Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Platt, Trump, and Prayer

You might have heard by now that President Trump made a surprise visit to Maclean Bible Church in Maclean, VA (suburban DC) this past Sunday.  Toward the end of the service, the president’s men called the church and said that they’d be arriving soon, seeking prayer from the church, per Franklin Graham’s request for a national day of prayer for the president.  

David Platt, the pastor of MBC, is a well-known author, pastor, and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.  Upon the President’s arrival, Platt called him up on stage, after which he read from 1 Timothy 2, where the Apostle Paul enjoins that all believers pray for rulers and all of those who are in high positions of authority. Finally, he prayed a several-minutes-long prayer for the president, a prayer that was filled with sincerity and Biblical truth, calling on God’s guidance for the leader of the country.  It seems that Platt's prayer put on display his commitment to God's kingdom before America; at least that's how it sounded to me.

Mixed Reactions 

As hard as it might be to believe (note, sarcasm), Platt’s actions were received with mixed reactions.  On the opinion-cesspool that is Twitter, some leaders praised the pastor for practicing the Biblical mandate to pray for the country’s leader; others called it an example of white evangelical leaders “using their platform to prop up the president," and others called it an “embrace of Trump."  Those on the other side argued that it was a reason to “smile," while the Gospel Coalition rightly noted and praised Platt’s prayer that “earthly leaders benefit the most when they follow the one universal king over all." 

The Pastor's Response 

The next day, Rev. Dr. Platt responded with a letter written to his congregation but released to the public (understandable because he is a public figure) apologizing for any hurt he caused to church members by bringing the president on stage.  He stated in the letter that backstage he and another pastor were able to share the gospel with the President.  He also shared that he was caught off guard by the arrival of the president, so he had to make a decision about what to do quickly. But all of that said, Platt made clear that he remains concerned primarily for those who were hurt by his decision, because he loves his church, and is only trying to "lead with God's Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God."

My thoughts

I've been a fan of David Platt's missional focus for a long time; he helped me years ago to learn to think clearly about what it means to be a Christian committed to Christ's kingdom before any earthly entity.  I've also not agreed with every one of Platt's decisions - an example being his sermon at Together For the Gospel 2018 where he spoke heavily of the problem of whiteness in American churches, which seemed to me to be his peddling to popular opinion instead of really engaging with the text of Scripture (and he was expositing a text of Scripture).  That said, I've never questioned Platt's heart, nor do I forget that, like me, he is a sinner saved by grace.  Thus he isn't perfect; since I also am not, disagreements are bound to happen.  

That said, I have a few thoughts:

1. Platt's love for God and people is an example to emulate.

It seems today that most Christians are either committed fully to loving God (caring first and foremost about sound theology) or to loving people (even being willing to compromise on Biblical doctrine for "love's" sake).  But Platt embodies both the way Jesus said we should (Matthew 22:37-38): his passion for God's glory is obvious, but so is his love for people and desire for them to come to God in truth and thrive living for Him.  That permeates his ministry, and it was on display both in praying for the president, the controversial figure that he is, and in his letter to his church, apologizing to them for any hurt he caused.

2. Life doesn't happen on social media.

This also highlights the fact that social media should not and DOES NOT govern the real world.  Platt's actions show that a pastor can be a public figure and yet be committed to their local church and God's kingdom above cultural pressure.  I didn't read his apology as caving to cultural pressure.  I took it as marching to the beat of Jesus' drum, giving honor where honor is due (Romans 13:7, in this case, to the President), but also loving those who may be confused by his actions (a confusion, no doubt driven by the effect of a polarized American society).

3. Peoples' anger over political issues colors their perception of the actions of those who clearly don't have a political agenda.

I was grieved by the response of so many people on Twitter automatically calling Platt's prayer for the president an endorsement of him and all of his policies.  But I wasn't surprised.  People are angry about so many things today, and social media provides them the outlet to put it out there for the world to see.  And even "better," if others agree with them, it entrenches them in that opinion so that it is validated.  But Platt made very clear in his letter to his church that he never meant to endorse the President, but just to pray for him.  Yet, because people have such vitriol toward the President - and toward the fact that he is still the president three years into his tenure - they automatically assume Platt must be a Trump-supporter.  It's been said before that perception is reality.  No; perception is subjective.  Something looking a certain way doesn't mean it is.  Unpopular opinion: you might be wrong.

Let's pursue Jesus' priorities.

My hope would be that we as evangelicals would prioritize Jesus' priorities before what others say we should prioritize.  If President Trump (or President Obama, when he was President) were to step into the church I pastor, I would feel honored to be in their presence, and you better believe I'd pray for them publicly (I often thought about this during Obama's tenure).  Isn't the church supposed to be a "house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7)?
But pursuing Jesus' priorities means not only questioning those on the other side of the political aisle but also questioning ourselves.  That would require humility; and in America, whether conservative, political, or moderate, we don't do humility well.

