The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Month: November 2014

Content with Christ

P.AllanWhat would a phone-photo of contented you look  like?  Mine would be wife and me relaxing on the sunny beach reading and talking.  Ah, but most of life isn’t beach.  It’s noisy kids or struggling business or chronic illness or dirty laundry or bill pile or some combination of other un-beach-like stuff.

That spells trouble when contentment naturally depends on satisfying circumstances.  But the apostle Paul, under house-arrest in Rome, wrote, “I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor” (Philippians 4:12, CEB).

I want to learn that.  So I’m reading 17th century Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs’ book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, and noting his main points and my responses to them.  In chapters 5 and 6 he explains what I have to learn from Christ to be content.

Self-Denial. Burroughs hits his puritanical high when he explains I should think of myself as “worse than nothing”, so that my expectations aren’t too high and I fall into discontent.  I disagree (see my last blog post).  But following Jesus does demand denying self-fulfillment on my terms, even to the point of laying down my life for him.  It was on his way to the cross when Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross . . . ” (Mark 8:34).  Though he wasn’t speaking in the context of contentment, it’s clear that contentment demands saying “no” to fulfillment on my own terms, and “yes” to it on his.  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).  Burroughs comments:  “If a man is selfish and self-love prevails in his heart, he will be glad of those things that suit with his own ends, but a godly man who has denied himself will suit with and be glad of all things that shall suit with God’s ends.”  Seeking God’s ends while denying my own teaches contentment.

Creature Vanity.  ” . . . whatever there is in the creature there is an emptiness in it” (Burroughs).   Again:  ” . . . it is not because you have not got enough of [the things of this world], but because [they are not the things] that are  proportionable to the immortal soul God has given you.”  The words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes:  “” . . . vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:1,3).  The prophet Isaiah:  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (55:2). And the prophet Jeremiah:  ” . . . my people have committed two evils:  they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (2:13).  Contentment comes from seeking the God for whom we were created, not vain, transient, empty things of the creature.

One Necessary Thing.   My To-Do list shrunk when disability drove me to retire.  Even so, I still don’t get everything done.  How did I ever meet all the demands of a 30-year-old husband/father/pastor?  At times I was like Martha setting the table, cooking the feast and perfuming her sweat.  Exasperated, she goes to Jesus and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me.”  Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:40-42).  Mary had chosen to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his teaching (Luke 10:39).  How to do that in these busy days may be a puzzle, but the lesson is obvious, no?

Soul to World.  “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles . . . Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles . . . ” (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11a).  “And they admitted they were strangers and exiles on earth” (Hebrews 11:3).    Years ago I spent a week on business in Waco, Texas.  The afternoon before I was to head back to New Jersey, I drove to the airport hotel to be ready for my morning flight.  I ate alone in the restaurant.  Returned to my room by myself.  Laid in bed with no one next to me.  I felt like I didn’t belong.  But I didn’t complain.  I was content, because I knew I was just passing through.  In the morning I would be off to a far better place—home.   Burroughs writes:  ” . . . God has set me in this world, not as in my home, but as a mere stranger and a pilgrim who is traveling to another home . . . a right understanding of [the relationship of the soul to the world] is a mighty help to contentment in whatever befalls. . . ”

* * *

I have to learn contentment.  That’s what Paul did:  “I have learned to be content . . . ”  I learn from reading Scripture.  (That’s the easy part.)  And I learn from practicing in life the lessons from the Book.  (That’s the hard part.)  But contentment can come no other way.  So I push on in the process, trusting the power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ to make this slow learner, who doesn’t deserve it, satisfied with Jesus who made me for himself.

 

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American Thanksgiving

O Preacher

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Hard to imagine a letter like this from the President today, isn’t it!  Of course, the nation is far less culturally Christian.  Now we have citizens of all religious stripes.  We feel the need to be “politically correct” and to “separate Church and State”—which has come to mean the erasure of virtually all religious reference from the public square.

Yet, while respecting religious freedom, we must acknowledge  that humans possess an innate knowledge of God—knowledge we typically twist to selfish ends and to our own version of God.  Listen to Paul . . .

“For although they knew God (through his clear revelation in creation–Romans 1:19,20), they did not honor him as God or gives thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images . . . Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity . . . ” (Romans 1:21-23a,24a).

Read the entire section—Romans 1:18-32—and it becomes frighteningly evident that a pivotal step toward coming under the wrath of God is refusing to honor God as God and give thanks to him.  How far America has fallen in a century and a-half!  Today folks gathered around “Thanksgiving” tables may tell what they’re thankful for but not to whom.

