Friday, March 05, 2021

The Blank Card

He would have turned 21 today. Assuming I had remembered, he would be opening a blank birthday card from me in his dorm room. 

It started when he was around 14 years old. Back then I used to write every kid in the church on their birthday. Just a little note to tell them I loved them and prayed for them and to urge them to believe the Gospel and trust in Christ. He had gotten a bunch of those in his life, but that year I sent the best one of all. 


Somehow I ended up slipping a blank note into the pre-addressed envelope. It was the nothing card. It could not have gone to a better kid. 




He was sharpening his sarcasm skills at a young age and when he got it and figured out what his lame pastor had done, he thought it was hilarious. So, he said nothing, waited a few months until my birthday, then mailed it back to me. Envelope and all! Thus began a little tradition. That card travelled a lot of miles back and forth over the years. You should have seen his beaming smile the Sunday morning after my birthday. Prankster. 


It is hard for me to write about him. People likely don't realize how attached a pastor becomes to the souls under his care. I had prayed for him regularly for many years. Seen him converted. Watched him spread his wings and step out of boyhood into manhood. He had served our church as an intern, coming back from seminary a new man — we all saw it — growing in his confidence as he dutifully took on hard things. We loved having him around. We were seeing a future ministry taking shape before our eyes. As one of the sisters here said, “He was one of the sons of the church.”


I thought about posting a picture I took of him the summer he was our intern. But, I think I will keep that one for me. In some ways it captures him. Occasionally he would arrive at the church building before any of us got there in the morning. He never used the bench. He just sprawled out that lanky frame on the sidewalk as he read a book. Funny how one little picture can capture so much of a person and yet so little.


Even now it is hard for me to believe he is gone. I was a part of all the things that must go on when a member passes away, but there are days I have to ask myself if it really happened. Like his dad, he was doing everything in life at double speed. Finishing seminary early. Engaged to be married early. Living like a man early. I suppose he even got to glory early, too. 


And for that we should be happy. Of course we are. But life under the sun is a confusing place. As much as we wait patiently for our future reality, we still have to get up in the morning. And this morning when I got up, I was thinking about him. I miss him. Not as much as his family or his fiancĂ©, but he had a place in my heart, too. The son of my friend. A son of the church. A son in the ministry. 


If he was here he would be smirking as he opened my card. He would have known what was in it long beforehand. How much greater was his joy when he opened his eyes and saw the Lord? Certainly he knew beforehand what was coming. But now He sees. And that is the joy that will never end. 


So, I think I will finally fill in that card... 


Happy birthday, Nicky. I miss you. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Announcement: The Grace Fellowship Church Pastoral Internship

Grace Fellowship Church is pleased to announce we are opening our pastoral internship starting on February 1, 2021. Details are below, including a link to the application page. 

We were preparing to launch this program right when Covid hit. It does not appear much will be changing in the very near future, so rather than wait for that, we have adapted our original plan to fit our new circumstances. Truth be told, we think these new circumstances have sharpened our vision for the internship. 


We will be accepting two interns for this initial run. They will need to be available on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons (February through June, 2021), as well as having several more hours during the week to work from home. The internship will focus primarily on Baptist church life (ecclesiology) and Bible proclamation (preaching). We have long held that the strength of a church starts with her pulpit. 


Applicants should be men who have or are nearly completed seminary training and intend to pursue full-time pastoral ministry. They will demonstrate good leadership skills, a warm-hearted Christian love for others and a zeal for the people of God. 


Applicants have until January 20, 2021 to apply. Interns will be chosen by the Grace Fellowship Church elders and notified by January 24, 2021.




Details:

  • The interns will meet on Monday mornings (9AM-1PM) with the staff elders of Grace Fellowship Church to review the previous Sunday gatherings, work through a particular text together, discuss various pastoral situations and discuss their reading from the previous week. These sessions are led by Pastor Martin. 
  • On Friday afternoons, the interns will meet with the staff elders for our weekly sermon preview, service previews and personal mentoring with Pastor Kim. Some of their office time on Fridays will be devoted to reading and writing. Weekly papers must by submitted by 5PM each Friday. 
  • Interns are expected to apply for membership at Grace Fellowship Church (if not members already) and attend all services of the church. They will also be invited to attend certain other meetings as observers and be assigned to interview certain ministry leaders or members of the church. 
  • Each intern will be remunerated (a stipend of $2900 paid out over the course of the internship) and supplied with books for the assigned readings (approximate value of $300). 
  • Besides the time in office, each intern should expect anywhere from 2-10 hours of reading/writing time (depending on one’s speed at these things). 

More details can be sought by contacting Pastor Steve Kim. 


APPLY HERE

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Mediated Love: How to Fellowship in Masks Standing Far Apart



In Toronto we are required by our Public Health authorities to wear face masks and to stay 2m apart from one another as much as possible. Face masks and physical distance from our friends is an interruption to the ways we are used to fellowshipping in our culture. I come from a hand-shaking, hugging, back-slapping, shoulder-grabbing kind of church. We like each other and we are trying really hard to love each other. So, being told to cover our faces and not touch each other can feel like it is a direct prohibition against fellowship. That is certainly not the case though! There are many cultures where physical touch is not engaged and face coverings are normal. And those folks can still fellowship. I am sure of this, in part, because there are no Bible verses that say, “Hug the guy in the pew beside you.” 

