Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"There, But For the Grace of God..."

Partial Theological Truth in a Lost Conversation Piece

I don't know the first time I heard the statement, but I heard it a lot in the first third of my life, and a fair amount in the second two thirds thus far. I remember a number of older people in the church of my youth saying it, and hearing various presenters in talks, actors in roles, and people in conversations say it, even though some didn't seem to know what they were talking about.

You don't hear it very often today.

It's the rather dramatic statement: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

I think it isn't used much anymore because the concept of the grace of God isn't well understood or even contemplated in our contemporary setting. I'm not sure that everyone who used the phrase in earlier years really understood what they were saying all that clearly.

For those of you unfamiliar with the saying and how it was used, it's pretty simple. In conversation, someone would mention a person known to all in the conversation who had just experienced a bad turn of events, or worse, created a bad turn of events that led to all sorts of negative consequences. Usually the speaker would describe the terrible results of the actions or choices of the person under discussion. As the description came to a close, the speaker, to make sure you did not assume that he (or she) was somehow enjoying this story of personal misfortune or gloating over someone else's pain, would say, somberly, "there, but for the grace of God, go I." What they usually meant was, "that could happen to me (or by extension, any of us)!"

Of course, in the realm of human hurts and tragedies, the statement is exactly right. We hear about cancer, and know it could come to us. We learn of someone making a decision that goes horribly wrong, and know that we could make just as bad a decision. And if we are humble enough, when we hear of a great sin committed by someone who knows God and thus knows better, we recognize that, in our own hearts lie the seeds of the very same sin, or sins very much the same in character. 
And the difference for all of us is the grace of God.

God's grace saves me, so that when others remain hardened in sin, die, and face the coming judgment without salvation, the only difference is grace.

God spares me some disease that others contract, or spares me the consequences of a stupid decision that has cost others greatly, or does not cause me to experience all the natural consequences that I could experience due to my sin. It's not because I deserve any of these things, but because of grace.

And so, any time I consider another's difficulties that I am not experiencing, I know that it is God's grace that has spared me.

And yet, this old saying is only partially true. For God's grace is also present and active when I do get the disease, or have to face the consequences of bad choices or sinful rebellion, or any of the negatives that others go through. I don't know if people meant it this way, but there was often a kind of pious sigh of relief in the statement, as if this sufferer wasn't as in touch with God's grace as the speaker. But that isn't necessarily true--perhaps the sufferer was someone with an especially close relationship to the Lord Jesus and his grace--after all, Paul said in Philippians 3 that knowing Christ intimately would be to enter "the fellowship of his sufferings." 

I can be sure that any and every good that I receive is a result of God's grace. But I should never forget that often it is in the sufferings and setbacks of providence, the crises and the consequences created by my own actions, and the heavy and hard times I go through that God's forgiving and enabling grace is most clearly seen: sustaining me, strengthening me, correcting me, and comforting me. 
Perhaps, sometimes I should say, with relief and gratitude, "there, but for the grace of God, go I."
And in the other times, I can say, "there, within the grace of God, go I."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Starting and Ending Your Day with God

You know as well as I do that God never leaves or forsakes his people. He is always there. However, we can easily lose sight of that truth, and move through our days as if we are alone--sometimes liking it, sometimes not. I would like to suggest some steps I have found that help me begin and end my days with purposeful awareness of God and his nearness.

To begin, I seek to begin my day with thoughts of God. I do this before I even get out of my bed. I pray a prayer of love to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Then I try to think of one thing (or more) for which I can express gratitude to God--it can be something about creation (its beauty, enjoying the weather, the joy of sunrise), or a material blessing (my home, a job where I can support my family, my bed), or a spiritual blessing (my salvation, the Word, the ability to pray, forgiveness), or a relational blessing (my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my co-workers). Obviously, it's not a long prayer, just one or two things to prompt gratitude for God's work in my life.

Next, I submit myself in prayer to God's purposes for my life today. I express my dependence in relationship to the Trinity--confessing my trust in the Father (often reciting Proverbs 3:5-6), my resolve to abide in Christ (quoting part or all of John 15:1-11 is the way I do it) and my commitment to walk in the Spirit (I recite Galatians 5:16). I commit the day to the Lord and commit myself to obey God's Word.

Here would be a sample:
"Father, today I want to tell you I love you as my Father. Lord Jesus, I love you--my Savior; and I love you, Holy Spirit, as you dwell in me and empower me. I thank you for the spring, which reminds me of the renewal of life, and eternal life that is mine and is coming. I submit myself to your purposes for me today. I trust you Father, and won't lean on my own understanding. I want to abide in you, Lord Jesus so that I would bear much fruit. Holy Spirit, help me walk in your ways and power today so I won't fulfill the lusts of the flesh. This is your day, not mine. By your grace, I will seek to obey your Word."

It takes about a minute. 

