WFH Day #11: Who I Am.

close up of hand holding text over black background
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, thanks to some honest conversation with my wife and a few others, I realized I’ve been dealing with a bit of low-grade depression: still functional, but not functioning well, as my life was growing more out-of-balance. By God’s grace and the encouragement of those close relationships, I’ve been trying to get back on track over the last few days, but the struggle I’m having right now is about expectations–specifically, the expectations of others. 

One of my most consistent worries is that I’m letting people down. I know everyone struggles with that from time to time, but it’s one of those things that I constantly have to check myself on. And the last 4-5 days have really been rough in that regard, because I’ve made some mistakes, missed some deadlines, or failed to follow-through on things that were expected of me (some expressed, some assumed).

At my lowest last week, I confessed to my wife how much I felt like I was letting everyone around me down and how I was feeling like a failure. What she reminded me of, and what I later heard reaffirmed in my reading and in Scripture, is that even when I’m struggling to meet expectations, my identity is not changed. 

That’s a big truth that I have to hang on to on a regular basis: who I am is not what I do. Who I am is not what people think of me. Who I am is not ultimately based on me.

The Bible says that who I am is wrapped up in my relationship with Jesus. My value, position, and security are contingent not on what I do, but on what Jesus did.

The Bible talks about born again believers being “in Christ,” which is an idea we don’t talk enough about in Evangelicalism. We can acknowledge it cognitively, but I don’t think we (maybe I should just say “I”) do a good job walking out what that means practically.

This is still something I’m working on and working through. But the baseline is this: no matter what I do, no matter how successful or unsuccessful I am at accomplishing my goals or executing my resposibilities, my identity must always be fully located in the fact that I have been washed, sanctified, justified, and glorified by Jesus. I am His disciple. I’m adopted by God and I am a co-heir with Jesus of the inheritance that awaits me.

So when I struggle to hit deadlines, when people are disappointed, when I just can’t get things right, I don’t give up hope or stop trying. I work and I strive, but I do so because it honors my God, not because I’m trying to earn or maintain my identity as a hard worker, dependable pastor, or exemplary husband and father. Those things are noble goals, but they must be located outside of my secure and unmoved identity in Christ.

So maybe a question you can consider today: What is your identity, and where does it come from?

Because the answer to that question matters an awful lot more than we realize.

Sunday Sermon: “God is Faithful in Every Season” (Psalm 71)

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

This week, I wanted to share the transcript of a sermon I preached about a month ago at a nearby Baptist church–a church that my home church is considering merging with in the near future. That congregation is made of mostly older adults (as opposed to our church of mostly young families), so this sermon provided a unique opportunity to focus my message to their particular church family. I hope it encourages you.

=====

Greetings from the believers at Baptist Church of the Redeemer. It is a privilege to be back here with you, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Our text for the morning is Psalm 71, so please turn there if you haven’t already.

It didn’t occur to me until it was pointed out by one of our elders that I would be the first man up after your pastor’s retirement last Sunday—no pressure! But as I was considering what to preach today, I realized that what I wanted to do most was to encourage you that our God is faithful in every season of our lives and every season of the life of our churches. My prayer is that you will see this clearly today.

If you are taking notes, you can break this sermon down into 3 sections: 1- The Security of God’s Protection (v. 1-6); 2- The Testimony of God’s Faithfulness (v. 7-16); and 3- The Witness of God’s People in their Later Years (v.17-24).

Number One: The Security of God’s Protection (v.1-6)

Let’s take a look at the first 6 verses of Psalm 71.

In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
    let me never be put to shame!
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
    incline your ear to me, and save me!
Be to me a rock of refuge,
    to which I may continually come;
you have given the command to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.

Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,
    from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man.
For you, O Lord, are my hope,
    my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
    you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you.

While this psalm is not directly attributed to David in a notation (as other psalms are), it does mirror the language of other psalms of David, which leads commentators to think that it was likely penned by David, sometime between the middle and (more likely) latter years of his life.

Notice right off the bat the personal language here: God is not some distant and unapproachable being. No, David proclaims that YHWH, the Lord God of Israel, is his refuge, his fortress, his God. He calls on the faithful, covenant-keeping God to uphold him in the face of wicked men and enemies who want to see him fall.

David asks God to deliver him because of God’s own righteousness—for the sake of God’s own name. We see this later in the history of Israel when God tells his wayward and rebellious people in Isaiah 48 that He will preserve them and deliver them for His own glory, even though they’ve broken His law. How often do we deserve God’s righteous punishment for sin, and yet because of His great kindness and mercy, He holds back from letting us be destroyed?

Look particularly at verses 5 and 6.

For you, O Lord, are my hope,
    my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
    you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you.

Consider for a moment David’s history: before he was a king, he was a shepherd boy who defended the flock against a lion and a bear. He was the brave young man who faced down the taunts of a giant in front of two standing armies. He withstood the jealous rage of King Saul, who sought repeatedly to take David’s life because he was anointed to be king over Israel instead of Saul’s son, Jonathan. Surely when David says the Lord is his hope and his trust ever since his youth, he’s thinking of these events and more!
Beyond that, though, David says that God was there from before his birth—that it was God who “delivered” him by His providence from the darkness of the womb. As Spurgeon writes, God has been faithful to David since before he was born. God knows who are His, and He cares for them. In the perilous hour of birth, God is present and cares for both mother and child.

Spurgeon goes on to call us to consider that childbirth is a daily miracle! Although each person fulfills their assigned role (the mother, the doctor, the midwife or nurse), yet it is God who carries us out of darkness and into light. What a beautiful metaphor this is for salvation. As Jesus told Nicodemus during their late-night conversation, you must be born again if you are to see the kingdom of God—born of the Spirit. While God does use human beings as his means of proclaiming the Gospel of salvation, it is God who brings us from death to life, God Himself who is the author of salvation. As Jonah proclaimed from the belly of the great fish, salvation belongs to the Lord!

So how do we respond to such gracious Divine care, from the very beginning of our existence? In Matthew Henry’s commentary, he writes about this section: “The consideration of the gracious care which the Divine Providence took of us in our birth and infancy should engage us to an early piety and constant devotedness to His Honor. He that was our help from our birth ought to be our hope from our youth. If we received so much mercy from God before we were capable of doing Him any service, we should lose no time [now that] we are capable.” In other words, as soon as we can consider God’s faithfulness to us from the earliest moment of existence, it should compel us to love Him and follow Him in all things. How can we respond any other way?

