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.

SPURGEON’S SORROWS, MINE AND YOURS

Josh thinker

Grief casts a long shadow. At least 365 day’s worth. One year ago today we lost our firstborn son, Josh, or, as he liked others to call him, “Thee Heff.”

Life-threatening cancer proved my effective tutor in 2005. Gut-wrenching loss brought its mastery instruction in 2014. I’m learning, reluctant or not, much in the school of sadness, perhaps most importantly this: some pains in life visit and determine to stay. I don’t expect grief ever to release its hold for the rest of my life. The words, “Josh is dead.” altered my experience forever. I’ve heard other loss-sufferers say such things. I thought I understood. Now I really do.

I find solace this tortuous anniversary weekend in the reading of a book. (Read books. They change lives.) Zack Eswine, thank you for writing Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. In its provision, providence smiled on this sad heart as I read through its 144 pages the last two days.

Any Baptist preacher of the Reformed tradition (others as well) treasures Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Few preached with greater anointing. No one wrote more sermons. Calvinistic, gospel zeal pulsed through his veins in degrees of which I can only dream. With reading Pastor Zach’s book I added a new dimension of appreciation for this giant of the faith – how his near lifelong battle with depression helps me cope with my sadness and in turn comfort others in theirs.

I have long known about Spurgeon’s trouble with melancholy. I did not realize, however, its root for the man in one horrific event early on in his preaching ministry (see p. 19). It brought catastrophic grief, grief, believe it or not, I honestly imagine greater than my own. It prompted this comment from the author, borrowing from a Spurgeon sermon entitled “Weak Hands and Feeble Knees”:

For some of us, we’ve been unable to live in any other scene but the one that crushed us. We were brought so low that we never held up our heads again. It’s like we will go from that time forth mourning to our graves. Circumstance haunted us and went on. Depression came but never left. It haunts us still (p. 29).

Pastor Zack joins our hands with “Charles,” as he fondly calls him, and walks us through his journey. He invites us to view it as “the spurgeons sorrowshandwritten note of one who wishes you well” (p. 23). And well we should. The author has served the reader admirably with numerous citations from Spurgeon’s work on this challenging subject. He has thoroughly mined the precious ore of insight to be gained from one who suffered so greatly and dared talk so freely about it from his influential pulpit. Pastor Zach also shows us from Scripture the reality of sorrow. Additionally he borrows from numerous other works on the subject. He accomplishes a lot in so short a resource. Though I wish I could ask him humbly and gently, “How could you leave out Lloyd-Jones’ classic Spiritual Depression?”

Who should read this book? Easy. Any sufferer of depression and its close relatives, sorrow, sadness, and grief. Here you will find compassion, understanding, hope, and help. Pastor Zach inserts along the way distilled lessons from Spurgeon’s experience that ease the burden of “heaviness of spirit” (p. 46). While not all will agree with or like some of his prescriptions (e. g., medication as necessary), there is plenty of spot on assistance to glean especially from part three (Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression).

Caregivers, pastors, and otherwise “one another” gospel-shaped Christians who want to do 1 Thessalonians 5:11 well will also want to read this book. Pastor Zach takes particular aim against “God-talkers” and insensitive Job-like comforters. He pleads for more of us in the helping trade to adopt compassion and understanding in dealing with the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks in this broken world. May the tribe increase.

Gratefully, Pastor Zack leads us from the lesser story of Charles Spurgeon, as instructive, yet incomplete as it is (there are some cautions to hear along this path) to the greater story of Jesus – the Chief Mourner (p. 86) – the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). He even shows tenderness to the skeptic on looker who’s own loss may venture her to wade into these pages though not sure at first what to make of this pastor’s God-talk. You can give this to a seeker and not worry so much.

Thanks to our good friends at Westminster Books, I scarfed up a bunch of these for a mere $5 a piece. Lord willing, you can find them in the OGC resource center next Sunday.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the place Spurgeon did, especially after my most recent post, Never Again. But I affirm the truth of it in ending my anniversary reflections on loss:

I am sure that I have run more swiftly with a lame leg than I ever did with a sound one. I am certain that I have seen more in the dark than ever I saw in the light— more stars, most certainly—more things in Heaven if fewer things on earth! The anvil, the fire and the hammer are the making of us—we do not get fashioned much by anything else. That heavy hammer falling on us helps to shape us! Therefore let affliction and trouble and trial come.

They most certainly will. And His grace, as always, will most certainly be sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9).

 

What Are We Waiting For?

Everywhere I turn, it seems, I encounter someone in wait mode.

Singles waiting for a suitable mate to come along.

Sick folks waiting for a sure cure for their illness.

