Monday, August 19, 2019

A Congregation Without God

What if there was a new baseball team being formed in the county for those who don’t enjoy baseball but have always wanted to be on a team? The news article might read, “These folks enjoy the experience of being at the park and sitting in the dugout. They like the smell of the concession stand and hearing the roar of the crowd. They can’t stand baseball, though, so they won’t actually play. They will just, uh, you know ... gather.”

Or, what if there was a new birthing class at the hospital for women (and men, for that matter, because we must not discriminate, right?) of all ages. The advertisement might read, “You don’t have to be pregnant to be in the class. In fact, this class is for those who don’t believe in having babies and honestly think the whole world would be better off if nobody had babies.” Why the class, then, you ask? Well, there is a wealth of information in a birthing class that really has nothing to do with birth! I mean, there is the whole nutrition aspect. Un-pregnant women need to watch what they eat, too, don’t they? Then there is the whole breathing thing. Hey, you don’t have to be going through transition to appreciate having healthy breathing techniques. There are lots of applications for this, like when you are stuck in traffic, 15 miles from your next sales appointment, and in exactly ten minutes you will be late. Who couldn’t use some healthy breathing at a time like that? And just think about how much a good coach would help! “OK, go ahead and take an organizing breath — a big sigh as you feel yourself about to scream at the traffic jam. Release all your tension — that’s right, go limp all over — and don’t worry about that guy in the Miata who is staring at you.”

If you are wondering where I am going with this, you are probably not alone. If you thought, “That would be strange” as you read the what-ifs above, count yourself in the “normal-thinking” category. So, I will go out on a limb and suggest that at least a few of you might have a similar reaction to a real article that ran in the Times-News a few years back entitled, “God-less ‘congregations’ planned for humanists.” The AP story stated that Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, is “building a God-free model of community that he hopes helps humanists increase in numbers and influence.” These humanist centers will “perform many of the community-building functions of a church, only in service of the humanist creed.” Epstein traveled the country back in 2010 to promote his book, “Good Without God.” When answering skeptics as to whether such congregations would find members, Epstein replied, “Salvation is here on earth. We have evolved over 14 billion years without purpose. Now if we want purpose, we need to build it into our own lives.”

A baseball team without baseball? A birthing class without pregnancy? A congregation without God? A search for significance and meaning and purpose that begins with the conviction that there is no God, no uncaused-cause, no Creator, no everlasting Father, no Savior, no cross, no forgiveness for sin?

Let’s give the Bible the final word on this, shall we? And to be clear, the “Word” in this passage refers to Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Now that is truth upon which a congregation can gather, and stand.

Monday, August 12, 2019

God Uses Our Weaknesses

He stood only five feet tall in his socks, and his huge head looked too large for his body. His nose was crooked, his eyes small and piercing, his body frail. Physically there was nothing appealing about him. He fell in love with a young woman and proposed to her, but her insensitive response was, “I like the jewel but not the setting.” He never married.

His name was Isaac Watts, considered the father of the modern hymn. If so, then Mr. Watts had over six hundred children. Watts was born in England in 1674 and his father was a schoolmaster with strong Christian convictions for which he was imprisoned twice during Isaac’s childhood. Often the mother—baby Isaac in her arms—could be found sitting on a stone at the prison gate. Isaac inherited strong convictions and cut his teeth on biblical principles. Family devotions at the Watts home was sacred time and the children were taught to be attentive, but one night during family prayer Isaac opened his eyes to see a mouse running up a bell rope by the fireplace. After the ‘amen,’ the young boy surprised everyone by quoting a rhyme he had just made up:

“A mouse, for want of better stairs, ran up a rope to say his prayers.” Isaac’s parents recognized his talent for verse and when he complained about the church music, his father said, “If you don’t like our songs, why don’t you write some?” As a side note to all of you in the “hymns-only” camp: two hundred years ago you would have been considered a bit radical if not heretical to be singing anything other than the Psalms. Now would you look down your noses at we “radicals” who sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? See Colossians 3:16.