Lord, start by changing me.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Reasons For Worship

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
    Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
    make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
    play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the Lord is upright,
    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
    and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
    he puts the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
    let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be;
    he commanded, and it stood firm.
                                                Psalm 33:1-9

I’ve been teaching through the Psalms on Sunday nights through the Fall and the Spring (broken up by a winter break in Ecclesiastes).  Some Psalms require a little more work to turn into a message/sermon; but some just preach.  Psalm 33 is one of those psalms.  Since it is longer, I chose to cover only the first nine verses this past Sunday night.  And I'm sharing it with you all today, since I haven't written in a long time! 

Forgiven, to Worship 

First, it’s helpful to note the similarities between Psalm 33 and 32.  32 describes the joy of finding righteousness with God, through having one’s sins forgiven and not held against them.  It isn’t that their sin is obliterated totally (like wood turning into smoke when set ablaze).  Rather their sin, though apparent in their sinful flesh, is not counted against them (32:1-2), so that they are put into a gracious state with God.  This is why Paul quotes 32:1-2 in Romans 4 to prove justification by faith alone in the Old Testament.  Further, he quotes it there alongside of Abraham’s justification by faith (see Gen. 15:6), because the word for “counts” is the Hebrew same in Genesis 15 and Psalm 32.** 

The response of the justified is joy, for their having received from God "uprightness of heart" (32:10-11).  This same thought is carried over into the opening verse of Psalm 33:  “Shout for joy in the Lord O you righteous!  Praise befits the upright.”  Thus there is a clear connection between these Psalms – one describes the salvation process (justification by faith), and the next describes the worshipful response (joy and thanksgiving).  

Second, we see the call to worship (33:1-3).  Praise befits the upright, because God gets the glory for all that they enjoy (v. 1).  Worship happens as instruments and new songs are employed to glorify God (vv. 2-3). Our hymnbook at church has, just to name a few, songs from the 4thcentury, 8thcentury, 12thcentury, 17thcentury, and the 20thcentury.  All through time, God’s people have been worshiping Him with “new songs” as they’ve seen Him work in their day.  May it continue! 

Reasons for Worship 

Third, the question is answered, "Why would one worship the Lord?"  Thus we see here the reasons for worship (33:4-7).   These include:

a) the uprightness of God’s Word (v. 4a) – His Word is true and good, with no crookedness or sidewaysness; thus His Word disciples and shepherds even the crooked into uprightness

b) that God does all His works in faithfulness (4b) – faithfulness to what?  His plan from the fullness of time to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).  All of God’s workings in history are to that end, and thus He is faithful to it; this always means good for His people. Thus they can trust that, in Christ, He always has their best interest in mind. 

c) that God loves righteousness and justice (5a) – in Him is no darkness (1 John 1:5).  It’d be a disaster if He was sovereign (in absolute control) and evil.  It’d also be a disaster if He was not sovereign but was good. But the God of the Bible is both sovereign AND good.  So He will have true justice in the end, and He works in the world today for true justice. Further, His heart is for those who have been beat up by the injustices of a fallen world (Ps. 34:18).  Thus, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).

d) that the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord (5b) – not just in the west, which has been so richly blessed by the Gospel’s influence over 2000 years, but all over the world.  His patience, mercy, and goodness is enjoyable all over the globe. 

e) that He is the Creator by His powerful Word (6) – He made all things by speaking them into existence.  Proof of this is seen in that our words have power (and words can hurt just as much as sticks and stones).  Our words have power, yet we can’t speak things into existence like God can.  The whole Bible, and all of reality, is meant to be discerned in light of Genesis 1.  

f) that He rules and orders His creation how He wishes (7) – Verse 7 probably draws attention to the exodus event.  But the general point of the exodus is that God’s glory as the One who does all that He pleases (Ps. 115:3) is to be put on display for the whole world to see (see Ex. 9:13-14).  See Psalm 104:21ff. for an interesting study on God’s overruling what we call the “food chain” among species.  Animals get their food from God, and they know it.  Further, see Ecclesiastes 1:7 for the point that God rules the hydrological cycle many of us are witnessing strongly this rainy time of year.  

This God is just so glorious and worthy of attention, time, and glory.  Our awe is too often given to things not worthy of it.  This leads to the final point.

The Right Response 

Finally, we see the response of the upright (33:8-9). Their uprightness is seen in their acknowledging that which is true: He is glorious, and worthy of awe and fear.  Since He does what He wants, with no compulsion by men (and even our prayer requests are only promised to be answered if we pray according to God’s will, cf. John 15:16), all the earth is called to:

-      fear Him (that is, revere Him, glory in Him, thank Him, love Him as the right response of a heart that has witnessed His truth), and 

-      stand in awe of Him (to cease amazement at the things of this world that are not that amazing, and replace it with amazement at Him).

May we rightly order our attention and rightly fix our eyes.  We're promised wisdom (Ps. 111:10) and light within (Matt. 6: 22).  What could be better?  

Do you see His power and glory?  Will you turn your eyes on His worthiness and excellence?  If so, count yourself among the upright in heart, and know that He'll keep you in His strong hand eternally.  If you hear Him, you're already in His hand. 

