Feeling the sting.

landscape photography of dried trees on snow covered ground
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

My grandfather died last Thursday. He was buried yesterday.

He was almost 90, ravaged for the last several years by Parkinson’s. Over the years, he has been losing the ability to communicate clearly, to understand, to care for himself. And in the end, his final decline was sudden and heart-breaking.

He was a good man, a godly man. He was a strong Christian, an ordained minister, and a faithful husband, father, grandfather, and church member. He loved and poured himself out for children; he taught school for more than 2 decades and taught Sunday School for longer than that. He would drive around the neighborhood every Sunday morning for years, picking up kids in the station wagon to bring over so that he and my grandmother could teach them Bible stories and songs, give them snacks, help them do little art and craft projects, and let them know that they are loved by God. I can’t imagine how many hundreds or even thousands of young lives my grandparents touched over the decades.

My grandfather’s hope in life and death was firmly and securely in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as his Savior. And now, my grandfather is enjoying the presence of his Lord, without pain or disease, without the encumbrances and restraints of mortality and frailty.

I miss him.

For almost my entire life, I’ve lived a thousand miles away from my grandparents, so I don’t have the “every Sunday” or “every holiday” memories with extended family that others do. But I have some very clear and very warm memories over the years of time spent with my grandparents. My favorite was how he used to give the biggest, tightest bear hugs. He wasn’t muscular, but he was as wiry and tough in physicality as he was tender and warm in spirit.

He had a playful sense of humor, which was often incredibly dry and subtle. He told good jokes. (That’s one of the things I love about my dad, as well: how he almost can’t contain himself when he tells a joke.) And I remember my grandfather’s laugh after telling a joke: silent, mouth open, bobbing up and down slightly.

(One of my touchstone “embarrassing” memories was when I misunderstood a joke he made and he had to explain himself; I was 10 and he probably forgot it immediately, but for some reason, that one memory sticks with me–one of those silly moments I cringe about from time to time, just to myself. I don’t know why that one memory sticks, but there you go.)

There is so much more to say about him, so many more memories to share. But that’s not why I’m writing this.

I’m sharing this for two very simple reasons this afternoon:

First, I wanted to emphasize that my family is mourning this week, but we don’t mourn as those who have no hope. It’s not some vague, “we-hope-we-see-you-again” wish, either. When my grandfather’s body was laid to rest in the ground yesterday morning, my family was planting him there with the full knowledge that one day, that very ground will break apart and his physical body will be resurrected and restored to life, when Jesus comes back to call His people to Himself. Our hope–our only hope–is found in Jesus alone: in His sacrificial death to pay the penalty for our sins, in His glorious resurrection to give us the promise that we too will be raised up to life. If you are afraid of death, or unsure of what happens next, I’d be happy to talk to you about the hope you’re missing. Please, please ask.

Second, I want to encourage you: reach out to the family members you haven’t talked to recently, especially the older ones. When I first heard that my grandfather passed away, what hit me most was a very palpable and deep regret that I didn’t keep in close contact over the last few years. He wouldn’t have the chance to hold my daughter as an infant or toddler. While I “knew” that he wouldn’t be around forever (at least in this life), I kept putting off regular phone calls and emails. I got busy with the “urgent” things in my immediate vision. Whenever I would be reminded that I haven’t talked to my grandparents recently, I would feel sincerely guilty, and say to myself, “Oh man, yeah, I should get on that. Maybe next weekend…” Now, that window has closed. It’s now incumbent upon me to make up that lost time with my Sweetie of a grandmother, for all the years we are blessed to continue having her here.

Can I encourage you to take some time this weekend and make that phone call you have been putting off, that video chat, that visit to a grandparent or aunt or even your parents? We don’t know how long we have in this life with the people we love. As long as we have a chance, let’s take those opportunities to check in, to share the family news, or just to say “I love you.”

Sorry to end this week on a bit of a downer, but that’s what’s going on with me.

I hope you have a great weekend, and that you have a chance to tell those closest to you (or perhaps distant from you) that you love them.

We’ll see you back here next week!

Merry Christmas, Here’s to Many More.

Happy Christmas Eve, friends! I don’t have much to talk about today. We are now in the full-court-press of holiday preparation and festivities, getting ready to spend tomorrow morning with my folks. My toddler has been particularly rambunctious and playfully destructive around the house this week. We’re dog-sitting a very young and vocal pup for some friends of ours. All of this means I don’t have any deep or contemplative meditations on the holiday for you this year.

