A Different Kind of Thanksgiving

Several years ago we had Gary Witherall of Operation Mobilization come to OGC and share his testimony of loss in the martyrdom of his wife in Beirut, Lebanon back in 2002. I received this from him earlier last week as a testimony of how the Lord may grace us to be sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10). I offer it as an encouragement to those whose Thanksgiving weekend knows that paradoxical blend of gratitude and grief.

I am sitting at a Starbucks on Hamra Street in West Beirut. A famous little road full of little shops, honking cars, and people making business, sitting, watching, sipping coffee and checking cell phones. It’s a little unknown area of the world. It’s a wonderful place, yet only the bad stuff makes the news, bombing, killing, rocket attacks, or some militant group showing force. It was on this piece of land that I first came in January 2001, and my life would never be the same again. On November 21st 2002 in Sidon, Bonnie’s life was brutally taken by an unknown gunman.

A few weeks ago I went with Bonnie’s parents to the grave. The first time I have returned to a place that has caused me torment. I stood there with her mother and father, quietly, in the cold looking at the ground where her body was laid. I thought for the first time, ‘ok Lord, I’m ok with this.’

When I think about you now reading this, in the deepest place of my soul, I can say, ‘Thou art worthy.’

Is it safe to follow Jesus. The answer is no. Denying self, carrying a cross, laying down your life. No, it’s not safe, that is the daily reality for many who carry the name of Christian. But we have been called to go, to declare the hope of salvation in Jesus. And I stand confident in this. So I ask believers everywhere to join me in prayer, to give and perhaps even go to these nations that are grieving from conflict, suffering and hatred. And may His Kingdom come.

Hebrews 6:19 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Thank you for investing in us, and for His Kingdom, Gary Witherall

Beirut, Lebanon
November 19th 2012

The VOM Voice Gone Silent

The letter came today.

Voice of the Martyrs (Nancy and I receive their monthly newsletter and give as led to their ministry from time to time), fiercely devoted to serving the persecuted church across the globe since 1967, confirmed what I had already heard via the internet.

Executive Director, Tom White, took his own life last month. This husband, father, grandfather, and articulate voice for the persecuted (I know, I’ve read many an editorial by the man), himself once imprisoned for his faith in Cuba, did what to many, especially Christians, can only be described as the unthinkable. He committed suicide.

Not much is known about the circumstances. But, to VOM’s credit, they revealed that the day before his fatal choice, “allegations were made to authorities that Tom had inappropriate contact with a young girl.” Here’s what the writer of the letter speaking on behalf of VOM gave as his settled-upon explanation: “I personally believe that rather than face those allegations and the resulting fallout for his family and this ministry, Tom chose to end his life.”

What are we to make of this? How are we to respond?

I say let there be compassion. Only days ago I read in 1 Kings 19:4 of the great prophet Elijah’s plea, gripped with fear, for God to take his life as he fled into the wilderness to escape the threats of the evil Jezebel. God’s servants can and do know cavernous depths of depression. William Cowper, poet and hymn writer (he gave us, among others, God Moves in Mysterious Ways His Wonders to Perform) made multiple attempts on his angst-filled life. Believers do not escape the slough of despair.

I say let there be perspective. By that I mean providence perspective. I have no earthly idea if Tom White did anything untoward the girl in question. Of course that is possible. I admit, it doesn’t look good. But what if he didn’t? What if he was entirely innocent? What if the truth lies somewhere in between? Only eternity will tell.

But one thing is for sure. In interpreting the hard providence of dreadfully incriminating accusation, Tom White, who, from what I can tell, no one believes was a false professor of Christianity but rather a true believer, failed to count Romans 8:31 ultimately true for him – If God is for us, who can be against us?

Who knows how God was plotting for the man’s good through a Romans 8:28 kind of working out of things? And this cancer survivor and pastor of four churches over time does not say such a thing flippantly.

Naomi made the same mistake, an incomplete and inadequate interpreting of providence in her crushing circumstances in the book of Ruth. That is the subject of my Mother’s Day message this Sunday. I wish I didn’t have such a pertinent and recent illustration with which to work. But the truth is I do.