During the two years that followed his father’s challenge, young Watts wrote most of the 210 hymns contained in his “Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” published in 1707, the first real hymnal in English. At 24, Isaac Watts preached his first sermon and a few years later his health began to fail, leaving him a semi-invalid the rest of his life.

Humanly speaking, Watts had many strikes against him: he suffered ridicule for his appearance, was rejected by the woman he loved, and struggled with poor health. In spite of all that, Watts led a richly productive life as a hymn writer, a pastor, an author of textbooks, and a noted theologian. The night before he died he said, “I am a sinner; Christ is my Savior. I can let all else go; the finished work of Christ is all my hope. To depart and be with Christ will be far better.”

Isaac Watts never had children, but his work was used by God to produce countless numbers of believers. One was Fanny Crosby, the famous blind hymn writer. She dated her conversion to the singing of the hymn, “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed” on November 20, 1850. She had attended numerous revivals and answered many an altar call, hoping to find the peace of salvation. On this night, as the congregation sang the last stanza of Watts’ hymn, “But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe; here, Lord, I give myself away, ’tis all that I can do,” Miss Crosby realized that all she needed was to yield herself to the Lord Jesus. Later she said, “I surrendered myself to the Savior, and my very soul flooded with celestial light. I sprang to my feet, shouting Hallelujah!”

As parents, we need not grieve over our children’s flaws and imperfections. In fact, we can rejoice that God uses our weaknesses for His own glory.

Monday, August 5, 2019

As Paul Says, ‘Love bears all things’


Near the end of his magnificent description of what love looks like when it goes to work every day, Paul writes, “Love bears all things.” We would assume that means that love puts up with or endures difficult people or circumstances. Of course, love does that as well. But this phrase could also be translated, “love covers all things.” It means to conceal, to cover over in silence. Love hides the faults of others and covers them up, doing the very opposite of what gossip delights in doing. Solomon wrote, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” Peter writes, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” What does it look like to cover sin?

I think about John 8, and the woman who was caught in the act of adultery by the Pharisees. Remember? They dragged her to Jesus to expose her in her sin, but also, they hoped, to expose a weakness in Jesus. Would he do what the Mosaic law required and have this woman put to death by stoning? They were looking for anything they could to bring a charge against the Lord. Jesus bent down and wrote something on the ground. We are not told what he wrote, but I look forward to hearing the full story in heaven. The Pharisees continued to press Jesus about this woman’s sins and what was he going to do about it? He said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He bent down and continued to write with his finger on the ground. Then one by one, starting with the oldest, the Pharisees walked away, and Jesus was left alone with the woman. Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

The Pharisees exposed the sin of the woman; Jesus covered it. He loved her, not by dismissing her sin, but by welcoming her into forgiveness, and restoration. By the way, only Jesus can do that for any of us. He alone has authority on the earth to forgive sins and to change lives. He gave her a new start, a new way of living, a new love that she had never experienced before. His love covered her and gave her hope.

Jon Bloom writes, “Every day we hear stories of offenders who have tried to cover their own offenses with lies. And every day we hear (sometimes from our own lips) people repeating a matter. We call this gossip and it fuels whole media industries. All around us are shattered relationships that exploded in the ‘repeating.’ But how many examples can you think of where a friendship was preserved because someone did not repeat gossip about an offense? Not many, I’ll wager. Why is this so rare?”

May it be less rare with you and me. When we bear with one another, we don’t agree with them in their sin, or encourage them in it. We cover them and help them to grow from that place. A husband and a wife who love each other are careful to cover the other in the way they speak. That means they speak well of their spouse in front of them, and they speak well of their spouse behind their back. They don’t put the sins of their spouse on display for others to hear and wag their heads and condemn. Their love covers.