I get up, have my devotions (and my coffee), and head out for the gym and the rest of the day.

As my day ends, I also want God to be the last thing on my mind. So, I usually will either read a short passage, or more regularly now, review one of the passages I've read that day in my devotions. I try to think of a verse with a phrase or two that I want to make into a prayer to close my day. I will pray it and then repeat the verse or phrase over and over again as a final meditation as I am going to sleep. Ideally, it will be my last waking thought.

Here's an example. I read Psalm 56 today, and verse 3 says, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you." So my evening prayer might be, "Lord, even though things in the world today can be unsettling or frightening, when I might be tempted to be afraid, let me trust in you."

Then, as I am falling asleep, I repeat to myself, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you." Or maybe I just repeat, "I will trust in you." What a great assurance to have as I fall asleep.

This isn't original with me. I learned it from Ken Boa--I read it in one of his books and heard him share it at a conference. He probably got parts of it from others. I hope it will be an encouragement to those of you who might need something like this.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Enduring Hardship for the Great Commission

            I am often asked two sets of questions about the importance of global missions engagement for our church. The first set are easier: why do we spend what we do (currently about 20% of what we receive) on global missions; why do we support some missionaries and not others; isn't everyone a missionary? These are important questions, and I have ready answers for all of them. But those are for later.

            Today, I want to turn my attention to the more important questions that are often thought, but not always verbalized: should we knowingly go into situations that are not safe?  And should our missionaries continue to stay in places where they might face difficulties, persecution, and death?  These questions reflect a way of thinking that tends to characterize American Christianity.  Thoughts of danger or death and the will of God do not go together in our minds.  “God’s will is pleasant,” we seem to think.  It involves ease and comfort, and prosperity would be nice, too. 

We have forgotten that Jesus said to his disciples, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10: 16).  Paul wrote, “For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…” (Philippians 1:29).  Peter exhorted his readers, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps…” (1 Peter 2:21).

I still cannot get out of my head hearing Dr. Josef Tson’s powerful message at a conference almost 20 years ago.  A Baptist pastor from Romania, Dr. Tson escaped from there to pursue theological training, and then went back to Romania, where he faced constant threats, persecution, arrest, and finally deportation after 20 years of preaching the gospel.  It had been hard to escape, yet he gave up freedom to go back to oppression.  As he faced possible death, his wife encouraged him to face it bravely for Christ.  They did not flee their homeland but stayed until forced to leave.  

He said to those of us attending the conference that he thought it was interesting that American Christians seem so concerned to know whether or not they will go through the Tribulation, while believers in other parts of the world think they have been in it for 2,000 years!  I have often wondered whether the passionate commitment to “pre-tribulation rapture” thinking (and that is my position) of many in America is due more to a theological conviction or a fear of persecution. 

God’s will is dangerous to a life of comfort and ease in this world.  It should not fit in with the dominant culture.  Going to places where gospel preaching is not tolerated will add to the difficulty.  Such ventures, though, are part and parcel of the fulfillment of the Great Commission and have been readily embraced by true believers down through the centuries.  We can do no less than taking our turn in answering the hymn writer's questions:

Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own his cause or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize or sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face, must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace to help me unto God?
Sure, I must fight if I would reign; increase my courage, Lord!
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy Word.
-----Isaac Watts-----

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Broken Up People

Why do we hurt those who are already hurting?

[The following was a pastoral note I wrote to the congregation of my church a number of weeks ago, as I was dealing with a few situations that reminded me of a few other situations, and there you go. We have a very healthy body, but as with any family, we have people of varying maturities and understandings, and we're all quite fallible--so this note was prompted. This was an attempt by a fallible pastor to address a problem that can occur enough (and once feels like too much) to warrant warning and/or correction. It's not unusual (although it is rare) for me to do this, so for those of you reading this who are not a part of our family, let this preface set some context.]

The body of Christ is called to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). What is the law of Christ? One clear answer is the "new commandment" He gives in John 13:34--"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." This is who we are supposed to be. And many times, we are. There have been occasions beyond my numbering when I (and many of you) have been encouraged by the love and support of members of the body here at Grace. And as a church, we have sometimes had to do the hard work of loving confrontation, and even discipline. Thankfully, most times never go far, and bring reconciliation. This kind of loving involvement and encouragement is very special indeed. It is a proof that we are Christ's followers (see v. 35). It is a measure of the reality of having known the love of Christ ourselves. It is beautiful.

But it isn't universal. In recent days I have talked with or been made aware of multiple situations in our fellowship where families who are hurting have a big fear: the harsh words and judgments (potential or already experienced) of their fellow Christians in the midst of these painful circumstances. The circumstances are widely divergent, but the fear is the same, and the sad reality is that there is some basis for expecting the worst. In fact, a few already have, either in the past, or sadly, even here more recently.

