A DAGGER OF ICE

Death’s Grief Still Great, God’s Grace Still Greater

The icicles melts in the sunlight

Four years ago today I heard the worst three words of my life: “Josh is dead.” Heart failure took our first born at the tender age of 35. In a millisecond, death struck with a dagger of ice.

That word picture penned by Dr. Robert Dabney (1820-1898) to describe his grief after the loss of his two sons within the span of a month, captured the intensity of this father’s pain.

James W. Bruce III, who himself along with wife Joni suffered the loss of infant son John Cameron, tells Dabney’s story in his book From Grief to Glory: A Book of Comfort for Grieving Parents.

Robert Lewis Dabney was an American Christian theologian, Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate States Army chaplain, and architect. He was also chief of staff and biographer to Stonewall Jackson.

Clearly he was no stranger to egregious loss. I’ve said it time and again: No one should have to bury a child. And yet, many have. The world is not the way it should be. Maranatha.

I didn’t know Dabney’s story until reading Bruce’s priceless work (I use the adjective purposefully–if you have lost a child, read this book). From Grief to Glory chronicles accounts of numerous Christians from history enrolled in this unenviable fraternity.

Of all the testimonies included in this splendid book, Bruce credits Dabney’s for most touching his heart.

Dabney died an old man, infirm and blind. His life and ministry, Bruce observes, “are all but forgotten today” (81). Though grief stricken, he lived and died well.

Blank Headstone

Bruce notes that Dabney’s wife placed his grave monument bearing this epitaph:

In unshaken loyalty of devotion to his friends, his country, and his religion, firm in misfortune, ever active in earnest endeavor, he labored all his life for what he loved, with a faith in good causes, that was ever one with his faith in God (81).

Should my bride outlive me, I can only hope she might inscribe something of the same sentiments over my remains. If so, only one explanation will account for the tribute: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Four years later.

Grief is still great; grace is still greater.

My resolve per Dabney for year five and beyond?

“Follow God fully without turning aside” (81).

Thank you for reading and weeping with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).

WORTHLESS RELIGION

Why Our Tongues Matter So Much To Our Church’s Peace

It never ceases to amaze me. No matter how many times I read through the Bible it happens over and over again. I see something for the very first time. How it escaped me all those previous times I’ll never know.

Snake Tongue

Reading through James recently it hit me unlike ever before. A faith that works–the book’s theme–demonstrates its validity significantly in control of our tongues.

Track this emphasis with me in these verses:

James 1:26

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

James 3:1-12

I won’t cite the whole passage. You can read it by clicking on the link. But think about it. The writer invests twelve whole verses about our troublesome tongues declaring, “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (v. 8).

How so?

“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (v. 9-12).

Mike Mason sternly warns:

How cautious we need to be about leveling even the smallest criticism against the loved and elect children of God. Do we really think we can get away with grumbling against the friends of Jesus? If we stopped to realize who it is we were attacking, wouldn’t we bite our tongues (The Gospel According to Job, 241).

But James hasn’t finished this stream of exhortation just yet.

James 4:11-12

“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”

Sorry, there’s even more. He hammers away in James 5:9.

“Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold the Judge is standing at the door.”

Gulp. If that doesn’t sober us nothing will. How very serious does the Lord take this matter of how we speak about our brothers and sisters! We can and must gauge the legitimacy of our claim as Christ followers by it.

Ever since this latest light went on in the book of James, I have sought to exercise all the more care over the words I speak about others inside and outside my church. The last thing I want to hear from the lips of Jesus one day is “Heff, your religion was worthless because your tongue was poison.”

How about you?

LAUGHING AT THE FUTURE?

future

It never ceases to amaze me. Reading through a passage of Scripture I’ve viewed so many times before only to find this time around something captures my attention like never before.

It happened this morning as I turned to Proverbs 31 and the familiar passage about the virtuous woman who fears the Lord. Verse 25 grabbed me by the jugular. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.

Really? She laughs at the time to come? I’m waiting typically for the next email bearing bad news to hit my inbox DAILY. Good humor about future developments in a broken cosmos doesn’t usually describe my frame of mind. Not so the godly woman who stands in awe of God. Her rally cry? “Go ahead future. Give me your best shot.  I laugh in your face!”

This woman must sink her anchor deep in the bedrock of God’s sovereignty to take on an uncertain future with such good humor.

