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

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[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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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]

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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”! 

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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.

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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.

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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

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[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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Friday Feed: 07/26/2019

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Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

Happy Friday! I’m back today with some interesting and (hopefully) beneficial links for your weekend review (including some links pulled from my Feedly app’s “Read Later” list that I’m reading *much* later).

Let’s get to it!

  • Maybe you’re someone who wants to read more but just can’t seem to find the time or the will to make it happen. Jordan Taylor can relate. He can also show you how to address that.
  • I had never before heard this story of the price that Pastor (and author) Randy Alcorn paid for his convictions about the life issue. What a profound example of humble, daily faithfulness.
  • As you may know, we welcomed our second daughter recently. This post by Matthew Tuck is a great encouragement about how important simply reading the Bible to your kids can be.
  • Along those same lines: If you have wanted to begin a practice of family worship in your home, this piece from Things Above Us is instructive and practical. Check it out.
  • From last year, here’s a Crossway blog post about 5 tips for Bible memorization. I don’t pursue this discipline as I ought. These reminders/encouragements are worth a look.
  • Christian, rethink your public speech. Amen.
  • If you’ve never heard the story of Charles Spurgeon and the “Downgrade Controversy,” this is a nice summary. It’s a story worth digging into.
  • I am looking for a way to get organized, mentally as much as schedule-wise. I may give bullet-journalling a try this weekend. 
  • Finally, this post about the ignoble tasks of pastoral ministry was a challenge to the creeping selfishness in my heart, and a reminder that I should be grateful for the elders I serve with and the ones who have cared for me over the years.
  • Update: Actually, one more link–this post from Tim Challies about being your own content curator. As I noted above, I use Feedly, at Tim’s recommendation, and I think it’s a great resource. If you use an RSS feed now, or if you are considering using one, could I perhaps encourage you to add this blog to it? That is one of the best ways to know when I’ve posted new content, as I’m obviously still trying to figure out a consistent posting schedule. (Another great way is to sign up for updates on the sidebar to the right (or below, depending on your device). Thank you!

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I hope this was a help to you. If any of these topics interest you, be sure to click through, and maybe drop me a comment below to let me know which of these interested you. Thanks!

#FridayFive: 5 Takeaways from #SBC19

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Happy Friday, readers! I am back from 3 days in balmy Birmingham, Alabama, where I (along with 3 friends) represented our church in the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention.

This year, there were several serious issues to address, and some contentious dust-ups online, leading up to the 2-day convention. What were my thoughts on the affair?

Here are my 5 key takeaways from #SBC19:

  1. The main thing needs to stay the main thing. One of the most important moments of the convention was the International Mission Board’s commissioning/sending ceremony. Twenty-six people shared some of their testimony and why they were leaving the US to become international missionaries. Some of them had already spent 2 years as part of the SBC “Journeyman” program and were going back for full-time mission work, while others grew up in missionary families or went on trips as a teenager and felt the call then. Several of the missionaries are going to dangerous or challenging parts of the world, so their faces weren’t shown as they spoke. Then, after a time of recognition for their stories, they carried lighted banners with their region of service into the crowd, and groups of people prayed over each one of them. Standing there in that darkened arena, I was reminded that this is what the SBC Annual Meeting is really about. Not the squabbles, not the posturing–reminding ourselves that we have a mission to fulfill, and then honoring and being inspired by those who are ready to risk all to fulfill it.
  2. We need to learn how to disagree well. This theme kept cropping up, both in the mouths of people in my theological “sub-tribe” and people who get the side-eye on my Twitter feed. Mark Dever, during the “State of the SBC” discussion at a 9 Marks at 9 event said, “You younger folks do a lot of things well, but you just don’t know how to disagree.” Al Mohler agreed, adding that the younger generation of Baptists online need to learn how to do theological triage and distinguish between differences of practice and disagreements on what characterizes our denomination. Russell Moore, during the Baptist 21 panel, quipped, “There needs to be more than just ‘I would do that differently’ and ‘Die, heretic!'” This repeated exhortation to learn how to argue and disagree well, how to represent your rhetorical opponents fairly, and how to treat brothers and sisters as such–it struck home with me. This is something I still need to grow in.
  3. True diversity begins at the dinner table. Something Dhati Lewis said during the racial reconciliation panel caught me up. I’m going to mangle the quote, but: the question was about representation of people of color in conferences, panels, church leadership, etc. Lewis said the way you achieve real diversity on a conference stage or in an elder room was to start at your dinner table–who do you know, who do you have a real relationship with. But that caught my attention and made me think about my typical dinner guests, and how often they look like me. Now, I know, you may scoff at the thought, but it’s something I have started thinking about. One of the ways I can teach my daughters to love and honor all people equally is to model that before them, both in the weekly gatherings of the church and, as we have opportunity, in our home. This isn’t about diversity quotas in my friendships; it’s about widening my circle and learning from my brothers and sisters in Christ whose experiences are different than mine.
  4. The sexual abuse crisis is urgent and must be addressed wisely and decisively. This is the deep dark shadow that has hung over the SBC for even longer than the last 4 months. We were reminded that a group was commissioned last year at the annual meeting to address this issue. However, in recent months, as more and more survivors of abuse within Baptist churches have come forward, it has only emphasized that this is a moment of unique challenge, a valley of decision, in which this ragtag network of cooperating churches must decide if we truly believe that our God is a God of righteousness, justice, and holiness. I was glad to be part of the first big steps toward dealing with this terrible sin in the camp, as we voted to amend our constitution to make way for churches that do nothing about abuse or cover up abuse to be removed from fellowship with us. This is essentially church discipline on the macro level, and I think it is an appropriate step. Furthermore, the realities of sexual abuse and its destructiveness were addressed head-on, and survivors were given opportunities to speak and to challenge the denomination to listen. There is much work to do, but there is a clear passion from the executive leadership down, to press in and fight for those who have been abused.
  5. There are still some big questions to work through. One of the major discussion points involves how churches can encourage, equip, and support women to use their gifts and serve in every way the Bible allows them to. What that looks like is still being wrestled through, and there are going to be a lot more discussions and debates as we decide as a denomination where we draw clear lines and where we show grace. Another flashpoint of debate is over the SBC’s stance on specific elements of the social justice conversation, like Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. Some say that these are useful frameworks for understanding secular perspectives and that they can be considered while still submitting them to the authority of Scripture. Others argue that these frameworks are built on secular and anti-Biblical worldview assumptions that render them counter-productive or even harmful when trying to address justice concerns. This debate will continue, as the implications and after-shocks of Resolution #9 play out (if any). Suffice it to say, #SBC2020 will be a wild ride.