Estranged couples waiting for a reconciliation of their marriage.

Parents waiting for a wandering prodigal to come home.

Unemployed or underemployed workers waiting for a job.

Students waiting for funding for their education.

Children waiting for favor with their parents.

Missionaries waiting for their support to come in.

And yes, even churches waiting for their buildings to get a CO.

And no, at this writing, we don’t have it yet. Sigh.

I am fond of saying, Waiting is one of God’s favorite four-letter words. It’s true. God makes us wait. A lot. When He does, the temptation remains the same. Like the Jews of old in the Babylonian Captivity we question that our way is hidden from His sight and that our concern is none of His concern (Isa. 40:27).

The prophet had nothing but rebuke for that kind of thinking in the rest of chapter 40. He took them to task for such unbelief in the midst of their wondering if they would ever return to the beloved Promised Land. He did so by reminding them of what they had heard and knew about the character of God.

Everlasting. Creator. Unsearchable.

We may grow faint or weary, but this God never does. Better yet, He dispenses His extraordinary power that hangs the stars in the sky, calls them by name, and sees to their keeping (Isa. 40:26) to the faint and weary and exhausted.

How? By waiting. Not waiting for a change in circumstances. Waiting on Him. Verse 31 is key – But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength. The Hebrew word for wait comes from a root which means string or cord. The verb form has the idea of twist. The imagery is helpful. To wait on the Lord is to bring our slender strand of strength to Him in prayer, meditation, hope, and worship and have Him wrap His creative, unsearchable, everlasting omnipotence around it so that we are strengthened. To renew means to exchange. We exchange our meager strength for God’s unlimited strength. Matthew Henry, the Puritan commentator explains:

But those that wait on the Lord, who make conscience of their duty to him, and by faith rely upon him and commit themselves to his guidance, shall find that God will not fail them. . . .  They shall have grace sufficient for them: They shall renew their strength as their work is renewed, as there is new occasion; they shall be anointed, and their lamps supplied, with fresh oil. God will be their arm every morning, ch.33:2.
The imagery of this strength and its impact in v. 31 takes the breath away. Mounting up with wings as an eagle. Running and not being weary. Walking and not fainting. From the most spectacular of feats of mounting up to the most mundane of tasks of walking and everything in between, God meets us and give us His strength.
Warren Wiersbe, in his commentary on Isaiah, summed up well the progression from flying to walking:
As we wait before Him, God enables us to soar when there is a crisis, to run when the challenges are many, and to walk faithfully in the day-by-day demands of life. It is much harder to walk in the ordinary pressures of life than to fly like the eagle in a time of crisis. “I can plod,” said William Carey, the father of modern missions. “That is my only genius. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.” The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The greatest heroes of faith are not always those who seem to be soaring; often it is they who are patiently plodding. As we wait on the Lord, He enables us not only to fly higher and run faster, but also to walk longer. Blessed are the plodders, for they eventually arrive at their destination!
So the question stands. What are we waiting for? If it is for a change in circumstances, that may or may not come. If it is for an exchange of strength with the God of the universe, that you can count on.
So wait, wait on the Lord and renew your strength.

A Bitter Better

For the second time in less than a week I will go to a house of mourning tomorrow. I will officiate at the funeral of a brother in Christ and member of my church for the last several years. We have shared a lot in common the last eighteen months as cancer victims experiencing the various forms of treatment and the war stories that result.

That’s another blog post. This post concerns my fortune to attend two funerals in so short a span of time. I say fortune because of the wise words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4.

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

It may well be a bitter better but better it is just the same to attend a memorial service than a wedding celebration or a birthday party. Why is that? Because funerals, uncomfortable as they are to our live-for-the-moment, eat-drink-and-be-merry culture, focus our attention on the one great universal inevitability. This is the end of all mankind. Everyone has the same appointment. No one escapes his destiny with the valley of the shadow, the last enemy, death. Furthermore houses of mourning point us to the brevity of life, the mist-like nature of our existence that is here today and gone tomorrow (James 4:14).

Unlike parties, houses of mirth, that play to levity and the thrill of the moment, funerals focus you on the inevitability of the ultimate and the gravity of the life to come. They can teach us to pray as Moses did in Psalm 90:12 – teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

A heart of wisdom lets the sadness of mortality and the certainty of death lead one to the joy of immortality through the hope of the gospel that the One who both frequented wedding celebrations (John 2) and visited cemeteries (John 11) triumphed over death and will raise from the grave all who belong to Him by faith.

A Needed Lesson from the Weaned Child

Lately I’ve heard about numerous difficult providences in a variety of believers’ lives. They include things related to marriage, parenting, singleness, childlessness, joblessness, just to name a few. Far too often for my comfort level I grope for explanations to bring encouragement in the face of such gargantuan hurts.