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9,10). 

May we, who have been born again to a living hope according to God’s great mercy through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, bless him with our praise  (1 Peter 1:3).  Let’s return to the “ancient paths” to which Jeremiah called the people (Jeremiah 6:16).  Let’s consider “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy” (Lincoln).  And, even though God has been merciful to this whole country, may we be among the faithful remnant who, like the one healed leper out of ten, return and give praise to God (Luke 17:11-19).

 

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Ferguson 2

O PreacherHere’s another thoughtful, challenging article about events in Ferguson—this one sent me by my friend, Jason Zaccone.  Thanks, Jason!

#Ferguson: A Gospel Issue

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
-Langston Hughes

It was in my college Liberation Theology class back in 1990 that I first discovered different ‘Gospel’ perspectives – perspectives from those steeped in death and persecution, suffering and scarcity.  We spent evenings at my professors house reading and discussing Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and a host of African and Asian liberation theologians.  It may have been the first ‘aha’ moment for me, the first realization that the Gospel wasn’t just about getting saved and voting pro-life.

A next significant time came during the year I lived with Tom in the hood in Chicago.  Though I grew up on Long Island with great diversity, I was a suburban kid, mostly protected from the issues Tom grew up with.  Tom was black, and he showed me and told me how different it was for him to leave the apartment and walk down the street.  Here again, I was challenged to wrestle with whether or not the ‘Gospel’ had something to say about Tom’s everyday fear.

In the past 20 or so years, it was been those who I pastor as well as clients I’ve cared for who’ve helped me understand that my life, as a white man with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed wife and daughters, is and will always be different…and privileged.  Even in our mostly Asian neighborhood in San Francisco, we were beloved, celebrities in a way.  I haven’t experienced the kinds of things I’ve heard described by Tom, and by many folks I’ve counseled and cared for.  I haven’t been ignored by waitresses in restaurants, targeted by suspicious law enforcement officers, followed, stared down.  I haven’t been overlooked for a job or a loan.  I’ve rarely felt altogether different.  I haven’t been labeled as “angry” or walked down the street anxiously or wondered what I should wear or how quickly I could walk or what might make me look like a criminal to another.  These have not been my worries.  But they have been Tom’s, and many, many others.

What I’ve seen is that in my privileged white world, the ‘Gospel’ is domesticated.  Ferguson is not on our radar.  I’d dare say for many white evangelicals, today is just another day.  The real scandal would be if some prominent evangelical wrote a pro-LGBTQ book, for instance.  The Gospel is tamed, reduced, narrowed.  It becomes a balm for guilt-ridden souls who crave 140-character tweets reminding us that we’re accepted, but it hardly seems applicable to what is happening in Ferguson.  And, after all, isn’t what is happening there really just about some angry black folks who’ve, once again, made a much bigger deal out of something that clearly was the result of a young black man’s aggression against a police officer?

We don’t get it, friends.  And we can’t, and won’t, until we walk a hundred miles in the shoes of someone very different than us or until our friendships reflect the diversity of society.  Statistics show, in fact, that we have the least diverse social network – 91% white, and only one-percent black.  We naively think that changes in voting rights some forty years ago solved the problem of race.  And as Christians, we become incensed at a Facebook dialogue about abortion or homosexuality, but hardly understand the fury of young black men and women in the streets last night who feel so powerless that throwing stones and burning things provide some outlet, albeit a tragic one, for a voice.  As MLK Jr said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”  But we’ll say, “You see…they are so angry.  Why do they always have to make it about race?”  I’ve heard this so much that my stomach turns and I’ve finally begun calling people out.

This leads me to the important point that Ferguson is a Gospel issue.  Yes, it’s a justice issue and a race issue.  But it’s a Gospel issue.  Now, if you have a tamed and domesticated Gospel tuned into your particular moral litmus test issues, you won’t see this.  But St. Paul did.  For St. Paul, the core of the Gospel was about reconciliation – God and sinner, Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free (Gal. 3:28).  This was the necessary implication of justification by faith alone.  Justification was never simply a get out of jail free card, an individualistic guilt-appeasement balm.  Justification opens the gates to freedom, to reconciliation, to wholeness inside and out.  It puts into contact with the outsider, the person who’ll make us feel uncomfortable, the different – a sexual, racial, and geographic outsider (Acts 8), for example.  It puts us into contact these cut-off parts of ourselves.  It levels the playing field; the powerful are brought down and the powerless are brought up.  And the Gospel invitation, particularly for those of us with privilege, is to go down willingly, to be crucified with Christ, to be the ptochos – impoverished, broken, brought to the end of ourselves, dying like that grain of wheat that must fall to the ground to bear fruit.  All for the sake of the other.  We must go, as hard as it is, first to listen.  We must just begin with listening, though our souls have become so attuned to the endless political chatter and certitude of the Hannity’s and Maddow’s.