“Ah,” you might counter, “what about those commands to, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss?’” 

A fine question. How were you doing that pre-COVID? Were you kissing everyone every week? My father-in-law came from a tradition that practised this. The men kissed the men. The women kissed the women. Every week. But, I doubt that was your church. In all likelihood, if there was any following of this imperative, it was recognized that the kiss was a culturally-relevant way of greeting. And, your pastors likely said something like, “Let’s greet one another in a culturally-relevant way.” Hence, the hand-shaking, hugging, back-slapping, and shoulder-grabbing. 


But those culturally normal ways (to us) have been interfered with by a mandate from our governing authority. Does that mean we are breaking a Bible command if we do not touch or we do cover our faces? Absolutely not. I think the real issue is how creative we are willing to be and how much we are willing to have our comfortable cultural habits disrupted in order to obey the real commands.

I count forty or so “one another” commands in the New Testament. There are lots of things I ought be doing toward my fellow church members. None of those commands demand I hug or shake hands with anyone, but they do tell me to love, live in harmony with, care for, instruct, bear with, admonish, agree with, encourage, exhort, do good to, be humble toward, and not speak evil about one another. And I can do all of that (and more!) with a mask on. Or, for that matter, with a mask off, when I am not inside a Toronto building. 

But, this is Toronto. It gets cold here in the winter and that winter is fast approaching. So, one day I decided to jot down in my journal a bunch of ways to love my fellow church members in a mediated fashion… to love them through a mask and while staying 2m apart. In no particular order, here is my list. Perhaps you can add to it!

  • Talk outside in small groups while maintaining 2m distance.
  • If your home does not include people at greater risk, invite people over in smaller groups that stay within the mandated gathering limits. 
  • Write letters to other members. For years Christians fellowshipped in this way and we are at a loss for not keeping it up. 
  • Use FaceTime or Zoom or whatever even if you hate them. This does not have to be a big deal. Maybe email a member from directory that you do not know well and ask them for 15 minutes to connect, get to know each other a little better and then pray for them. 
  • Pray more for other church members. It was my habit pre-Covid to pray for four fellow members a day. Once Covid hit, I upped that to 8. Now, I am routinely praying for those 8, plus another group of six and then other special requests. And I love it!
  • Never miss church. This seems so simple to me, but how on earth does anyone expect to grow in fellowship by staying home when they do not have to? If there was ever a time to never miss church, this is it!
  • Contact those who cannot come to church. Make a list of shut-ins or wanderers and just start calling them. It is not that hard. It does not need to be a one hour talk. Just contact people. Ask how you can pray for them. Pray for them over the phone. 
  • Start a formal discipleship relationship. This has been super-encouraging at Grace Fellowship Church. We revamped our small groups and such and have had the majority of our members get in one of these relationships. Some have gotten into several. Again, don’t overthink these things. Just get with someone and let John Murray or DA Carson or Nancy Guthrie or Jerry Bridges or Kathleen Nielson or Tim Challies disciple you (with their book).
  • Every week at Grace Fellowship Church we include Truth Application Questions in our paper handout. If your church has something like this, turn to the person near you at the end of a service and ask, “Want to answer these questions with me?” Or call a friend mid-week and ask the same. Decide you are going to be a conversation-starter. 
  • Give a gift to a random member of the church. One sister told me of how another sister just dropped off a baked good at her house. It was monumental in its significance. 
  • Call one member per week and ask if you can pray for them over the phone. 

Okay, there is a start and I need to go home for dinner and some fellowship with my family. But, you can add to this list. There are many ways to grow together in the Lord even when our faces are covered. Are you willing to be creative?



Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Four Warnings from the Most Famous Man in America (A review and meditation on, "The Most Famous Man in America -- The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher" by Debby Applegate

It appears Debby Applegate has written only one book and that is a shame, because she is a lucid and thoughtful author who has penned a riveting account of Henry Ward Beecher. Before reading her work, I knew nothing of Beecher other than a passing familiarity with his last name. You will have likely heard of his sister, Harriet Ward Beecher, author of the best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, almost all of the Beechers were famous in their own right. Even the ones who took their own lives. 





Henry was one of those individuals who seemed to somehow show up to the right place at the right time. A full chronology of his life is outside of this review, but it is remarkable how much of his fame centred on who he happened to meet and where he happened to go. By mid-life, he became one of the first attractions any visitor to New York City went to see — a pastor of a congregational church. And his oratory led him to become one of the highest paid and most sought after public lecturers of his day. 


This long held and worldwide fame made his eventual exposure the most talked about thing in America. Solid accusations of adultery and spiritual abuse made it into the public square in his latter years at a time when the idea of a #MeToo movement could not even be conceived. Thus, Beecher kept his job and, with some, his reputation. But he was an evil man who did a lot of damage to a lot of people. 


I found myself reading the 500+ pages of his life in just a few days and not just because Applegate is a good storyteller. The echoes of his life and failings resonated so loudly with today that if one were to remove the obvious historical links you would think you were watching the nightly news. In some ways that gave me hope. Today is not the worst time in human history. I mean, senators were packing pistols on the Senate floor in 1860! And the age-old sins that plague us now were just as prevalent then. The ratio of sex workers to male citizens in New York City in the middle of the nineteenth century is likely five times what it is today. 


