Anglican Parish of Derby and Blackville
Meet the Authour
Nancy Stephens grew up in the Anglican Parish of Derby & Blackville and has served with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) for 30 years. After several years of cross-cultural ministry in Thailand, she recently retired from OMF’s Personnel Department, and resides in Fredericton, NB. You can learn more about the OMF at https://omf.org/ca/
Some Thoughts on the Coming of Christ
Throughout this Advent Season, I have been thinking often about Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-7. He speaks of light and hope at a time when the people of Israel were living under the threat of the Assyrians. His words in verse 6 are the most familiar to us – “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….” This promise of a Messiah, made in about 700 B.C., was fulfilled when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Think of it, they waited 700 years! Of course, no one waits more than their life-time, but as the people of God, it was a long time to maintain hope that their Messiah really would come.
Part of that 700 years spans the period between the close of the Old Testament and the start of the New Testament. Silence…no new word from God for 400 years! We can well imagine that many would grow weary of waiting for their Messiah. Some may have become so sick and tired of hearing what seemed like empty promises that they gave up their faith completely.
Why the silence? What was God doing? I do not pretend to know what was in the mind of God, but I do know that if we look at the history of that period, we can see a couple of very significant things. In a period of war and turmoil among many kingdoms, there was the rise of Alexander the Great, king of ancient Greece, who went on to “conquer the world.” With him came the expansion of the use of Greek as the “trade language” of that time. Another significant event was the establishment of the vast Roman Empire. The Romans were well known for building roads to help move their armies and trade goods throughout their Empire.
In Galatians 4:4, we read, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son….” The Bible is very clear about the Sovereignty of God. He is the One who rules over the affairs of men. Though it may have appeared at the time that God was not doing anything, to eyes of faith, it is very clear that He was preparing the then known world for the coming of His Son. The Roman roads made it much easier for the Apostle Paul and others to travel throughout the Roman Empire spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. And the eventual spread of the Gospel was made much easier through the Greek language, which was used to write the New Testament. No doubt, there were many other things, like the Roman census that took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, that God in His sovereignty arranged to happen in His perfect time.
The birth of Jesus fulfilled the OT prophecies, including those of Isaiah. Sadly, most Jews did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah. They were hoping for a political leader who would rescue them from the Romans. Instead, God sent them a Saviour to rescue them from their sins. While many of the early Christians were Jews, the Gospel also soon spread to the Gentiles. God’s plan of redemption was far greater than the Jews could ever have imagined. As the Gospel of John states: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12) Praise God for that!
Christmas is the time we celebrate Christ’s first coming. It is also a time that reminds us of His second coming. The Bible contains many such promises of His return. The first time He came as Saviour, but the next time He will come as Judge. (See Hebrews 9:27-28.) While the people of Israel waited 700 years for Isaiah’s prophecy to be fulfilled, the Church of God has been waiting for nearly 2000 years for Christ’s Second Coming! It would be easy to lose hope and to think the promise is not true, but that would be a mistake. God is faithful and will keep His promise when the time is right. Peter tells us: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) It is evidence of God’s love and mercy that Christ has not yet come back.
Still, we have the words of Jesus Himself – “I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:7, 12, 20) As surely as He came the first time, He will come again. May we continue to live in that hope. “Even so, Lord Jesus, come!”
© Nancy Stephens, December 24, 2018
Some Thoughts on Evangelism
The New Testament has three passages that list gifts that Christ has given to His people by the Holy Spirit: Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12: 1-31; Ephesians 4: 7-13. The word “evangelist” appears just once in the three lists of gifts, in Ephesians 4:11-12 where we read, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up….”
I find it significant the gifts listed here are all stated as being people. The focus is on people who are gifted as evangelists, not on “evangelism” which refers to a program or ministry that a church may have. In fact, the word “evangelism” does not appear in the Bible at all! That underscores the fact that the “mission” of the church is not about programs; it is about people. An evangelist, literally “a messenger of good,” is someone gifted by the Holy Spirit to tell others the Good News about Jesus Christ.
Some evangelists are gifted to boldly proclaim the Gospel to large audiences, while others with this gift exercise it in quieter ways, sharing the Gospel one-on-one. The NT gives us examples of evangelists, such as in Acts 2 when Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and three thousand came to faith in Christ. In Acts 8 we read of Philip, another gifted evangelist, who preached the Gospel throughout Samaria. Of course, another wonderful example of an evangelist is the Apostle Paul who preached the Gospel boldly on many occasions, sometimes in hostile circumstances.
