A Season of Marathons

I received this earlier this week from Jared Combs (new member at OGC) with a little help from Jillian Groeneveld:

I’m not much of a writer, so Jill has agreed to help me with this article. The Lord has spoken so many priceless things to me recently so this is my attempt at jotting them down.  As I ran the Disney marathon a few weeks ago and then reflected on it, I started seeing the symbolism between the journey of a marathon and the season of life I’m in these days. [It’s not like I was hurting for time to reflect as I ran 26.2 miles over a period of 6 hours!]  The message wasn’t complex but simply fitting for where I am right now.

In 2005, as a freshman at Flagler College we took a class trip to Disney’s Magic Kingdom as part of the Orientation week. It was my first week at college and my drug and alcohol addiction was already gaining speed. I woke up around 5:30 a.m. to begin drinking liquor so that when I got on the bus at 6:30 a.m. to make the journey from St. Augustine to Orlando I would already be drunk. I brought along a bag of cocaine and a couple of marijuana joints that I had rolled the night before. We arrived and I felt that I was the life of the party trying to fill a void inside with alcohol, drugs, the acceptance of my peers, and girls. A few hours went by and as my buzz from alcohol wore off, I went into a bathroom and used a little over $100 worth of cocaine with a so called “buddy” of mine. Later as we came down from the coke we returned to the bathroom to smoke the joints to relieve any feelings of withdrawal that came after the coke high.

On January 8, 2012 I awoke at 2:30 a.m. to take a shower and get ready for the Disney Marathon. I had been running for a little more than 5 months, and after completing a half marathon with my fiancé Jillian about a month earlier, we were off to run our first full marathon. There might not be a better place then Disney to do it! We took off with 21,000 other people on this daunting task to finish what, as legends hold, killed a man named Pheidippides in the first century in Athens, Greece. Jillian and I saw my parents at the castle as we ran through Magic Kingdom at mile 10. [Mom & Dad faithfully drove us to the race, cheered us on, and brought us home as we whined!]  Shortly after seeing their faces, we ran through the rest of Magic Kingdom. I hadn’t thought about that day in 2005 in a long while, but before reaching mile 11, we came around a corner and directly in front of us was that same bathroom I got high in over 7 years ago.

It all flashed through my head! The death and destruction of my addiction, how far the Lord has brought me as I celebrate the sixth year of my sobriety the day before our wedding (April 14!), the fact I was running next to my wife-to-be, and how God has blessed me with a purpose to reach other addicts. It’s amazing to be reminded that God is in the redemption business even if it’s through an experience in a bathroom at a theme park.

The larger symbolic message the Lord spoke to me through the marathon concerns the season of life I am in. I have been a great sprinter my whole life and we’re not talking about athletics. I believe John Maxwell said, “My gifts and abilities can take me farther than my character can hold me.” This has proven true repeatedly throughout my life as I have battled addiction, pain, severe loss, sin, and numerous decisions that have caused me to form Ishmael’s in my life. But now I’m in a new season – a season of sustained and focused strength as I look to the Lord, or try to look to Him, more than Jared. It’s a season where I don’t sprint only to fall short of the race God has called me to. Instead it’s a race like a marathon that goes the distance because I’m not running alone anymore – Christ is hand-in-hand with me! He has surrounded me with godly brothers to help me with this, but even more significantly He has provided a wife! This will be unlike any other relationship I have ever had. It won’t be short; I won’t quit before obtaining the goal; injury won’t occur like in the past; and I’m not running alone. Jillian and I have trained together for a race of 26.2 miles, but that is only one of the marathons we will run together. We are embarking on marriage and the rest of our lives. Placing all confidence in Christ, we will finish strong and together!

A Tale of Four Households

By tale I don’t mean fiction. Each family referenced in this post once existed or does now actually exist. These tales relate fact, some of it hard-to-swallow, down right mind blowing truth.

Household #1 – Ezekiel the prophet’s.

Every year as I read through the entirety of the Bible I always come up short when I reach Ezekiel 24:15-18.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.