This year, I’ll just leave you with this:

I’m a Christian, which means this holiday is not about Santa Claus and stockings hung with care, talking snowmen and red-nosed reindeer. It’s not even about the fact that Die Hard is most definitely a Christmas movie, or that It’s a Wonderful Life is possible one of the best films ever made, period.

It’s about the fact–the historical fact–that Jesus the Christ was born in Bethlehem. It’s about the cosmic reality that Eternal God took on flesh and tabernacled among us. The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God came near. He is with us. And He did so not merely to teach us how to love one another or to encourage peace among men. The baby Jesus grew into the perfect and sinless man Jesus, who laid down His life (no one can take it from Him unless He lays it down) as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of all whom He would redeem. Jesus the God-man, the second member of the Trinity, the Messiah of Israel, died for His people, all His people from all the nations. He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement that brought us peace was upon him. By His stripes, we are healed.

Jesus bled, Jesus died, and Jesus rose. It is finished. The war is won. The dragon is vanquished. And Jesus the King, the Lamb who was slain and is yet alive, walked triumphantly out of the tomb, carrying the crushed head of the giant He conquered.

Now, in the millenia since that stone rolled away, we must bear with the death rattle and the flailing gasps of a defeated devil. But the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for Him. His rage we can endure for lo, his doom is sure.

This week, as you “rejoice, rejoice,” you sons and daughters of true Israel, take heart and have peace because Immanuel has come and is here and will return in triumph.

And if you are still reading, and all of this talk of Jesus’ death is strange and awkward and weird to you, know this: my hope and prayer for you this Christmas is that you would meet Jesus, truly meet Jesus, and come to know Him as Savior and Lord this year. If you want to talk to me about that, I would love that. Hit me up on Twitter (@the4thdave) or email me (the4thdave at gmail dot com) with any questions you have. It would be a gift to me to get to talk to you about this.

(Okay, I guess I had more to say than I thought!)

Merry Christmas, fam. God bless you.

Wednesday Guest Post by Webster Hunt: “Fred Phelps and the Pleasure of God”

[“Wednesday Guest Posts” is a new feature here at the 4thDaveBlog–I guess since it’s been two weeks, we can almost call it a “regular” feature. This week, we again hear from my friend Webster Hunt. Follow Web at @livingheart on Twitter.]

Give me a few moments to tell you about how I was caught off guard last week, upon reading of the death of Fred Phelps, having my attention brought to Ezekiel 18:23 – where God rhetorically asks, “Do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked?” – , and understanding a glimpse of the riches of His mercy in Jesus Christ, who fully “exegeted” the Father to us, to borrow a phrase.

If you’re reading this blog post, I’m assuming you have the internet, so I’m assuming you know who Fred Phelps is (if you don’t, open up a new tab a Google him – you can hate me later for it). One of the things he seemed to center on was this idea that the highest thing God desired was to condemn the wicked, which seemed to be everyone but the small group of followers he had. It’s ironic, really.

Let’s pretend for a moment that Fred Phelps was right – that God’s highest joy and priority is to bring His enemies into rightful condemnation.  (And I hope you do understand that it is rightful. I mean, God gives life and breath and movement to his creation, just to name some very basic things, so 1) What does man do with every moment of each of those? Also 2) So who exactly IS God’s enemy?  Even, if you’re a Christian, there was a season in actual time where you were a child of wrath, where you relished in your inherited sin nature and did whatever your heart desired; and even if you weren’t as bad as you could be, you weren’t holy as God is holy, and that presents a problem.)

So if God’s highest joy is pouring out His wrath on His enemies, how are you reading this right now? How in the world is there an elect people, a church, a people which He calls His own peculiar treasure, His prized possession? Why did He even let Adam out of the garden?

Ok, we can stop pretending, because what Fred Phelps believes is a lie. We know this because if it were true, then all of mankind would be immediately condemned, immediately subjected to the wrath we deserve as God-hating sinners from birth. We know this because of God’s own revelation of Himself.