If you’re here today, and you don’t follow Jesus, first, I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to think on these things: God has given you life, breath, and all good things. Yet, because we are born rebels, we break God’s law as soon as we are able to do so. We are, all of us, sinners by nature and choice. Because of this, we are all deserve God’s righteous condemnation. Yet, because God is patient and merciful, he didn’t destroy us instantly, but instead has provided a way for sinners like you and me to be declared not-guilty, washed clean, and made brand new—and this is only through Jesus, the Son of God, wholly God and wholly man, who lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, and then died in our place, paying the penalty of our sin, fully satisfying God’s righteous wrath against us, and 3 days later, rising to life again, demonstrating that Jesus is Lord and King over all things, including death, and that His sacrifice satisfies the just judgment of God.
If this good news of Jesus is something new to you, or if you want to find out more about it, please come talk to me after the service.

Let’s look at the next section.

Section Two – The Testimony of God’s Faithfulness in All of Life (v. 7-16)

I have been as a portent to many,
    but you are my strong refuge.
My mouth is filled with your praise,
    and with your glory all the day.
Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
    forsake me not when my strength is spent.
10 For my enemies speak concerning me;
    those who watch for my life consult together
11 and say, “God has forsaken him;
    pursue and seize him,
    for there is none to deliver him.”

12 O God, be not far from me;
    O my God, make haste to help me!
13 May my accusers be put to shame and consumed;
    with scorn and disgrace may they be covered
    who seek my hurt.
14 But I will hope continually
    and will praise you yet more and more.
15 My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
    of your deeds of salvation all the day,
    for their number is past my knowledge.
16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come;
    I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.

 

Notice in verse 7, David says he has been a “portent” to many. Your Bible may translate that a bit differently; some versions may say “sign” or “marvel” or “wonder.” All these words point to the fact that this believer in the one true God is a bit astonishing to the people around him. In fact, God’s people are always going to be distinct, strange, perhaps even a bit unsettling to nonbelievers. “You mean, you actually believe all that? You really think that God is there and listens to you? You’re willing to do what? To go where? Are you crazy?” Peter writes in I Peter 2 that the church is to be a people of God’s own possession—or as the King James translates it, a “peculiar” people. In I Corinthians 4, Paul writes that God uses the righteous persecution faced by the apostles as a spectacle for the world, for men, and for angels—a testimony to all who see them of the power of the Gospel. Or, as Paul would say later in II Corinthians 2, those who are following Jesus bear the aroma of death to the unbelieving world. The church stands as a proclamation of God’s great mercy to those who would be saved, but a proclamation of God’s coming judgment to those who refuse to turn from sin and believe in Jesus.

How does David respond to God being his refuge against those who gawk at him? In verse 8, he says that his mouth is filled with God’s praise and glory all day long. Verses like this challenge me to ask: what is my mouth filled with? More pointedly, what is my social media profile filled with? Is it praise to God, or anxious worry and frustrated clamor? (Should I save that question until after November?) There is no room for murmuring or backbiting when your mouth is full of praise. As James says in James 3, a fresh spring shouldn’t produce salt water.

Take a look at verse 9 and following. [read 9-11] David is asking God not to abandon him in his twilight years. In Charles Spurgeon’s “Treasury of David,” a rich commentary on the Psalms, Spurgeon reminds us that the world casts off its elderly, but God never does; even those who are weary and infirmed are held fast. If we look later in Israel’s history, to the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 46:3-4, we hear God’s reassurance to the remnant He will save from His people Israel that He will not change—from birth to death, He will still be their God.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
    carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
    and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
    I will carry and will save.

(Isaiah 46:3-4)

David’s cry to God is that He would not abandon His servant in the twilight years. He says that his enemies are surrounding him, waiting for God to abandon him. This is sometimes the way of this sinful world—godless men try to prey upon older folks, to stoke their fears, to deceive, to try to get them to slip up. David here expresses a concern that many people have. But look how David responds, after pouring out those concerns to God.

12 O God, be not far from me;
    O my God, make haste to help me!
13 May my accusers be put to shame and consumed;
    with scorn and disgrace may they be covered
    who seek my hurt.
14 But I will hope continually
    and will praise you yet more and more.
15 My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
    of your deeds of salvation all the day,
    for their number is past my knowledge.
16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come;
    I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.

David prays like a child in the dark, reaching for His father’s hand—and I don’t think there’s one of us who is too old to do that: to call out to our Father in need and desperation, trusting him to answer. David asks His Father to turn the accusations, attack, and shame back on those who would do him harm. Rather than being crippled by worry about the threats of his enemies, David says in verse 14 that he will choose to hope in God and praise Him more and more! Instead of giving in to fear, David defies those who seek his destruction by doing what? Proclaiming God’s faithfulness. Testifying of what he has experienced of God’s salvation and righteous works. Their number, he says, is beyond calculation.

I love verse 16: “With the mighty deeds of the Lord God, I will come.” David brings his testimony of God’s power and faithfulness into battle—his greatest weapon is praise. He carries the testimony of God wherever he goes. And don’t miss this—what he’s bringing isn’t human wisdom or philosophy, but the pure testimony of someone who has experienced firsthand what God does for His people.

I have to stop here and remind you: Church, you have that, too. You have a story. You have a testimony of how Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sin, how He brought you from death to life, how He made you a new creation. You have testimonies of how God has been faithful time and time and time again. No matter what the world brings against you, no matter what the Enemy accuses you with, no matter how age or sickness or suffering may try to take away your hope—you come bearing the mighty deeds of the Lord God. Don’t forget that. He has done great things among us.

In preparing for this sermon, I was reminded of the story of an early church martyr named Polycarp. This was around 155 AD, under the Roman emperor Trajan. Polycarp was an old man, perhaps in his late 80’s to mid-90’s, who was still serving as the Bishop of Smyrna (a coastal city in what is now modern-day Turkey). He had been a friend and student of Ignatius, another church leader who had been martyred some years earlier. It happened that a group of believers who had been rounded up, had refused to deny Jesus, and were put to death had infuriated the bloodthirsty pagan mob because of how they boldly proclaimed Jesus was Lord, all the way to the end. The mob then cried out for Polycarp to be arrested and killed—he was known in that region as being a pastor and church leader. Polycarp’s congregation urged him to hide from the Roman soldiers, but after several close calls, he turned himself in. The Roman official gave Polycarp a chance to recant, since he was so advanced in years. The official said, “Just say ‘Away with the athiests!’ and you can be released.” The Romans called the Christians “athiests” because they denied Roman gods. Polycarp then turned to the Roman crowd and shouted “Away with the athiests!” After this, he was told to curse Christ and swear by the emperor, and he would be freed. Here’s how Polycarp responded: “For 86 years I have served Him, and He has done me no evil. How can I curse my King who saved me?” The Romans threatened Polycarp with being burned at the stake, and he responded that this fire will last a moment, but the fire of Hell is eternal. As he was about to be burned, Polycarp prayed aloud, thanking God that he was deemed worthy to join the martyrs and suffer with Jesus.