God employed His prophet during unique times of judgment ministering among His people during exile in Babylon. The Lord put numerous difficult requirements upon Ezekiel in the object-lesson-like way He spoke to rebellious Israel through the prophet, but none more staggering in its implications than this one. He slew His servant’s wife, none other than the delight of his eyes. The sovereign Lord of the universe, at a stroke, struck down the man’s bride. Additionally, to suit His purposes of pressing home conviction for Israel’s hardness of heart in the face of judgment, God prohibited Ezekiel from demonstrating any grief (Ezek. 24:19-24).

Remarkably, Ezekiel treasured the Lord more than the delight of his eyes and did as he was commanded. This man did not worship at the altar of his marriage. His wife was no idol. God’s purposes trumped everything, even long life with his beloved, in this servant’s journey toward a better country (Heb. 11:16).

Household #2 – Dr. R. C. Sproul, Jr.’s

Dr. Sproul, a teaching fellow at Ligonier Ministries, lost his wife, Denise, at the tender age of 46 this past Sunday morning after three different battles with cancer. She left behind not just her bereaved husband, but eight children as well, ages 2 to 18. I represented the OGC leadership at the memorial service the morning of this writing, extending our condolences and assuring of our prayers.

Not surprisingly, given the affinity for Reformed theology in the Ligonier and St. Andrew’s families, all who spoke waved high the banner of God’s sovereignty over the hard providence of loss, not at all unlike the account of Ezekiel 24. “The Lord took her home” and phrases like it were spoken without reservation as if this were something God had done. The Lord gave and He has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). Fortunately for Dr. Sproul Jr. and all in attendance, no prohibition of grieving held sway over the sorrowful yet rejoicing occasion (2 Cor. 6:10).

I am told our dear sister went home to her reward to take up residence in the suite Jesus had prepared especially for her (John 14:2) around 6 AM that Sunday. I am further told that the St. Andrews family gathered for worship as usual later that morning and that Dr. Sproul, Jr. attended. I count him among that brave and happy band of brothers who, even in the grip of staggering loss, resolves to do as God commands.

Household #3 – Mine

Today Nancy and I mark our 37th anniversary. This morning I went to a colleague in the gospel’s memorial service for his bride. Tonight I will take my bride to a restaurant and celebrate nearly four decades of covenant marriage and ministry partnership. The irony of the confluence of these things on the same day was not lost on me, especially as a cancer survivor enjoying over six years cancer free after my life-and-death battle with the disease in 2005.

As I drove to the memorial service, I asked. Why me, Lord? Why do I get to dine with the delight of my eyes while this man with a far greater stewardship of ministry and breadth of impact than I will ever have buries the delight of his eyes this Christmas?

Only one answer suffices – the sovereignty of God. The same banner flies over all three households. “What do you have that you did not receive” (1 Cor. 4:7). “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me (John 21:22)!”

Whatever the providence, bitter or sweet, hard or soft, good or bad, in life and death, for the follower of Jesus who loves Christ more than life and wife and breadth, there can be only one response at ever turn. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Josh. 24:15). By His grace and through His power we will do as He commands as High King of heaven, God the Father over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:6).

Household #4 – Yours

Providence shapes your experience this Christmas season and into 2012 and beyond. All your circumstances, past, present, and future come through the hand of the One whose counsel stands accomplishing all His purpose (Isaiah 46:10) and works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

In all those providences, one question remains. Will you do as He commands for His glory and your greater joy?

God's Astonishing Design for Marriage

This Saturday in our Oxford Club meeting for men we will continue our discussion of Richard Phillips’ book The Masculine Mandate.

We will turn from the theological ground work laid in part one of the book to the practical application of those principles especially and primarily within marriage. Phillips says some provocative things in this chapter, particularly in his counsel to single men. That should generate some interesting discussion!

But he makes some profound insights about God’s design in marriage, especially in terms of our sanctification that results from making the choice to “hold fast” or “cleave” or as he calls it “bond” to a wife.

But bonding changes us. It requires us to give things up, to live differently than we did previously. Exactly! God did not make man to live for himself. God did not put Adam in the garden to be infatuated with his tools and his toys and his self-centered lifestyle. He put Adam there to work and keep, cultivating, nurturing, and protecting that which God had entrusted to Him. And the first step for many of us in becoming the men God wants us to be is to become married, so that we will leave behind our selfish ways and begin fulfilling our masculine calling through our relationships with our wives. This is for our good, as any man in a godly marriage can tell you. It is great to have a helper designed by God to love and minister to me. But it is especially good to have to rise up in masculine virtue and strength for the sake of my wife, leaving behind a self-focus that was, at best, only intended for a temporary season of singleness (p. 64).