I suppose it caught my attention in part because of what I read the day before about Nancy Reagan in Peggy Noonan’s best seller biography of President Ronald Reagan, When Character Was King. The author interviewed the president’s wife about what it was like to cope with the idea of walking into history as Mrs. Reagan. She admitted she had no idea that was the case. Noonan inquired, “So how did you learn to do your part?” She replied:

reaganOh, Peggy, you take it each day and you learn along the way. You know, somebody at the hospital recently, when Ronnie broke his hip–someone told me, ‘We were afraid to tell you about it, that his hip was broken, we were afraid it would be too much for you.’ You know, I looked at them and I said, ‘Listen, think back on my life for a moment. I’ve seen my husband shot, I’ve seen his two cancer operations, I’ve seen him thrown from a horse, I’ve seen his brain operation. And if I didn’t fall apart for any of those, I’m not going to fall apart for this. Don’t worry about telling me what you have to tell me” (p. 136-37).

OK, so maybe that doesn’t equate to laughing at the future, but it certainly comes close. And it reveals a secret to facing the future with faith rather than fear. Calculate the faithfulness of God in seeing you through a perilous past and you may well find the strength to step into the future with a trusting-in-God smile on your face.

Thank you Proverbs 31 woman. You make me want to be a Proverbs 31 man.

A New Year’s Prayer

new year prayer

Here is the Puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision which I quoted at the top of the message this morning:

O Lord,
I launch my bark on the unknown waters of this year,
with Thee, O Father as my harbour,
Thee, O Son, at my helm,
Thee O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.

Guide me to heaven with my loins girt,
my lamp burning,
my ear open to Thy calls,
my heart full of love,
my soul free.

 Give me Thy grace to sanctify me,
Thy comforts to cheer,
Thy wisdom to teach,
Thy right hand to guide,
Thy counsel to instruct,
Thy law to judge,
Thy presence to stabilize.

May Thy fear be my awe,
Thy triumphs my joy.

Length of days does not profit me except the days are passed in Thy presence,
in Thy service,
to Thy glory.

Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides, sustains, sanctifies, aids every hour,
that I may not be one moment apart from Thee,
but may rely on Thy Spirit
to supply every thought,
speak in every word,
direct every step,
prosper every work,
build up every mote of faith,
and give me a desire to show forth Thy praise;
testify Thy love,
and advance Thy kingdom.

Fearful or Faithful?

faith fear

If I can help it, I rarely miss corporate worship on Sunday mornings. And not just because I pastor for a living. I’ve experienced more times than I can recount the reality of Psalm 63:2 – So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. God shows up stunningly more than not in the gatherings of His people for praise and community in ways He does not show up in private.

We experienced that this past Sunday at OGC. I preached a message called “The Tale of Two Trials” from John 18:12-27. You can listen to the audio here. John shows the flawless faithfulness of Jesus in the face of malice and betrayal. He remains faithful where the high priest proves malicious and Peter proves faithless. Rightly understood, the contrast in the text can take the breath away.

I led off with an illustration of a young Marine injured in the base bombing in October of 1983 in Beirut, Lebanon. It included reciting the corps’ motto – semper fi – always faithful.

bombing

Following the message, our lead worshipper, one of them more faithful men I’ve had the privilege of knowing, shared spontaneously prior to taking us into the final song. One of his sons is a Marine. Before long our country will deploy that young man to Afghanistan for a second time. Steve shared how he often gets asked how he deals with the anxiety related to his son’s service in harm’s way. He always says the same thing. “I believe God is sovereign. I could choose to be fearful. But because God is faithful, I choose to be faithful as well.”

You could feel the weight of the Spirit fall on our people. We beheld Him in His power and glory.

What’s the difference between living fearfully or faithfully? Steve got it right. It comes down to confidence in the sovereignty of God over all things and that He is never anything less than faithful. One of the best biblical examples I can cite for this comes from Acts 18:1-11.

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by do-not-be-afraidtrade. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.6 And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7 And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. 9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

I love v. 9. “Do not be afraid,” the Lord tells Paul. I rarely think of the apostle Paul as experiencing fear issues, but apparently the circumstances in Corinth unnerved him. The Lord needed to administer a booster shot of courage. How did He do that? He assured Paul that in His sovereign plan He had yet many more elect who would come to Christ and nothing would prevent that from happening. That confidence put eighteen more months of fuel for service in Paul’s missionary tank.

What challenges do you face on the family front, the ministry front, the vocational front, on whatever front? You can choose to live fearful in the face of those things or you can choose to live faithful. It comes down to whom you think controls all things and whether or not you can trust the Lord’s great faithfulness. You bet your life you can. He is always faithful.

Fearful or Faithful?

faith fear

If I can help it, I rarely miss corporate worship on Sunday mornings. And not just because I pastor for a living. I’ve experienced more times than I can recount the reality of Psalm 63:2 – So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. God shows up stunningly more than not in the gatherings of His people for praise and community in ways He does not show up in private.

We experienced that this past Sunday at OGC. I preached a message called “The Tale of Two Trials” from John 18:12-27. You can listen to the audio here. John shows the flawless faithfulness of Jesus in the face of malice and betrayal. He remains faithful where the high priest proves malicious and Peter proves faithless. Rightly understood, the contrast in the text can take the breath away.