An old man—a man that the world would have passed over without a thought—stood firm and proclaimed the mighty deeds of God, and his testimony still rings out almost two thousand years later.

Let’s move on to the final part of the psalm.

Section 3 – The Witness of God’s People in Their Later Years (v. 17-24)

17 O God, from my youth you have taught me,
    and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and gray hairs,
    O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
    your power to all those to come.
19 Your righteousness, O God,
    reaches the high heavens.
You who have done great things,
    O God, who is like you?
20 You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
    will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
    you will bring me up again.
21 You will increase my greatness
    and comfort me again.

22 I will also praise you with the harp
    for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing praises to you with the lyre,
    O Holy One of Israel.
23 My lips will shout for joy,
    when I sing praises to you;
    my soul also, which you have redeemed.
24 And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long,
for they have been put to shame and disappointed
    who sought to do me hurt.

 

Again, David recalls God’s faithfulness throughout his life and asks God not to forsake him, so that he can proclaim God’s might to the next generation. See, David understands that in his later years, he still has a mission to complete. I think this is the same mission for all of us, when we reach this stage of life: our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to proclaim the goodness of God to those coming after us.

As we see so many fall away over the years of their lives, we must marvel in gratitude over God’s preserving grace as we grow older. Those whom God saves, God keeps to the end. David had seen what happened to Saul when he turned his back on God in disobedience. David’s desire is to continue proclaiming God’s goodness, even as age and infirmity may limit him. He wants to train the next generation to follow God, just as he was trained. This makes it all the more important that older saints never stop being disciples first, and never stop learning all they can about the Scriptures. When you do that, like David, you can delight in God’s righteous character and deeds, as we see in verse 19.

In verse 20, David notes that God has “made [him] see many troubles and calamities.” Because we know that God is sovereign over all details of our lives, we can say with confidence that whatever we have to face in life, we know that God is in control of it. We can further say with Paul in Romans 8 that God is using all of these experiences—even the most painful ones—for His glory and our ultimate good, to make us more like Jesus. So, like David, we can say with confidence that God has brought us through “many dangers, toils, and snares.” But God is still faithful, and he will revive us again. And here’s the thing: there may come a day, if the Lord tarries, that we will each face the final enemy, death. But even then, we can echo David’s words in verse 20: “From the depths of the earth, you will bring me up again.” This is the hope we have as believers in Jesus Christ. Because we have repented of our sins and trusted in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, just as He was raised back to life again, we know with confidence that God will bring us up again from the depths of the earth, and that on the last day, we will be raised to glory.

So how do we respond to these great truths? The way David does: we sing. As one pastor said, “redeemed people are singing people.” When we meditate on how God has been faithful to us since birth, and will be there to carry us when we breathe our last, we can respond with singing, with shouts of praise, and with testifying of God’s help all day long.
This is the exhortation I want to bring to you this morning, College Park: remember what God has done for you; recall His mighty works; look to Him to hold you and guide you into the next chapter of your life as a church; and never stop proclaiming His goodness.

And if I may add, specifically for those of you who are in your later years, who perhaps have known and served the Lord a long time: we need you. We need your faithfulness. We need your testimony. We need your wisdom. I say this for myself, as a man who has been married for less than 6 years, with a toddler and an infant at home: I need your prayer and your counsel. I need to hear your stories of God’s faithfulness.

And whatever happens in the next few months with this potential merger, I want you to know that you, brothers and sisters, are not done by a long shot. God still has work for you to do for His Kingdom and for His glory. So be ready to step into what comes next.

Let me close with one more story: As I was preparing for this sermon, I was using that Matthew Henry commentary, as I noted. It actually belonged to my grandfather. As I was flipping the pages, I found his old American Legion membership card (he served in the Navy during the Korean War). He must have been using it as a bookmark. It made me laugh because I do the same thing with business cards or random scraps of paper. My grandfather was a middle-school teacher by profession, but he was also an ordained Baptist minister. For decades, he and my grandmother would gather a kids’ Sunday School class and Vacation Bible School in the large basement of their home for the local children in the neighborhood who didn’t have any other church influence in their lives. He would pick them up every Sunday morning in their minivan, and then drop them off afterwards. Not only that, but my grandparents were faithful members in their local church and served well into their retirement years. My grandmother still plays piano and organ when she can make it to church. My grandfather eventually developed Parkinsons, which would slowly take his mobility, his speech, and finally his life, a little over a year ago.

I bring this up because as I looked at that American Legion card, I was reminded of a few things that disease and age could not steal from my grandfather. First, illness couldn’t take away his legacy of faithfulness. That card was updated less than 10 years ago—which means that even as he was likely starting to feel the effects of the disease, he was still studying the Scriptures. He was still a disciple. The last time I saw him, a few years ago, even as he had trouble speaking the words, he told me he wanted me to take whatever I wanted from his theological library, to use in my own studies. I relied on his commentaries to help prepare for this sermon. But more than that, all the way to the end, my grandfather was a man of prayer. Over and over, he and my grandmother reminded us that they prayed for us every day. The greatest gift an older saint can give to their family and their church is the gift of prayer.

Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in the faith—pray for those of us who are following behind you. Tell us your testimonies. Proclaim God’s faithfulness to each new generation, so that we all will stand together in wonder, praising our faithful God as one people.

Friday Five: The First 5 Books I’ve Finished So Far in 2020!

white book in white table near yellow wall
Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

Happy Friday, faithful reader! Wanted to take a minute and share what I’ve been reading so far this year. Maybe you’ll find something new to add to your hold list or Amazon cart!

=====

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson

This book may be an early candidate for top-five reads of the year, because I think it’s one of my favorite books of the last few years. Ferguson uses an event from church history called the Marrow Controversy in the 18th century as the springboard for a discussion of the key theological ideas involved: the relationship between grace and works, assurance of salvation, and the believer’s union with Christ. Every time I sat down to read a bit more of this book, I came away encouraged. Ferguson’s insightful commentary on the facets of this semi-obscure theological debate helped me to sharpen how I think and speak about the love of God in Christ Jesus. I would strongly, strongly encourage you to pick this one up.

A Great and Glorious Game, by A. Bartlett Giamatti

This slim volume of baseball essays by Bart Giamatti, former Harvard president and commissioner of Major League Baseball until his untimely death, is a quick and delightful read. Giamatti’s command of imagery and metaphor was masterful. His essays, especially the most famous entry “The Green Fields of the Mind,” are like rich dark chocolate for the lover of words–roll it around on your tongue a bit, read a few lines out loud, savor the sound of them. Even if you don’t like baseball, you will appreciate the deft and delicate intricacies of Giamatti’s writing.