Gents, why not bring your own breakfast at 7 AM at the church office this Saturday and join us for some iron-sharpening-iron ministry to one another as we seek to fulfill our masculine mandate as men at OGC?

How Don't I Love Thee?

Valentine’s Day.

Upon finishing this post, I will grill for my bride and we will spend our 35th February 14th together cocooning at home. What a gift.

I confess I’m not much of a poet or even lover of poetry (much to my detriment, I suspect), but my thoughts turned today to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous Sonnet 43, as I think of the love I have for Nancy.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Missing from the all in those last three lines of how I love my wife, I must all too painfully admit, until of late, would be prayers. Breath, smiles, tears, and prayers, of all my life.

The conviction of this lack came strong from God at the Desiring God pastor’s conference a couple of weeks ago with Joel Beeke’s message on family worship. In the panel discussion the day after that message, someone asked the speakers how well they fare in applying the principles Dr. Beeke taught from the example of the Puritans. Beeke himself claimed to have never failed in one day of 22 years of marriage to have prayed with his wife, even from the road when he travels! I felt about two inches tall.

Francis Chan, on the other hand, brought things back to the reality for most of us, I suspect, when he admitted he might pray with his bride once a week at best. He admitted that Beeke’s message hit him hard. No duh.

Then John Piper chimed in with his admission that he finds it easy to pray in public as a pastor but hard to pray in private with his wife. He added, “If we show in public an intimacy with the most important relationship we have vertically with God by the way we pray, but fail to demonstrate that in the most intimate relationship we have horizontally, something is amiss.” He got that right. Knock me down another inch.

So I came home from Minneapolis determined to do differently. Have to admit, last night, I dropped the ball again. Praise God for the gospel. But by and large the Lord has helped me take a different tack in our home and I am grateful.

How do I love thee, dear Nancy? Lord, help me to repent in the most grievous way I do not.

Dads in the Gap

Learned something I didn’t know before from the DG pastor’s conference this week.

Rick Husband, the commander of the Shuttle Columbia that disintegrated upon reentry to earth’s atmosphere back in February of 2003, loved Jesus and cared deeply for his wife and children.

Before he lifted off into space, Husband recorded a series of videos of him leading family worship for every one of the days he would spend away from them in space. He also led a weekly prayer group at his church called Dads in the Gap.

A portion of a videotape of his was played at the memorial service at his church. In it he said this:

If I ended up at the end of my life having been an astronaut, but having sacrificed my family along the way or living my life in a way that didn’t glorify God, then I would look back on it with great regret. Having become an astronaut would not really have mattered all that much. And I finally came to realize that what really meant the most to me was to try and live my life the way God wanted me to and to try and be a good husband to Evelyn and to be a good father to my children.

Joel Beeke referenced Husband and his passion for leading his home in family worship in a message well worth hearing by every family man.

You can listen to the audio here.

May God give us men who stand in the gap for their wives and children.

Two Are Better Than One

Tomorrow at 3 PM, Lord willing, I will have the privilege of marrying my son, Joshua, to his betrothed, Emily in a park in south Orlando.

I plan to present my message charge to them from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

There is a scene in the movie Gladiator where Maximus, played by Russell Crowe, leads a group of fighters into the Roman Coliseum to face not one another, but some unknown foe. The gladiators have no idea what kind of battle awaits them. Just before they step into the arena, Maximus pleads with them: If we stick together, we have a much better chance of surviving whatever is going to come out of the other tunnels.

He invoked, knowingly or unknowingly, a principle of ancient wisdom contained in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 4. It was written by one of the wisest men to ever live – King Solomon. And it is supremely applicable to the reality of marriage. Two are better than one. It follows some verses where Solomon laments the emptiness of a person swallowed by greed who works feverishly all his life without anyone at all with which to share his life.