I led off with an illustration of a young Marine injured in the base bombing in October of 1983 in Beirut, Lebanon. It included reciting the corps’ motto – semper fi – always faithful.

bombing

Following the message, our lead worshipper, one of them more faithful men I’ve had the privilege of knowing, shared spontaneously prior to taking us into the final song. One of his sons is a Marine. Before long our country will deploy that young man to Afghanistan for a second time. Steve shared how he often gets asked how he deals with the anxiety related to his son’s service in harm’s way. He always says the same thing. “I believe God is sovereign. I could choose to be fearful. But because God is faithful, I choose to be faithful as well.”

You could feel the weight of the Spirit fall on our people. We beheld Him in His power and glory.

What’s the difference between living fearfully or faithfully? Steve got it right. It comes down to confidence in the sovereignty of God over all things and that He is never anything less than faithful. One of the best biblical examples I can cite for this comes from Acts 18:1-11.

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by do-not-be-afraidtrade. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.6 And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7 And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. 9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

I love v. 9. “Do not be afraid,” the Lord tells Paul. I rarely think of the apostle Paul as experiencing fear issues, but apparently the circumstances in Corinth unnerved him. The Lord needed to administer a booster shot of courage. How did He do that? He assured Paul that in His sovereign plan He had yet many more elect who would come to Christ and nothing would prevent that from happening. That confidence put eighteen more months of fuel for service in Paul’s missionary tank.

What challenges do you face on the family front, the ministry front, the vocational front, on whatever front? You can choose to live fearful in the face of those things or you can choose to live faithful. It comes down to whom you think controls all things and whether or not you can trust the Lord’s great faithfulness. You bet your life you can. He is always faithful.

A Faith that Responds to the Word

One could rightly summarize the Epistle of James in two words: “Faith works.” James argues for a kind of Christianity that acts on what it knows in terms of right speech and behavior.

An important transition occurs in vv. 19-27 of the first chapter. It revolves around the word of God. Just as God uses His word to regenerate us – he brought us forth by the word of truth (1:18) He continually affects our salvation by implanting the word in our hearts through effective teaching (1:21). True faith responds eagerly to the word of God. Such a response has three characteristics.

First, it humbly receives the word in the heart (19-21). Rather than react with anger, which rarely works the righteousness of God, James says to receive with meekness the implanted word. We are to have a receptive, humble, broken-hearted disposition when the word comes to us in any variety of formats. That will look like a quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger kind of reaction (v. 19).

Second, it faithfully applies the word in the life (22-25). Be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Yes, you need to hear and be attentive to the word, but if you stop there you are, as James puts it, deceiving yourself (v. 22). He uses a word picture in the rest of the paragraph to drive home his point. Hearing only and not doing is like gazing in a mirror only to walk away and not attend to the problems you saw with your face in that mirror! On the contrary, those who gaze into the word like a mirror for their lives and persevere in their obedience are blessed (v. 25). Blessed is far better than self-deceived!

Third, it zealously infuses the word in the religion (26-27). The word for religious refers to the outward ceremonies of the Christian life. Liturgy and its components are a meaningful part of the faith. But if that’s all there is to your experience as a Christian, you have a problem. James proposes a very different litmus test as to what comprises what he calls pure and undefiled religion before God (v. 27). It bridles the tongue. If it doesn’t, it’s worthless (v. 26). That hurts! You can’t get more basic than that. If your anger gives way to an out-of-control tongue as a rule, you don’t grasp true religion in the biblical sense. Furthermore, true religion visits widows and orphans and keeps oneself unstained by the world. It requires charity to the needy and purity in the world.

Now there’s a checklist by which to measure the validity of our Christian experience.

Why I'm No Huckster, Charlatan, or Fraud

Tomorrow is Easter.

I will preach on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead for the umpteenth time. I am getting up there in years and I have been a follower of Jesus of Nazareth since 1972 and a minister of the gospel most of the years since then.

My text for tomorrow’s message entitled Life’s Ultimate What If is 1 Cor. 15:12-20.  I will ask the question of questions that many have asked throughout the centuries: What if there is no resurrection of the body? What if this life is all there is?

Apparently some of the believers in the Corinthian church bought into the dualism Greek mindset of the day that denied the resurrection of the body.

In the text, as I shall attempt to show tomorrow, Paul proceeds to dismantle that erroneous strain of thinking by showing the logical consequences, devastating in every way, that follow from a denial of the reality of the resurrection of the dead.

One of those, according to v. 15, is that preachers like me who preach the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead end up misrepresenting God because of their testimony that Christ Himself has been raised from the dead.