All of this got me thinking of a few big lessons, things we should know better about but still fall into today. By looking carefully at Beecher’s life, perhaps we will take the warning to heart. 


We want heroes 

On more than one occasion, Beecher violated another man’s wife, only to have that man set the matter aside in order to keep Beecher in his pastoral office. It is mind-blowing to read. On other occasions, Beecher abused people’s trust, broke business contracts and made silly ultimatums to get his own way. And the people he offended did all they could to keep him in office. There were slightly different motivations for each case, but Applegate’s careful history displays time and again that men and women wanted a hero and they were willing to sacrifice almost anything to get one. 

I have seen some of this nonsense in my own lifetime. A man in ministry makes obviously unjust decisions or nepotistic appointments or arbitrary expenditures and the inner circle rallies around him to defend, explain and justify. Anyone who dares question the actions of the leader is summarily marginalized or dismissed with questions floated about their loyalty and spiritual maturity. This was exactly the tactic of Beecher’s handlers and it was gross. But, we will do these things if we think we need heroes. 

I wonder sometimes if this is what keeps some folks so fixated on a certain political figure in our day. I have heard every reason under the sun why that figure’s sexual sins should be ignored, by the same people who joyfully exposed the sexual sins and called for the resignation of another well-known politician. They could see the sin in their political enemy, but not in the man they had picked as their hero. No man deserves unquestioning loyalty. For the best of men are only men at best. Human beings are flawed, weak, self-deceived and Christians (of all people) should have a full-orbed anthropology that does not make gods out of them. 


Spiritual abuse is as old as Eden

Beecher vomited all kinds of nonsense to the women with whom he allegedly had affairs. Stuff about his relationship with them "being on a higher spiritual plane” than mere physical lust, etc. He whined about his heavy load, how no one understood him, how difficult it was to be married to his wife. Then violated his marriage vows. Even though he denied sexual adultery, he admitted to relational adultery - his heart was not with his wife. He would spend almost every night in another man’s home “talking” with that man’s wife while that man was out of town! That alone should have ousted him from the ministry. Who does that? And what does that do to your own marriage? And her marriage? That is not the action of a godly shepherd of souls. 

But I have heard and seen the same thing in our own day. A powerful man in an unhappy marriage who begins to flirt and fondle without incrimination. This is as old as the day sin came into the world. But it is awful. Read this book and you will feel the awful. But that prompts my next thought. 





When the Bible is set aside as the governing authority for what kind of man is qualified to serve as a pastor, everything falls apart

Once Beecher was publicly accused he admitted to certain improprieties. Now, he did this craftily, painting himself as a foolish innocent who was so full of love and good will for others he sometimes made injudicious decisions… like hanging out late at night with other men’s wives. But my point here is that members of his church should have simply listened to what he admitted and fired him on the spot. If you are a married man making out with women other than your wife, you should not be a pastor anymore. Period. 

But the people of Beecher’s church needed him and all for different reasons. The men who owned the church building needed him because it kept the building full and the cash flowing. (How do you like that? You build a church building, rent to a church that you join, become a leader of that church, and then you somehow find it in your heart to give your pastor a pass when he morally fails. Maybe that had something to do with the financial free fall you would enter if said pastor got the boot?!)

When pragmatism takes first spot in a church’s deliberative body, you’re sunk. If elders have a fierce commitment to the Bible, they will choose to their own hurt when that is required. That means they will be willing to remove a pastor that is disqualified, even if that results in financial hardship. But money is not the only thing that can take first spot. Fear of man, aversion to conflict - things like this easily trump Truth when elders are not well trained. And the final result is that disqualified men fill pulpits.

Titus 1:15–16

To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.  They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. 

There is an apt description of Beecher. May it never be so of you and me!


We lust for shiny things

It is odd for the modern to think of paying exorbitant fees just to hear a man lecture… on anything. But, Beecher was at the forefront of his generation’s entertainment industry. People found pleasure, their senses were stirred, by just listening to him talk. About anything! It was not by accident. While not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it came to studying theology, he was a Messermeister in the study of communication. And he laboured at it. To him, it was not so much what was said, but how it was put. 

This is a classic example of the gift outshining the content. True Christians were willing to put up with his imprecision, theological missteps and logical contradictions, just because it was all said so beautifully. 

I recall hearing a remarkable Christian communicator in person 15 years ago. He was close to mesmerizing. His turn of phrase, winsome humour, pointed application - it was hard to not be jealous. But, then there were all the questions of his character and theological oddities. It dawned on me that in all likelihood we would never ask him to be an elder in our local church. Besides being a gifted communicator, he was also arrogant, quick-tempered and not particularly holy. But I almost drank the Kool-aid because he was entertaining. What is in the human heart that makes us long for what the world can never provide?




The one glaring fault of the book is Applegate’s confusion of Calvinistic theology with mere fatalism. In this regard, she seems to have fallen somewhat under the spell of her subject and many of the Beecher children who came to a similar conclusion. Yet, her misconception here in some ways helps the reader to better grasp what was going on in the minds of a generation that were turning their back on a rich theological heritage. 