Jesus would have been in Ferguson last night.  He wouldn’t have paid a whole lot of attention to a decision on the indictment.  He knows better than any of us how “facts” can be aligned with whatever narrative is preferred.  He wouldn’t have been wearing a hat or t-shirt for a particular side.  No, I think Jesus would have been there standing alongside the family of Michael Brown, holding them, crying with them.  I think Jesus would sit with Officer Wilson, naming the fear and anxiety and anger he was feeling, and reminding him that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  I think he’d be with young men and women who went to bed confused and ashamed that they had participated in violence, looted stores, and started fires.  He’d say, “I get it.  I see the anger.  I’m not going anywhere.  Let’s talk.”

Jesus crosses the barriers.  His Gospel is not domesticated, it is invasive, courageous, pursuing.  God became man, crossing the ultimate barrier, crossing into death, going down, going further than I’d ever want to go.  But we need to, now, with courage.

Far more hinges on how we meet one another from here on out than on an indictment in Ferguson, MO.  Until my white (mostly evangelical) brothers and sisters are as impassioned by this as they are the next Rob Bell book, I don’t see much changing.  And when I say that, I’m not saying that you need to get behind an indictment but get behind your black brothers and sisters, to get into their worlds, their realities, their sufferings.  I’m saying we need to ask questions, to listen, to exercise holy curiosity.  I’m saying that we might have blindspots, might not see so clearly.  I’m saying that we really just don’t get it, at a fundamental level, and must make ourselves available for metanoia.  I’m saying that we need to knock on a black neighbor’s door and say, “I’m sorry I’ve never come by.  I’m confused by everything that is going on, and I wonder if I’m missing something.  I need your help”  We are addicts of privilege and power, and it’s time we acknowledge that we need help.

If we can be fueled by the same passion that led Jesus to cross the ultimate barrier and St. Paul to leave the nest of Jerusalem and cross barriers that left him imprisoned and reviled and ultimately murdered himself, perhaps then we will see the Good News through Isaiah’s eyes:

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
    and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
17 The effect of righteousness will be peace,
    and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
18 My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
    in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. (Isa. 32)

I pray for peaceful habitation, for quiet and secure dwellings in Ferguson today.

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Ferguson

In early August my wife and I, along with seven of our nine children, left for a month-long ministry tour in Africa (Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa). It was a couple of days before we got settled and had any access to media. As such, I was taken aback when I began to receive Google alerts, emails, and Facebook and Twitter messages either demanding that I comment on “Ferguson,” or condemning me for failing to do so. The only problem was, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. Who, what, or where was Ferguson? Why was it such a big deal? Why was I being condemned (along with other “high-profile” evangelicals) for “failing to speak out on such an important issue”?I eventually got up to speed. Or at least I found out what all the fuss was about. Over the next several weeks I viewed this issue from a unique perspective. I was an American in Africa watching an issue ignite ethnic tensions in my homeland. It was almost surreal.

Who Am I to Speak?

My first response to Ferguson was to say nothing. I was on the outside looking in. I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know the communities or the issues surrounding the tensions. Second, I chose to remain silent because people were demanding that I speak—even condemning me for my silence. In this age of “I sure would love to hear your thoughts on” I get tired of the sense of entitlement with which people approach those whom they deem to be popular or high-profile Christians. No one is “entitled” to my opinion. Nor is my faithfulness to God determined by how quickly I respond to “relevant” issues.

As a pastor, I have a responsibility to my flock. If those for whose souls I care (Heb. 13:17) want help thinking through these issues, I am obligated to them. I have a duty to walk them through issues like these to the best of my ability, and with sensitivity to their particular needs. What worries me is that Christians in the age of social media care more what “popular” preachers have to say on issues like this (and whether or not they agree with other “popular” preachers) than they are about taking advantage of an opportunity to work through challenges in the context of Christian community. More importantly, it worries me that so many Christians view themselves primarily as members of this or that ethnic community more than they see themselves as members of the body of Christ.