I trust the Lord will use it, the text, and my words somewhat to serve us all on the journey from bitter to blessed that will keep us from such a fate and oh so much more – deep, abiding, exquisite, even-in-the-hard-providences joy in Him.

All Is Precious

Today’s message from John 14:25-31 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Jesus rebukes His own for their failure to enter into His joy of heading back to the Father in glory. They are far to self-absorbed with their own grief to see the bigger picture. He loves them even in the sting of rebuke. If you loved me, you would have rejoiced.

Do we consider everything from Christ’s hand, including His rebukes, as precious?

Octavius Winslow encourages us to do just that:

Receive as precious everything that flows from the government of Jesus. A precious Christ can give you nothing but what is precious. Welcome the rebuke – it may be humiliating; welcome the trial – it may be painful; welcome the lesson – it may be difficult; welcome the cup – it may be bitter; welcome everything that comes from Christ in your individual history. Everything is costly, salutary, and precious that Jesus sends. The rude tones of Joseph’s voice, when he spake to his brethren, were as much the echoes of his concealed affection, as the softest, gentlest accents that breathed from his lips. The most severe disciplinary dispensations in the government of Christ are as much the fruit of His eternal, redeeming love, as was the tenderest and most touching expression of that love uttered from the cross.

May we find everything that Jesus sends precious, even His rebukes of our beyond-what-is-necessary, self-absorbed grieving of loss.

Give Thanks… For CONFLICT???

Got this from Peacemakers last week. Meant to post it last week but things got away from me. It’s such good stuff I decided to post it this week. Not your average Thanksgiving fare.

As usual, Paul [in Philippians 4:2-9] urges us to be God-centered in our approach to conflict. Moreover, he wants us to be joyfully God-centered. Realizing we may skip over this point, Paul repeats it: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” What on earth is there to rejoice about when you are involved in a dispute? If you open your eyes and think about God’s lavish goodness to you, here is the kind of worship you could offer to him, even in the midst of the worst conflict!

O Lord, you are so amazingly good to me! You sent your only Son to die for my sins, including those I have committed in this conflict. Because of Jesus I am forgiven, and my name is written in the Book of Life! You do not treat me as I deserve, but you are patient, kind, gentle, and forgiving with me. Please help me to do the same to others.

In your great mercy, you are also kind to my opponent. Although he has wronged me repeatedly, you hold out your forgiveness to him as you do to me. Even if he and I never reconcile in this life, which I still hope we will, you have already done the work to reconcile us forever in heaven. This conflict is so insignificant compared to the wonderful hope we have in you!

This conflict is so small compared to the many other things you are watching over at this moment, yet you still want to walk beside me as I seek to resolve it. Why would you stoop down to pay such attention to me? It is too wonderful for me to understand. You are extravagant in your gifts to me. You offer me the comfort of your Spirit, the wisdom of your Word, and the support of your church. Forgive me for neglecting these powerful treasures until now, and help me to use them to please and honor you.

I rejoice that these same resources are available to my opponent. Please enable us to draw on them together so that we see our own sins, remember the gospel, find common ground in the light of your truth, come to one mind with you and each other, and restore peace and unity between us.

Finally, Lord, I rejoice that this conflict has not happened by accident. You are sovereign and good, so I know that you are working through this situation for your glory and my good. No matter what my opponent does, you are working to conform me to the likeness of your Son. Please help me cooperate with you in every possible way and give you glory for what you have done and are doing.

Taken from The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict
by Ken Sande, Updated Edition (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2003) p. 84-85

To subscribe to this free publication called Peacemeal click here.

59 and ???

It started in ’05 with my 53rd birthday. I attached to September 15 that year and every year since a little rhyming ditty to capture the spirit of another year in my life post-cancer.