**This isn't meant to imply that the justified stay under sin's power.  Rather, since they hope in Jesus, they "purify (their) selves as he is pure" (1 John 3:3).  The point above is simply that though the person still "stumbles in many ways" (James 3:2), neither their stumbling nor their former sin is held against them, because God has placed them into a state of grace on account of Jesus' work at the cross. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Fierce Theology

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks at church services in Sri Lanka. It was done by Islamic terrorists, killing Christians worshiping together on arguably the church’s most important worship day of the year.  Over 320 people were killed, and there is chilling video of one of the suicide bombers walking into his assigned church building moments before taking his own life along with the lives of many others.   We pray for the families of our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world; and we are confident that said brothers and sisters are with their Master even now.

Union “Theology”

Yesterday, Serene Jones, president of Union Seminary in New York (and who describes herself as a “fierce theologian”) was interviewed in an opinion piece in the NYT about Easter and the theology behind it.  In the article she made several odd (yet unfortunately typical at Union) theological statements: that the virgin birth is a “bizarre claim,” that we can’t know what comes after death, that God is not all-powerful but is “vulnerable” (a typical descriptor of God among current liberal theologians), and so on.  

But perhaps the most odd are a couple of statements toward the beginning of the interview: Referring to whether or not the resurrection happened, she says, “Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves.  But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”  She continues to add, when asked about the crucifixion that, “Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs.”  

Directly Contradictory to the New Testament

First, the Apostle Paul would utterly rebuke her for claiming that he and the rest of the apostles are kidding themselves for claiming to know what happened.  The gospel of John claims that Jesus appeared to the disciples three times alive after the crucifixion (John 21:14).  And the message they preached, according to Acts, was the resurrection of Jesus and its theological meaning.  Further, Paul claims that the resurrected Jesus appeared not only to him but to no less than five-hundred people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6-8).   And what does this mean?  That Jesus is the Son of God who alone is capable of saving (Romans 1:4-5).  Being the only truly holy man (untainted with sin), and having maintained perfection through His whole life, his resurrection proves that he thus is the One who can save. 

Second, regarding the claim that God didn’t orchestrate the cross, one has only to read the first four chapters of Acts to see the Apostles claiming no less than three times that the cross was sovereignly orchestrated by God (2:23, 3:18, 4:28).  While this doesn’t mitigate the responsibility of those involved in the crucifixion, yet, in the same way that God was working good in the midst of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery (see Genesis 50:20), God was here working salvation through the evil actions of the murderers of Jesus.  Considering the Acts passages above, to claim that God wasn’t in control is to directly contradict what He says about it.

Dead in Vain?

But these aren’t the things that bother me the most about Miss Jones’s interview.  My best friend texted me this morning with an astute observation: According to Jones’s claim that the real message of Easter is not the resurrection of Jesus but that love is stronger than death, the murdered Sri Lankan Christians died with no hope, and their death was just a waste.   True.  If Easter isn't about Jesus' resurrection, then these brothers died in vain, and since they're dead and can't love anymore, which is what Easter must be about, the resurrection doesn't include them, but only us who are still alive now. 

But hear me loud and clear. The message of Easter is that Jesus rose again, defeating death and darkness. Yes the message of salvation is a loving message, and anyone can get in on this.  But the message nonetheless is that Jesus rose again, so that whatever befalls the believer in this life, whether awake or asleep, they are the Lord’s (Rom. 14:15) and won’t be abandoned (Psalm 16:10).  

Because of this, we can be confident that our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters who died on Sunday yet live.  While I’ve never seen any of them, I will one day.  We as Christians are called to love our enemies however they would treat us, and in doing this, we show our adoption into God's family by Jesus' work.  And if they take our lives, we know that we will be with the Lord, who loved us, gave himself for us, and rose again.

If you ask me, that is a fierce theology.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

On Zion Williamson and a World Full of Catch 22s

If you’re a sports junkie like I am, you are familiar with the ongoing debate about whether or not the recently injured Zion Williamson, Duke Blue Devils star, should try to heal and come back and play this season.  He’s the best player in college basketball, the most electrifying NBA prospect since Anthony Davis (and Kevin Durant before him, and Lebron James before him), and he will go number one in this June’s NBA draft.  But he was injured in a freak shoe-tear a few weeks ago.  And now people are saying, “Should he just sit out the rest of the year and get ready for the draft, or should he return to Duke?” 
Advocates saying he should not play argue that these players who help their universities make millions and millions and millions of dollars every year should be making money themselves.  Since Zion doesn’t see any money directly, he should therefore protect himself for his NBA career where he’s guaranteed to be a multimillionaire. 
Advocates saying he should play argue that he’ll be immortalized if he
returns and helps Duke win the national championship.  Further they rightly know that competitors – and if you’ve ever watched Zion, you know he is a fierce competitor – want to play.

Pay the Players? 