What do we see in God’s self-revelation in scripture? We see Holy and Just God clothing His newly banished man to cover their shame. We see Him forbearing with Cain and his improper sacrifice. We see Him giving the Amorites time to “fill up” their sin. We see God forbearing with the question of Abraham of whether He would kill the righteous with the wicked. We see Him choose a people who would be stiff-necked and despise every good thing He would give to them, as a whole. We see Him sparing, and sending prophets, and deposing and rescuing Israel, and saving a remnant, and then, oh then, we see the culmination of His character in Jesus – the One who made the invisible God visible. The One who is the Only Begotten Son of God and the Son of Man. We see the second Adam doing what the first Adam would not. We see the Second Man doing what the first man could not. We see Him always loving, always obeying, always pleasing God the Father who, as a pastor pointed out recently, only spoke of His Son in superlatives – “Here is my BELOVED Son, with whom I am WELL pleased”.  We see Him stooping, giving up the prerogatives to His glory, being found in the form of a servant, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We see Him not being worshiped by every man that walked his way, and sparing that man.

The God who has made Himself known in the revelation of Scripture and ultimately in the Person of Jesus Christ, second person of the Triune God, who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, so that He may save for Himself a peculiar people, a treasured possession–the Scriptures say the Father was pleased to crush His Only Begotten Son. Do you see that? The joy of God to take sinful men and make them in the image of His Holy Son is so infinitely high, that the only contrast to make it plain is to ask, “Do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked?” Because I’ve also got to reckon this: that the death and eternal punishment of the wicked, unrepentant man, who with every breath was only ever always pleased to indulge his sin, however moral he may be (and even the vilest criminal has some sliver of “morality” which it abhors him to see violated) is good and right and holy, and in that fashion pleases God – because what does God do that does NOT please Him? Everything He does is good because He IS good; He is what defines what “good” is. But higher than that, saving a people for Himself by laying the iniquity of them on His own Son who willingly, and to the glory of God His Father, bore their penalty and their wrath and propitiated for them, and then showing that Son’s perfection by His resurrection, and giving the righteousness, the resurrection, the love, and the privilege of being His sons is so much more infinitely better that a negative description of the other is the only way to properly communicate to us His joy.

Now, considering that, I had to ask myself: How can I take pleasure in sin, when it pleased God to crush Him with Whom sin is no friend?

And I hope you take that away with you today as well, to God’s glory in Christ Jesus.

Grace to you all, and thanks again, Dave, for letting me guest-blog today.

Wednesday Guest Post: Webster Hunt

[Hey readers–from time to time, I’m going to bring in a guest blogger, just to mix things up. So please allow me to introduce a Twitter friend, Jesus follower, and all-around good dude, Webster Hunt. Follow him on Twitter at @livingheart .] 

Thank you, Dave, for giving me a chance to test the waters of blogging, and thank you, readers, for deciding to continue to read after you discovered that your regularly scheduled blogger had turned the reins over to a complete stranger. My hope is that you’ll be edified, comforted, and encouraged in Christ, and not run over the side of a cliff by a man who obviously has no idea what he’s doing – though he may boast otherwise.

My name is Webster Hunt, I’ve been married for seven years (in May, technically), and for the last three years my wife has been severely sick.  She’s seen so many specialists that I can’t count them. She spent much of 2012 in the hospital. She currently takes about 30 pills a day to fight all her various heart and blood pressure complications. She also has a pacemaker. She’s 26.

This illness took us completely by surprise. I can still remember the night that would foreshadow all the suffering to come – her blood pressure had contually risen all night and peaked at 185/110, at which point we asked her uncle to run her to the ER so that I could take care of our daughters. From that night, her illness only seemed to get worse, and seemed to be one which no doctor could peg down nor treat effectively, and one which would force us to make life-altering decisions in our family. I’m tempted to go into all that changed, but I may unintentionally cause reproach by passing over massive amounts of detail that are necessary for fully understanding all that happened. But in short, that year, our daughters were kindly adopted into a family that could better take care of them than we could and we chose to leave our home church to mitigate the effect our daughters would feel in having to leave us. Those were the hardest parts.

By our Lord’s providence, we found an apartment close to where I work so that I could quickly get to my wife if she needed me to, and we’ve been there since. 2013 was a hard year filled with loneliness and regret that things had to happen the way they did. We missed our daughters, and although we were greatly thankful for our Lord’s providence and love toward us in providing for them two wonderful adoptive parents, we wished that the home they could have been in was ours.  We missed our life before my wife’s illness; the freedoms, the joys, the little things we took for granted.