It’s an amazing gift, this love that God gives his people.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Love is not Irritable


We have been taking our time the last several Sundays going through the 15 verbs that “love does” in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul peels the onion and makes us cry as we look at how often we fall so short of love. Someone told me recently that he was looking forward, kind of, to when we got to “Love is not irritable. That’s the one that gets me,” he said. Well, I got a little irritated with him and told him to get in line behind me and all the rest of us who struggle with being irritable. But the truth is, this list of verbs that describes love in action is not meant to shame us or condemn us. Quite the opposite, it is a wonderful promise of what Jesus is doing in his church, washing us with the water of the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she should be holy and without blemish.

J.B. Phillips translates this verse, “Love is not touchy.” I like that. Let’s say this right up front. No one is immune to moments of irritation. We will be provoked, no matter how mature, no matter how humble. You just have to read your Bible to see the evidence of this. Moses was the humblest man on earth; that’s what God inspired him to write about himself in Numbers 12. Then a few chapters later you hear Moses say to the children of Israel, “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses struck the rock in anger, twice, disobeying God in the process. The humblest man on earth was provoked to anger and his irritable display cost him a trip to the Promised Land.

We see the Apostle Paul getting stirred up a few times, but one example where the same word is used is in Acts 17. Paul walked into Athens and saw that the city was filled with idols, and “his spirit was provoked within him.” He was irritated, angered even, by the idolatry, but in that anger he did not sin. Instead, Paul took the occasion to tell the people of Athens that the unknown God they had an altar for was the God who could be known, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who does not live in temples made by man, the one who gives all mankind life and breath and everything. And that this God, the true God, has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed. And he gave us assurance of this by raising this man from the dead! Some believed the Gospel that day and were saved. But it started because Paul was irritated, even provoked, for the sake of God. We should be greatly irritated and want to speak out because we know that unborn babies are not protected in this nation. But only mildly irritated because they got our drive-through order wrong at Chick-fil-a. We should be provoked when we hear that there are still millions who have never heard the Gospel. But not provoked when we hear that our favorite TV show is being cancelled. Or when a co-worker doesn’t do what he promised you he would do. Or when our spouse doesn’t meet our expectations.

Love is not irritable. If you are an irritable person, you have developed a habit of responding to provocations in a sinful way. You either get angry and blow up, or you get quiet and close up. Either way puts roadblocks in the way of healthy relationships.

What to do? I believe a great hedge against irritability is to develop a grateful heart. Get in the habit of giving thanks every day for the blessings God has given, including the people in your life who tend to provoke you. It is hard to be irritated with someone when you are thinking of all the reasons why you are profoundly grateful for them.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Enter the Public Forum Boldly

Every now and then someone will write a letter to the Times-News complaining that guest columns or the Open Forum are being used as platforms to discuss religious beliefs. It happened again this week as a reader took issue with a column about the President, and asked, “What happened to the concept of separation of church and state?”

First of all, the newspaper is not the state. And a page in a local newspaper dedicated to opinion columns and letters to the editor is intended for the purpose of open debate on important issues. Second, the concept of “separation of church and state” cannot be found in our Constitution. Indeed, the First Amendment protects the church from the state, not the other way around. A few years ago, a reader suggested that the editor “set some limits for this section to local matters that concern all.” I was frankly amazed at the brazen request, on several levels. First, that the “Open” Forum be restricted at all. It reminded me of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, and his tireless fight to abolish slavery when he served in Congress after leaving the White House. Certain members of the Congress, weary of hearing Adams’ petitions each week on slavery, finally got the votes necessary to pass a “gag rule,” which automatically tabled petitions against slavery. John Quincy Adams tried various ways to bypass the order, but it was eight years before Congress came to its senses and reopened the forum.