The Plight of Black Men

Rest assured, I do believe there are systemic issues plaguing black men. These issues are violence, criminality, and immorality, to name a few. And all of these issues are rooted in and connected to the epidemic of fatherlessness. Any truly gospel-centered response to the plight of black men must address these issues first and foremost. It does no good to change the way white police officers respond to black men if we don’t first address the fact that these men’s fathers have not responded to them appropriately.

There is indeed an epidemic of violence against black men. However, that violence, more often than not, occurs at the hands of other black men. In fact, black men are several times more likely to be murdered at the hands of another black man than they are to be killed by the police. For instance, in the FBI homicide stats from 2012, there were 2,648 blacks murdered. Of those, 2,412 were murdered by members of their own ethnic group. Thus, if I am going to speak out about anything, it will be black-on-black crime; not blue-on-black. I want to apply the gospel and its implications in a way that addresses the real issue. If a few black men being killed by cops requires a national “dialogue,” what in the world does the overwhelming number of black-on-black murders require? If the police do not see black men through the proper gospel-centered, image-of-God lens, what does the black-on-black murder rate say about the way we see ourselves?

In addition to violence, black men are plagued with criminality. Low-income black communities like Ferguson know all too well that black criminals preying on their neighbors makes life almost unlivable. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, I know all too well what it’s like to have bars on the windows and doors for fear that thugs will break in to steal or kill. I remember being robbed at gunpoint on my way home from the store one day. It was one of the most frightening and disheartening events of my life. The fear, helplessness, and anger I felt stayed with me for years. And it taught me an unfortunate lesson: the greatest threat to me was other black men.

The underlying malady that gives rise to all the rest of these epidemics is immorality and fatherlessness. We know that fatherlessness is the number one indicator of future violence, dropout rates, out-of-wedlock births, and future incarceration. And in the black community, more than 70 percent of all children are born out of wedlock! Fatherlessness is the bane of the black community.

Nor is this plague forced on us. It is as common as morning dew, and as overlooked as dust under a refrigerator. Where are the marches against this travesty? Where are the protestors who demand better? Where are the black “leaders” who . . . oh, that’s right, they have just as many illegitimate children as anyone else. Again, it is common knowledge that this is the most immediate root cause of the ills plaguing black Americans.

But What About Racism?

I have been pulled over by police for no apparent reason. In fact, it has happened on more than one occasion. I was stopped in Westwood while walking with a friend of mine who was a student at UCLA. We found ourselves lying face down on the sidewalk while officers questioned us. On another occasion, I was stopped while with my uncle. I remember his visceral response as he looked at me and my cousin (his son). The look in his eye was one of humiliation and anger. He looked at the officer and said, “My brother and I didn’t fight in Vietnam so you could treat me like this in front of my son and my nephew.”

Again, this experience stayed with me for years. And for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.

I don’t care what advantages my white neighbor may or may not have. If he does have advantages, God bless him! I no more fault him than I fault my own children who have tremendous advantages due to the fact that they were raised by two educated, Christian parents who loved, disciplined, and taught them. Ironically, when I think about THAT advantage, I am filled with joy and gratitude to God for his faithfulness. People are supposed to bequeath an advantage to their children and grandchildren (Prov. 13:22). Why, then, would I be angry with my white neighbor for any advantage he is purported to have? And what good would it do? How does that advance the gospel? Especially in light of the fact that growing up with the gospel is the ultimate privilege/advantage! It is the advantage that has granted us all “American privilege”! Are we guilty for being citizens of the wealthiest republic in the history of the world? I think not!

As a father of seven black men, I tell them to be aware of the fact that there may be times when they may get a closer look, an unwelcome stop, or worse. However, I do not tell them that this means they need to live with a chip on their shoulder, or that the world is out to get them. I certainly don’t tell them that they need to go out and riot (especially when that involves destroying black-owned businesses). I tell them that there are people in the world who need to get to know black people as opposed to just knowing “about” us. I tell them that they will do far more good interacting with those people and shining the light of Christ than they will carrying picket signs. I tell them, “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’” (Rom. 12:19). And I tell them that there are worse things than suffering injustice. That is why we must heed Peter’s words:

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet. 3:15–17)

In the end, the best lesson my children can learn from Ferguson is not that they need to be on the lookout for white cops. It is far more important that I use this teachable moment to remind them that “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). Moments before his death, Michael Brown had violently robbed a man in a store. A man doing the best he could to make a living. Minutes later, Brown reaped what he sowed, and was gunned down in the street. That is the sad truth.