All told, I am considering making The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher assigned reading for the men I help train for ministry. Sometimes a long hard look at sin and its accompanying chaos in another man’s life paints a vivid picture of where we might end up if we are not serious about holiness and depending on God. Beecher showed very little evidence of a saving faith at all, even though he spent a lifetime speaking for God. If my assessment is correct, I cannot fathom what the Day of Reckoning was like for him. 


God have mercy on us all.  



Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Spurgeon on Suspicion

A few years ago I wrote about the poison of suspicion in the life of the church. Below is some gold from Spurgeon on suspicion in the life of a pastor. But there is something here for everyone! 

This is taken from Lectures to My Students: The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear. By CH Spurgeon.

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Avoid with your whole soul that spirit of suspicion which sours some men’s lives, and to all things from which you might harshly draw an unkind inference turn a blind eye and a deaf ear. Suspicion makes a man a torment to himself and a spy towards others. Once begin to suspect, and causes for distrust will multiply around you, and your very suspiciousness will create the major part of them. Many a friend has been transformed into an enemy by being suspected. Do not, therefore, look about you with the eyes of mistrust, nor listen as an eavesdropper with the quick ear of fear. To go about the congregation ferreting out disaffection, like a gamekeeper after rabbits, is a mean employment, and is generally rewarded most sorrowfully. Lord Bacon wisely advises “the provident Stay of inquiry of
that which we would be loath to find.” 

When nothing is to be discovered which will help us to love others, we had better cease from the inquiry, for we may drag to light that which may be the commencement of years of contention. I am not, of course, referring to cases requiring discipline which must be thoroughly investigated and boldly dealt with, but I have upon my mind more personal matters where the main sufferer is yourself; here it is always best not to know, nor to wish to know, what is being said about you, either by friends or foes. Those who praise us are probably as much mistaken as those who abuse us, and the one may be regarded as set off to the other, if indeed it be worth while taking any account at all of man’s judgment. If we have the approbation of our God, certified by a placid conscience, we can afford to be indifferent to the opinions of our fellow men, whether they commend or condemn. If we cannot reach this point we are babes and not men.



Some are childishly anxious to know their friend’s opinion of them, and if it contain the smallest element of dissent or censure, they regard him as an enemy forthwith. Surely we are not popes, and do not wish our hearers to regard us as infallible! We have known men become quite enraged at a perfectly fair and reasonable remark, and regard an honest friend as an opponent who delighted to find fault; this misrepresentation on the one side has soon produced heat on the other, and strife has ensued. How much better is gentle forbearance! You must be able to bear criticism, or you are not fit to be at the head of a congregation; and you must let the critic go without reckoning him among your deadly foes, or you will prove yourself a mere weakling. It is wisest always to show double kindness where you have been severely handled by one who thought it his duty to do so, for he is probably an honest man and worth winning. He who in your early days hardly thinks you fit for the pastorate may yet become your firmest defender if he sees that you grow in grace, and advance in qualification for the work; do not, therefore, regard him as a foe for truthfully expressing his doubts; does not your own heart confess that his fears were not altogether groundless? Turn your deaf ear to what you judge to be his harsh criticism, and endeavour to preach better.

Persons from love of change, from pique, from advance in their tastes, and other causes, may become uneasy under our ministry, and it is well for us to know nothing about it. Perceiving the danger, we must not betray our discovery, but bestir ourselves to improve our sermons, hoping that the good people will be better fed and forget their dissatisfaction. If they are truly gracious persons, the incipient evil will pass away, and no real discontent will arise, or if it does you must not provoke it by suspecting it.

Where I have known that there existed a measure of disaffection for me I have not recognized it, unless it has been forced upon me, but have, on the contrary, acted towards the opposing person with all the more courtesy and friendliness, and I have never heard any more of the matter. If I had treated the good man as an opponent, he would have done his best to take the part assigned him, and carry it out to his own credit; but I felt that he was a Christian man, and had a right to dislike me if he thought fit, and that if he did so I ought not to think unkindly of him; and therefore, I treated him as one who was a friend to my Lord, if not to me, gave him some work to do which implied confidence in him, made him feel at home, and by degrees won him to be an attached friend as well as a fellow-worker.

The best of people are sometimes out at elbows and say unkind things; we should be glad if our friends could quite forget what we said when we were peevish and irritable, and it will be Christlike to act towards others in this matter as we would wish them to do towards us. Never make a broth remember that he once uttered a hard speech in reference to yourself. If you see him in a happier mood, do not mention the former painful occasion: if he be a man of right spirit he will in future be unwilling to vex a pastor who has treated him so generously, and if he be a mere boor it is pity to hold any argument with him, and therefore the past had better go by default.