The reason two are better than one, v. 9 goes on to say, is because they have a good reward for their toil. The Old Testament usually uses the word reward to refer to wages rendered for work done. But here it has a wider application to that which brings a satisfactory or pleasant outcome. And nowhere is that perhaps more true than in marriage, though this passage actually never says anything at all about marriage. It speaks to the superiority of companionship on any and every level over and against the inferiority of isolation.

But clearly we aren’t off base when we apply it to marriage when we consider God Himself and His estimation of the condition of aloneness in the Garden of Eden in Gen. 2:18 when He first created the institution of marriage. It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him. It’s not good, this alone thing. As a rule, though there are exceptions, two are better than one when it comes to that part of the image of God in man that is his mandate to exercise dominion and subdue the earth.

Married couples are meant to participate in the larger story of what God is doing on His earth. He leads couples to understand that together they can be more effective than apart as regent and vice-regent in the task. If this was true with Adam and Eve before their fall into sin and rebellion, how much more is it true now after sin has tainted everything in the human experience?

Every time we attend a wedding it should remind us of the gift of companionship of all kinds and the advantage it brings to our call to execute our God-given stewardship on this earth.

Hug your spouse and/or friend tomorrow and say a prayer for Josh and Em whom I toasted this way at the rehearsal dinner on Friday night:

Long life, lasting love, ferocious commitment, and the daily experience of what the wisdom writer said, “Two are better than one.”

The Marriage Bed

Ever on the lookout for additional helpful resources for areas of pastoral ministry, I recently came upon a new booklet by Ray Rhodes, Jr. entitled The Marriage Bed (Books That Nourish, Dawsonville, GA, 2010, 32 pages).

In some thirty years of premarital counseling this little gem is the first manual on sexual intimacy in Christian marriage that I have ever felt the freedom to give to a couple preparing for marriage. Here’s why.

Rhodes faithfully and responsibly addresses the pertinent biblical texts including Heb. 13:4 (at length), 1 Cor. 7:3-5, and selected verses from the Song of Solomon. On the latter the author particularly excels in my estimation. In his quest to exegete faithfully the text, avoiding the tendency to over spiritualize the text, he does not over sexualize the text. He does not find meaning and application where it cannot legitimately be found. I appreciate his fidelity to sound principles of interpretation in his quest to help couples through the maze of proper expression of passion, creativity, and delight in their sexual expression.

Rhodes makes the booklet immensely practical throughout with various applications to the Scriptures he expounds. Most helpful at the end is a seven day plan for cultivating intimacy in one’s marriage, a daily plan to that end that the newest married couple to the oldest will find quite helpful.

He also includes a suggested reading list at the end of the booklet with a recommendation that reveals the gospel heart driving his passion (no pun intended) for promoting healthy sexual expression within the confines of biblical marriage.

I took the risk of purchasing 50 of these booklets in a special offer from one distributor on the strength of these recommendations:

“I highly recommend this book. It is a clear, biblical and practical guide to marital intimacy.”
– Dr. Tom Ascol,
Executive Director of Founder’s Ministries

“Get this booklet! In the overly sexualized society that is America today, Ray Rhodes has provided an invaluable service by helping us to think biblically about sex to the glory of God. In a format that is deceptively brief and affordable, Rhodes hands out solid treasures from God’s word that will enrich the lives of every husband and wife who read it. While carefully avoiding the excessive permissiveness or restrictiveness that mar other works, Rhodes is biblical, personal, practical, helpful and enjoyable!”
– Bruce A. Ray
, author of Withhold Not Correction and Celebrating the Sabbath, and Secretary of FIRE (Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals). Bruce is Pastor of Juanita Community Church in Kirkland, WA.

“Marital intimacy is one of the Lord’s greatest gifts to his creatures. Sadly, many couples fail to experience the fullness of that gift. Pastor Ray Rhodes skillfully and sensitively brings husbands and wives to the word of the Creator to rediscover his beautiful design for the marriage bed in this wonderfully helpful book.”
– John Crotts,
co-author Tying the Knot Tighter: Because Marriage Lasts a Lifetime (with Martha Peace). John is also the author of Mighty Men and Craftsmen

I debated making this resource available on our book table at the SDA on Sundays but thought better of it in the interest of exercising extreme care in not exposing young eyes to content they do not need to see.