My sons have far more to fear from making bad choices than they have to fear from the police. The overwhelming majority of police officers are decent people just trying to make a living. They are much more likely to help you than to harm you. A life of thuggery, however, is NEVER your friend. In the end, it will cost you . . . sometimes, it costs you everything.

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Discontent with a Dead Saint

P.AllanYou are nothing.  You deserve nothing.  Apart from Christ you can do nothing.  You can’t receive any good without spoiling it.  You can’t make use of anything if God withdraws himself.  You are worse than nothing.  And you will cause no loss when you perish.

That, writes Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs (The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment) is what we must learn about ourselves if we are to deny ourselves, as Jesus taught on his way to the cross.  (“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself . . . ” (Mark 10:34b).  And we must deny ourselves, if we are to learn contentment whatever our situation (” I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”—Paul, Philippians 4:11).

Whoa!  Wait just a minute now!  I can’t argue with a “dead saint” (17th century Burroughs) over his interpretation of self-denial.  But I can say if we push the doctrine of total depravity to its extreme, outsiders may dismiss our gospel out of hand and we may be guilty of de-glorifying (is that a word?) God.  Let me digress from our “contentment” theme to discuss depravity.

In his book, Five Points, John Piper discusses the five points of Calvinism/Reformed Theology.  The first is total depravity.  Piper writes:  “Our sinful corruption is so deep and so strong as to make us slaves of sin and morally unable to overcome our own rebellion and blindness.  This inability to save ourselves from ourselves is total.  We are utterly dependent on God’s grace to overcome our rebellion, give us eyes to see, and effectively draw us to the Savior.”  Again, “In summary, total depravity means that our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sinful, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.”

I believe it, because I believe Scriptures such as these . . .

  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (Jesus, John 8:34).
  • “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10).
  • ” . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
  • “For the mind that is set on the flesh (that is, the mind without the indwelling Spirit of Christ) is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot” (Romans 8:7)
  • “And you were (before you believed in Christ by his grace) dead in . . . trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).

But what is meant by total depravity?  Piper’s explanation may suggest that, apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ, we can do nothing good.  Our depravity (corruption,evil,perversion)is total.  If Piper (and Calvin, etc.) mean “total” in the sense that no part of our being (physical, psychological, moral, spiritual)  remains untouched by depravity, I agree.  If he means that apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ we can’t trust Christ, I agree.  If he means that apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace in Christ we can’t do anything purely good in God’s sight, I agree.  But if he means apart from God’s regenerating and saving grace we can’t do any good, I disagree.

A Muslim surgeon removes a cancerous tumor from a young mother’s body and saves her life.  An atheist  fireman risks his own life and saves a baby from a burning home.  Neither act makes either person righteous before God.  But who can say that these unregenerate, unsaved unbelievers didn’t do good?

Further, if we push total depravity beyond its limits we “de-glorify” God.  In the beginning, God created humans in his image.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26a,27).  However we understand “image of God”, we would probably say we are somewhat “like” God in that we have moral standards, we appreciate beauty, we possess knowledge and wisdom, we can do good acts, we love and so on.  Human life is sacred precisely because we have been created by God in God’s image.

From Adam and Eve onward sin has marred that image.  But sin hasn’t eradicated it.  Any morality, beauty, knowledge, wisdom, good and love we see in people is evidence of God’s image in us.  (Those virtues should be heightened for believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit.) Apart from God’s regenerating, saving grace in Christ humans are depraved and doomed.  But, because we are made in God’s image (and because God reins us in!), we aren’t as evil as we might be.

So, are we nothing?  Do we deserve nothing?  Can we do nothing apart from Christ?  (Note:  answer depends on how we interpret Jesus’ words in John 15:5).  Can’t we receive any good without spoiling it?  Can we not make use of anything if God withdraws himself?  Are we worse than nothing?  When we perish will we cause no loss?  (I hope a few tears will fall when I’m gone.)

I think I prefer Paul’s words more than Burroughs”—“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3a).  “Sober judgment” should cause us to admit sinful depravity has affected and infected every part of our being (and we are totally dependent on God’s grace to regenerate and save us through faith).