It would be better to be deceived a hundred times than to live a life of suspicion. It is intolerable. The miser who traverses, his chamber at midnight and hears a burglar in every falling leaf is not more wretched than the minister who believes that plots are hatching against him, and that reports: to his disadvantage are being spread. I remember a brother who believed that he was being poisoned, and was persuaded that even the seat he sat upon and the clothes he wore had by some subtle chemistry become saturated with death; his life was a perpetual scare, and such is the existence of a minister when he mistrusts all around him. Nor is suspicion merely a source of disquietude, it is a moral evil, and injures the character of the man who harbours it. Suspicion in kings creates tyranny, in husbands jealousy, and in ministers bitterness; such bitterness as in spirit dissolves all the ties of the pastoral relation, eating like a corrosive acid into the very soul of the office and making it a curse rather than a blessing. When once this terrible evil has curdled all the milk of human kindness in a man’s bosom, he becomes more fit for the detective police force than for the ministry; like a spider, he begins to cast out his lines, and fashions a web of tremulous threads, all of which lead up to himself and warn him of the least touch of even the tiniest midge. There he sits in the center, a mass of sensation, al nerves and raw wounds, excitable and excited, a self-immolated martyr drawing the blazing faggots about him, and apparently anxious to be burned. The most faithful friend is unsafe under such conditions. The most careful avoidance of offense will not secure immunity from mistrust, but will probably be construed into cunning and cowardice. Society is almost as much in danger from a suspecting man as from a mad dog, for he snaps on all sides without reason, and scatters right and left the foam of his madness. It is vain to reason with the victim of this folly, for with perverse ingenuity he turns every argument the wrong way, and makes your plea fo confidence another reason for mistrust. It is sad that he cannot see the iniquity of his groundless censure of others, especially of those who have been his best friends and the firmest upholders of the cause of Christ.

“I would not wrong
Virtue so tried by the least shade of doubt:
Undue suspicion is more abject baseness 
Even than the guilt suspected.”

No one ought to be made an offender for a word; but, when suspicion rules, even silence becomes a crime. Brethren, shun this vice by renouncing the love of self. Judge it, to be a small matter what men think or say of you, and care only for their treatment of your Lord. If you are naturally sensitive do not indulge the weakness, nor allow others to play upon it. Would it not be a great degradation of your office if you were to keep an army of spies in your pay to collect information as to all that your people said of you? And yet it amounts to this if you allow certain busybodies to bring you all the gossip of the place. Drive the creatures away. Abhor those mischief-making, tattling handmaidens of strife. Those who will fetch, will carry and no doubt the gossips go from your house and report every observation which falls from your lips, with plenty of garnishing of their own. Remember that, as the receiver is as bad as the thief, so the hearer of scandal is a sharer in the guilt of it. If there were no listening ears there would be no talebearing tongues. While you are a buyer of ill wares the demand will create the supply, and the factories of falsehood will be working full time. No one wishes to become a creator of lies, and yet he who hears slanders with pleasure and believes them with readiness will hatch many a brood into active life.

Solomon says; “a whisperer separateth chief friends.” (Prov. 16;28.) Insinuations are thrown out, and jealousies aroused“ until mutual coolness ensues, and neither can understand why; each wonders what can possibly be the cause. Thus the firmest, the longest, the warmest, and most confiding attachments, the sources of life’s sweetest joys, are broken up
perhaps for ever. This is work worthy of the arch-fiend himself, but it could never be done if men lived out of the atmosphere of suspicion. As it is, the world is full of sorrow through this cause, a sorrow as sharp as it is superfluous, This is grievous indeed. Campbell eloquently remarks “ The ruins of old friendships are a more melancholy spectacle to me than those of desolated palaces. They exhibit the heart which was once lighted up with joy all damp and deserted, and haunted by those birds of ill omen that nestle in ruins.” O suspicion, what desolations thou hast made in the earth!

Learn to disbelieve those who have no faith in their brethren. Suspect those who would lead you to suspect others. A resolute unbelief in all the scandalmongers will do much to repress their mischievous energies. Matthew Pool in his Cripplegate Lecture says, “Common fame hath lost its reputation long since, and I do not know anything which it hath done in our day to regain it; therefore it ought not to be credited. How few reports there are of any kind which, when they come to be examined, we do not find to be false! For my part, I reckon, if I believe one report in twenty, I make a very liberal allowance. Especially distrust reproaches and evil reports, because these spread fastest, as being grateful to most persons, who suppose their own reputation to be never so well grounded as when it is built upon the ruins of other men’s.” Because the persons who would render you mistrustful of your friends are a sorry set, and because suspicion is in itself a wretched and tormenting vice, resolve to turn towards the whole business your blind eye and your deaf ear.

Monday, June 15, 2020

False Greatness - A Poem by Isaac Watts

This poem was of interest to me as he references Croesus, the presumptuous leader of Sardis who lost all when he trusted in the false security of his impregnable fortress. See Revelation 3:1-6 for a possible allusion to him. 

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FALSE GREATNESS 
Isaac Watts

Mylo, forbear to call him bless’d
That only boasts a large estate,
Should all the treasures of the west 
Meet, and conspire to make him great:
I know thy better thoughts, I know 
Thy reason can’t descend so low: 
Let a broad stream, with golden sands,
Through all his meadows roll,
He's but a wretch with all his lands 
That wears a narrow soul.

He swells amidst his wealthy store,
And proudly poising what he weighs,
In his own scale he fondly lays 
Huge heaps of shining ore:
He spreads the balance wide, to hold 
His manors and his farms, 
And cheats the beam with loads of gold 
He hugs between his arms.
So might the ploughboy climb a tree, 
When Croesus mounts his throne, 
And both stand up and smile to see 
How long their shadow's grown:
Alas! how vain their fancies be, 
To think that shape their own!

Thus mingled still with wealth and state,
Croesus himself can never know:
His true dimensions and his weight
Are far inferior to their show.
Were I so tall to reach the pole,
Or grasp the ocean with my span,
I must be measured by my soul:
The mind's the standard of the man.