The operative issue is the ongoing discussion about college players and whether or not they should make money.  It seems to me that they should, but I’m not sure exactly how it should work, because the scholarship players, as conservative commentators argue, are in a sense being paid with free college.  Of course, guys like Zion aren’t going to need their degree (and so most of them won’t finish it), because the second he’s drafted number one, he’ll be guaranteed a salary of over $6.5 million (and increasing) each of the next several years, a shoe deal, and many more millions from endorsements.
But we’re in a time of changing definitions – it used to be that college sports were exactly that: college sports– extracurricular competition for those attending college. But now, especially college football and basketball are an institution in themselves – a type of professional sports audition leagues, where the college part is secondary. 
But by definition college basketball is NOT a sport’s league.  It is still an extra-curricular competition league for those attending college.  And this is why the NBA is considering lowering the minimum age to 18, so that players who are ready can come into the league straight out of high school.  This will effectively change college basketball for forever (as it was in the process of doing before the NBA raised the minimum age to 19 in 2005).  And potentially, it may be best if it does happen. 

Nothing is Perfect in a Fallen World

But if you ask me, it seems that what is driving the “Zion needs his money”  narrative is the common liberationist belief that there are systems ran by rich people purposely set up to keep talented individuals down.  And I’m not a conspiracy theorist like so many today, young and old, are.  I just think things are the way they are because life in a fallen world has challenges and injustices all over the place.  Therefore the creation groans to be liberated from the effects of the fall (Romans 8:22-23).  Until that day, nothing in life is without thorns, thistles, pain, and futility (Genesis 3:17-18).  Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7).  Nothing we can do today will change the trouble that is around every corner.  As a Christian, I believe the only hope we have is the resurrection of Jesus which is making all things new, so that those who seek refuge in Him will be kept until (and prepared for) the new creation where true righteousness dwells  (Ps. 91:1, 2 Peter 3:13).

Number One

People forget that Zion’s year at Duke is what has made him a household name, and has made him the number one prospect in this year’s draft.  So what happens if he comes back and plays and wins a championship?  Won’t it be more so?  But one may retort, what happens if he comes back and gets injured again?  I’ll tell you:  He’ll still go in the top 5, because NBA teams will want to take a chance that their training staff can keep him healthy.  And he’ll still get his money, and likely be an all-time great anyway.

By the way, if you’ve not watched Zion Williamson, go over to Youtube and get dazzled.  Even if you don’t like basketball, you may like it after watching him.   I’ve been watching basketball my whole life, and seriously, his highlight reels are like watching old Michael Jordan and Larry Bird reels.  It’s so fun.  I hope the next time we see him on a basketball court is in a Duke uniform. My Boiler pride won’t let me say, “I hope he wins the championship.” (Boiler up, Purdue is currently #11 in the country after losing 4 starting seniors last summer, and about to win the Big Ten for a record 24th time).  But I confess; even as a historic Duke-despiser, I find it impossible not to root for him.  I just think the best thing for him will be winning the championship and not taking the easy way out, regardless of what the talking heads on TV say.  Something tells me he thinks so, too. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Remedies for Anxiety and Depression

“Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!” – Psalm 25:20

I’ve had continuous exposure to anxiety and depression for the last 10-15 years.  Whether it be through my own personal struggles, or through working as a pastor of hurting and broken people, it seems that that which is commonly referred to in terms of poor “mental health” (but which I refer to sometimes as “the darkness” and other times as “the mist”) is such a common occurrence that it is worth understanding if one really wants to help others in our increasingly depressed world.

It was a formative bout with depression in my early 20s that made me a Christian.  Let me explain.  I grew up in the church, but my faith was my parent’s faith and it depended on a vibrant Christian sub-culture (fun youth group, high school conferences with legit-sounding bands leading worship, etc.)  It wasn’t until I went away to college that I had such a crisis of identity that I was forced to ask the question, “What do I really believe?”  It was in that time of darkness (and many of my friends from that time can attest to how dark it was for me) that I started reading the Bible out of a need to find answers.  And boy did I find them, in the form of an unfolding story that showed me through narrative why I feel so far from God, and how God graciously came into His creation to find me (Luke 19:10).  As I found these answers, I changed for forever.

The last ten plus years (the first few as a staff pastor and the last eight as a “senior” pastor) have afforded me countless opportunities to help others through their struggles with the darkness (or, if you prefer Churchill’s term for his depression: the black dog).  And the Lord has repeatedly used times of personal darkness to keep the feeling fresh in my mind. 

That said, if you struggle, I’d like to offer five remedies that may help.