But we grieved together and whenever one fell into deep sorrow, by the grace of our Lord, the other was able to lift up, weep with, comfort, remind the one whose strength seemed sapped of our Lord’s sovereignty as shown in His Word. Even my wife, in the midst of an illness that attacked her body and mind at various times, was able when I was broken down to give comfort and remind me of the truth that our God, Jesus Christ, had conquered death and sin and was seated at our Father’s right hand, and would avenge any evil done to us, and would take the evil done to us and work it to good.

And here’s where I’m going with all of that: I wish the men who counseled me before marriage (who, in their defense, did their best to prepare us for marriage with all the right intent in all the ways our parents did not or could not or would not) had posed this question to me –

“Do you want to keep your promise that you’ll make at the altar when the sickness is the worst it could be, and it happens before its usual time – after you’ve experienced the joys of marriage for a time and have been husband and wife longer than you’ve had a mortgage – and the normal joys and experiences given to normal young couples dries up, and you have to make sharp sacrifices to take care of her.  When there is no physical joy to be gained, when you have to work your day job and then come home and take care of her too, when all your money is going to treating her illness, and many creature comforts that you would have otherwise experienced is gone and you’re left with the charge from God in scripture to “Love your wife” and “to deal with her in an understanding way” and you understand that your reasonable service to Christ is to be gracious toward your wife and remain steadfast in righteousness and purity when, though your wife’s body belongs to you, you are no longer able to exercise the joy that normally brings, do you still want to be married to her? Are you willing to be a living sacrifice in order to bring glory to Jesus Christ in your marriage by loving her the way 1 Corinthians 13 says a Christian should although you may receive no rewards, no accolades, no praises, no recognition, no glory in this life? Will you remain her husband both because you want to and because you vowed to?”

– because I think it would have made me take marriage more seriously in the first four years. Praise God that He prepared us by giving us mature men and women who would train us up to understand on the far-side what we neglected in the beginning.

Now granted, when that question is asked devoid of actual experience, it’s probably easy to say “Oh, yeah. I’ll totally do that. So when do we get to the “I DO” part of this?” Nonetheless, that is what I want to give to you to think about from my guest-blog, because Ephesians 5 tells me that marriage is a most visible picture by which our God demonstrates the relationship between Jesus and His church, and it’s easy to remain married when all the benefits and joys are readily available – and praise God when they are – but should He decide to take away those benefits and joys, let me encourage you: it is for your good because it is for Christ’s glory, though it seems to be absolutely contrary. It has to be. Biblically, it’s the only way we can think about suffering in any context. But I think that there’s an especial focus when it’s within the context of a Christian marriage, because that’s the picture God has chosen to demonstrate how He relates to His people, His Church, Christ’s body.

As a bonus: If we want to make a slam-dunk argument for Biblical marriage in our culture and how they think about marriage, we should pray, pursue, and study to obey Christ’s commands concerning marriage without complaining, especially when there’s suffering involved. True enough, even a lost person can sacrifice much for their spouse in the midst of an illness – I believe that to be the image of God in man leaking out despite their best efforts to suppress the truth – but given enough time, and given enough loss, and given enough lack of recognition, glory, or return for their investment, they’ll give it up. Let’s not be like this crooked generation.

Water.

Some scattered threads about servant-leadership, self-knowledge, and satisfaction…

One: There’s a lot of buzz about Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church in North Carolina, and the apparent cult of personality that has arisen out of it. There’s a lot of talk about “uniting around the vision of the Leader” and “following the Visionary.” This is a mindset that is creeping up in some segments of the American Evangelical church–how leaders cast a “vision” for the future of the congregation, and people need to get in line and support that vision and that leader. Something about this has always made me really uncomfortable–not the least of which is that the role of pastor in the New Testament is most often described as “shepherd,” not CEO. In my very limited experience with the responsibility of soul care, my approach can’t be authoritarian and demanding; when it starts to get that way, people don’t follow.  Instead, when I love and serve well, people listen and respond well. (I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to His disciples about authority and leadership.)