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

On an unnamed island ruled by an oppressive regime, random things are suddenly outlawed and immediately begin to disappear and be forgotten. So begins the plot of Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, and when I first heard the concept, I immediately put the book on my library hold list. In the end, I found the book to be enjoyable but not as moving as I had expected. I’m not sure if that’s due to occasional stilted writing (perhaps an issue of translation from the original Japanese?) or because it felt very self-consciously *literary,* and I find myself enjoying high-brow literary fiction less and less lately. In any case, the concept is intriguing, and the climax of the book is quite unexpected as it dips its toe into urban fantasy. If you’re interested, it’s worth your time.

The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down, by Al Mohler

If you are a Christian of almost any tradition, you were likely taught the “Lord’s Prayer” (a/k/a the “Model Prayer”) at some point in your theological training. Many of us who grew up in the church have recited it from early childhood. This level of familiarity might often cause us to gloss over this short but powerful prayer without considering its ramifications. In this fine little book, Dr. Mohler works through each phrase of the prayer and spells out some of its world-shaking implications. The writing is very accessible and approachable, and while some of the content may seem like review, it’s all worth reviewing. The things we’ve known the longest are often the things we need to be reminded of most often.

Budgeting for a Healthy Church, by Jamie Dunlop

Truth be told, this isn’t the type of book I’d have picked up in years past. It’s only on my shelf because it was a giveaway book at last year’s Southern Baptist Convention, and you know how much I love free books. Obviously, being a lay elder at my church makes a book on church budgets a bit more meaningful to me than it would otherwise; much more so that I providentially have this book on my radar as our church is potentially merging with another local church, so the discussion of church budgets is a pertinent one for us. That said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed and benefitted from this short and practical volume. Even if you are “just” a church member in the pews, I think you’ll also benefit from Dunlop’s thoughtful discussion of the “why” of church budgets and his framing of how our church budget shows what our local church values. I definitely recommend this one, especially for anyone involved with church finances or who is interested in thinking through the topic.

=====

There you go, folks. My first five completed books of the year!

What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments below!

S(Tu)nday School: What’s the Deal with Joel?

brown concrete columns during day
Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

[You can find the introduction to this #SmundaySchool series here.]

Sorry for the brief delay; yesterday was my birthday, and I was otherwise occupied at the car repair shop for much of the day. (#Adulthood!)

But we are BACK with the next installment in our #SmundaySchool discussion of the Minor Prophets! This week, we’re taking a brief look at the key themes and ideas in the Book of Joel.

=====

The Background and Context of Joel

The book of Joel was written by “Joel, son of Pethuel” (1:1), a prophet of Judah. It’s hard to put a date on this book, because there are no clear context indicators. There are a couple of theories about when to date the events Joel describes. Some take the descriptions of divine judgment as describing a post-Babylonian-exile scenario (mid-500s BC), while others argue that certain context clues and literary characteristics, plus the lack of naming specific nations, leads to a pre-Assyrian-exile date (placing Joel’s ministry in the same general era as Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, and Isaiah). Some scholars argue it was likely written during the reign of Joash (as recorded in II Chronicles 23-24). At any rate, the timeless quality of the book doesn’t take away from the main message.

The Content and Message of Joel

Joel is composed of 3 chapters that can be broken down as shown:

  1. Judgment on Judah (1:1 – 2:17)
    1. Locust Invasion (Chapter 1)
    2. Military Invasion (?) – (2:1-17)
  2. Salvation through Judgment (2:18-3:21)
    1. Mercy on God’s People (2:18-32)
    2. Judgment on Their Oppressors (3:1-21)

There are 2 key interpretive challenges when it comes to the book of Joel. I’ll note them without going into much detail, but it’s good to be aware of the different ways to read this book:

  • Is Chapter 1 describing literal locusts?
  • Is Chapter 2 describing a literal army?

While scholars argue both ways from literary context, I think the best reading is YES to both questions: that God used natural calamity as a warning of coming military conquest.

The Key Themes and Applications of Joel

There are 3 key themes in Joel’s message to God’s people in this period:

  1. The day of judgment is coming. Joel repeatedly uses this phrase “the Day of the Lord”–a phrase that is repeated throughout the writings of the prophets. This “Day of the Lord” is a day of both judgment and blessing, and Joel shows both aspects of this day in his prophecy.
  2. God uses calamity to chasten His disobedient people. Again we see that God is sovereignly controlling the natural world for His purposes. He sends the locust plague to His people in order to get their attention and cause them to turn from sin and call on Him for help. When it is clear they will not, He must up the ante with more painful and difficult circumstances.
  3. God promises to forgive and restore His repentant people. We see this repeated theme as well in the Minor Prophets. Though God disciplines, He also shows mercy. What He takes away in His wrath, He can also restore in His kindness.

So how does the book of Joel apply to Christians reading it today? The same themes carry forward pretty easily:

  • Even the locusts are God’s locusts. God is sovereign over both natural and man-made calamity, and uses them both for His ends. (2:10-11)
  • God is just and wrathful–but He is also compassionate and merciful. (2:12, 13, 25) If we are being disciplined for sin, we can repent and find mercy and even at times restoration of what has been lost due to our waywardness.
  • No injustice or wickedness will escape the judgment of God. We can take comfort that final justice is certain. (3:1-3)

The Gospel Arrows in Joel

As in all books of the Old Testament, we can see arrows and hear echoes that point us ultimately to the promised Messiah. Joel is no different. A few ideas for your consideration:

  • The mercy of God is demonstrated to His people, even though they are just as guilty as the nations around them. This is a clear reminder that when God saves an individual, it’s not because of the good they have done or the favor they have earned, but solely because of God’s gracious and unmerited favor.
  • God promises to dwell in the midst of His people again. This is glimpsed in Jesus, the Immanuel, who tabernacled among us (John 1:14). This will be culminated in the New Heavens and the New Earth, where God will live among His people and be their light (Revelation 21:23).
  • God promises in Joel 2 to pour out His spirit, and says that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (2:28-32). Peter quotes this prophecy at Pentecost in Acts 2, saying that it has been fulfilled with the giving of the Holy Spirit at the birth of the New Testament church.

=====

That’s all I’ve got! Short and sweet this time, but I hope it helps to give context to you as you read the book of Joel this week! (Hint, hint!)

#SmundaySchool will be back next week (Monday, hopefully!) with a discussion of the book of Amos!

=====

Your Turn: Do you have any thoughts or observations from your reading of the Book of Joel? Are these overviews helpful to you? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

A Few Tips for Fighting Dragons.

black steel helmet near black and gray handle sword
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, I saw the following on Twitter, and shared it favorably:

Tweet

I received some pushback about how helpful this tweet actually was, and I appreciated the engagement that followed. To summarize my responses that afternoon, I took this comment to be a general statement that we should be careful not to ignore our pet sins as we take to social media to do battle for the sake of theological precision. In my mind (and I think, perhaps, that of the gentleman above), it was akin to tithing the dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters.