This is no small concern. Nothing in me at all wants to be guilty of complicity in foisting upon humanity the cruelest hoax of all time if in fact Jesus has NOT been raised from the dead.

No worries. I am not alarmed. I am completely confident that rather than being a huckster, charlatan, or fraud, or any other word you can think of to describe somebody who takes people for a colossally deceptive ride down a bogus philosophical trail, I believe that I could hardly stand on firmer ground in terms of my confidence that Jesus Christ has indeed been raised from the dead and that, as such, He demands and rightly deserves my and your utmost devotion and the total dedication of my/our being every day until I/we cease to exist on this earth.

I say that because of three strains of evidence for the resurrection that I find ultimately compelling – documentary, well-established, and circumstantial.

My thanks to Douglas Groothuis in his substantive, award-winning tome Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith for this summary.

First, as for the documentary or minimal facts recorded in the gospels that are broadly agreed on by New Testament scholars of all stripes (Groothius’ exact words), there are four.

  1. Death by crucifixion – a well-established fact of history.
  2. Burial in a known tomb – that of Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57-61 et al).
  3. The empty tomb – discovered as such by several women (not considered in that day the most credible of witnesses mind you – an argument for the authenticity of the gospel records).
  4. The postmortem appearances of Jesus – twelve separate ones over a forty-day period according to the New Testament.The preponderance of eye-witness accounts of the resurrected Christ, including that of the Apostle Paul, cause Groothius to conclude This is either one of the greatest bluffs in the history of religion or a confident assertion of substantiated fact (p. 549).

Impressive enough standing alone is the documentary evidence. Groothius goes on to cite other well-established evidence in favor of the resurrection.

  1. The transformation of the disciples – from cowardice, despair and confusion to confident proclamation of the gospel and the willingness to suffer persecution, hardship and even martyrdom for the sake of Jesus and His gospel.
  2. The early worship of Jesus as divine – by monotheistic Jews no less who would not likely ever do such a thing apart from something so spectacular as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Finally, there is the circumstantial evidence.

  1. The practice of the early church in observing baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Sunday worship – all clearly tied in symbolism and motivation to the reality of the resurrection.
  2. Spiritual experiences in history and today – the fact that millions of Christ’s followers around the globe for the last two thousand years have testified to the reality of their risen Savior’s claims lends credibility to the reality of the resurrection (p. 554).

And I am one of them.

That I have the opportunity tomorrow to preach the gospel and proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead is based upon evidence of the best and all kinds.

I will peddle no deception;  I will preach the truth, so help me God.

He is risen. He is risen indeed!

Nothing for Which Jesus Cares So Much (Part 7)

Today’s message from John 14:15-24 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here is how I tied together the entire passage in our last look at this section of the farewell discourse:

Genuine faith that knows the Father and the Son who is in the Father demonstrates itself through obedience to Christ’s commandments. There is no love for Christ, no genuine belief in God, apart from a treasuring of Christ’s commandments. This alone will suffice for the measuring rod of your faith as to it genuineness. Do you evaluate it in these terms? Christ alone can give you this kind of faith. If you admit your rebellion against him and failure to keep all His commandments and put your trust in His death on the cross for your sins, He will forgive you and He will send you His Holy Spirit to indwell and empower you and He Himself and the Father will indwell you and strengthen you and aid you in every way as well.

Do you wonder if you ever will overcome that besetting sin? There is a Niagara of help in the Godhead. This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith (1 John 5:4). Here is where we must focus in our battle against the flesh. Greater is He who is in you than He who is in the world (1 John 4:4). The good news of the gospel is that because of Christ’s finished work on the cross and His going to the Father, all the resources of the gospel now envelop our hearts and lives. No wonder R. A. Torrey said: I can think of no thought more humbling or more overwhelming that the thought that a person of Divine majesty and glory dwells in my heart and is ready to use even me. He does indeed. One God. Three persons. More than enough for our every need.

On this Palm Sunday may we praise God for the Triune provision that is mutual indwelling and the promise for all we need for a life of treasuring Christ’s commands and walking in obedience to Him.

Nothing for Which Jesus Cares So Much (Part 6)

Today’s message from John 14:15-24 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I summarized the point of the text:

Jesus’ loving care in thoroughly preparing His own for their mission points yet again to His identity as Messiah that we might believe in Him. Indeed there is nothing He cares so much as our faith, genuine faith that treasures and keeps His commandments. And why are they not burdensome, to use 1 John 5:3 language? Because of the Trinitarian provision for our aid in obedience – the gift of the Spirit in helping us, the coming of the Son in the resurrection for assuring us, and next time, Lord willing, we will consider the indwelling of the Father, and not just the Father but the Son as well, both promising to make their home with us. Amazing!

Praise God for the Trinitarian provision for operation-saving-faith-resulting-in-obedience!