There you go: my five key takeaways from this year’s Southern Baptist Convention.

…But I have so many more thoughts! So here’s a rapid-fire list of observations from my first SBC experience!

  • I love free stuff, but man, I really had to check myself on this trip. There were so many freebies that, even being selective, I still added about 10-15 pounds to my luggage–and that’s just free stuff; I didn’t buy anything. Most of what I brought home was (big surprise) books. I told my wife that I’m making a challenge to myself: I’m going to read all the books I got from the 2019 SBC before I (Lord-willing) go to the 2020 SBC. (Considering I’m still not done with many of the books I received at the 2012 T4G, this may be a tough task!)
  • Picking up free stuff from exhibit hall booths is like an advanced-level version of grabbing a grocery-store snack sample. Feigning interest, awkward small talk, names and handshakes exchanged. I’m going to be really honest here, folks, and I know I sound plain mercenary, but sometimes I just would like a free coffee or book. That’s probably wrong of me, but there it is.
  • Getting to see old friends is a joy. I got to talk for a few minutes with a dear brother I served with at a previous church for 8 or 9 years. I hadn’t seen him in 4 years, so it was a sweet thing to get to catch up.
  • That said, seeing old acquaintances who apparently didn’t recognize you: less joy, more awkwardness. More on that some other time.
  • The exhibit hall floor is a roaming multitude of people, and it became overwhelming really quickly.
  • One of the ways the in-person experience of the meeting is so different from watching it online is that I found myself caring about all the reports a whole lot more (for the most part). And I have to admit, when people streamed for the exits during some of the prayers or presentations, I became a bit judgmental in my heart. (I’m sorry, y’all.) Watching these conventions from home, I can dip in and out while on Twitter or working, but being there in person is such a cool experience, because you’re reminded that you’re part of something bigger. All these believers around you, representing tens of thousands of churches, all together working toward our singular mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus to all people. It’s thrilling in a way you just can’t appreciate from a distance.
  • I think my favorite part of the convention activities was the “9 Marks at 9” event. The vibe was very relaxed and familial, and the panelists (Mark Dever, Danny Akin, Al Mohler, and HB Charles) were relaxed and open. They were able to speak off-the-cuff and joke with each other, and at one point Mark Dever even opened up a can of worms that left Dr. Mohler flustered and caught off-guard, but he was able to take it in stride. It was just refreshing to hear these faithful men speak candidly about the issues of the denomination, disagree with each other, and still demonstrate respect and friendship. I’m thankful I was there to witness that.
  • One of the things that frustrated me greatly was that some of the people who beat the drum against misrepresenting your opponents on social media were more than happy to make straw-man arguments in their talks. I’m not going to name any names, because I don’t want to rustle up any more controversy. But it was irritating.
  • JD Greear repeatedly making the “deep state…of unity” joke got old. That said, as I noted on Twitter, evidence of the so-called “SBC Deep State” came out when Dr. Mohler accidentally claimed during the seminary report to have been president of the Southern Baptist Convention for the last 27 years. (I, for one, welcome our bow-tied overlords.)
  • Birmingham was NOT ready for us. Long lines, crazy waits. At least 4 of the 6 restaurants in Terminals A, B, and C of the Birmingham airport ran out of food on Wednesday night, before 7:30pm. That said, Birmingham was a neat town, and I’m sorry I didn’t schedule an extra day or two to experience more of it than the four square blocks or so of downtown where we stayed and convened.
  • Eugene’s Hot Chicken in Birmingham, y’all. Don’t sleep on it. It’s gooooooood.
  • I spent almost all my time with my fellow elder Travis. Two and a half days of fellowship with a brother I admire and am encouraged by was one of the biggest blessings of the week.
  • You never appreciate your own bed so much as your first night back from a trip.