In the midst of that discussion, another friend asked for practical recommendations about how to battle the temptation to use pornography. I told him I was happy to try to oblige but didn’t have the time or space to do so fully at that point.

Today, I hope to provide a bit of insight into my own battle.

[Note: I’m writing here to Christians–followers of Jesus. If you’re not one, some of these recommendations might be helpful to you, but you won’t have victory over lust without first submitting to the One who came to free us from bondage to sin. If you want to talk about this, I’d be thrilled to do so. Hit me up.]

The Story So Far

Without belaboring the point, I was (like, statistically, many men in the church) secretly harboring an addiction to pornography for many years before I got married. Even as a Sunday School teacher and young adult ministry leader, I had a dark corner in my life where I both cherished and hated my secret sin. Finally, by God’s grace and the support and encouragement of faithful brothers and a loving fiancee, I was able to stop using porn. But that didn’t stop the battle against lust.

When you’re addicted to lust in a culture that bathes in it, you never leave the front-lines of the fight. The fight comes to you, at any time of day or night, when you least expect it. You could choose to cloister yourself away, cutting off all inputs of illicit imagery, but you can’t turn off the screen inside your head, the one you’ve fed for so many years, the idolatrous flesh that craves more. Even behind a monastery wall, you’d still have to mortify that rebel flesh–all the more so when you live out here in the world, trying to dodge messages and images of sexual enticement like Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix.

For over five years, I have been winning this battle, praise God. Not perfectly but faithfully. Not easily but determinedly. Grace upon grace.

Battle Tactics

“So what do you do?” my friend asked on Twitter.

The first and best answer is a spiritual one–truly facing what pornography addiction is. It’s sin, which is a small word with all of the torment and guilt and shame and destruction of damnation bound up in it. Sin against God, sin against the men and women who are both enslaving and enslaved in the porn industry. Sin against your spouse if you’re married. And to be honest, it’s this last one that drove home the rest of it in a flesh-and-blood practical way: looking into the weeping eyes of my then-fiancee/now-wife and confessing my sin to her just gutted me. Sinning against my wife wounds me in a way I didn’t anticipate as a single man.

So, if you are seeking freedom from lustful addiction, my brother or sister, run to Jesus. Look full into his wonderful face. Seek what Richard Baxter called “the expulsive power of a new affection,” the love for the things of God that pushes out the love of sin. Pray for God’s help. Meditate on and memorize the Scriptures. Devote your mind and heart and time to the things of God.

While reading a book about sexual purity isn’t a silver bullet (by any stretch–I’ve read an arsenal full of purity books), I can say that Heath Lambert’s Finally Free is far and away the best I’ve ever found–primarily because he centers the strategies on the realities of the Gospel. If you haven’t read it and you’re in this fight, you should grab it and work through it with a friend or accountability partner.

But I’ve got to be honest with you, reader: for me, most days, the spiritual practices I’m describing here–the “right answers” to this question–aren’t enough on their own.

This may be proof of where I need to grow in sanctification–likely it is. But in addition to seeking spiritual weapons to address this truly spiritual battle, I need additional help, in the temporal realm.

So here’s what I do to support that battle:

I have to be honest. That means when I sin sexually, I confess it to God, and then I tell someone–usually my wife. I look her in the eyes, and I tell her what happened. And when I do, I don’t use mealy-mouthed language or softened terms. I use biblical language, biblical categories. I use the words “sin” and “repent.” And admittedly, this is hard on the spouse who hears it. (My wife actually recommends a book for wives of men fighting lust called Reading Your Male by Mary Farrar. She says it was very helpful in understanding my perspective and experience.)

I have to be transparent. I don’t use web-access devices that aren’t monitored by some sort of software, and the weekly reports go to my wife. I made the decision that there can be no dark corners of my online life. My wife knows the password to my phone, and has access to the passwords of all my profiles. There is no need for “privacy” when it comes to my wife. I don’t see this as oppressive or stifling–it’s freeing. I know that I’m not alone, and I have someone watching my back. (This also requires that I trust my wife’s heart and intentions toward me. If you don’t have that trust, then there may be other things you need to address as well.)

I have to be discerning. This is the tactic that I think lots of guys struggle to employ the most. If you know you’re an alcoholic, you stop spending time in bars. If you struggle with addiction to food, you can’t hang out in dessert bakeries. And if you know you are tempted to lust, you have to stop feeding your hungry eyes with images that excite them. What this means in practical terms is that there are LOTS of things I don’t watch or listen to. I pass on the TV shows that everyone in the office is excited about, because I know that no matter how well-written or fascinating the story, I don’t want to see sexual content. I check the IMDB “Parents Guide” for content warnings before renting or going to a movie that I’m not sure is safe for me (even if it means accidentally finding out spoilers). Anything that is close to the line, I try to avoid. Do I miss out on stories that intrigue me? I sure do. There are TV shows and movies that sound exactly like the type of art I love, but I’m never going to watch them because it’s not worth it to me. It’s like the old parable: two wolves battle within you, but the stronger one is the one you feed more often. I make the choice, movie by movie, book by book, program by program, which wolf to feed.

I have to be self-aware/humble. This one is sometimes the hardest. Part of success in battle for me is recognizing when I’m weak. Actually, this is where transparency is also helpful, because sometimes it’s a comment from my wife or another friend that clues me in on a blind spot in my life. But in those seasons when I know I’m facing more temptation, and I sense those first signs of weakness in my resolve, I immediately ask for help. I ask for prayer. I invite people to check in on me more often. Let me caution you, though: don’t only use this tactic at the exclusion of the others, because you aren’t always going to catch yourself early, especially early on. You need other people around you. But over time, you’ll start to recognize patterns. You’ll sense things in your heart and mind that are possible warning signs (like anger, secretiveness, pulling back from community, lingering over those fluttering impure thoughts that pop in your head from time to time). If by God’s grace, you notice that you’re starting to slip in your mental purity, that’s the moment when you go on the offensive, pray for deliverance, and ask for help and support to fight all the more.

A Final Encouragement

I’ve already gone too long here, but I want to leave you with an encouragement:

God is not a liar. 

Seems obvious, right? But this truth is your rock, your firm foundation, as you fight this battle. Jesus will never leave you or forsake you. His will for you is your sanctification, and He will complete His work in you faithfully and fully. So, do not fear when you face hard days, even days when you stumble and fall. Get up, righteous man, righteous woman–dust yourself off and start running after Jesus again. Learn from your mistakes, guard against sin, and battle the dragon, for lo, his doom is sure.