Friday, June 05, 2020

O When Shall I See Jesus?

O When Shall I See Jesus?
O when shall I see Jesus,
And reign with him above,
And from the flowing fountain
Drink everlasting love?
When shall I be delivered,
From this vain world of sin,
And with my blessed Jesus,
Drink endless pleasures in?

But now I am a soldier,
My Captain's gone before;
He's given me my orders,
And bids me ne'er give o'er;
His promises are faithful—
A righteous crown he'll give,
And all his valiant soldiers
Eternally shall live.

And O, had I wings 
I would fly away and be at rest
And I’d praise God in His bright abode

Through grace I am determined
To conquer, though I die,
And then away to Jesus,
On wings of love I'll fly:
Farewell to sin and sorrow,
I bid them both adieu!
And O, my friends, prove faithful,
And on your way pursue.

Whene'er you meet with troubles
And trials on your way,
Then cast your care on Jesus,
And don't forget to pray.
Gird on the gospel armor
Of faith, and hope, and love,
And when the combat's ended,
He'll carry you above.

O do not be discouraged,
For Jesus is your friend;
And if you lack for knowledge,
He'll not refuse to lend.
Neither will he upbraid you,
Though often you request,
He'll give you grace to conquer,
And take you home to rest.

And O, had I wings 
I would fly away and be at rest
And I’d praise God in His bright abode

Here is one rendition of the song...



Tuesday, May 05, 2020

J.C. Ryle on Why You Should Read Your Bible and Pray (and not expect to grow otherwise!)

In his remarkable book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle refutes the idea that some Christians are just lucky or get really spiritual because of some special gift. He robs us of excuses, in other words. It is a great section that everyone should read, but especially in a pandemic where you likely have more time on your hands and fewer distractions to battle with. Give him a listen..

------------------------

From, Holiness, p. 124-125.

God has ordained means as well as ends. He that would grow in grace must use the means of growth.

This is a point, I fear, which is too much overlooked by believers. Many admire growth in grace in others and wish that they themselves were like them. But they seem to suppose that those who grow are what they are by some special gift or grant from God and that, as this gift is not bestowed on themselves, they must be content to sit still. This is a grievous delusion and one against which I desire to testify with all my might. I wish it to be distinctly understood that growth in grace is bound up with the use of means within the reach of all believers and that, as a general rule, growing souls are what they are because they use these means.

Let me ask the special attention of my readers while I try to set forth in order the means of growth. Cast away forever the vain thought that if a believer does not grow in grace it is not his fault. Settle it in your mind that a believer, a man quickened by the Spirit, is not a mere dead creature, but a being of mighty capacities and responsibilities. Let the words of Solomon sink down into your heart: “The soul of the diligent shall be made fat” (Prov. 13:4).


(a) One thing essential to growth in grace is diligence in the use of private means of grace. By these I understand such means as a man must use by himself alone, and no one can use for him. I include under this head private prayer, private reading of the Scriptures, and private meditation and self–examination. The man who does not take pains about these three things must never expect to grow. Here are the roots of true Christianity. Wrong here, a man is wrong all the way through! Here is the whole reason why many professing Christians never seem to get on. They are careless and slovenly about their private prayers. They read their Bibles but little and with very little heartiness of spirit. They give themselves no time for self–inquiry and quiet thought about the state of their souls.

It is useless to conceal from ourselves that the age we live in is full of peculiar dangers. It is an age of great activity and of much hurry, bustle and excitement in religion. Many are “running to and fro,” no doubt, and “knowledge is increased” (Dan. 12:4). Thousands are ready enough for public meetings, sermon hearing, or anything else in which there is “sensation.” Few appear to remember the absolute necessity of making time to “commune with our own hearts, and be still” (Ps. 4:4). But without this, there is seldom any deep spiritual prosperity. Let us remember this point! Private religion must receive our first attention, if we wish our souls to grow.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

What God Ordains is Always Good

This is a wonderful hymn that has brought fresh encouragement to me during the Covid-19 Pandemic. It is, in essence, an extended rumination on Romans 8:28 and other passages.

There are several English translations from the German (my fave below) and a few versions of the "Gastorius" melody (again, my fave below).

You can find modern settings of this hymn by my friends, Mark Altrogge or Matt Merker (neither of whom uses this exact English translation).

I think this is the best English translation (below). So many others are forced to leave out important bits in order to keep the metre. You can find the melody for this version here. We plan to sing this melody to the English version below on Sunday.


What God Ordains is Always Good
What God ordains is always good; His will abideth holy.
As He directs my life for me, I follow meek and lowly.
My God indeed… In every need…
Doth well know how to shield me; to Him, then, I will yield me.

What God ordains is always good. He never will deceive me;
He leads me in His own right way, and never will He leave me.
I take content… What He hath sent…
His hand that sends me sadness will turn my tears to gladness.

What God ordains is always good. His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup that my Physician sends me.
My God is true… Each morn anew…
I'll trust His grace unending, My life to Him commending.

What God ordains is always good. He is my Friend and Father;
He suffers naught to do me harm, though many storms may gather.
Now I may know… Both joy and woe…
Some day I shall see clearly, that He hath loved me dearly.