I find myself a little frustrated this week with some of my church folks–particularly, my guys. I teach singles in their 20’s, and I’m noticing a particular spirit of passivity and inertia in a lot of my guys. To be honest, it upsets me–but like so many interpersonal struggles, I am upset in part because I recognize the same quality in myself. I’ve been struggling to overcome these tendencies in my own life for years. While I’m making progress, I still have a ways to go.  SO it’s most important for me to remember that, just as I needed grace AND a kick in the butt, so they need both motivation and gracious affirmation.  Yelling doesn’t work. But leading by serving does.

Two: I’m getting married in 106 days. This is both thrilling and terrifying. This week, I’ve really been thinking about the implications of that reality. I’m getting nervous. I’m fretting.  Not at all because of my bride-to-be; she’s amazing, and I’m ridiculously blessed to marry her. But I’m nervous about myself. I’m not sure how well I’m going to serve her, provide for her, care for her. I’m seeing my own natural selfishness and self-excuses in light of the prospect of bringing her deeper into my life. It’s like, when you invite people over, suddenly you can see all the messiness of your apartment that you would have been totally blind to by staying at home alone. That’s what’s happening; I’m really seeing the messiness of my life, and I’m suddenly frustrated with myself for not dealing with these things sooner.  Obviously, you can’t undo the past by worry.  But man, there’s more than a little chest-beating going on in my head and heart.

Here’s the crazy thing: I think she knows I’m a mess in some areas. She obviously knows I have a weight problem. I’ve told her about my undisciplined finances. She’s seen most of my apartment (I still haven’t let her see into my massively cluttered bedroom–that day is coming).  And repeatedly, like a living vessel of God’s gentle grace, she tells me she loves me, she’s praying for me, and she will walk with me through all of the mess as I keep growing in discipline and wisdom.  I do not doubt her love. But I still hate myself a little bit for not being more put together and mature and capable.

Three: In the desert, the people of Israel wandered. As they wandered, they grew thirsty, and complained to Moses, accusing him (and God, by extension) of being unable to care for them or unwilling to meet their needs. God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and from that rock flowed fresh water for the people to drink.  Hundreds of years later, Paul wrote that this Rock was Christ–God was their source of refreshment and life.  

Centuries after the desert wandering, and centuries before the life of Jesus or Paul, the prophet Jeremiah called out a rebellious and idolatrous Israel for digging cisterns (underground water tanks) that were cracked and corrupted.  Rather than drinking deeply of the fresh spiritual water that comes from knowing and following the true God, they have pursued counterfeit gods; in so doing, they traded “fresh water” from the living God for the spiritual sludge at the bottom of broken, nasty cisterns. The prophet called the people to forego their idolatry and repent, so that they may drink deeply of a life-giving relationship with their God.  

Centuries later, a Jewish rabbi from Nazareth sits by Jacob’s Well in Samaria. A woman with a bad reputation walks up to draw water. He asks her for a drink (breaking many cultural taboos) and when she hesitates, he says that if she knew who He was, she would ask Him and He would give her water that would satisfy her deepest thirst forever.

Not much longer after that, Jesus then stood up on the last day of the Feast of Booths–a feast commemorating the time when the people of Israel were wanderers in the desert, living in tents, trusting God to provide for their needs–and he called out with a loud voice that if anyone is thirsty, they should come to Him and He would give them a spring of living water within them.

I bring all of this up to say: we’re all driven by our needs, our soul’s hunger and our heart’s thirst. And we’re tempted to try to satisfy those needs with all sorts of self-made solutions, but like the woman at the well, we will still get thirsty and still need to draw more and more to try to ease our ragged throats and parched tongues.  The Living Water is right here, offered to us every day, but even those of us who grew up following the old time religion (and it’s still good enough for us) can forget that the life within our litany comes from the fountain of living water in our hearts. 

As I sit here, on a brilliant-bright Friday morning, my heart is a bit dry, and my fingers are stained by cistern sludge.  Yet the River is still there, still flowing, still full of love and refreshment, still inviting me to come, wash, drink.

Summation: The common element here? Love.  Love that leads by serving and motivates by modeling grace; love that frees us from fear, that gives security and leads to openness; love that finds its home in knowing Jesus and being known by Him, that finds refreshment in who He is and not in the substitute sludge-water saviors of the world around me.

Lord, give me love to quench the desert-bones of my dusty heart.  Like an errant lamb, make me stop and drink, for I’m too foolish to remember where my refreshment is found.