1. Breathe.

One remedy in moments of intense anxiety (and these moments are neither the same for everyone nor easy to understand) is to slow down your mind by focusing on breathing.  This may sound like some kind of far-eastern yoga technique or something like that. But one of the very things that distinguishes us as people made in God’s image is that we have his ruah (Heb. breath, spirit) in us (cf. Gen. 2:7, Job 34:14-15).  Since God has made all things to be reminders of His concern for our good and flourishing, we can conclude that our breath is meant to be a reminder of His love and care for us.  He gives us "life and breath and everything" (Ac. 17:25).
Psalm 46 was written in a time of intense trouble (46:1).  After establishing God’s faithfulness and goodness, the reader is told to “Be still and know that (I) am God,” after which the reader is reminded that God “will be exalted among the nations” (46:10).  “Be still” is another way of saying to slow down, or even to just breathe.  The idea that God will be exalted among the nations is an invitation into the Bible’s metanarrative – the great end and goal toward which God is moving His creation. That leads to point #2

2. Remember the big picture. 

There is a reason why we love movies and television series so much.  It is because in telling stories with happy endings, we're encouraged to think that our story will have a happy ending as well.  For people prone to anxiety and depression, the fear that one’s story will not have a happy ending is crippling.  
But the fact that the Bible is a story – a journey if you will – and that it is written specifically to people who have been invited into life with God (an implication I see in 2 Timothy 3:16-17) shows us that God wants to sweep us up into His story.  The difference between His story and the fictional stories of the big screen is that the latter can at best tell stories that have echoes of truth, while the former, if the resurrection is true, is the truth.  That is to say that the movies and TV shows are shadows and types while the Bible’s story is the reality to which they point.*  And for those on the journey with Jesus into God’s reality, not only is your future incredibly bright, but it is getting brighter and brighter as the days go by.  This doesn’t mean every day will be happy, but that every day you are being prepared for that happiness for which you long.
This seems to be Jesus’ point when His disciples ask him to help them be more prayerful like He is (Luke 11:1) – He sets their minds to the "big picture" by telling them to pray about the Kingdom and the hallowing of God’s Name, then telling them to only be concerned with enough food for the day, receiving and giving grace, and being kept from sin’s temptations along the journey (11:2-4).  Apparently as they get a clear picture in their minds of the journey they’re on, it’ll make them prayerful.  And then as they pray, God will give them the Holy Spirit to help them walk faithfully in Him (11:13).

3. Don't just doubt yourself: doubt your doubts. 

Again, let me explain.  The anxious and melancholy among us struggle to think they have what it takes not only to make it through life’s big challenges, but even the little ones (and truly the little ones often loom large).  So they doubt themselves.
But work toward consistency in your natural skepticism: Doubt your doubts as well!  Most know that anxiety problems are primarily a tendency to focus on irrational fears (or at least irrationally overblowing rational fears).  But who says the thing you fear happening is going to happen?  What if you tend to make certain fearful outcomes happen by thinking about and dwelling on them?  I know that what I just said is part of your struggle – feeling like it’s your own fault. But what if instead, you began to doubt your doubts as much as you doubt yourself?  Jesus said that Satan is a liar who is out to destroy (John 8:44), and he does this by accusing God’s people (Rev. 12:9-10) and bringing them to trust in their own fallen understanding.  Instead of leaning on your thinking, do what Solomon said: Acknowledge God (Prov. 3:5-6).  The command is not “Don't lean on your understanding, but lean on God” or "Lean on God's understanding." Rather, it is, “Acknowledge God.”  And as you do, like King Nebuchadnezzar, your reason will return to you (Dan. 4:34), maybe not all at once, but in time.  Just acknowledge the Lord, and you'll be amazed at His ability to bring you along toward (though perhaps not yet to) peace.

4. Keep moving 

Both depression and anxiety tend to stagnate people.  Since they’re either so fearful of what may happen or so hopeless about the point of it all anyway, they just stop. That’s poison.  Keep yourself moving.  Get involved at church.  Go to work and sign up for overtime doing extra tasks.  Say yes to social activities.  Make friend dates and go to movies and out to eat.  Get regular exercise (especially calisthenics and cardio). You will find that as you keep “moving,” you will "quiet the fear", to borrow from a Desiring God article I read once.
Jay Adams is a Christian counselor of over 50 years.  He made a fantastic point in his magisterial Competent to Counsel:  We’re sort of dual-natured in that we have both emotions (feeling) and volition (will to act).  The emotional side of you can’t be controlled.  You feel how you feel, and you can't stop it.  But the volitional side of you can be controlled.  You can act.  You can change things.  And the beauty of our human makeup is this: If you control the volitional (that is, by moving), it’ll have an effect on the uncontrollable part (your emotions).**  So keep moving.
This is why the Psalmist, in a time of apparent depression (Psalms 42 and 43), talks to himself, saying, “Why are you downcast, o my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (42:5-6).  Doctor turned preacher David Martin Lloyd-Jones once wisely said that in this Psalm we have an example of a depressed person taking their heart in their hands and saying, “NO, I refuse to be beaten.”*^  I submit that as you keep moving, you’re not ignoring your problems (like some may say), but you’re refusing to let your problems beat you.  And just like God told Abraham to leave his home to go to a place that would be shown to him later (what a scary call!, Gen. 12:1), so God will show you His purpose in time.  