A modern-day example is Billy Graham. Hundreds of thousands of people came to faith in Christ through Billy Graham’s crusade ministries. Hundreds of thousands more tuned into his crusades on TV and realized their need for Christ. No doubt thousands of others quickly switched channels because they feel uncomfortable listening to that kind of religious broadcasting! Those are two very common reactions to evangelists. People either listen and respond by allowing God to work in their lives, or they put up resistance and try to silence the conviction rising in their hearts.
For the person gifted by the Holy Spirit to be an evangelist, sharing their faith comes naturally or perhaps I should say “supernaturally.” They do not need to force themselves to tell others about Jesus. They simply exercise the gift God has given them. I think that is true of all spiritual gifts. When we are using the gifts God has given us, whether it is teaching or serving or giving, we feel an inner compulsion to do it. It is not that it no longer takes any work on our part, but somehow it just feels right. We feel alive, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and experience a lot of joy in doing what we are gifted to do.
Coming back to the word “evangelist,” it is mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:5, where Paul writes to Timothy saying, “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” From what the NT says about Timothy, we get the picture that he was a young, shy and timid person, not exactly the picture of an evangelist who is gifted to preach the Gospel boldly! Yet, here we have Paul telling him to “do the work of an evangelist.” Though we may be more like Timothy than we are like Paul, if we are a follower of Jesus Christ, we too have a calling to share the Good News with others. The question is, how can we do that, if we are not gifted as evangelists?
Michael Frost’s book “Surprise the World”1 has some very helpful things to say to us about that. He speaks of a two-fold approach to evangelism, i.e. those who are gifted as evangelists are to proclaim the Gospel boldly, while believers not gifted as evangelists are to give answers to those who ask them questions. Frost speaks of the need for followers of Christ to live questionable lives! By that he means, the way we live should make people ask us questions about what makes us tick; why do we go to church; why do we seem to be at peace, even in the midst of sickness or the loss of a loved one or the flooding of our property. Frost challenges us to form missional habits that will help us in our outward journey into our communities, as well as in our inward journey. Nurturing these habits will help us grow in relying on the Spirit to guide us as we go about our daily lives, making us aware of people and their needs and giving us words to bless, encourage and answer their questions about our faith. As Peter says in 1 Peter 3: 15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect….”
A lot of people, sincere Christians, think that faith is a personal matter. They believe, but it is not something that they talk about. I wonder why? We talk about a lot of things, why not our faith? Perhaps we are afraid of offending people or afraid of what they will think of us. I have heard evangelism described as “One beggar telling another beggar where to find food!” We are all in the same boat. We are all very needy people. Sharing our faith is not about preaching at people. It is about helping them know where they can find forgiveness, peace of heart and help in their daily struggles. Of course, we cannot share what we do not have! So, the first thing we must do is to respond to Christ’s offer of forgiveness in our own lives. But once we have found forgiveness, help, comfort, hope and strength in Christ, why would we keep it to ourselves?
Let us ask God to help us live our faith more openly and give us courage to speak up when the opportunity arises. I believe that as we are more intentional in forming missional habits, as Frost writes about, then we will grow in this area of sharing our faith. People may argue against “religion,” but they cannot really refute our personal testimony of what Jesus means to us or what he has done in our lives. Sometimes that is all it takes to be a link in the chain that God can use to draw someone to Himself.
1 Michael Frost, Surprise the World: the Five Habits of Highly Missional People (NavPress Publishing Group, 2015)
© Nancy Stephens, July 2018
Some Thoughts on Self Worth
Many people struggle with low self-esteem. Perhaps that is not too surprising, as the media bombards us with messages that to be successful in life we need to have the biggest house, the fastest car, the nicest clothes, the latest gadget, etc. The escalating levels of household debt indicate the impact of this marketing. However, if we buy into this view of life, then we fall into the trap of judging our worth by the things we can purchase. And if we can’t keep pace, then we may begin to feel like failures.