I’ll stop there for now, but may have more to say later. If you have specific questions (for example, about the B21 panel and Matt Chandler’s interview), let me know in the comments.

Suffice to say, it was a great experience and I look forward to going back in the future!

If you were at #SBC19 as well–first of all, why didn’t you TELL me?!? We could have hung out!!!–or you watched it online, let me know what you thought in the comments below.

If you have questions about the SBC in general, I can try to answer those as well. 

Have a great weekend, and I’ll be back next week with new content!

Common Bond.

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I was recently enjoying an overnight hotel stay with my very pregnant wife–a combination anniversary and “baby-moon” getaway. After breakfast, she went back up to the room to sleep a bit longer, while I stayed down in the lobby, drinking coffee and finishing up my day’s reading from the #SamePageSummer reading plan.

(Are you participating in this challenge? We’re reading through the New Testament this summer. It’s not too late to start–we’ve only read the Gospel of John so far!)

I had just finished reading John 19, the account of the Crucifixion, and was meditating on the commentary notes from Charles Spurgeon about the “ocean of meaning in a drop of text” (the word tetelestai). Suddenly, I noticed a gentleman approached me, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Hey, brother, what’s the word?”

The term “brother” tipped me off, so I hesitated just a moment and then said, “The word is ‘It is finished’.”

He broke into a wide grin. “Amen to that!”

This sparked a ten-minute conversation about the interplay between trusting in the finished work of Jesus and taking up the active obedience of His disciples, and how Christians use the “done-ness” of our salvation as an excuse not to walk as Jesus walked.

The man then told me a bit about himself: his name is Daniel and he’s the pastor of a local non-denominational church, married with older kids, and he previously worked with Chuck Colson’s prison ministry. I shared a bit about myself as well, including the fact that I recently became an elder and that my wife and I are expecting our second daughter very soon.

Then he said, “I know you’re busy, and I hate to interrupt your study, but can I pray for you?” We took turns praying over each other, praying for each other’s walk, family, and ministry. We then shared a warm handshake, and he left to join his family. We didn’t exchange info or anything. We just got to share a moment of fellowship and encouragement in a hotel lobby.

I share this as a reminder: Christian, you’re part of a big, big family. And you don’t agree with all your brothers and sisters on every point of theology. I’m sure there are probably things I would disagree about with my brother in the hotel lobby. But we shared the same Lord and the same faith, and that binds us together in a way that I will never be connected to my unsaved family members or friends, no matter how close we may feel. Because as far as I can discern, Daniel and I will both be there in that glorious throng on the Last Day, praising our King together.

So, even as we believers wrestle with doctrinal distinctions and rightly guard against error, we should also be quick to recognize that even among those with whom we disagree, there is still a bond of brotherhood and fellowship that gives us family and welcome, no matter where we are, all over the world.

Be encouraged, believer: we are a large and rambunctious family, but we are a family nevertheless. Amen and amen.

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Request: Please keep this week’s Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in prayer. This year, our denomination is wrestling with some big issues, such as how to deal with sexual abuse and cover-up in a way that is transparent and light-filled, and how to understand and promote a Biblical understanding of gender roles as it relates to church practice. Pray for wisdom, clear thought, and a deep sense of our brotherhood and common bond as believers.

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Your Turn: If you’re a Christian, have you experienced unexpected fellowship in an encounter with a fellow believer you’d never met? Tell us about it!

And if you’re not a follower of Jesus, I’m actually curious as to why, if you’re willing to discuss that–either in the comments or via email, if you prefer.  Hit me up.