5. Be patient

If you are a Christian (and I pray that you are, because if you aren’t, most of what I’ve said in this post has likely made no sense), you are by definition living a life of patience. Christians are those on a journey to a new creation where righteousness dwells, and their faith in Jesus has caused them to receive His Spirit, by whom they are themselves a new creation already in Him (2 Cor. 5:17).  Until then, they, like Abraham and all of those making up the Hebrews 11 so-called “hall of faith,” are sojourners through life. 
Therefore, all that you as a believer go through is given to you so that through it God will prepare you for what He has for you in the new heavens and new earth.  You are being conformed to the image of Christ, who endured suffering because resurrection was around the corner.  As you endure suffering, you’ll find resurrection as well (cf. Phil. 3:8-10).

This is why so much of the Bible is given to promises made to those waiting on Him:
            -“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex. 14:14)
-“Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14)
-“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31)
-“Blessed are all who wait for him!” (Is. 30:18)
-“My soul waits for the Lord .. in His word I hope … for with the Lord there is steadfast love” (Ps. 130:5, 7)
-“And after you’ve suffered a little while, the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10).

When you consider these promises in light of the Bible’s narrative, which is full of people who went through all that you’re going through, it encourages you to know you’re not alone.  And since there was a deliverance for them, so there will be for you.  
How can you be sure? Because in Jesus’ work at the cross, God didn’t decide to stand aloof from the suffering of His people. Instead, as Tim Keller has rightly said, at the cross God came and got involved in the suffering.  And if He loved you then, He’s going to love you now.  You have only to wait on the Lord, while He fights for you. 

Only God can deliver

What I've written probably hasn't taken away the darkness from you that always seems to be there.  But nothing will.  What I'm suggesting is following Jesus through it.  In time, He'll turn the lights back on, and everything will look different and better.  But that will take patience on your part to wait on Him.  Thanks be to God, Christian, you have the very Spirit of Jesus living inside of you, and one of His works is patience (Gal. 5:22).  As you pray, asking the Lord to endure you, sustain you, and do His good work, you will in time find peace.  And it will last forever. 

*See Jeram Barr's Echoes of Eden, where he beautifully shows how all of our favorite stories today unwittingly betray a longing for what the Bible promises.
**Adams, Competent to Counsel, 97.
*^ Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, 20.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

When the Church Gathers to Sing

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth"
                                                                                                                        -Jesus, John 4:24

I've been doing a lot of recent reading on corporate worship in the church.  Many of you who know me know that I used to be a worship pastor.  You may know that a great goal of mine was to be a well-known worship leader with a big band and original songs that would not only be sung in churches but played on the radio.  I wanted to be a worship fixture in evangelical Christian America.  

As I studied the Bible, God changed the direction of my goals and desires toward preaching and teaching, with no further need to be famous or well-known.  I became convinced that the great need in the church in the present hour is individual congregations receiving a steady diet of clear Biblical preaching that shows Jesus as the hero of the story and the one who leads us in our story.  This doesn't mean I became convinced that worship in the church doesn't matter, but that I was called to help worship in the church by providing first a doctrinal backbone.

Simple Worship

Over the years of preaching and ministry, I've become convinced of the need for simple worship.  I just don't feel the same way about Hillsong, Passion, Jesus Culture, etc. that I used to.  That "flavor" of worship seems a little showy, and too much like a modern concert.  Concerts aren't bad things, and music is a great gift from God meant to be enjoyed.  But I've become convinced that there is a time and a place for that kind of musical expression, and corporate worship among God's people especially on Sundays is not it.  You will not find an elaborate use of instrumentation in Temple worship in the Old Testament (and even during victory celebrations and special days, the instrumentation was modest and purely for accompaniment cf. 1 Chron. 15:16, 28; 16:5, 6; Ezra 3:10)*; and you won't find any instruments being used in New Testament worship.  While I'm not convinced that these facts suggest that we are to not use instruments, I am convinced that these facts give a persuasive argument that God wants us to guard against overdoing it in our corporate worship.  Further, while worship is to be more about what is said than how it is said (since Jesus said unequivocally that God seeks those who will worship him "in spirit and truth", meaning with our hearts, inwardly, and with truth, doctrinally; Jn. 4:24), how it is said can have a definite effect on whether or not the truth sung is truly being sung with one's spirit.  Therefore the expression of our truth-filled worship matters a great deal.

The issue in question not only concerns various forms of music in church, but also other forms of artistic expression therein: musicals, dramas, movies, etc.  It isn't that I'm saying these things are off limits in church, but I wonder if they're a sign of the church's lack of trust in faithful Bible preaching, and a possible attempt by the church to cater to the entertainment-hungry masses in the world.  