Let me ask you this: have there ever been circumstances in your life where you had to take actions, or deal with the consequences of others' actions, and in doing so you knew that there would be people who would misjudge your situation, cast blame because they didn't know the whole story, or rush to tell others of what they perceived as your failure to do what was best? If that has ever happened to you, then you know what it feels like. But unfortunately, a few of us seem all too ready to believe the worst about one another, and then share it with those who may not be in the loop.

What makes this especially troublesome is that I have found some of the people who do the talking about others have experienced, in their own lives, large hurts and pains that they do an excellent job of concealing or denying--situations where they would be mortified if anyone knew about them.

I only write what I write because I have been made aware, not just of these situations, but of some of the harsh words that Christian brothers and sisters have used--sometimes directly to the sufferer, and sometimes to others about the sufferer, that have been ill-advised, judgmental, loveless, and even cruel. I can't know the motives of such questioners, but I do know the effects of their questions.

I don't want to violate the privacy of those who are hurting, so let me give some general examples of what we ought not to be saying:

1. The mother whose toddler is throwing a tantrum does not need to be told, in love, in that moment, "She just needs a firm hand!"

2. The parent whose teen is rebelling does not need to be reminded that had they "trained up" their child in the way he should go, they wouldn't be having these problems. And adding how you instilled Christian virtues in your children through rigorous scripture memorization isn't helpful at the moment, either.

3. The newly divorced person isn't looking for your relationship advice on how to get their partner back, or your sage observations on what went wrong, or your conclusions on whether they would ever have the right to remarry.

4. The man who just lost his job can do without your stories about how your work ethic made it impossible for anyone to let you go.

5. The couple that suffers a miscarriage doesn't need to be told right then that the baby is fine in heaven and after all, he may have been a terrible person so God is probably sparing you heartache later.

6. The friend of the person going through a painful circumstance isn't wanting all sorts of well meaning, probing questions about the problem in the midst of the crisis, such as, "why do you think this happened" or "how is your friend, really?"  When you have never asked how this person's friend is before, but now seem to want a play by play description of what is going on, you are not helping the person or the friend.

And none of the imagined sufferers above are relying on you to pass on your judgments or concerns to others so that they too can join in seeing how mistaken they were!

I've actually heard variations of the above comments in these kinds of situations. These are NOT what I've heard recently. Sadly, some of the things I've heard are worse.

Have people who are in hard circumstances never done wrong, contributed to their problem, or never need counsel? Of course that is not the case. In some of these situations, there would be a place and a need for counsel and instruction, and perhaps even repentance if sin has been committed. But such counsel should come from those who have earned the right through demonstrated spiritual maturity, love and support over time to enter a situation, and who demonstrate the ability to sympathize. Even Job's lousy counselors knew that sitting quietly with him for a week was the right first step, even if their advice and judgments were as bad as what I've just suggested.

Let's commit to a better way of doing things--Christ's preferred way of love. Let's do all we can always to assume the best (love believes all things and hopes all things). When we hear about a problem, let's ask, "how could I be a blessing" to the people who are hurting. Let's not think that we always know the whole story of a circumstance where there is an obvious problem. Let's not make it our aim to assign blame in troubled situations, but to bring the comfort of Jesus to our brother or sister. Let's keep confidences, and not be what the Bible calls a "tale-bearer" (who "reveals secrets"). Let's assume the elders may already be at work in the situation, and if you are sure they are not, a discreet mention to one of us that a situation might need our help could be all that's needed. If someone is obviously floundering and desperate, consider coming along side, praying for God's peace and help, and then perhaps offering to go with them to one of the elders for prayer or counsel or help.

I know that this is not what you want to read. It's not what I wanted to share. And I don't believe that it reflects the actions or hearts of the vast majority of our family here at Grace. But when even only a handful of people act in ways that are hurtful, the ripples can spread the pain to many others. Instead, let's set up what the old youth chorus sang about--"waves of mercy, waves of grace."

And to the vast number of you to whom this does not apply, can I encourage you to pray with me that even the slightest hint of this kind of insensitivity can be overcome with the love and encouragement that can flow from God to the hurting through the rest of us?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"You Don't Know Everything!"

I'm getting to know my limitations, and hope you are, too!

In the past week, I've had three different people (two after our services Sunday) come to me with what they thought was a compliment. The composite of the comments were, "It is really great when you get up in the pulpit and say what you don't know." What was meant in every case was an appreciation of my having to say at numerous times (including last Sunday's sermon) that "I don't know" how to explain or figure out some things in the Bible. In one case I was told how good it was for kids to hear that. 

We live in a community dominated by a university and featuring a new school complex, and in each place knowing things is not only celebrated, but graded. So, you might think that admitting you don't know something would be a bad thing. But, in this case, it is not.

This truly is a compliment, and I agree that it is important to be honest about what we don't know, what we do know, and what we can't know.