But we’re not junk.  There’s a sanctity to our life, because, to whatever extent sin has marred it, we’re still made in the image of the holy God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Contentment: a Mystery (Part 4)

P.Allan“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.
In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger,
abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12). 

I’m still learning the secret.  So here’s my prayer for us learners . . .

  “Father in heaven, please use this summary study
of Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs’ book
to change our hearts and teach us to be able to say with the apostle Paul,
‘I  have learned in whatever situation I am to be content'” (Philippians 4:11).

* * *

“Contentment” as Burroughs defines is “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal (arranging, managing)  in every condition.”  He calls it a “mystery”—“a profound secret beyond human comprehension.”  Here are a few more clues to learning this mystery . . .

A Christian heart is able to make up all his outward wants of creature comforts from what he finds in himself.  The want or lack of “creature comforts” often cause discontent.  But Burroughs writes we can make up for that lack from what we find in ourselves.  I paraphrase him:  “If you have no song in this world, you have a bird within you that sings the most delightful song you’ve ever heard.”  (That’s quaint Puritan talk.)  Or, “If you’re poor and must forgo items you’d love to have, remember you have within yourself great riches that bring deep satisfaction.”

Does everyone have what it takes within?  Burroughs answers:  ” . . . a gracious heart, . . . [has] the Spirit of God within him, and his heart [is] filled with grace, . . . that makes him find contentment.”  Those who’ve trusted themselves to Christ have the Spirit of Christ come from outside to live inside.

 ” . . . do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God?”
(Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19). 

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”
(Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:38). 

Therefore, we repentant, baptized believers in Jesus Christ can make up for what we lack on the outside by the presence of the Holy Spirit living inside.  He makes our heart gracious.  He is our song.  He is our wealth.  He is the Presence of God in us.

Next clue to learning the mystery of contentment:  A gracious heart gets its supply of all things from the Covenant.  God’s promises to his people are all rooted in the New Covenant he ratified in Christ’s blood.
” . . . all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ] (2 Corinthianbs1:20a).  God’s promises are “good” to those who trust Christ’s sacrifice for their reconciliation with God—and through Christ those promises are all guaranteed.

Further, the New Covenant is eternal. So, under that Covenant, we view God’s promises from an eternal perspective.  Take Psalm 91.  “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (91:7).  “Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place–the Most High who is my refuge . . . no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent” (91:9, 10).  Christians die in war, right?  We succumb to disease.  But, interpreted in view of the New Covenant, while God may not keep plague from coming near our tent, he does, turn the plague into something good and will ultimately give us all things.

“And we know that for those who love God,
all things work together for good,
for those who are called according to his purpose.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,

in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28,29)
.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,
how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:32).

So we sit by faith at the New Covenant table and learn to be content with God’s supply.  His grace is sufficient now (2 Corinthians 12:9).  And what he will do is  “far more abundantly than all we can ask or think” (Ephesians 2:20).

Another clue to the mystery of contentment:  A Christian realizes the glorious things of heaven.  Some Christian martyrs reminded each other, “Do but shut your eyes and you shall be in heaven at once.”  Paul provided this perspective . . .

“So we do not lose heart.
Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,
as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.
For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The glory of heaven to come is a clue to contentment now.

A final clue:  Godly persons have contentment by opening and letting out their hearts to God.  With all
the “clues” before us,  let’s go to God in prayer.  Wait before him.  Open our hearts to him.  Tell him what troubles us.  Then meditate on the clues and the Word from which they come.

“There, O Father, in your presence with the expounded truth of your Word,
may we find that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit
which freely submits to and delights in
your wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.  Amen.”

 

 
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Jesus and Politics

P.AllanLast night the GOP celebrated.

“Republicans Will Control Congress for the Rest of Obama’s Presidency” headlined the “Los Angeles Times”.  Most of us, I suppose, celebrated too, because Republican policies come closer to biblical than Democrats’ (though some Christians disagree, especially because of Democrats’ apparent concern for the poor).

But should it really matter to us?  Yes, because God has privileged us to live in a nation where we each have a voice in government.  Our vote should align as much as possible with biblical morality.  For example, I would never vote for a pro-choice/abortion candidate, if the option were available.  But I wonder sometimes if we Christians vote like everybody else—that is, for which candidate or issue that most favors our good.

But what I really wonder this morning is how Jesus would have voted.  Would he have favored keeping Democrats in charge of the Senate or wanted to turn control to the Republicans?  Or, would he have said, “In the long run, it really doesn’t matter, because, whichever party rules, the results are essentially the same”?