Frequently I find myself pointing folks to a pertinent text in the psalms when all else fails – Psalm 131.

[A SONG OF ASCENTS. OF DAVID.]
[131:1] O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
[2] But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
[3] O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore.

Not everything, but more than we might like to think in life, qualifies for the categories of too great and marvelous. So many things belong to the secret things of God and not for us (Deut. 29:29). What are we to do in such instances? Calm and quiet ourselves. Don’t miss the word picture. Calm and quiet like a weaned child who no longer clamors for milk from its mother’s breast.

How do we do that? Verse 3 – Hope in the Lord, always. Matthew Henry said it well: Thus does a gracious soul quiet itself under the loss of that which it loved and disappointment in that which it hoped for, and is easy whatever happens, lives, and lives comfortably, upon God and the covenant-grace, when creatures prove dry breasts.

Creatures prove dry breasts more than not, especially in the hard providences of life. Let us live comfortably, calm and quiet upon God and the covenant grace of His Son, Jesus, in the gospel.

Hope in the Haze of the Mundane


Sunday’s message from Zechariah 1:18-21 is now on the website. You can listen to the audio here.

Reflecting on the four craftsmen of this passage, Matthew Henry wrote:

Which way soever the church is threatened with mischief, and opposition given to its interests, God can find out ways and means to check the force, to restrain the wrath, and make it turn to his praise.

Lift up your eyes and see the justice of God in the glory of His Son.

A Theology of Horrible Things

Like the rest of you, I suspect, Nancy and I have remained glued to the TV the last twenty-four hours watching the horrific images coming out of Japan after the devastating earthquake hit yesterday afternoon. Not even one week’s vacation to rural NC will allow an entire escape from reality in our age of near instantaneous global communication.

In the interest of rest and ministering to Nan’s dear aging mother, I have kept blogging at arm’s length thus far. But catastrophic events like 8.9 magnitude earthquakes demand some kind of pastoral comment, particularly when one’s church hosts students from Japan at the same time their homeland gets rocked by creation groaning beneath the weight of the futility to which God has subjected it (see Romans passage below).

Rather than give my own take from the Scriptures for biblical perspective on the crisis and in the interest of preserving as much rest as we can summon from our week-long trip, I will turn to Dr. R. C. Sproul for his help. My mother-in-law happens to keep a copy of his book Now, That’s a Good Question! on one of her book shelves.

He answers the question Why does God let random shootings, fatal accidents, and other horrible things occur? this way:

Since we believe that God is the author of this planet and is sovereign over it, it’s inevitable that we ask where he is when these terrible things take place. I think the Bible answers that over and over again from different angles and in different ways. We find our first answer, of course, in the book of Genesis, in which we’re told of the fall of humanity. God’s immediate response to the transgression of the human race against his rule and authority was to curse the earth and human life. Death and suffering entered the world as a direct result of sin. We see the concrete manifestation of this in the realm of nature, where thorns become part of the garden and human life is now characterized by the sweat of the brow and the pain that attends even the birth of a baby. This illustrates the fact that the world in which we live is a place that is full of sorrows and tragedy. But we must never conclude that there’s a one-to-one correlation in this life between suffering and the guilt of the people on whom tragedies fall. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no suffering. There would be no fatal accidents, no random shootings. Because sin is present in the world, suffering is present in the world, but it doesn’t always work out that if you have five pounds of guilt, you’re going to get five pounds of suffering. That’s the perception that the book of Job labors to dispel, as does Jesus’ answer to the question about the man born blind ( John 9:1-11). On the other hand, the Bible makes it clear that God lets these things happen and in a certain sense ordains that they come to pass as part of the present situation that is under judgment. He has not removed death from this world. Whether it’s what we would consider an untimely death or a violent death, death is part of the nature of things. The only promise is that there will come a day when suffering will cease altogether. The disciples asked Jesus about similar instances—for example, the Galileans’ blood that was mingled with the sacrifices by Pilate or the eighteen people who were killed when a temple collapsed. The disciples asked how this could be. Jesus’ response was almost severe. He said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” again bringing the question back to the fact that moral wickedness makes it feasible for God to allow these kinds of dreadful things to take place in a fallen world.

As we engage various people about the situation in Japan, let’s watch for opportunities to bring, with sensitivity, a biblical worldview to bear on the conversation when the Lord opens the door for the same.

People may not like the answer, but the Word of God does speak to a theology of horrible things meant to lead ultimately to another theology, the good news of the gospel of Jesus, who will deliver creation from its groaning by making all things new, including us (Romans 8:19-24).