Or sometimes we measure our worth by the things we do, as a kind of proof that we are valuable members of society. If we are not careful, we may get so busy doing things, even good things, that we end up overwhelmed. We start to feel inadequate or fearful of disappointing people by failing to live up to their expectations or our own. Life may begin to feel like a vicious circle, spiraling downward and leaving us exhausted and empty. The result? Our feelings of self-worth plummet. When that happens, the same media that pushed their marketing agenda on us, then tries to sell us schemes to increase our self-esteem!
Though our society puts great emphasis on possessions, education, looks, accomplishments, etc., none of these are a good way to measure our self-worth. Our value as people comes not from what we have or do, but from who we are. So, who are we? We often answer that question by saying what we do. Who am I? I’m a teacher or a bus driver or an office worker. Or perhaps we answer it in terms of relationships. I’m so-and-so’s mother or wife or daughter. While thinking of ourselves in relation to our work or loved ones does give meaning to our lives, this really isn’t a good basis for our self-worth.
If we have been able to build a “successful” life, great! But does that somehow make us better than others? The world may think so, but our sense of self-worth should not be built around what we have or do or even around our family. Possessions, status, and family are all subject to change. If we were to lose any or all of them, would that mean we no longer have any value? Again, the world may think so, but God has a different measuring stick. Scripture teaches us that our value as human beings comes from two facts: 1) we are made in the image of God and 2) He loves us.
In Genesis, we read that God made us in His image. When He formed the first person, Adam, out of the ground, He breathed His life into Him so that he became a “living being.” (See Genesis 1 & 2.) This sets us apart from the animals, who have a conscious life, unlike plant life, but who do not share the same life of God which was given to human beings. Mankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation. We see this not just in the order of creation, but also in the authority God entrusted to us to govern the plants, animals, land and water in ways that would provide for our needs, while also caring for them. Tragically, sin entered the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, thus separating them and their descendants, the entire human race, from God. Our sin has also had an impact on the rest of creation, as seen in our dismal record as stewards of the earth. Still, God’s image remains in us and is reflected in things such as our intelligence and capacity to reason and make moral judgments.
The second fact that provides the basis for our self-worth is God’s love. God not only made us in His image, but He also loves us. The greatest proof of His love can be seen in His willingness to send His Son into the world. Christ revealed His Father’s love and mercy throughout His earthly life. It was this love that led Him to the cross, to pay the penalty for the sins of the whole world. The fact that not everyone accepts God’s gift of salvation offered to all who believe in Christ does not negate His love for them and the value they have in His eyes.
These two great truths provide the foundation for a proper sense of self-worth. Embracing them will go a long way to addressing the struggles we may have with low self-esteem. It will also correct any false sense of worth we may have that is based on measuring ourselves according to the world’s standard of success. More over, it will show us the importance of treating every human being with respect and dignity. No matter what their social status or level of material wealth, every person is of infinite value because they are made in the image of God and He loves them. If we live by these truths and teach them to our children and grandchildren, then perhaps we can make progress in addressing the problems of bullying, prejudice and racism that plague our society. And bit by bit, we could help make the world, or at least our corner of it, a better place for all.
© Nancy Stephens, September 2017
Some Thoughts on Faith
The Gospels give many accounts of Jesus performing miracles of healing. Two stories recorded in Luke 8:40-56 are among my favourites. One is the story of Jairus, a leader of a synagogue, whose 12 year-old daughter was dying. The other is of a woman who had suffered with bleeding for 12 years. Jairus obviously had heard of Jesus’ power to heal people, so in his desperation, he came and pleaded with Him to come heal her. The woman had also heard of Jesus, but how could a woman who was ceremonially unclean dare approach Jesus directly? She was forced to find a more discreet way to get the healing that she too wanted so desperately.
Luke tells us that as Jesus and His disciples were on their way to heal Jairus’ daughter, they were followed by a crowd. In the midst of all the jostling of people around Jesus, the woman found a way to get close enough to reach out and touch the edge of His cloak. The instant she touched Him two things happened – her bleeding stopped and so did Jesus! He stopped to ask who had touched Him. Given the fact that people were crushing up against Him all along the way, it seems pointless to ask such a question! Still, Jesus knew that someone who touched Him had just been healed because He felt power go out from Him. As He scanned the faces around Him to find the person, the woman slowly emerged from the crowd. Having sought earlier to keep herself hidden from public scrutiny, she now fell at Jesus’ feet and told Him everything. He was right, someone had been healed! His power had connected with this woman in deep need. How? Through her faith. While it’s true that many had touched Him inadvertently, hers was a touch sparked by faith.