Well, you know what Jesus really did?  He started his own party!

Have you noticed how political the Bible is?  From 1 Samuel through Malachi, kings are a major theme.  1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles are all built around the kings of Israel and Judah.  Many of the prophets addressed Hebrew kings.  And who can forget the Lord’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7:12,13?

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers,
I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body,
and I will establish his kingdom.
He shall build a house for my name,
and I will establish his kingdom forever.”

Prophets, inspired by the Holy Spirit, echoed and elaborated on those words, perhaps none more famously than Isaiah . . .

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6,7).

When we turn to the  Gospels, we hear Jesus announcing . . .

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;
repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

And the Bible climaxes with the Book of Revelation and the apostle John reporting . . .

“Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying,
‘The kingdom of the world has become the
kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,
and he shall reign forever and ever'” (Revelation 11:15).

We mustn’t think the Bible just a book about religion.  It’s a book about politics.  Not politics in the sense of “intrigue or maneuvering within a political unit to gain power or control, but politics in the sense of “the governing of a nation.”  In the Old Testament that nation was Israel.  In the New Testament that nation is the church . . .

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation
. . . that you may proclaim the excellencies of him
who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (
1 Peter 2:9).

And when this age ends in judgment, this new song will be song to the Lamb of God . . .

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on earth” (Revelation 5:9,10).

Think of the morning after, when all the results are in.  What a beyond-our-imagination celebration that will be!  No more attack ads.  No more government gridlock.  No more presidents worrying more about their legacy than the good of the nation.  Just every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10,11).  And all his saints singing . . .

“Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be made known in all the earth” (Isaiah 12:4,5).

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Pastor Prayer

O PreacherInteresting that the apostle Paul asks the churches to pray for him.

“Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25)

“To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,
and pray also for me, that words may be given to me
in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,
for which I am an ambassador in chains,
that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Ephesian 6:18b-20).

“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
At the same time, pray also for us,
that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ,
on account of which I am in prison—
that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:2-4).

We might presume someone as powerfully used by the Lord as the apostle Paul wouldn’t need prayer.  It’s us little ordinary people who need apostles (and pastors) to pray for us.  True.  But Paul’s requests remind us that leaders need prayer, too.  In fact—not to make too much  of leaders—I might say they especially need prayer.  Our prayer.  Here are four reasons why we should pray for our pastor.

One, he has the fearful responsibility of preaching God’s Word.  Preaching the Gospel is a high joy.  To stand before a congregation and proclaim the Good News of God’s grace in Christ and realize this is the best news anyone can ever hear satisfies the preacher’s soul.  But to remember his message has eternal consequences and that he is speaking for God makes preaching a fearful responsibility for him.  It’s one thing for a doctor to prescribe medication for a sore throat, another for a doctor to perform open heart surgery.  The preacher is more heart-surgeon than general practitioner.  He’s got to get it right!  So our pastor, however gifted he may be, needs our prayers for the empowering of the Holy Spirit when he studies God’s Word, when he prepares his sermon, and when he preaches it.  How faith-building for the pastor to know that his people have been praying for him and that we’re all together  in the spiritual battle of God’s Word accomplishing the purpose for which he sends it out!

Two, the devil prowls like a lion looking to devour the pastor.  True, Peter warned the church, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  But the devil’s no dummy.  If he can corrupt the pastor’s faith, he can infect the whole church.  “Strike the shepherd,” Jesus said, “and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Matthew 26:31).  So, it seems to me that Satan has pastors, particularly, in his sights.  The pastor needs the power of our prayers to be strong to resist the devil and stand firm in the faith.  He needs the might of our prayers to say “no” to ungodliness.  He needs the influence of our prayers to turn away from the seduction of this world for the glory of the unseen God and his yet-to-be-seen kingdom.  He needs the “push” of our prayers to walk in the way of Christ, so he can call us to follow him as he follows Christ.  To live out what he preaches–this may be the pastor’s greatest challenge.  For that he needs to be filled with the power of the Spirit that comes through prayer.

Three, the weight of concern he carries daily for the church is heavy.  Paul boasted of many things that showed his weakness.  One was ” . . . the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).  A pastor cares for the well-being of his people as individuals.  A pastor cares about the spiritual health of the church as a family.  A pastor cares about the influence of the church in the community.  A pastor cares about the hurts of the members.   A pastor cares about the people loving each other as Christ loved us, instead of bickering and fighting.  A pastor cares that the church he leads see and enjoy the glory of God.  The weight of all this concerncan be heavy.  A pastor needs people who will hold him up in prayer, as Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands for the battle in the wilderness (Exodus 17:12).