And know that we’re running with you.

What’s the Deal with the Minor Prophets? [UPDATED]

brown concrete columns during day
Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

I’ve been kicking around the idea of sharing Bible teaching/notes on Mondays–for example, posts inspired by or based on my teaching/preaching notes. Consider today’s post a sneak preview of this new blog series, called “S(m)unday School”! 

=====

This fall, we began a Sunday school series at church on the Minor Prophets. I’ve been wanting to teach through this much-neglected portion of the Old Testament for a while now, and it’s been a blast so far.

If you’re not familiar with the Minor Prophets, they consist of 12 letters/documents located at the end of the Old Testament. Historically, they were written over the course of about 400-500 years, after the high point in Israel’s royal history, during the period of the Divided Kingdom and the two Exiles.

The Minor Prophets are called “minor,” not because they’re less important, but because they are shorter than the four prophetic books that precede them in the Old Testament (called “major” prophets). These 12 books (varying in length from 21 verses to 14 chapters) are warnings to God’s people in Israel and Judah (as well as those in exile) and/or the nations who have oppressed and defeated them.

You may be asking yourself, Why study the Minor Prophets? Let’s get real: For most Christians, these are the pages in your Bible that still stick together and crinkle when you turn them, because they haven’t been cracked open before (except for perhaps Jonah and a few passages in Micah or Malachi).

At any rate, I’m so glad you asked! Let’s start with 3 great reasons for studying the Minor Prophets: 

  • They’re in the Bible. This should be obvious, but: If you’re a Christian and you affirm that the entire Bible is God’s word given for God’s people to point us to the Gospel of Jesus, bring us to repentance and faith in Him, and then show us how to live as His followers, then the Old Testament matters. All of it. So we shouldn’t pretend like some sections of it are optional.
  • They’re often overlooked or cherry-picked. This is a terrible way to read and interpret Scripture. Rather than just picking out the half-dozen verses or sections to visit repeatedly, we should be studying these books as a whole, in context, to understand fully what God was saying to His people then, and what He says to His people now.
  • Their message still resonates. The writings of the Minor Prophets still resonate today, not only because they are divinely inspired (though that surely is enough) but also because they were delivering truth in the midst of troubled and troubling times. As we face troubled days of our own, we can find hope and help from these short books.

So maybe a better question is, why don’t we read the Minor Prophets more often? My guess is it’s usually one of these reasons:

  • The poetic language can be confusing. I mean, locusts? Plumb lines? Random priests? Calling people cows? It’s all very strange to modern ears. Plus, there are references to people and cities that we aren’t familiar with, so the strangeness of it all can be a turn-off.
  • The Minor Prophets don’t seem to be organized chronologically. The fact that the Old Testament is organized by genre rather than by time period makes it a little more challenging to figure out who these prophets are and when they served.
  • Frankly, they’re kind of depressing. Lots of wrath, lots of suffering, lots of hopeless language. If you don’t know where to look for light, the Minor Prophets might feel like a bit of a drag.

While these reasons are understandable, they’re just not good enough to justify avoiding this theologically rich and deep section of Scripture.

So, here’s my aim in this series: Each week, I’ll upload a post covering one book of the Minor Prophets that will provide you with the tools to read and understand these books for yourself, so that you will grow to love God and His Word more.

In each post, you should be able to find 5 things:

  1. Context (authorial/historical background)
  2. Message (what the book says)
  3. Meaning (what it meant to the original audience)
  4. Application (what it teaches believers today)
  5. Anticipation (how it serves as an arrow pointing forward to Jesus)

Next Monday, Lord-willing, we’ll look at the book of Hosea. I pray it’s a blessing to you.

If you have follow-up questions, feel free to ask those in the comments. I’ll do my best to address those when I have opportunity.

=====

10/5 UPDATE:

I realized I should have put a few more details in this intro post, so here you go:

My Study Tools: I don’t have a lot of resources at home, so most of my study tools were the notes found in the ESV Study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible, the Gospel Transformation Study Bible, Dr. Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, and Matthew Henry’s Bible commentaries. I also pull a few articles from the Crossway, 9Marks, and Gospel Coalition websites for context. I’ll try to note sources whenever I include quotes, but since I’m pulling from teaching notes that aren’t annotated, I ask that you forgive me for the lack of detail and assume any good stuff came from someone else.

My Assumptions: I try to be mindful of the assumptions I make going into teaching/writing, so I figured I should clarify a few of those now.

I’m an evangelical Christian, so I believe that the Bible is the word of God–authoritative, inerrant, infallible, perfect in all it teaches, and fully trustworthy. That means I approach the Scripture from a historical-grammatical hermeneutic, seeking to exegete the text rather than read my own perspectives into it. I will always try to interpret Scripture with Scripture, and if anything is unclear or confusing, that’s my lack of understanding or communication, not the text’s.

Engaging in Debate: If you have a different interpretation of the text, or want to disagree on some of my details or historical context description, please engage respectfully in the comments, and I will seek to respond in the same manner. We may not always agree on these matters, but I’m willing and happy to address questions as best I can. I may not always know the right answer, but I’ll do my best!

Please note: Comments that are profane, obscene, insulting, or unproductive may be blocked, removed, or disemvowelled. My page, my house. Play nice.

=====

Your Turn: Do you have a favorite book of the Minor Prophets? Why is it your favorite? Post it in the comments below!

Say the words.

Last week, I tweeted out that I wasn’t doing well. Things were hectic in multiple areas of life, and I was feeling overwhelmed–not despondent, but definitely blue. Over the next few days, several people checked up on me via texts, tweets, emails, and in-person handshakes and hugs. They asked me how I’m doing, if things are getting better, how they can help.

I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. And it reminded me that I need to do that better.

I know several people struggling with different issues right now: unemployment, separation from family due to work, mental health struggles. Chronic issues that can wear down a person’s hope.

It costs me absolutely nothing to take a few moments and send a text or make a call or zip out an email saying, Hey pal, I’m thinking about you and praying for you. You matter to me. I’m ready to lend a hand however I can.

I don’t know why I don’t do that more often. I should.

The news yesterday about Jarrid Wilson’s suicide drove this point home for me. Even the people who seem to be doing okay may not be doing okay. I was reminded of this again in an exchange last night with another friend who confessed how hard the mental/spiritual battle has been for her lately.

So, my encouragement for all of us today:

If you know someone who’s hurting, tell them you care about them.

If you know someone who’s fighting the darkness, remind them that they matter.

Don’t try to diagnose them, fix them, or give them an easy answer. Often, there are no easy answers.

Just tell them how much they mean to you. Tell them they are not forgotten.

Point them back to the compassion and tender grace of Jesus, and then keep doing that.