Of course, I don't mean to celebrate all ignorance, either in me or in others. But humility about what we know is both honest and hopeful. I grew up in a day when it seemed that pastors were always confidently asserting everything about all biblical subjects--and even some non-biblical ones.

I had preachers tell me that Jesus wore his hair in a modified crew cut--never shoulder length. After all the Bible says a man having long hair is a shame, and Jesus would never do anything that would shame himself.

One Christmas, a sermon on the virgin Mary asserted confidently that she would never have gone around wearing lots of makeup or tight jeans. I don't think she would have, either, but I'm not sure where we would get that in the text--and most of us were not thinking that we should replace the figure of Mary in the manger scene with a "Bible Times Barbie." 

Pastors told me that women wearing pants were in sin because they were wearing "things pertaining to a man." My grandma's polyester pantsuits didn't really belong on any man, but that's what they said.

And when it came to prophecy, "everyone" knew that the European Union (the "Common Market" back then) was the kingdom of the coming Antichrist. There were many other details we were sure of that just haven't proven to be true.

One of my pastors told me that, while we believed in God's sovereignty, we wouldn't talk about it because it was too confusing and not important. In his thinking, it was better for us not to know of God's ultimate control of all things. Instead, we would avoid those passages, and any talk of God's election. We actually had a tract around that referred to election in relation to salvation as "God votes 'yes,' Satan votes 'no,' and you cast the deciding vote!"

Then I went to college and seminary and learned that some of those things I had been taught so confidently were wrong--or at least not the only way to look at the Scriptures. Thankfully, I was encouraged to study, draw conclusions, and keep studying. The profs that influenced me most were both confident in what they taught, but also able to discuss those areas where there were different possible conclusions to draw and still be faithful to Scripture. In some cases, they were transparent enough to share how they had come to change their understanding of a matter based on further study of Scripture. The greatest gift they gave me was not a new set of answers (although they offered many good ones), but how to think through things, and the principles needed to gain understanding of the text of Scripture. 

I have tried to emulate that combination of diligent study and humility about my own conclusions. One seminary teacher wisely told me that, if I am the only person I know who holds a view, then I could be confident I was wrong. He said that based on the Holy Spirit's promised function of guiding us (the Church) into all truth, it would be prideful to assume that 2,000 years of church history could go by waiting for me to figure something out!

Practically speaking, my own awareness that there are others out there--and I am talking about you--who can check up on me, leads me to go as far as my knowledge of the text and subject can take me, and then to stop! And I'm grateful to have some "Berean" types in this congregation who examine the Scriptures to see if what I say is found in the text.

The hopeful part of this humility is that we have the ability to keep learning as we study God's Word. Only a supernatural book can have a finished text and yet have more and more that can be understood as we apply ourselves to learning from it. That is why my sermons change even when preaching a text I've preached before. Through my own study and the confirmations of commentators (living and dead), including our leadership, my own grasp of truth grows.

So, I'm thankful that you are OK with having a pastor who doesn't know it all, and is ready to acknowledge it. I'm glad that you have that kind of pastor--otherwise, I'd be out of work! Let's commit--all of us--to being lifelong learners, ready to assert the truth we know, and seeking to lessen the amount of truth available to us that we don't know. Let us also agree to let God be the only one who understands all things perfectly, and the only one who understands some things at all! As we see in Romans 11, his judgments are "unsearchable" and his ways are past finding out! Our confidence is that they are also holy, righteous, and good, and are meant for the joy of his people.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Anti-Social Media

Nine suggestions for a healthier online community.

I remember when I first joined Facebook—I certainly wasn’t early to the game in 2006, but it was still fairly new and simple. People who had an email that Facebook would accept (usually associated with a school at first) could join, post notes and then pictures, and stay in touch—particularly keeping aware of things in my kids’ lives. Memes weren’t a “thing,” nor ads on your “wall” (I don’t remember if it was called a “feed” back then).  I joined Twitter a few years later, more as a curiosity, and then as a way to get news and messages to and from people about things we cared about. Then came Instagram (all about the pictures) and more recently, Snapchat—not something I’m particularly adept at.

Fast forward 11 years, and now I almost dread getting on Facebook or Twitter. The number of flaming stories, memes, and otherwise undesirable or offensive material is growing by the minute. I must scroll through any number of posts I don’t want to see in order to actually discover something from a friend, or a helpful link from an uplifting publication.

Worse, it seems that many of those who are my friends on FB (and I have a lot of FB friends for various reasons), have decided that they must repeat and repost every “news” story from Buzz Feed or Young Conservatives or Vox or IJR that agrees with their political position. Every pronouncement of the President (Obama first, and now Trump) must be met with scorn, suspicion, and hyperventilating that would have you believe that this person is the ANTICHRIST! or HITLER! The Republic is DOOMED! And if you support that person you are EVIL!