Meanwhile, what of Jairus? Though this interruption was probably not long, it may have seemed like an eternity to Jairus. His worst fears were realized when someone came from home to tell him that his daughter had died. There was no use in having Jesus come now; it was too late to do anything. Before Jairus had a chance to react, Jesus reassured him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.”(v.50) I wonder what went through Jairus’ mind? He believed that Jesus could heal people and he had just witnessed His power at work in this woman. Did He dare believe that Jesus could bring his little girl back to life? I suspect that though he may not have known what to believe, he at least knew who to believe. He had come to Jesus in faith. Now Jesus was challenging him to believe Him at a deeper level than he could have imagined. We are not told what Jairus thought, but we do know that he continued to walk with Jesus all the way back to his home. He did not give up halfway there, despite the hopelessness of the situation, humanly speaking. In the end, Jesus did indeed bring his daughter back to life.
Here we have two people who reached out to Jesus in faith. In both cases, they received the miracle they had hoped for. As comforting as these accounts are, they also raise a question. Does Jesus always heal in answer to our prayers? No, we know He doesn’t. Probably everyone reading this article has a story to tell of a loved one who wasn’t healed. Hopefully, there are also some who can share about ones who were healed or delivered or saved in answer to prayer. I do not pretend to know why some are healed and others are not. That is hidden in the mystery of the sovereignty and wisdom of God. Still, I see in these two accounts things that do speak to me about faith.
Faith is more than wishful thinking. Both Jairus and the woman acted on their faith by coming to Jesus, the One they believed had power to heal. Do we also believe in Jesus and in His power to heal and to change circumstances that are beyond our control? When we are faced with a crisis or hopeless situation, what do we do? If we are people of faith, then we go to Jesus and ask for His help. If we are desperate enough, we even beg, just as Jairus did.
The object of our faith, Jesus, is more important than the size of our faith. Sometimes people feel guilty about not having enough faith. Or worse still, they are blamed by others who say that if only they had had enough faith, then God would have given them what they asked. That calls into question whether our faith is really in God or in our own capacity to believe! As sincere as we try to be, it’s sometimes hard for us to know the subtleties of our own hearts. But God sees and knows all things, and sometimes all we can do is kneel before the Lord and confess, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, NIV)
One thing faith is not – it is not a bargaining chip or a means for manipulating God to do what we ask. Though God does respond to our faith and even reward it at times, He is not bound by it, because He alone knows what is best in every circumstance we face. Even Jesus prayed, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Mathew 26:39, NIV) Faith should include an expression of our trust in God to do what is best. In no way should we misconstrue this to be a form of fatalism. Rather, it is the avenue by which we open ourselves up to God to do whatever He wants in response to our cries for help. As the writer of Hebrews so aptly puts it:
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. “ (Hebrews 4:16, NIV)
© Nancy Stephens, January 2017
Some Thoughts on the Authority of Scripture
Perhaps you have noticed that the Bible does not attempt to prove that God exists. Rather, its opening words assume His existence to be a fact – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1, NIV) Just as we can tell a lot about a person by the quality of their craftsmanship, so we can deduce some of God’s attributes by looking at the world He created, i.e. His power and wisdom. As Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Paul echoes this thought in Romans 1:20 – “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Theologians refer to this as general revelation, meaning that creation reveals some truth about God, but falls short of conveying His moral character or His purposes and plans for what He created. For that, we must look to God’s self-revelation.
Praise God that He has revealed Himself to us. “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb. 1:1-3, NIV)
The authority of the Bible to judge between truth and error is based on our belief it is a reliable record of God’s self-revelation of His character, as well as of His purposes and plans for all of creation. His many revelations through the prophets are recorded, together with historical records of the Jewish people, in what we call the Old Testament. Similarly, the revelation of God through His Son Jesus Christ is recorded in the Gospels. These, together with the history of the early church and various letters circulated in those early days, make up what we call the New Testament. Some basic research on-line will quickly explain the process used first by Jewish rabbis and later by early church fathers to determine which writings reflected the truth of God’s message and were deemed inspired by the Holy Spirit. In the centuries since then, archeologists have uncovered many, many artifacts and manuscripts that substantiate the validity of the ancient texts which make up our Bible.