Allow me to review:

  • 53 and cancer free
  • 54 and ready for more
  • 55 and staying alive (with apologies to the US government)
  • 56 and up to the same old tricks
  • 57 and not ready for heaven
  • 58 and feeling great

Normally I know well in advance what the next year’s slogan will be, but not so for my 59th. That one didn’t gel until the day before on September 14 at 6 AM in the pantry. Why then and there I have no idea. But it hit me like an all-pro linebacker tackle on a 4th and one.

59 and gospel primed.

Let me explain. Not too long ago someone came to me after I embarrassed myself in one of our services with a tirade in our announcements. This brother confessed that he walked away from that Sunday suffering from an ecclesiastical identity crisis. It took a lot of guts for this person to confront me. To be honest I reacted at first rather defensively. The more I thought about it the more the Lord convicted me that he was right! I determined then and there that I would never let that happen again if I had any say in it. Since that time I have enjoyed something of a gospel renaissance in my personal and pastoral life that I never want to lose a grip on.

Ergo this year’s saying. At every turn I want to be primed for gospel-action, preaching, counseling, obedience and to commend the same to everyone with which I come into contact.

My prayer is very much that of Scotty Smith’s:

Lord Jesus, one of the many things I cherish about the Bible is the way it robs me of my penchant for hero worship. Who but God would write a book documenting the foibles and failures of so many of his sons and daughters? Who but God would chronicle the ways his chosen leaders, like Peter, limp along and prove themselves to be in constant need of mercy and grace?

This gives me great encouragement and hope. It also gives me freedom to acknowledge that I need the gospel today just as much as the first day I believed it. This will be just as true tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Keep me convinced, Jesus, because I’m much like Peter.

It’s one thing for me to get irritated and angry about the ways this generation is downplaying your work on the cross. But it’s quite another to see the subtle ways I try to keep you from the cross. Deal with me as you dealt with Peter.

When I mute my heart to the insult of grace, I deny your cross. When I think, even for one moment, that my obedience merits anything, I deny your cross. When I put others under the microscope and measure of performance-based living, I deny your cross. When I wallow in self-contempt and shame, I deny your cross. When I’d rather do penance than repent, I deny your cross.

When I gossip juicy tidbits more than I gossip the gospel, I deny your cross. When I pout more than I praise; when I show more fear than faith; when I want to be right more than I want to be righteous, I deny your cross. When I talk about people more than I pray for the same people, I deny your cross. When my grip on grudges is tighter than my grasp of the gospel, I deny your cross.

By the gospel, help me to mind the things of God more than the things of men. May your cross get bigger, and may my boast in it grow louder. Jesus, you’re the main hero in the Bible. The rest of us are totally dependent on you. That’s never going to change. I need fresh grace today. So very Amen I pray, in your patient and persistent name.

What he prayed.

Only 361 days until I turn sixty. For every day God gives me may they know fresh grace and gospel power for God’s glory, my joy, and the joy of those who attach themselves to my so often flesh-compromised ministry.

The Happiest Workers Ever

So expressed Charles Spurgeon in terms of his hopes and aspirations for his people, his fellow-servants of the Lord, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

In a sermon on Psalm 127:1-2 entitled Co-Workers with God,  he exhorted his parishioners:

Now, I want all of us to feel that as workers for God—pastor and people, Sunday school teachers and you who teach the Bible classes, you who distribute tracts, you who preach at the street corners, all of you, my beloved fellow helpers—we are doing grand work! You know that it is God’s House that we are building. Under God and with His help, we are building up His Church with stones that He points out to us, helps us to quarry and enables us to bring into their places. And the work goes on so easily, too, if we will but do it according to the Great Architect’s plan. And if we do not get too fussy and busy, and if we do not think that we should knock a corner off here, and alter the shape of a stone there, but will just do it as God would have it done, in His fear, in simple dependence upon Him, confident that it is all right—the great Master-Builder will complete His work! I think that we ought to be the happiest workers who ever lived! It should be a joy to us to do anything for the Lord Jesus. And, oh, when it gets finished, and the top stone is laid, and the Lord descends and fills the House and none of us will be any longer needed, for the priests will not be able to stand and minister by reason of the Glory of the Christ who has filled His Church—oh, then what joy we shall have that ever we were engaged in the work (emphasis mine)!