If you would like a copy for you and your spouse, please don’t hesitate to contact the office or shoot me a confidential email and request one. The cost is only $3 and I would be happy to see that you receive a copy.

30-Day Spouse Encouragement Challenge

Nancy Leigh DeMoss has a one-page article in the Spring 2010 issue of Life Action Ministries Revive magazine that recently caught my attention. She called it The 30-Day Husband Encouragement Challenge.

She leads with Proverbs 31:12 which says that the virtuous wife does her husband good, and not harm, all the days of her life. One way to do that, Demoss argues, is through encouragement.

She issues this two-part challenge:

  1. For the next 30 days, commit to say nothing negative about your husband–not to him, and not to anyone else about him.
  2. Every day for the next 30 days, tell your husband something that you appreciate about him; then tell someone else about it.

Among the numerous responses from women who have taken the challenge illustrating  the power of affirmation of encouragement was this one:

This hasn’t been easy going for me. There’s a lot of hurt and anger and resentment toward my husband to overcome. But you have encouraged me to remember why I fell in love with this guy, what was so special about him. You’ve given me hope for my marriage. I may not be able to change my husband, but I can change m heart and attitude toward him with God’s help. My husband is talking to me more–really talking from his heart. We still have a long way to go, but it is working. Every day gets a little easier, and some of that anger and resentment is fading away. I married a great man. I have just forgotten to nurture him in the day-to-day busyness of our lives. I love my husband (emphasis added).

It seems to me that the challenge can certainly cut both ways. Husbands may very well need to take on the same commitment toward their wives.

Perhaps this is something of what Paul means when he writes in Romans 12:21, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Does God want you to take the 30-day spouse challenge?

Titus 3:2 & Marital Communication

When I do marriage counseling as a pastor I often hear the same lament. We just don’t know how to communicate.

Recently I heard it again. The couple described the tenor of the relationship as one of yelling at each other, and not just occasionally but fairly often.

I immediately thought of Titus 3:2. Paul exhorts Titus to instruct believers in the church at Crete on how to live out the gospel in a life of good works in the world. Among other things that includes speaking evil of no one, avoiding quarreling, being gentle, and showing perfect courtesy toward all people.

I made the secondary application to marriage for obvious reasons. Who more important to show perfect courtesy toward than your spouse?

That led to a list of principles of communication in marriage or any relationship for that matter rooted in a Titus 3:2 theology of peacemaking.

  1. Stay in the “I” and avoid the “you.” In other words, self-report, don’t accuse. Instead of saying, You are judging me when you say something like that, frame things something like this: I struggle with feeling judged when I hear something like that.
  2. Listen carefully. Don’t interrupt. I don’t know how many times in marital counseling I hear a spouse talk over their partner rather than hearing things out to the end.
  3. Do everything you can by the power of the gospel to stay composed. Once your conversation deteriorates to yelling you’ve lost the battle and maybe the war.
  4. Ask questions in order to draw out the heart. Instead of stating conclusions and making ultimatums, seek to get at what’s behind your spouse’s position or choices by asking things like, Can you help me understand why that matters so much to you?
  5. Give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible that the problem may be only a failure to communicate rather than a deliberate sin. One of my most often used proverbial expressions is Never underestimate the capacity for communication to break down. Work hard to communicate so as not to be misunderstood, not just to be understood.
  6. Practice the golden rule. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Ask yourself if your manner of communicating reflects how you would want someone else to engage you in a conflict or misunderstanding. If it doesn’t, repent.
  7. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger (Eph. 4:26). Few things hinder communication more than failing to deal decisively and constructively with your anger in a timely manner.
  8. If you haven’t already done so, read Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker or Peacemaking for Families. You’ll have to anyway if you come to me for marital counseling for further help on your communication. Might as well get a leg up on the homework.

Marital dynamics in one sense aren’t rocket science. Paul boiled it down to two things in Eph. 5:33. Wives need love from their husbands and husbands need respect from their wives. Men, does the way you communicate reflect love? Women, does the way you communicate reflect respect? If the banner of Titus 3:2 waves over the way you communicate with your spouse, the answer will be yes.