The Bible is the main source of our knowledge of God and the doctrines of the church are based on its teachings. As Paul said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness….” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV) Of course, there are many cults that twist the Scriptures to fit their own desires or that add some new doctrine supposedly from God. We need to examine these against the traditional, orthodox teaching of the church handed down through the centuries. There are also many different Christian denominations, reflecting differences in interpretation of some passages of Scripture. Still, we measure the soundness of a church by whether or not their teaching aligns with the Word of God.
That is why changing a major doctrine of the church to accommodate the shifting cultural norms around us is so very dangerous. Re-working a doctrine to emphasize one aspect of God’s character, such as love, while ignoring another facet of His character, such as holiness, is at best a very careless handling of His Word, or at worst evidence of a total disregard for the authority of Scripture. Failure to uphold the historical interpretation of the Word of God opens the door to an erosion of other doctrines as well. This is why Paul urged Timothy to guard the teachings handed down to him: “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge….” (1 Tim. 6:20, NIV)
I certainly agree with making church more relevant in our culture and there is much we can do to bridge the gap, so that non-Christians will understand what we are about. But changing the message is not one of those things!
I grew up in a church which loves to sing “Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.” (Frederick Faber, public domain) May we have the courage to hold to that same faith in the face of pressure from outside, and even from within the church, to make the teachings of the church more palatable to a society that has lost its moral compass.
© Nancy Stephens, November 2016
Some Thoughts on Finding Strength in God
Life can wear us down at times. Sickness, unemployment, marital problems, addictions, ageing, death of a loved one – these are just a few examples of problems that can be overwhelming. Christians are not exempt. Christ did not promise His followers a bed of roses. In fact, being a follower of Christ may actually make life more difficult, as Christians are called to embrace values vastly different from those of society, including those of family and friends. But that’s a topic for another time!
When we put our trust in Christ for our salvation, He does not immediately translate us to heaven! He needs His people to live out their faith and be salt and light in this dark world. It’s a matter of being in the world, but not of the world. But part of “being in the world” means that we also share in the problems common to all humanity suffering the consequences of sin. The key difference for Christians is that we can face our problems knowing that Christ has promised to be with us every step of the way. The challenge, of course, is to grab hold of this truth and truly seek to find God’s strength to help us during rough patches in life. The Bible contains many verses that encourage us to do just that:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16, NIV)
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7, NIV)
I think prayer is the first step to finding God’s strength. We sometimes find it easier to pour out our problem to a friend, than to talk to God about it. Yet, prayer draws us directly into the presence of the One who in His grace and mercy stands ready to help us. We do not need to pray in order to bring God up to date on our situation. He knows all about it already! And we certainly don’t need to tell Him what to do to help us, though we are free to ask whatever we desire from Him. Like a good parent, God delights to listen to His children and to give them what He knows is best for them. Sometimes that may mean changing our circumstances. Often it means changing our attitude. Whatever the end result, prayer is one way we can open our hearts up to God, acknowledge our need of Him and receive His strength to carry on.
We can also find strength through reading the Bible. Most of us would not think of going without food for a day. Imagine how weak we would be if we ate only once a week! Sadly, many Christians neglect feeding themselves on God’s Word, thinking that one short sermon a week is enough to keep them growing in their faith. However, faith needs to be nurtured daily by the truths of Scripture, and especially so during times when we are struggling. Through reading the Bible, we learn more about God and also more about ourselves. As we read, we should ask God to open our minds to understand it and give us grace to obey what it says. Many times we will find not just the strength to go on, but also the wisdom to know what to do about whatever is troubling us.
Another way to strengthen ourselves is through the church, Christ’s Body here on earth. Being faithful to join in corporate worship is key to growing in our knowledge and love of God and of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is also the way we experience being part of God’s family. We need the encouragement and prayers of our brothers and sister in Christ to help us face the ups and downs of life.
Praying, reading the Bible and being active in church are all ways that we can experience God’s strength. Still, I know there are times when even our best efforts and intents do not seem to give us the inner strength we need to cope. But Christ is still with us, even if we do not sense His presence through the fog of our emotions. We are probably all familiar with the poem “Footprints.” If not, you can often find it on the obituary page of the Miramichi Leader or you can Google it. The image of Christ carrying His child through the most difficult times seems to capture the loving heart of our Saviour. May we reach out to Him whenever the problems of this life threaten to overwhelm us.
© Nancy Stephens, September 2015