Last night our church gathered for its first ever worship service in our under-construction building. What a sweet and special time, never to be forgotten by this pastor! I took unceasing delight in person after person who came to the mic and shared verse after verse of Scripture that got written on those steel girders. Just to hear from the lips of so many such great esteem for God’s word thrilled me to the depths of my pastoral bones.

Many of those selections still swirl in my brain, but one stands out in particular. Unless the Lord builds the house those who build it labor in vain. What more appropriate reminder could we need than that as we near the half way point in the construction process? God must occupy the center of everything we do. When He does, we don’t get too busy and fussy with the work and we do know the joy of the happiest workers who ever lived. It is indeed a delight to do anything for the Lord Jesus.

And we get to labor together with His help in constructing a facility to house our ministry. As I reminded us last night, I remind us once again. We get to do this. This is our stewardship. The privilege is great. The rewards will prove worth it all. With the Lord’s help let us serve more than ever as the happiest workers who ever lived!

Are You a Joy?

I thought this was pretty gutsy.

One of my sheep sent this shepherd a post from a counseling website labeled Excellent Evaluation Question.

Drawing from Hebrews 13:17, the counselor sometimes challenges his clients to ask their pastor, and other significant people in their lives for that matter, the risky question, Am I a joy?

The application gets unpacked this way:

This is a fantastic question for you to ask your pastor. And should you ask your pastor this question, then take it further. Ask him to give you specific areas in your life, where you have been a joy to pastor. But don’t stop there. Keep pressing the issue. Also ask him for specific areas in which you need to address or change. Can you imagine if your son came to you and asked you if he was a joy to parent? If so, then you can imagine how any pastor would feel if one of his congregants came and asked a similar question.

Let me press the application a bit further. Ask these questions if they apply:

  • Ask your spouse if you are a joy to them. Why or why not?
  • Ask your small group leader if you are a joy to serve, lead, teach and equip.
  • Ask your children if you are joy to follow. Why or why not?
  • Additionally, a child can ask a parent if they are a joy to parent.

Note the responses you get and share with a close friend. This should give you much to chat about.

Yes, I would rather guess so. Of course he could turn the tables on me with the challenge to ask Am I a joy to follow? Why or why not?

Again, risky stuff, but worth thinking about.

Biblical Resolutions Distilled from a Battle With Cancer Continued

A few posts back I introduced a new series of articles based upon my five year anniversary this August from finishing cancer treatment and remaining cancer-free.

When I first returned to the pulpit in November of 2005, I preached a series of three sermons from Psalm 116 entitled Seven Biblical Resolutions Distilled from a Battle with Cancer. You can listen to part one here.

I articulated this theme from the text in light of the apparent deliverance enjoyed by the psalmist from some recent life-and-death threat:

Deliverance by God from desperate straits warrants renewed resolves in a relationship with God.

In this post I want to address the first and arguably most important resolve toward God when He comes through big time in our lives.

First, resolved to delight in God (1a).

We needn’t look beyond the first few words of the psalm to sense the tenor of things in the sweet singer’s heart. I love the Lord. Actually the Hebrew text has no object. It begins with one word, the verb love. I love. We supply the object, Yahweh, from the clause that follows – because he has heard my voice. I love the Lord. Here is a man who is more in love with God than ever. The Law of God commands love for Him (Deut. 6:5). Passionate love. With all you heart and all your soul and all your might.

Emotions are no insignificant part of the spiritual life. The Bible has much to say about what you know AND what you feel. It mattered enough to Jesus to ask Peter three times on the shores of Galilee, Simon, do you love me more than these (John 21:15-17). Psalm 37:4 commands, Delight yourself in the Lord. You simply cannot read the psalms, a book of poetry and songs, without acknowledging the depth of emotions experienced by the believer in God.