So, in a last ditch (and probably pointless given the small reach of this blog) effort to try to make our social media a little less anti-social may I suggest the following as the start of a list of “checks” to consider before posting?

1. If you are posting 100% of the time in line with your political party, you probably have stopped being a critical thinker. And if all the posts are from opinion sites, then you are letting someone else do your thinking for you

2. If your posts are mainly reposts or memes, stop. Social media is meant to be social, not some sort of echo chamber circulating others’ ideas. I'm not saying don't repost, but tell me why you think this is worthy of my time. And let me know that you are there, behind all the memes, by sharing something that is from you.

3.  I’m happy to see pictures of you and your loved ones. I like you telling me what’s going on in your life. I don’t mind seeing recipe videos you decide to share (in moderation). But your need to feel affirmed by my copying and pasting your status to show I read it and am your friend is not appropriate—in fact, you may be sure I will never honor that kind of request.

4. If you post a constant stream of political comment, don’t be surprised if I or others “unfollow” you, which means we are still friends, but I’m not viewing your posts. Social media isn’t my source for information about political issues—and it shouldn’t be anyone’s.

5. Think about what you “like” or “retweet.” Do you really want to endorse that idea or post, or do you just like the person who posted it?

6. What if we all simply decided to use social media to be sociable? We can say what we are doing, and ask others questions and seek responses. We can let people know of events in our lives, and we can ask for prayer. We can discuss our own actions and decisions, including political ones—I can handle hearing about your attending a rally for a cause, even if I don’t agree. But don’t pontificate, telling me how this means you are righteous (and implying those who were not there are not). We can tell funny stories, or if we read something online that is inspiring or thought provoking, we can share it with our own comment as to why we are doing so. We can post a verse of Scripture or a quote that is meaningful to us—and be sure to say what makes this important to you.

7. We don’t have to preach, but work to make our posting redemptive and helpful. Don’t pretend to have a better life at the moment than you do. Instead, remind yourself and others of the grace you find God gives in less than perfect circumstances, often through the people you are connected to. We can speak a good word about our Savior, we can encourage with Scripture, and we can be kind to the others who join us there.

8. I know there are different ideas about Jesus’ caution about being held accountable for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36), but something to consider is that such words can be a part of what we write as well as what we say. How would you evaluate your social media output? Does it reflect good fruit produced from a heart changed by God’s salvation?

9. Consider using blogs or other long forms of communication to actually talk about what you think, rather than the short bursts that the more common social media prefers. OK, that's probably not going to happen. But it's a thought.

Let’s see what we can do to make social media sociable again, and in so doing make it a tool for good things. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blessings in Books and Blogs (and other media)

How my spiritual life is continually enriched by others

I am so grateful for the privilege, as a pastor, of devoting significant time to study and the preparation of sermons and lessons. While others might find it hard or tedious, I find it challenging, stimulating, and life-giving. But I cannot let my study for lessons be my only interaction with the Scriptures, nor can I rely only on myself as a source of learning about God, the gospel, and the Scriptures. That is why I have developed the habit of looking for opportunities to gain insight and instruction from books, blogs, and media posts. I joke with other pastors that I'd enjoy hearing them preach, but I'm usually busy on Sundays! Now, through various means, the teaching of others is available to me (and to you, too).

My "go to" source of teaching for years has been books. When I read a book, an author can "preach" to me and I can take the time to highlight, reread, and sometimes "fact check" if a scriptural assertion is made. I don't always read authors I agree with--sometimes I want to see ideas I disagree with expressed well so that I can understand that point of view, or determine what might be right about the view or how to answer any errors I see. This isn't just about preparing for a message--often it is an area of spiritual life I am thinking about and I want to sharpen or deepen my understandings.

Here are two fairly recent examples. I read the book, The Trellis and the Vine, after getting it at The Gospel Coalition conference four years ago. I was challenged in my thinking about the issue of discipling in the church and it shaped a number of my ideas. It uses and builds upon a very simple illustration to point out the importance of a proper focus in this essential task. Later, when our staff was deciding to go through a book on the subject, it was easy to recommend that we use it, and we all benefited in the process. So, this book not only helped me grow, but became a tool I could share profitably with others.

On my recent trip to California, I started reading John Ortberg's book, Soul Keeping. Ortberg is one of those recognized as a leader in the field "Spiritual Formation," but he is a part of a larger school of thinking with which I have some disagreements. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as I have when I've read a number of his other books. His transparency with his struggles and growth, and his wrestling with the question "what is the soul" were both a great encouragement to me. Have you ever tried to answer that question, by the way? Is your soul just your immaterial part (body and soul), or one of two immaterial parts (body, soul, and spirit--and if so, what is the separation of the soul and spirit), or the whole of you (as in, "there were 300 souls on board the ship"). Is the "soul" the same as the "self" (how would you feel singing, "Then sings my self, my Savior God, to Thee"). I've taught on this subject, and he didn't change my basic understanding , but he added dimension that I found helpful and stimulating to think about. He tells a lot of interesting stories as illustrations, and there are some moments when I was reading (and this has happened in some of his other books) where I just have to stop and take stock of my own heart. I could list a number of books that have raised a lot of questions that keep me thinking, and I would encourage you to continue to read good books. I have published lists from time to time, and I know my  companions on the pastoral staff and elders would have many more.