What God ordains is always good. Though I the cup am drinking
Which savors now of bitterness, I take it without shrinking.
For after grief… God grants relief…
My heart with comfort filling and all my sorrow stilling.

What God ordains is always good. This truth remains unshaken.
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine, I shall not be forsaken.
I fear no harm… For with His arm…
He shall embrace and shield me; so to my God I yield me.


Words: Samuel Rodigast, 1676 (Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan); translated from German to English by Catherine Winkworth, 1863, and others.

Rodigast wrote this hymn to cheer his friend Gastorius, precentor at Jena, who had become seriously ill. Gastorius not only recovered, but went on to write the tune for Rodigast’s words.  

Music: “Gastorius,” Severus Gastorius, 1675.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Love of God in Christ - A 2019 Good Friday Sermon

2019 Toronto Gospel Alliance Good Friday Service 
St. Paul’s Bloor St.

Introduction

Have you ever wondered what God was doing before He made everything?

Put aside for a moment when He made everything…. whether thousands or billions of years ago… 

What was He doing, in eternity past? Long before there was light and matter and people and planets….

Was He just there. Perhaps thinking? Existing?

What was He up to?

Jesus told us what His Father was doing…

John 17:24 [24] Father… you loved me before the foundation of the world. 

Before He was a Creator or Ruler or Judge… God was the Father. And as Father He was loving His Son.

This is part of the reason John could write: “God is love.” Notice he did not write, “Love is God.” That is an entirely different thing. As if love itself was somehow the deity. No, what He correctly wrote was, “God is love.”’ That in His essential nature, in the core of who He was, is and shall be — God is love.

God is, in fact, the very source of all love. 

I once came upon a natural spring hiking in California. Up out of the ground bubbled all this fresh water! In the same way, all love in the universe has its origin in God.

1 John 4:7–8 [7] Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God,

We all wonder and think about God at times. And there are basically only two ways of coming to conclusions about God.
  1. Depend on your own life experiences and reason in the 60-80 years you get and draw your own conclusions.
  2. Depend on what God has said about Himself. What He has revealed.
I prefer option two. As Christians, we take what God has said about Himself in the Holy Bible. It is God’s Word — what He says about Himself.

And the consistent message of the Bible is that the proof of God’s love is what He has given, what He has sent. For love, in its essence is a giving to another.
Not only His giving us life and a planet on which to live.
But more precisely, in the giving to us of His Son.

1 John 4:9–10 [9] In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world….

1 John 4:[10] In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins…

John 3:16 [16] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…

God sent, God gave His Son. It is clear to see that the very essence of love is giving. Giving to the other. 

There is one part of Bible speaks very directly to this. 

Spend a few minutes considering it with you… you will find it on the back of your song sheet…

Romans 5:6–11 [6] For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. [7] For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—[8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. [9] Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. [11] More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 

I wonder if you would take a few moments to consider with me the words of the 8th verse?

[8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Let’s be investigative reporters and go all W5 on this sentence.

We will start with the WHO….



I. Who is the subject? Who is this about?

The answer is, “GOD.”

“God” shows His love for us.

And I think that is a good thing to observe. 

ILL:
Some people have read bits of the Bible, here and there or had things told to them about what the Bible says, and they get this notion in their head that God, the Father, is a really angry, mean-spirited, ticked off Greek demi-god kind of thing and that Jesus had to come along to pacify the Big Grump upstairs.

But read that line again in verse 8.

“God shows His love…” It is God’s love and He displays it. 

As we said earlier. God is love. It is His very nature to love. God is just being Himself when He loves. He has always been The Father to His Son. There never was a time when He was not. To not be Father, would be to not be God. Therefore love has always been a defining characteristic of God.

And one gets the sense when reading the Bible that God couldn’t help Himself. He had to show us that love… because that is Who He is.

So, we are speaking here about the Father. 

And this takes us to our second investigative question….

II. What does God the Father do?

[8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

He shows His love.

This word, “shows” has been translated different ways in our English Bibles. 
  • Commends
  • Demonstrates
  • Proves — to prove by showing…
Here is what the Father does… He proves His love. He demonstrates His love. He had to — because that is the very nature of love. 

If I said I loved you then stood idly by while you were accosted and robbed, you would have good grounds to suspect the sincerity of my words!

But God proves His love.

John got at this when he wrote:

1 John 3:16–18 [16] By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…

Love, by definition, requires action. If God was merely in heaven painting with big letters in the sky, I love you… and that is it. And He did nothing for us… then we would rightly question the sincerity of that love.

But God has done something. One main thing. That in no uncertain terms PROVES His love!

So, God, the Father, proved His love.

This takes us to the third investigative question.

III. How did God prove His love?

[8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God proved His love by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.

It is helpful here to remember the love God has for His Son. And the love His Son has for Him…

Does God love Jesus? Of course!

John 3:35 [35] The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 

Does Jesus love His Father? Jesus once said…

John 14:31 “… I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”

So here you have the Father loving the Son. The Son loving the Father. And in this blissful union of love, the Father asks the Son to come and die… to prove the Father’s love by being the ultimate GIVE. 

And Jesus willingly agrees. 