We all need to hear that more often.

52 Stories #22: “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien

walking path way tunnel
Photo by Caio Resende on Pexels.com

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s #52Stories selection is a religious allegory/fable by arguably the greatest fantasy author of the 20th century, the architect of Middle Earth himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. (Thank you to Matthew Marks on the Goliverse Facebook page for the recommendation!)

So, does Tolkien’s genius extend to his short fiction? Let’s take a walk together and find out!

=====

The Pitch

A would-be painter struggles to finish his masterpiece before taking the long journey that awaits all flesh.

The Payoff

This one turned out differently than I expected! In a few theology books I’d read in the past, I came across summaries of this story, but those summaries (at least how I recall them) were quite different from how the story itself actually resolves. It seems that Tolkien, who was famously negative towards allegory, couldn’t help himself when writing this parable–and readers familiar with that other famous Inkling’s writing will see similarities. It’s a pleasant journey with a decidedly theological flavor, and definitely worth the trip.

The Takeaways

So what was it about “Leaf by Niggle” that I found so charming? Err, um, just–okay FINE, hang on a moment while I put down my writing… I really need to get back to that soon, but if you MUST know, let the Seurat-style spoilers (i.e. in “pointilist” prose) commence!

  • Note: Okay, so what follows ended up being essentially a summary of the full story with commentary. It’s longer than I had planned. I don’t normally like to summarize these stories in their entirety, but I just found this one so interesting and pleasant that I can’t help myself. So, again, if you haven’t read the story, the following will spoil everything for you. Please seek it out and read it on your own, and then come back. 
  • First paragraph: “There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go; indeed, the whole idea was distasteful to him, but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, be he did not hurry with his preparations.”  From the outset, the reader can see the obvious metaphor Tolkien establishes. The “journey” is referring to death–but much more than that, to the world-to-come. Niggle, like so many of us, knows it awaits him but does his best to busy himself with other things rather than prepare for the inevitable.
  • In the summaries I’d read before, Niggle was presented as someone who selflessly put aside his own desires to pour out for others. Yet, as it’s actually written, Niggle is like so many of us: frustrated by interruptions of his own plans, irritated by the thoughtlessness of others, yet softhearted enough to at least feel bad that he doesn’t do more to help. In this, I really appreciate how Tolkien doesn’t describe his main character as an alabaster saint. Niggle does indeed help others, but does so with grumbling, sighing, and some muttered curses. His heart, while somewhat tender, is not completely bent toward loving others. There is still some soul-work to do.
  • Niggle’s neighbor, Mr. Parish, is the greatest source of his distraction and frustration. Parish is a constant source of need, often requiring Niggle’s assistance due to his infirmities. He critiques Niggle’s failure to maintain his garden well, but yet ignores or secretly mocks Niggle’s paintings, which are the joy of his life. The fact that the neighbor is named “Parish” is noteworthy here, as a “parish” is also the word for a district that is under the care of a specific church and priest. I’m sure there are many in ministry who at times find their own “Parish” to be a source of criticism and neediness, with little thanks or praise. (Not me, certainly, but others, I’m sure…)
  • As his days run out, Niggle realizes that his great masterpiece is not going to be finished as he likes. His best laid plans have gone awry, and in the end, he embarks on a rain-soaked bicycle ride to get a doctor for Parish’s wife, knowing it may well cost him the last of his productivity. It does; Niggle “recovers” in time for the House Inspector to arrive and inform him he failed to help his neighbors properly with their house, and for the Driver to pick him up for his long journey.
    • Two notes here: I’m not sure if the House Inspector is meant to be metaphorical in the context of the story, but I’m inclined to think he is–a representative of the Law who weighs Niggle’s life and finds him wanting.
    • Also of note is that the Driver comments how little luggage Niggle has prepared for his expected-if-unplanned journey. All Niggle finds he has in the bag he grabbed are his paint box and sketchbook, representative of the thing he loved most. But he has failed to store up treasures for the life to come, and this will come back to haunt him.
  • Here’s where the story takes a sharp turn from what I was expecting: I had heard the story related that Niggle then arrives at his “destination” to find the perfect, beautiful Tree that he’d always been trying to paint but never could because he kept stopping to help others–in other words, his “masterpiece” is the life of service he lived.  But that’s not how it goes at all! (Could I have misread them so badly?) Instead, Niggle is taken to what he describes as a prison or work camp, where he is forced to labor for what seems like hundreds of years. In the context of the allegory, Niggle ends up in Purgatory!
  • In this purgatory, Niggle is left to his thoughts as he is force to do “work” that echoes the works he failed to do properly or speedily in life: digging holes (gardening) and building (repairing his and Parish’s house). This period of confinement results in regret over his failings as a neighbor. His heart softens to Parish’s natural infirmities and limitations. His past selfishness becomes a point of sorrow and repentance.
  • As Niggle’s “case” is reviewed by unseen Voices (which reminded me of conversation between the “angels” Joseph and Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life), it is noted that Niggle’s heart was in the right place but hadn’t functioned as it ought, and that his “head wasn’t screwed on properly.” Yet, despite being a “little man,” his sacrifice at the end stood in his favor, as does his current disposition toward Parish. Niggle graduates to the next level of purgatory. No longer confined to a prison, he is given stewardship of a house and property with a view of The Tree and The Mountains that had so filled his dreams and imaginings in life. This is Niggle’s do-over, in a sense–but he won’t be alone. Parish has made the journey and joined him. Now, Niggle and Parish become friends, and learn how to be good companions and neighbors as they share this place and build their adjacent cottages. Finally, the time comes for Niggle to move “further up and further in,” heading to the mountains (following a shepherd, it should be noted), while Parish waits at their pleasant plot of land (which comes to be called “Niggle’s Parish”) for his wife to join him.
  • The final scenes of the story provide a dual-ending. There’s a conversation on Earth between a school master and town councilor about Niggle’s estate being sold off and the pitiful legacy he left. (This section seemed a clever twist on the “Christmas Future” scenes of A Christmas Carol.) The greedy councilor is dismissive of Niggle’s “foolishness” but the teacher is taken by a fragment of Niggle’s painting, which he keeps and later displays in an art gallery: “Leaf, by Niggle.” Meanwhile, in the Other Place, “Niggle’s Parish” becomes a convalescent home for souls making the journey to the mountains, and it is noted that this caused the home’s namesakes to laugh until the mountains rang with their joy.

In the final tally, Tolkien’s religious parable is really about a man who struggles to value the things that matter most in this life and whose heart must be reshaped before receiving his final rest. Tolkien’s Catholicism shapes this narrative, as he takes Niggle through a few stages of “purging” before he is ready to ascend the Mountain of the Lord.