The Challenge, Even Seventy Years Ago

In that vein, an illustration might be is insightful.  I'm currently reading Iain Murray's magisterial biography of David Martyn-Lloyd Jones, part two.  It is almost 800 pages long, and I plan on reading a 4-5 pages a day and finishing it sometime this year.  Murray tells us in the section that deals with Lloyd-Jones' first years as pastor at Westminster Chapel in central London (during the tumultuous WWII air raids) of a young American women who was regularly visiting Westminster while she worked in London.  In a letter sent home to Pennsylvania, the young woman, Mary-Carson Kuschke, wrote of a church discussion on "how to fill the galleries" (that is, how to grow the church again).  Her letter says this: 

"The question was admitted for discussion, and members of the group began making suggestions along the lines of more music, livelier music, special music numbers, shorter sermons, sermons not so deep, more variety in the services, etc.  I was listening to all this with mounting consternation, and when, in response to the idea that the church members could help fill the galleries by inviting others to the services, someone said that such invited visitors would not return a second time if they did not enjoy the service, I was finally constrained to raise my hand and request the floor.  I do not recall my exact words, but I presented myself as one who had come among them as a stranger, had come a second time, liked everything that I saw and heard, and was obviously continuing to come.  I said that for my part, no changes whatsoever were needed to keep me coming.  Dr. L-J smilingly thanked me for 'the first kind words I've heard this evening!'.  He then rose and asked the group what they would say if he told them he knew a way to ensure that every seat in the Chapel would be filled on the following Lord's Day.  He assured them that he did, in fact, know how this could be accomplished.  'Tell us, tell us!' they said, and 'Let's do it!'.  'It's very simple', he said.  'Simply put a notice in the Saturday edition of The Times that I shall appear in the pulpit the next day wearing a bathing costume!'.  This was followed, of course, by a period of shocked silence.  He then went on to expound the biblical basis for proper worship, using as a counterpoint the error, then just beginning to be prevalent, of introducing various forms of entertainment into the worship as a means of enticing people to attend."*

Even 70 years ago, amidst mounting opposition, Lloyd-Jones saw that it is a fool's errand for the church to try and entertain the world. If you make that the end-all be-all, two things will happen:  First, the Spirit of God won't be in the church (because the church will have forsaken the source of the Spirit's presence, which is Christ being set forth in faithful preaching, 1 Cor. 2:4, and in loving community, Eph. 4:3).  And second, the church, having lost it's identity, will lose the masses even further, because why would people come to such a clearly lesser form of entertainment on a Sunday morning when they can stay home and watch what Hollywood and New York has to offer?  

This is by no means my attempt to suggest that all of the old ways are the best ways.  Sometimes the church does have to scrutinize it's methods and make them more timely.  Sometimes the church is stuck with a worship expression that is just an outdated version of old styles that in their day were up-to-date.  And that's no better, if it isn't Scriptural.  But I'm convinced that our attempts at modernized music, if we're not careful, might actually be our attempt to shake free from God's tried and true fool-proof method for drawing the masses: Believers sharing the Gospel with their friends and family, and pastors preaching full of the Spirit, expounding the Scriptures.

And I believe that if churches seek faithfulness in these areas, the other stuff will fall into place.  Pray with me to that end.

*Peter Masters, Worship in the Melting Pot, London: Wakeman Trust 2002, 55ff.  Masters shows that when you bear in mind how many people participated in temple celebrations, the instrumentation was actually pretty modest by many of our modern worship standards.  
**Iain Murray, David Martyn-Lloyd Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth 1990, 111-12.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

To Us a Child is Born

“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 and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” 
                                                                                                                                 -Isaiah 9:6-7

My reading plan (very appropriately) has me in the early chapters of Isaiah right now  This morning I came across the verses listed above, and what struck me wasn’t the richness (I’ve always been struck by it), but instead all that led up to these verses in the preceding chapters.  There is so much here about what the Messianic figure will accomplish in coming to the earth.  

I thought thus that it’d be helpful to give a quick synopsis of the Christ-figure’s work according to Isaiah 1-12.  I hope this blesses you and helps you to truly remember the "reason for the season." 

Isaiah 1a(:1-20) – Among God's people, religious practice hasn’t worked, because it hasn’t changed the heart.  The people have been given the Law, which, if they’ll keep it, will be righteousness for them (Dt. 6:25).  But they haven’t kept it, and indeed this inability serves to prove the fallenness of man in Adam (cf. Rom. 3:20).  Therefore, the Lord is going to have to atone for the people Himself (1:18).  The offended will have to become the offense.

-1b(:21-31) – Because of the lack of godliness among the people of God, the nation, symbolized as a “city,” is entirely evil, and living in a different paradigm entirely than what is God's purpose for them.  This city exemplifies what Augustine called the “City of Man,” which was being built ever since Cain went in his sinful pride away from God's seed to build cities (Gen. 4:17ff). Thus there is a need for a new godly city to be established, and God will build it.

-2a(:1-5) – God will establish this new glorious city up on a mountain, higher than all the other mountains.  Moses gave the Word of God to the people from a mountain (Ex. 20ff), and later, the city of God in the world, with the Temple in the middle, was founded on a mountain (in Jerusalem). Now, a new spiritual city with a new Temple is said to be built, out of which will flow the Word of God, drawing people from all nations to come hear from God and live with Him (2:2-5).  Their song as they draw near to God will be like the songs of ascents in Psalms 120-135.

