongue can be, and how self interest is hellish and breeds “disorder and every vile practice.” (JAM 3.15,16) Now, he gives his readers some examples from their own experience.

Their desires and choices are not only selfish, but also temporal and–in some cases–immoral. Instead of reaping righteousness, they are wreaking havoc. Instead of peace in the churches, there is conflict. While they may not have literally murdered each other–at least not in the Sunday morning service–there is evidence here of heated disputes, assaults, extreme jealousy and envy, and sexual misconduct. Their behaviour was nothing like what James had just described in Chapter 3.

What brought about all this chaos?  James identifies five specific causes:

  1. “Your passions are at war within you.” They are struggling inwardly between their inordinate desires–literally, “pleasures”–and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Who now indwells them. They experience internal conflict between what they want to do and what they know they should do. Too often, they choose pleasure.
  2. “You desire and do not have.” These inordinate desires for what–or for whom–God did not want them to have frustrate them when they remain unfulfilled, and their frustration even erupts in physical violence.
  3. “You covet and cannot obtain.” Their inability to get what they want causes them to be contentious and pugnacious. They cannot see the folly of living for this world.
  4. “You do not have, because you do not ask.” They fail to ask God to provide for them, choosing instead to try to get what they want on their own terms and in their own way.
  5. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Those who actually pray do so with sinful motives, hoping to use whatever God gives them for self-gratification.

James is not being condescending or self-righteous. Remember–Jesus was his big brother. And Jesus never argued with him, never wanted something he had, never beat him up, never engaged in worldly pleasures or even wished He could, and was content with His life even though He had “nowhere to lay His head.” (MAT 8.20) James knows what verses 13-18 of his third chapter actually look like, and what he’s seeing among his readers isn’t even remotely like it.

Is your family, your class, your workplace, your organization–even your church–characterized by conflict? Re-read James 3.1-4.12 and you’ll discover why.

Image is from RECAPO