Four, the pastor is just a man like us.  Times have changed since the days when a minister was a revered member of the community.  Yet, even today, we subconsciously assume that the pastor exists in a higher spiritual realm than the rest of us.  Certainly we expect him to know God’s Word better (and to know God better) and to walk in closer fellowship with him than the rest of us “ordinary” people.  How can he lead if he isn’t further ahead forging the path of following Jesus?  But he is tempted in every way as we are—and he (unlike our great High Priest) isn’t without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  Like, he has a family to care for and relationship problems that rise from time to time.  He may have health issues and financial struggles.  His body and car break down just like ours.  God doesn’t shelter him in a spiritual cocoon!  As they say, he puts his pants on one leg at a time too.  For the ordinary stuff of day-to-day life, our pastor needs our prayers as much as we need his.

Now our church—SonRise Community—is elder-led.  That means, while our pastor is “first among equals”, all our elders need our prayers as they lead together.   So whether our prayer list is in our head or on paper, let’s be sure to add our pastor and the other elders.  As the book of Hebrews says in a slightly different context:  that will be an advantage to us all (Hebrews 13:17b).

 

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Sunday Puritan Prayers

Most of us pray spontaneously.  That is, we pray what comes to mind, almost as if in conversation with our Father.  I have found it helpful from time to time to pray written prayers.  Probably the best collection of those are in a little book entitled The Valley of Vision.  

It contains prayer of the Puritans–a religious movement during the 16th and 17th centuries in England and America.  In the preface of The Valley of Vision, Arthur Bennett, Canon of St. Albans Cathedral in England, writes, “The strength of Puritan character and life lay in the practice of prayer and meditation.  Many of those who held the doctrines of grace wrote down a record of God’s intimate dealings with their souls, not with an eye to publication, but . . . to test their spiritual growth, and to encourage themselves by their re-perusal in times of low spiritual fervor.”

Since tomorrow is the day we gather for worship, below are two appropriate prayers, one (or both) of which we might use to pray before we leave home.  (I’ve changed some of the language from 16th to 21st century English.)

WORSHIP

Glorious God,

It is the flame of my life to worship you,
the crown and glory of my soul to adore you,
heavenly pleasure to approach you.
Give me power by your Spirit to help me worship today,
that I may forget the world,
be brought into fullness of life,
be refreshed, comforted, blessed.
Give me knowledge of your goodness
that I might not be over-awed by your greatness;
Give me Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God,
that I might not be terrified,
but be drawn near with your fatherly love and with holy boldness.
He is my Mediator, Brother, Interpreter, Branch, and Lamb;
him I glorify,
in  him I am set on high.
Crowns to give I have none,
but what you have given I return,
content to feel that everything is mine when it is yours,
and the more fully mine when I have yielded it to you.
Let me live wholly to my Savior,
free from distractions and care,
free from hindrances to the pursuit of the narrow way.
I am pardoned through the blood of Jesus—
give me a new sense of it,
continue to pardon me by it,
may I come today to be washed anew,
that I may worship you always in spirit and truth.

FIRST DAY MORNING

O Lord,

We commune with you every day,
but week days are worldly days,
and secular concerns reduce heavenly impressions.
We bless you therefore for the day sacred to our souls
when we can wait upon you and be refreshed.
We thank you for the institutions of the faith
by which we draw near to you and you to us.
We rejoice in another Lord’s Day
when we call off our minds from the cares of the world
and attend upon you without distraction.
Let our retreat to you be devout,
our conversation edifying,
our reading holy,
our hearing profitable,
that our souls may be renewed and lifted up.
We are going to the house of prayer,
pour on us the spirit of grace and supplication.
We are going to the house of praise,
awaken in us every grateful and cheerful emotion.
We are going to the house of instruction,
give testimony to the Word preached,
and glorify it in the hearts of all who hear;
may it enlighten the ignorant,
awaken the careless, reclaim the wandering,
establish the weak, comfort the feeble-minded,
and make ready a people for their Lord.

Be a sanctuary to all who cannot come.
Forget not those who never come.
And do bestow on us
benevolence toward our dependents,
forgiveness toward our enemies,
peaceableness toward our neighbors,
and openness toward our fellow-Christians.

 Amen!

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