-2b(:6)-3 – In this day, God’s people will be known as those who see how counterfeit the idols of their hearts are, and repent from them to serve Him.  Thus they cast them away to follow God (cf. Ac 14:17, 1 Thes. 1:10).

-4-5a(:7) – The “branch” of the Lord – personifying the source of life in God’s creation – will be established, since the first vineyard of the Lord (Israel) has been proven as fallen and lifeless.  (Thus Jesus later says He’s the Vine and His disciples are branches – all spiritual life in the world comes from Him alone, Jn. 15:1ff).

-5b(:8-30) – God will judge the pride of man.  Indeed, he does judge it – where there is pride, there will always be judgment and hardship. (cf. Rom. 1:18ff)

-6a(:1-7) – Isaiah the prophet is brought in a vision to God’s throne and is struck down in his own eyes as a man in desperate need for salvation.  This witness of God’s glory and the reality of man’s sin is a picture of what all people must undergo to be “saved”: They must see that they’re made for God’s glory, that they have fallen short of the glory, and that in Christ alone, they can be brought near through God’s atonement (Rom. 3:21ff).

-6b(:8-13) – Isaiah then is sent as a messenger to take this message to the world. Of course people won’t listen, but that doesn’t change Isaiah’s mission.  Thus sometimes God’s Word doesn’t save but instead condemns (which is what exactly Jesus says at Mark. 4:11-12).  But a remnant will hear.

-7-8a(:10) -  This miraculous inbreaking of God’s grace into the world (not to suggest He’s never been gracious) will be accompanied by another miracle: a baby being born to a Virgin (7:14), who will be called “God with us” (Immanuel).  Apparently this impossible act will be possible because the child is divine.  But then a child is born to Isaiah, as a miraculous event nonetheless (named "Mahershalalhashbaz"), with this purpose: to show that the coming “God with us” child will also be a human.  In essence, Isaiah is saying “He’ll be 'God-with-us,' but He’ll be a human child.” 

-8b(:11-22) – The one coming is identified with God, and he will become a) a stone of stumbling, b) a sanctuary, and c) a rock of offense (8:14). That is, 
a) He’ll be seen as the Law of God personified (thus righteousness - conformity to God's truth - will be tied up with him, cf. Jn. 1:1ff, and all will one day be judged up next to Him, Ac. 17:31). 
b) He Himself will become the spiritual house of God, so that people come to God through Him as the Mediator and Way to heaven (cf. Jn. 14:6, Heb. 4:15-16).  The Temple will thus fall later and never be reconstructed because He is the Temple (Jn. 2:20-22).
c) He’ll offend many people, but only because He reveals fully the pride and sin of man, and their need thus to be atoned for by God’s grace.  Therefore, “Blessed are those who aren’t offended by me” (Matt. 11:6).

Ch. 9 – The Divine child born to the people, will rule, counsel, and work peace, even Fathering the people; and nations will come inquire of Him.  His rule will fulfill the promise to David to have a Kingly descendent whose Kingdom never ends (cf. 2 Sam. 7:11-14, Dan. 2, 4, 7:13-14).  

-10-11 – Only a remnant of the proud nations (including Israel) will embrace this King and come under His rule (10: 20-23, 11:11).  But there will be a profound wisdom and excellence to His rule (11:1-5), such that the world has never seen.  Thus, though only a remnant will come, people will continually be coming to Him, so that the number of those coming to Him increases.  

Ch. 12 – Those under His rule will never spiritually thirst, but will rest satisfied and happy in Him.  “With joy” they will “draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3).  Thus Jesus said at the Feast of Tabernacles, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said” (likely referring to Isaiah 12:3, Ezekiel 47, Zechariah 13 & 14, and perhaps many others), “’Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn. 7:37-38).   

Upon reading Isaiah 1-12, I’m struck at how beautifully the whole story of the Bible is contained here. The preeminence of God’s glory as the backdrop of man’s existence is perfectly contained in His anger over sin alongside His desire to bless and bring life to people.  The sin and fallenness of man is seen in Israel’s history and the historical situation that they’re under that thus makes them ripe for promises of the coming of a Messiah.  The temporary nature of the city of Jerusalem, the Temple, the sacrificial system, and the fact that these things are merely meant to show outwardly what God wants to become inward, is all depicted vividly.  Thus this teaching opens up the door to understanding that the Messiah’s work will be to fulfill righteousness in Himself (Matt. 3:15), become Himself the spiritual city and Kingdom of God (Heb. 12:22), and satisfy those who are over life and themselves enough to long for and thus see His glory (Matt. 5:6).  Very few will embrace Him.  But some will; and those who do will be captivated by His wisdom and perfection, such that, if ever presented with the option to leave him, can only respond, "Where else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life!" (cf. Jn. 6:68)

Thus we see why the New Testament Christians were so captivated by Christ’s glory: What a glory to behold indeed!  And we also see why the Christmas season is so joyful: With joy, in Jesus, we draw water from the wells of salvation, and it satisfies us eternally.

So come and drink!