[This is Day 30 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for one more recommendation!]
What It Is: A short and very practical book about “one another” ministry within the Church.
Why You Should Read It: While God does give some as pastors and teachers to help build up the body of believers, the nuts-and-bolts day-to-day ministry of the church isn’t done by paid professionals, but by the everyday believer in the pews. Welch lays out practical encouragements to teach believers how to “build up one another in love” and minister to each other’s spiritual and emotional needs. If you want to know how to create a culture of love and service and discipleship in your church, whether you’re in a particular church office/role or just a healthy and active member of the body, get this book and put it into practice.
Jordan Standridge gives a fitting tribute to John Powell, the Houston-area church planter who died suddenly last weekend, by examining how Powell’s last sermon provides unexpected comfort for those mourning his loss.
Finally, our old buddy Seth Godin has some good advice: stop doom-scrolling.
Happy weekend, friends. Do me a favor, if you will: take a moment over the next few days, and tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. They need to hear it more often, and it’s good for us to say it more often.
Also: remember that every day is a gift from God; remind yourself to receive it with thanksgiving and put it to good use.
I’ll be back next week with another Twilight Zone commentary (because I enjoy them, even if none of y’all read them!) and a few other fun things. See you then!
Hey y’all! Here are a few things I’ve found fun or interesting in recent weeks. Enjoy, and I’ll be back next week with actual posts! Seriously!
Malcolm Gladwell uses Law and Order (the TV show) to suggest an interesting take on plot and storytelling. Granted, it could be complete nonsense, but I enjoyed hearing him try to create a sensible framework. (Warning: Very strong language, because he’s talking to Joe Rogan, who loves himself some profanity.)
I’m currently leading a Bible study at church through the Old Testament book of Amos (which will likely end up being a series of blog posts in the future!). If you’re not familiar with Amos, this podcast episode with Nancy Guthrie and Michael McKelvey gives you a wonderful overview of the book and its themes.
My work day yesterday was broken up by some family responsibilities (yay, working from home!), so when I logged in just before dinner time, I got a bit spooked by my task list. I asked my wife if I could disappear for the evening to try to catch up some things. Back in the pre-WFH days, I would usually do this once a week to stay caught up.
At the end of the evening, as my wife was getting ready to head upstairs to bed, she said, “I’m sorry you have to work so long tonight.” I responded, “Honestly, it’s about 60% have-to, and about 40% anxious-about-my-inbox.”
A few minutes after she went upstairs, the Holy Spirit brought a Bible verse to mind, and I knew I was busted.
A Worried Mind
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in this context, but I wrestle with fretfulness, specifically about the safety of my family. For me, going to sleep can be hard in a house that creaks and murmurs when the A/C kicks on. I have a semi-obsessive nightly routine of checking locks and alarms before bed, and if there’s even a bare question in my mind of whether I forgot one, I will go back and do it all again.
One of my current favorite Psalms is Psalm 127, particularly the first verse. I have to remind myself, as my anxious mind races when my head hits the pillow, that unless the Lord is watching over me, all the locks and alarms in the world wouldn’t help. I have to trust in his protection, for “You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8).
But it was the second verse of Psalm 127 that came to mind last night, as my wife walked upstairs:
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:2)
The imagery there resonates with me so much: I’m prone to be up too late at night, chewing over the stale loaves of anxious toil, instead of receiving the gift of sleep.
I realized I was condemned by my own words. I was gnawing on the crusts of worry-work and missing the feast.
Unfortunately, I had also just washed it down with a carafe of full-octane coffee, so the gift of sleep would be a bit…delayed.
An Unexpected Blessing
What to do, then, in my caffeinated condition at 11pm? Take the unplanned opportunity and change my “diet” for the evening. I closed the computer, with its anxious crumbs, and picked up true food.
I was able to enjoy the Scriptures for a while, supplementing my reading with part of a commentary on the section. I nibbled at a few other spiritually-encouraging books. In short, I tried to redeem the coffee buzz!
When my head FINALLY hit the pillow (and I quickly prayed through my nightly temptation to fret), I wasn’t mulling over to-do lists and missed deadlines. Instead, I was grateful for all that God had blessed me with, especially the dear ones sleeping under my roof.
I’m also thankful for the gentle reminder to go a little more “low-carb” in my work-life, so I can better enjoy the good gifts God has given me.
I had posted a video by this Youtuber in the past talking about what it’s like for people who don’t know the “language” of playing video games to try to play them. This time, he takes a deeper dive into the open-world adventure game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and considers how different people approach problem-solving. I found this analysis to be intriguing, as someone who takes how he plays video games for granted. (Note: There may be strong language–it’s been a while since I’ve watched it all the way through, but I seem to recall that.)
Speaking of video games, I’ve mentioned before that I find video game music (VGM) to be a great work soundtrack. This one was one of my favorite mixes from the fall.
I mentioned yesterday that I’m reading Jeramie Rinne’s book on church elders (which I would definitely recommend to those starting out as elders/pastors). Here, Rinne recommends ways you can pray for your pastor/elders.
IsSupernaturalSexist?—There are certainly some things I disagree with in this piece by Kristen Devine over at Ordinary Times (differences in worldview and whatnot), but I found her analysis/defense of male-focused narrative to be pretty informative, from a writing/storytelling standpoint. Worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.
That’s all I got this week. Have a good weekend, stay safe and healthy, and we’ll see you down the road!
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 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.
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! 2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me! 3 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.
4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man. 5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. 6 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.
5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. 6 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)
7 I have been as a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge. 8 My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all the day. 9 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.
3 “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; 4 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
Judgment on Judah (1:1 – 2:17)
Locust Invasion (Chapter 1)
Military Invasion (?) – (2:1-17)
Salvation through Judgment (2:18-3:21)
Mercy on God’s People (2:18-32)
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:
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.
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.
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!
Last week, I saw the following on Twitter, and shared it favorably:
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.
“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.