But you may think, "I don't have time to read much!" OK, if you have read all the small but powerful books that are out there (and I've found quite a few), would you consider blog posts? These are often shorter essays that can be read fairly quickly, but still pack a spiritual punch. In addition to my occasional blog posts (most of which you would see here first, anyway), I would suggest a few sources that consistently provide good reading. One is the website for The Gospel Coalition--tgc.org is the link. Here you can find various writers on manifold subjects. While not every article is a winner, most of them are very good. Desiring God Ministries (desiringgod.org) is another good source of material. And while John Piper is the driving content engine here, there are many articles by many others as well. It was from this site's link (on Facebook) Thursday that I read and referenced Rosaria Butterfield's powerful post on defeating sexual sin. My only gripe with the article was that it's title was accurate but limited. The content was applicable to defeating any pattern of sin. Click here for the article. For other materials I go to the websites and blogs of the following (note that this is not an endorsement of everything you find--if I have to say that, I can't recommend anything):  Ann Voskamp, Al Mohler, Tim Challies, the bloggers at "Mere Orthodoxy" and "Bereans at the Gate," Russell Moore, and Doug Wilson (his humorously titled site is "Blog and Mablog"--but he wrestles with serious stuff--not always in a gentle way). 

And if you insist that even that amount of time is hard to find, how about audio sources (video is good, too, but it requires you to sit and watch, while audio can be enjoyed while walking, traveling, etc.). In the past week, I have had my soul stirred by messages from Alistair Begg (Truth for Life), Matt Chandler (The Village Church), and most recently, by our Grace Family member and teacher J. R. Gilhooly. I was so well instructed and blessed by his recent chapel talk, "Why Did God Create the Devil?" that I have recommended it to a number of people and linked to it on social media. He does a great job of engaging his audience and moving us to consider why we are even asking the question!

My own soul (whatever it is) has been enriched over the last seven days by reading and by listening, and I'm so grateful to have these kinds of resources available--something most Christians over the ages never had. And so do you. I hope you will consider using them in the times between our corporate worship.

Monday, January 30, 2017

When Baptists are Atheists

I've always struggled to comprehend the sheer audacity of philosophical atheism. The confident assertion that no God exists is, in itself, a logical absurdity. To assert that anything definitely does not exist requires exhaustive knowledge of the universe, which only a God could have. How can a mere human say that he knows all about the universe beyond his own observation, or has plumbed the depths of all dimensions or scanned every moment of history into prehistory and before? It is a position that requires some knowledge of the object (God) in order to reject Him.

Yet there is another kind of atheism that is much more powerful. I was reminded of it in my devotions today, from Psalm 14:1--
"The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their deeds are vile, there is no one who does good."
This is the atheism of foolishness, that weighs actions without consideration of God's existence and God's will. When people eliminate God from their judgments and considerations, their choices and actions quickly descend into self-interest and, inevitably, sin.

Of course we can see this in the lives of non-believers around us. We note and mourn their words, choices, and actions. We look at the carnage of our world and can only explain it as the result of people refusing to acknowledge and honor God. And such evils are often done by those who claim religion or God, but demonstrate by their corruption that they do not truly know or follow Him.

But there is something more disconcerting about this idea. It would seem that any time we who know and love Jesus still choose sin, we have made a decision, however temporary, to look away from Him and to pretend He just is not there. How else could those of us who have understood that our sins are the cause of Jesus' suffering and the source of His pain, nevertheless choose once again to indulge ourselves as if it doesn't matter? Every time a believer embraces sin without thought of offense to God or consequence, he is living as what many have called a "practical atheist." And the more often this takes place, the more "atheistic" our lives will look.

Believers can live as though God isn't there to see, to warn, or to judge. And a person whose life gives evidence of such practical atheism has landed himself in the company of fools, biblically. How do we avoid such a state?

I would suggest that the issue is not intellectual. After all, we know and believe the Scriptures, and we confess Jesus as Lord. The issue is primarily one of vision or focus. What do we fix our minds upon--or more precisely, who?

If our eyes are on others and their thoughts of us, they become our gods and we are not just atheists when it comes to the true God, but idolators as well. If our gaze is turned inward on our own desires and wants, we become our own gods, choosing our own passions and desires and refusing to consider the authority of the very Savior we have embraced.