In fact, it is Christ’s love for His people that is part of His motivation. Yes, he loves the Father and does all that the Father asks of Him, but Jesus Himself could say, 

John 15:9 [9] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. [the people He died for]

And Paul would write of Jesus…

Ephesians 5:2 [2] …Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…

There is a remarkable event from the life of Abraham where God asked Him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The language of that request was so specific…

Genesis 22:2 [2] [God the Father] said [to Abraham], “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 

This was a test designed to strengthen Abraham’s faith in God. And it worked. Abraham obeyed in faith then, at the last minute, God intervened and stopped the sacrifice!

But part of the purpose of this event was to provide us a little picture of what it was like for God Himself… to give up His Son, His only Son, the Son whom He loved… 

The Father told Jesus, at His baptism…

Luke 3:22 “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 

And yet it was out of love for those He would save, God asked the Son He loved, to become their substitute, their sacrifice. Their “Isaac.”

This was amazing love.

ILL:
Several weeks ago Susan and I drove along the edge of the Pacific.
As we drove along that coast, casting our eyes our over the endless sea, we sang this together this old hymn pondering the love of God…

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song.

Nothing more vividly displays God’s love than this… He gave what was most precious to Him.

He could have given us 
  • more money
  • more world peace
  • shorter winters
  • more Stanley Cups than one every 52 years!

But God knows what we need — not just what we want

And  He gave so much more than this… He gave what was without question the most costly to Him personally… He gave His Son to die for us.

Now that forces us to our last investigative question.

IV. Who is the “us?” Who did God love?

[8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The answer might surprise you. Verse 8 is the end of a sentence that started in verse 7. In it, the author noted…

[7] For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die…

The Righteous Person — think of a boss that pays you were wage, but no more. Does not care about you as a person. Not a cheat, but not your best friend. 
— very rare anybody would take a bullet for him.

The Good Person — think of a boss who makes sure you get paid, but takes a deep interest in your life. Cares for you when you are sick. Looks after your kids’ future. Has your best interests in mind all the time. 
— someone might dare to take a bullet for her. Maybe.

But who does God love?
  • Not the only-fair kind of people…
  • Not the even the really good kind of people…
Who does God love? Who is the “US?”

There are three words used in this paragraph to describe the objects of His love. They are not very flattering.

:6 — The Weak - in this context, the spiritually paralyzed. The people who were not able to lift themselves up or make themselves clean. Those incapable of doing things that would impress God.

:6b — The Ungodly - in this context, the irreverent. The people who (even if they give verbal assent to God) live like God is not real and like they are the only thing that matters. 

:10 — The Sinners - in this context, the line-crossers. The people who deliberately break God’s prohibitions and commandments. 

The weak, ungodly sinners. That is who God loved. In other words, the unloveable.

You see, this was our great problem. We were not able to do anything about our sorry condition. There was no way to clean ourselves up in order to draw God’s attention. There was no way to warrant His love… to deserve it. 

Sin works like a Sharpie.
It is an indelible ink that no amount of washing can erase. 
  • Worse, just when you start to think you are getting one stain to fade a little bit, you add another. 
  • Just when we seem to be conquering our anger, we get proud about our patience!
  • Just when we stop sleeping around, we discover a world of internal, raging lust!
If you are honest about yourself, to yourself, you will admit that you are a weak, ungodly sinner.

Bad news. For which we have the best news!

[8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Did you spot that word, “while?”
  • While we were sinners.
  • While we were ungodly.
  • While we were weak.
It was then… when we were most helpless and hopeless and incapable of doing anything to fix our state, that Christ died for us. 

What a love. 
What a cost.
We stand forgiven at the cross. 

Conclusion
It is important you don’t get tricked by one word in this verse, that word “us.” Paul is writing to Christians when he uses it. He is not talking about everyone.

[8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

People who are now, FORMERLY weak, ungodly sinners. But they have been changed. They have come to understand the love of God. They have come to understand the significance of Good Friday.

Our service tonight has had a sombre feel. There is a reason for that. For those of us who already know God through Jesus Christ… we are aware, almost painfully aware… of what it cost God to love us. 

It cost Him His Son. Mark 10:45: “ …the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The proof of God’s love is the sacrifice of God’s Son.

But, we also know that God raised His Son from the dead! That’s why we look so happy on Easter!

But tonight we reflect on His death. And yet even in that death, since it is so motivated by and immersed in love… we cannot help but smile and offer to you the Saviour. Jesus Himself said,

John 15:13 [13] Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 

God in His great love has done everything necessary for you to have a real relationship with Him. 

But that relationship won’t go anywhere until you admit what you really are… in the words of this text… a godless, weak sinner. 
But it is just this admission that grabs the attention of God. For He is love. And He is eager to set His love upon you. 

He is not asking you to clean yourself up, then come to Him. In fact, He demands the opposite. Come just as you are. There is no point hiding from God. And you will need all the help and grace and strength only He can give for that clean up!

And if you do, and agree with God that you are weak and need His help… and if you turn and accept His Son, Jesus, as the source of that help… you will say with all the other Christians here…

1 John 4:19 [19] We love because he first loved us. 

In fact, you will be able to personalize the words of this verse even more to say…

[8] ...God shows his love for me in that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me.

More than that, you will go to sleep tonight with the glorious confidence that this love of God for you will never end.  That you will be loved by God forever.

Romans 8
[35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? 
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 

[37] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 
[38] For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, [39] nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

He has proven His love in Christ. And now it is ours to enjoy in Him forever.