Second, I am surprised that someone would petition the editor to limit the Open Forum to matters that “concern all.” Who would decide which issues concern all and which concern only some? Do letters about the local school board concern all? No, not the 2,500 students and their families who are enrolled in private or home schools. I read those letters with interest, however, because the education of children in this county affects all of us. Do letters about the Burlington police and their services concern all? No, not those who live outside the city limits, as I do. I read those letters with interest, however, because the safety of our city dwellers affects us all. Do letters about faith and religion concern all? Some would say no. The truth is, however, there are no more important matters that affect the well-being of every citizen of Alamance County than those of faith and religion. Francis Schaeffer said that Christianity is not merely religious truth, it is total truth — truth about the whole of reality. Kent Hughes said the most important thing about a person is what he or she believes about God. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

In her book, “Total Truth,” Nancy Pearcey writes, “Most secularists are too politically savvy to attack religion directly or to debunk it as false. So what do they do? They consign religion to the value sphere — which takes it out of the realm of true and false altogether. Secularists can then assure us that of course they ‘respect’ religion, while at the same time denying that it has any relevance to the public realm.”

The letter to the editor a few years ago stated, “I understand the issue of freedom of speech but, as a reader, I am weary of reading what other people believe, and frankly, could care less. Your religion should be a private matter between you and your God.” May I state her opinion in another way? She might as well have said, “It is my opinion that matters of belief not be printed in the public forum... except, of course, this matter of belief that I wrote and I hope is printed.” I am thankful that the Times-News printed her letter. Her opinion is valuable and should have its place in the forum. So should yours.

The Open Forum in any newspaper is always one of the most-read sections. I always read the letters to the editor, and most of the columns. I especially appreciate the ones that are carefully crafted, well-reasoned and respectful. I am thankful for those who are willing to enter the public forum boldly!

Monday, July 15, 2019

This Is a Great Summer Read

I know we are well into summer, but there are at least a few weeks left. May I suggest a book that I am just about to finish myself? I believe it will be a great encouragement to every follower of Jesus, from the youngest to the most mature. It is Habits of Grace by David Mathis and you can find it most places where Christian books are sold.

Mathis focuses on various “means of grace,” practices and habits of Christians that will sweeten our walk with the Lord, help us grow up in him, and make us more useful for the work he has called us to do for his name’s sake. But the author issues a caution right up front: “The grace of God is gloriously beyond our skill and technique. The means of grace are not about earning God’s favor, twisting his arm, controlling his blessing, but readying ourselves for consistent saturation in the roll of his tides.”

I appreciate Mathis’ clear writing style, which is accessible and not pretentious, and I love that he includes wonderful quotes from some of my favorite authors. John Piper: “The essence of the Christian life is learning to fight for joy in a way that does not replace grace.” CS Lewis: “Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.” Donald Whitney: “One of the costs of technological advancement is a greater temptation to avoid quietness,” and so we “need to realize the addiction we have to noise.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Half-eared listening “despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” D.A. Carson: “If it is hard to accept a rebuke, even a private one, it is harder still to administer one in loving humility.” And an author I learned of in this book, John Frame: “We eat only little bits of bread and drink little cups of wine (in communion), for we know that our fellowship with Christ in this life cannot begin to compare with the glory that awaits us in him.”

As you can tell from the quotes, Mathis discusses a number of “habits of grace,” including the Word, prayer, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, fasting, and more. I was challenged in several sections to repent and ask the Lord to help me change. Just being honest, here. The section called “Six Lessons in Good Listening” was worth the price of the book for me. Nothing new in that section, just another reminder of how much work I need to do in this area. The section on the importance of preaching was water to my soul. The chapter entitled “Embracing the Blessing of Rebuke” was another opportunity for me to repent for how poorly I tend to handle criticism, even when it is delivered in the gentlest way. I was reminded of how very much the Lord must love me, because the Word says, “The Lord reproves him whom he loves.”

Mathis outlines what the Bible gives as warnings to those who dismiss brotherly correction, and what the Bible also says are the astounding blessings to those who embrace rebuke. This chapter is a powerful reminder of the responsibility we believers have to help our brothers and sisters in Christ grow up, and that will involve speaking the truth in love.

This is a great read for every believer, or even those curious about what we Christians are so passionate about. Read it by yourself or do as I did, and go through it with someone else. I am meeting with a college student once a week this summer to discuss this book, enjoying great fellowship as we share how God is awakening, challenging, and refreshing us.