Practical atheism results when we take our eyes off Jesus, and fail to cultivate our love for Him and His promises of superior joys to those our hearts might choose. Turning away from Him is an attempt, however momentary, to pretend that all He is doesn't need to be "in the picture" right now. And any picture from which we exclude Him becomes the scene of disaster and ruin.

Before we go down another sinful path or another selfish excursion into evil thoughts, we must ask ourselves, "Am I seeing Jesus in this? Is He, who has promised to be my good shepherd, leading me this way? Can I discern His encouragement to pursue this? Or am I listening to His voice of warning, urging us to:
"Say 'no' to ungodliness and worldly lusts!"
"Resist the devil, and he will flee from you!"
"Watch and pray, that you do not enter into temptation!"
"Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life!"

Speaking to you all, and to myself, I encourage us all to be careful of the dangers of not taking Jesus into account always; let's not be Baptist atheists!

Friday, January 27, 2017

One Week; Two Marches; One Cause--Life on the Line

Today is the March For Life, and depending on whether or not the pressure from the President has prevailed, it will either get a lot of coverage or nothing in comparison to the “Women’s March” that took place last weekend. To be sure, the latter had star power, which an occasional event can create. It morphed from just a "pro-woman" march to a specifically anti-Trump event, generating even more interest. The March For Life, by contrast, has been an annual event, often the largest to take place in our nation’s capital year after year, but with little press coverage. This year, the sitting Vice President will become the highest-ranking official to attend.

Obviously, I’m not there. But today's occasion reminds me of a stark truth. Since anti-abortion laws were struck down in the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions in 1973, 60,000,000 Americans have been killed in the womb. The oldest of them would just be 43 this year. They would have increased the population of our nation by about 20%. Put another way, one fifth of us are missing.

I wonder how our nation might have been different if those millions had lived. Here are some of the realities that we know to be true.
  • Our nation would have many more African Americans than it does. Abortion has been disproportionately practiced as a primary means of birth control within poor communities, and the highest single demographic is the African American community. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, would rejoice in this outcome, since she saw “races” other than white as being a threat to society. 
  • It should be assumed that at least a portion of these people would have been highly productive, intelligent people whose contributions to society would have been significant. Perhaps the discoverer of a cure for HIV/AIDS, or forms of cancer was among them. 
  • There would be a higher percentage of women alive today. Sex selection abortion exists, and wherever it is practiced—with or without government sanction, more parents choose to have boys than girls. Yes, it is not supposed to be practiced in our enlightened culture, but there is no practical way of stopping it if someone chooses to pursue it.
  • It is more likely you would know more people with Down’s Syndrome. Studies indicate that the population of people with Down’s Syndrome in the U.S. has dropped 30% in the last decade, and that the majority of women who receive a DS prenatal diagnosis abort that child. 
I also wonder what it says about a society that doesn’t seem to miss 60,000,000 of its own, and can allow them to be killed without concern. Diseases that kill a fraction of that number have telethons, rallies, ribbons, and awareness campaigns. A casualty figure of 60,000,000 in war would make pacifists of us all.

One final thought was prompted by a number of statements made by people I know to be believers after the Women’s March, talking about their participation in the march out of “solidarity” with those the march was said to represent—women whose rights were being taken away and freedoms curtailed. Allusions were made to doing this as Christ-followers, suggesting He would be marching, too. The very public removal of pro-life groups, along with the pronounced support for all things LGBTQ from the national march were not cited as problematic by any of these people whose comments I read.

Jesus encourages compassion for all people in whatever state we find them, but His compassion would never be at the exclusion of the truth that sets free or of righteousness that saves. And the Bible pronounces specific woes on those who call evil “good,” and good “evil.”  Christians participating in the national march had to check any “pro-life” credentials, beliefs, or advocacy at the door, and would have been excluded had they dared to say that marriage was superior to living together, same sex relationships were not God’s will for people, and the Bible was God’s authoritative truth. Solidarity, in this case, meant silence when it came to matters of eternal significance. And that silence could not be broken even to acknowledge the continuing murder of a million unborn girls and boys every year.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Burying Sinners and Saints

There's an old joke about a young pastor called to a small town church many years ago. In the town were two notoriously evil brothers, who were also rich and powerful. They used their money and power to great advantage, until one day one of those brothers died. 

The surviving brother came to the new young pastor and said, "I want you to preach my brother's funeral. And if you will do it, I will give your church one million dollars." 

Stunned, the preacher was about to say yes, when the man added, "But I have one condition. You have to say that my brother was a saint."


"Say, 'he was a saint'--the very words! Do that, and I guarantee your church will receive one million dollars."

The preacher, though new in town, knew the brothers' reputations, and was hesitant. He also knew how little the church had in its accounts, and what that money would do for repairs and the work. He asked if he could think about it for an hour or two. The surviving brother agreed.

One hour later, the preacher said "I'll do it."