Even for Christians who don’t hold to this doctrine, the story is still a good reminder that, no matter what other plans or pursuits we have in this life, there are some things that matter most and have eternal impact. Our days on earth are limited, so if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we should be about our Master’s business while there is yet daylight.

I was surprised by this story (and by its overtly Catholic nature) and enjoyed reading it very much. After reflecting on it, I find myself thinking about what I value most and how I can spend my days pursuing things with lasting impact. That alone makes this a worthwhile read.

=====

Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

Weep and hope.

I started crying as I led our congregation in prayer yesterday.

Part of it was my own fault. I had a challenging week, balancing work, church, and family responsibilities. I haven’t been sleeping enough, I haven’t been eating right, I’ve been consuming way too much sugar and caffeine (my go-to drugs to keep the engines firing when I’m reaching my physical and mental limits). The night before, I foolishly stayed up past midnight when I know good and well what a mistake that is with church the next morning. All this to say, I wasn’t in top form as I drove to church the next day.

Funny thing, though: all those circumstances were cracks in my defenses, allowing the news of El Paso and Dayton to hit me pretty hard. I couldn’t tell you why, particularly, beyond the obvious human tragedy. My wife asked if it was because I have two little girls now, and my paternal protectiveness and overactive imagination got the better of me. Perhaps. I don’t know.

I was tasked with leading the Prayer of Supplication during our Sunday service. As I stood at the pulpit and prayed with and over my brothers and sisters, the little flock I’ve been tasked with co-shepherding, I felt myself starting to weep.

I prayed for our unity, which has been facing some recent challenges. I prayed for our mission in the community where we are planted. I prayed for the future of our church, as we face some important decisions in the next few months. I prayed for them, and I felt a knot growing in my throat, because I knew what else I was about to pray.

I prayed for the families of the dead and wounded in three cities whose names hit the headlines this past week. I prayed for the countless others all over the country whose suffering wouldn’t be noticed much past their regions. (Little did I realize that almost 50 were shot in Chicago this weekend, or that in the next 16 hours, eleven people would be shot in my city and six of those would perish.)

There is so much death. So much violence. So much rage. 

What is the source of all this death and chaos and hatred in our world? Where does it come from? Behind the barrels of guns, the vicious invective, the glares and the bared teeth, is the poison of sin and the handiwork of Satan. Whatever secondary causes may be blamed and opposed, there are always traces of brimstone in those bloody fingerprints.

This past week, I listened to a sermon by Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Ephesians 6:10-13. In his address, he argued that all the death and destruction of even the (then-recent) 2 world wars wasn’t ultimately caused by Hitler or by the Kaiser before him, but by the work of Satan and his forces of darkness. The same is true for all suffering and violence committed among men.

[To be clear, I agree that there’s a time and a place to talk about solutions, to assign blame, to call for change. Those discussions should be had. But I don’t want to have them right now, right here.]

As I prayed over my church family, as my eyes burned and my voice caught, I asked God to help His people think about these tragedies theologically more than politically–that our response would, in part, be the same as Jesus’ when He was told of falling towers and bloody tyrants: “Unless you repent, you also will likewise perish.”

No matter what laws are enacted, no matter what rulers are ensconced, no matter what preventative measures are ratified, the heart of man is still corrupt, self-seeking, angry, and spiritually dead. The only way a wicked, violent, destructive man will truly change is for his dead, poisoned, rotten heart of stone to be replaced by a clean, living, heart of flesh–for him to be brought out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of the Son. That’s the only way any of us will be rescued from the sin that has entangled and enslaved us–repenting of our sin and believing in Jesus, who died in our place and rose again, defeating sin, death, and the grave.

As we move forward, as we consider what comes next after such a bloody week, may we keep in mind that laws are good for restraining the evil in men’s hearts, but only the blood of Jesus can remove it. 

At the same time, and perhaps most of all, may we remember the hope we have as believers in Jesus. Because the hope, friends, the hope that we have is in a King who is coming back, who will destroy the works of Satan, who will punish all evil, who will remove it from the world, who will banish Death itself. We have the promise of a Kingdom of Light, and a King who will wipe our tears away.

Weep, beloved, but weep and mourn while holding onto hope. This dark world will give way to a better one, a brighter one. Maranatha.

What Your Faithful Pastor Needs.

brown and blue house on mountain
Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

I’ve been an elder for 6 months or so, and it’s been a blessing and a challenge. Although I was warned about the weight of this “mantle of responsibility,” I underestimated how heavy it can be to carry the knowledge of the challenges and pains your flock is enduring–and to know that you have a part to play in ministering the Gospel of grace to those hurts each week.

Here’s the thing, though: your pastor, your elders–they do it because they love it. And they love it because they love you.

Pastoral ministry is heavy and it’s hard, but your pastors love serving you in this way. You may not like when the way they serve you is through exhortation, challenge, or even discipline. But this is how they love you. This is how they care for your soul.

So going into this weekend, Christian, I wanted to encourage you briefly with a reminder of what your faithful shepherds need, so that you can be a blessing to them.

  • Pray for them. Pray for their hearts, as they carry the responsibility of leadership and ministry. Pray for their marriages and families, that God would guard them against the attacks of the Enemy. Pray that God would keep them humble and hungry for Him and His Word. Pray that God would guard their witness in ministry. If you know of struggles they are facing, lift them up before the Lord.
  • Encourage them. Tell them that you prayed for them. Thank them for teaching or serving or administrating. Let them know how their work is bearing fruit in your life. There can be stretches where all an elder hears from his congregation is hurt and critique and doubt, and in those moments a gentle word of encouragement is a refreshing drink of water that squares the shoulders and straightens the spine.
  • Show them respect. By this, I don’t mean that you should give them undue deference or any sort of silly “anointed” and untouchable status–far from it. Pastors and elders are exhorted throughout Scripture to live as examples before the congregation; this is a high standard. What I mean is this: recognize that your pastors and elders are not only under-shepherds entrusted with the care of the flock, but they also your brothers in Christ. They are (hopefully) your friends; by that I mean, you treat them in a friendly and brotherly manner. So if you have concerns or even critiques, you don’t put them on blast as the world does, or trash them on social media or in snarky conversations with others. Rather, you should seek to discern the best time and the best way to address those issues lovingly, as a brother or sister in Christ.
  • Buy them coffee. Okay, this last point is from me, not the Lord, but I too believe I have the Holy Spirit. 🙂 This may sound self-serving, and I admit it may be so, but a small token of appreciation for a pastor who labors faithfully can make a huge impact. October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and I would encourage you to plan on blessing your elders and pastors in some small but meaningful way.

Most importantly of all, follow the example of your pastors and elders this weekend by being in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s day.

Have a great weekend, friends. See you next week.