It shocks me how indiscriminate I am with the word love. I say things like, I love food. I couldn’t say that for much of 2005. Nothing tasted as it should. Radiation had traumatized my taste buds. I forced myself to eat. I resorted to watching Emeril Live on the Food Network, imagining what it would be like to eat like that again. What astonished me about this was the level of grief I experienced over the loss of food – its taste, its fellowship, its uniqueness at a fine restaurant, its pairing with a glass of wine. The Lord took all that from me then. And the question that came to me with overwhelming force from the Spirit was, Curt, will you find your soul’s satisfaction in me even if eating is never quite the same passion for you? Do you love me more than steak, than pasta, than your wife’s to-die-for Black Magic cake?

To help me answer this, or at least put me on the road to the right answer, God gave me John Piper’s new book God is the Gospel to read at that time. He laments in the introduction:

We have turned the love of God and the gospel of Christ into a divine endorsement of our delight in many lesser things, especially the delight in our being made much of. The acid test of biblical God-centeredness – and faithfulness to the gospel – is this: Do you feel more loved because God makes much of you, or because, at the cost of his Son, he enables you to enjoy making much of him forever? Does your happiness hang on seeing the cross of Christ as a witness to your worth, or as a way to enjoy God’s worth forever? Is God’s glory in Christ the foundation of your gladness (pp. 11-12, emphasis added).

This is a God-centered psalm. Though the writer clearly appreciates God for His gifts, it is clear that he sees them as rays from the radiant beam of God’s goodness and follows them back to the source and proclaims his unadulterated love for Him first and last. No less than fifteen times he uses the personal name for God, Yahweh. He is enamored with God. God is his all-consuming obsession. He could easily sing with Asaph in Psalm 73:25-26 – Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

What song do you tend to sing these days? If God has rescued you recently in any way, shape or form, may I suggest to you that you should respond with a greater resolve than ever to delight yourself in Him?

Camping in Tampa for OGC's & My Joy

I know what some of you are thinking. Camping and joy don’t belong in the same sentence. I’ve had some of those experiences. I feel your pain.

My post comes from Tampa this evening. Camp Logos brought me here. That’s what Libronix calls it. Two days of intensive seminar training on the lastest version of their Bible study software, Logos 4. You know, the package I purchased in Minneapolis a few weeks ago spurred on by the promise of doing exegesis 10,000 times faster!

So this is camping of a different kind. Frankly, I’m nestled in at a cost effective hotel near the training site, getting ready to retire soon in hopes of awaking fresh tomorrow morning for another go around of mastering this incredible computer resource.

Why do this? What’s the point? Always a good question. Answer? Our mutual joy. Everything comes down to that when it comes to a pastor’s job description, if I read 2 Cor. 1:24 right.

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith (emphasis added).

I’ve actually got the software up and running as I write this piece. The literal Greek reads: sunergoi we are of your faith. We get our word synergy from the Greek word. It’s a noun, not a verb. Spiritual leaders are workers together with their people (this is synergy at the highest level) for their mutual joy in Jesus. Another way of saying it is that we work together for that which brings us the greatest pleasure. Who would argue with the notion that joy comes as a direct result of the experience of pleasure?

Where might we find greater pleasure than at the right hand of God (Psalm 16:11)? What reveals the God who gives such extreme pleasure more than the Scriptures (Psalm 19:7-11)?

I read today in my devotions a segment of J. C. Ryle’s book, Holiness, with this thought about pleasure:

Millions live for pleasure. Hedonism is the great spirit that knows no boundaries, whether economical, social, political or cultural—pleasure is an idol enslaving the great majority of the world. The schoolboy looks for pleasure in his summer vacation, the young man in independence and business; the small business owner looks for it in retirement, and the poor man in the small comforts of home. Pleasure and fresh excitement in politics, travel, amusement, in company, in books, in several vices too dark to mention, pleasure is the shadow which all alike are hunting; each, perhaps, pretending to despise his neighbor for seeking it, each in his own way seeking it for himself, each wondering why he does not find it, each firmly persuaded that somewhere or other it is to be found.

Oh my, it is indeed to be found and nowhere more intensely than at God’s right hand in His word. I’m camping out in Tampa these two days in hopes of gaining greater proficiency in my study of the Bible for our mutually exceeding joy and intense pleasure.