On the day of the funeral the preacher took his place in the pulpit. He began, "We are here to remember and bury a man you all know. He was a scoundrel in every conceivable way. He was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. If there was a way to do wrong, he would find it. And if you ever thought he was doing something good, it was only a ruse to trick you. Yes, he was a very bad man. But compared to his brother, he was a saint!"

In my calling, I've buried a few sinners along with quite a few saints.

I did more than my share of funerals last year, and have already done a memorial service in the first week of 2017. Thinking back over these services in the past year, they were all for professing believers, most of whom were well known to me and gave clear testimony of their faith in Jesus. 

I don't get very many calls like I used to when I was in California from funeral homes looking for a minister to do a funeral or memorial service. Those were very interesting events. The reason I'd get the call was that the family wanted a "minister" to perform the service, but they were not "church people" in any meaningful way. This meant that I would meet a family for the first time during a very difficult moment, and they would have as little idea of what to expect from me as I did from them.

I would be thanked for coming, and then be assured that, while the deceased hadn't been to church in years, he (or she) was a "fine Christian" who followed the golden rule, was a good family member, and was kind to pets and strangers. I would often try to move the conversation toward the gospel. At first it was to see if the deceased might have, at some time in life, heard and acknowledged it. But it was also to see if anyone in the family had any knowledge of it. Occasionally I would see a knowing look or glance, often followed up with a whispered conversation that told me I had a gospel ally in the family. More often, there were just blank stares or polite nods, and then we would move on to the service planning.

Why would I do these services? Honestly, it wasn't for the dead. They were gone and I had nothing to offer them. It was for the opportunity to preach the gospel in the service to the living. Strangely, even though the "guest of honor" may have had nothing to do with God, mourners have an openness to consider eternal things that seldom is seen outside of funerals. I found that I could divide a service into two parts: the first was a remembrance of the deceased, and then I would say something like, "as a Christian minister I've been asked to lead this service for you, and I wouldn't be doing what I should if I didn't offer some words of comfort and hope to you who are here, even as we all realize that someday we will be facing our own end." I'd go to the scriptures and speak of God's love, man's sin and alienation from God, God's holiness and justice and what that means for sinners, and how God's mercy and grace have opened the way of forgiveness and life: not through performance but through a person--Jesus Christ. I would pray for those grieving, and ask that God would not only ease their sorrow, but draw them to His offer of life.

What was amazing to me was that in those settings I never was criticized for "preaching"--in fact, families uniformly were grateful. I don't know why, and I can't say that I know of anyone who was converted then. But it was an open door I was glad to take.

Harder were those few services where relatives expected me to tell them that their rebellious, hard-hearted, recently deceased relative was running around heaven having a grand time. I still remember one service where a rather well-known rebel-hearted youth died in an accident of his own making while intoxicated. He had made no secret of his rejection and mockery of faith. I followed the format that I outlined above, never speaking ill of him, but not pretending he was something he was not either, and was thanked by many--but not by the family. In fact, I received an incensed call from a fire-breathing grandma who could not believe that I hadn't told everybody what a saint her grandson was. The burial, which was scheduled for the day after the funeral, would proceed with a different minister! 

This all came to mind recently as I was preparing for the memorial for a real "saint"—a lady who had lived over 90 years and manifested her faith through her life. I use the term "saint" in its biblical meaning--a believer, yes, but an obvious believer. No need to wonder if she understood truth, or believed it, or lived it. Having met her almost 40 years ago, and having been her pastor for over a decade, I know her faith, and so I could speak with confidence about her continuing future life and joy.

I've had a string of these kinds of funerals of late, including this dear woman’s husband, and just a few weeks before, a member who was a retired missionary and continuing friend. I am blessed to do them. For in such cases, I can recount their lives--not perfect by any stretch, but faithful. I can not only speak of their profession of faith, but their examples of faith. I can tell or hear stories that remind me of how God used them, when they were willing to be His instruments. And I can once again remind those in attendance that God's promise to saints is that absence from this body means being present with the Lord. When I leave these services I am prodded to consider my own path of faithfulness, even as these brothers and sisters take their place in Heaven's great cloud of witnesses to the faithfulness of God.

What kind of encouragement will your funeral be? What kind of words will be said? How will those who know you remember you? What mark that will count for eternity will you leave? Will your preacher have to work hard to come up with good things to say, or even worse, will he have to simply offer remembrances of a life past and then preach the gospel, without ever drawing the connection between the two?

In one of those services for an unbeliever, I used a little liberty I drew from the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31--you can take time to read it right now if you don't know it). I said to the audience, "If _______ were able, I think he would speak to you right now in the strongest terms to turn to Christ and believe!" I'm not positive that's true, but if Jesus says in a story that someone in Hades had that impulse, I think it might be a fair supposition in other cases, too.

As you go about this day, don't assume you are guaranteed any more of them. And realize that when you leave this life for the next, your story will be told. I hope it will be a story of faith realized.