Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Axe Handle Applied

My last blog (see below) told the story of the missionary Boniface. He cut down the Oak of Thor in the Middle Ages to remove the superstitious idol from among the Germanic people to whom he was ministering. The theme of wood was used to tell the story, most obviously by the towering oak being reduced to a Christian chapel.

Yet the story was given the title “The Axe Handle” because it was also made of wood. This handle was what gave Boniface the leverage he needed to accomplish the task at hand. As the prophets showed (see Isaiah 44:9-20) wood can be used to fashion idols or to glorify the God who gave it to us to use. Boniface, like Elijah who built laid wood on a stone altar to challenge the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, or like Gideon who had to cut down the wooden idol Asherah in front of his father’s house before he could face the Midianites, had to challenge his generation’s veneration of an idol. By using a wooden-handled axe, he employed the very substance the people worshipped to bring down their idol and glorify the Lord.

Some thirteen hundred years since Boniface, perhaps trees are no longer idolized in the Western world (tree huggers excepted), but nothing is more venerated in our generation than our technology. From palm pilots to i-pods, from DVD’s to DSL, people are awash in the “technology tsunami” that has hit us. Our young people are especially turning to it constantly not only for the entertainment it encourages, but for the knowledge and relationships it gives as well. The problem is that so many lack the wisdom needed to handle the technology, and consequently like the people of Hesse they have worshipped and served the created thing rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). This past year in my ministry one constant theme has emerged in all my counseling situations: in one way or another, the people coming have become ensnared in the sins and the illicit relationships that the “see-what-you-want-whenever-you-want” nature of technology encourages.

The New York Times recently reported the story of Justin Berry. As a thirteen year-old boy, he learned about webcams from a friend at school. Being naturally shy, he purchased one and, without his parents’ knowledge, set it up on his computer in his bedroom and opened up his own website, thinking he could make friends over the Internet. Make friends he did, for it was not long afterwards that he was approached by a new “friend,” i.e. a pedophile, offering him $50 to take his shirt off while the webcam was on. Reasoning that he took his shirt off at the pool and others saw him, and that this would give him some spending money, Justin complied and was paid through an account set up with PayPal.

One thing led to another, and it was not long until Justin was making thousands and thousands of dollars doing all sorts of grotesque things beamed to his payers through the webcam. When his parents started wondering where he was getting all this new spending money, Justin deceived them by saying he had set up a website consulting business. His parents had no idea that the child they thought was extremely talented and entrepreneurial was instead becoming immersed in a life of secret, sexual perversion. Fortunately, Justin became sickened by his lifestyle and, wanting to come clean, at the age of nineteen he turned in his records to the Justice Department. The most sickening aspect of this story is that Justin learned that not only had his friends lied to him about their identity but that many were in child-related work fields, such as teachers, daycare workers and pediatricians.

Perhaps you will not fall to the degree Justin did. But this story highlights what Neil Postman explained in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Media is not neutral, for it has the power to shape our souls. The technology quickly goes from being controlled by us to controlling us. Under its powerful allure, we start believing that we need to see and know and experience everything available. Falling to the ancient lie of Satan, that by tasting all these things “we will be like God,” actually accomplishes what it always has. Instead of becoming more like God, we become more carnal, superstitious, lazy, deadened, even animal-like. Entertainment becomes our god, and how this technological tsunami has rushed into the church as well.

Recently an acquaintance of mine was describing their new, sprawling church complex to me, explaining how they had huge screens beaming the church service into the coffee house part of the building so that people could “watch church.” Is the God of heaven, who revealed Himself to us through the written word, really pleased with His people sipping vanilla lattes while watching a Christian drama on a wall-sized screen? Does the church in my town that too has just such a coffee shop, called “Jehovah Java” of all things, really not understand they are blaspheming the name of the Lord? Are we not to be those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, not cappuccinos? And is it not common barn animals who are supposed to be content with their feedbags on? Media has shaped our souls, indeed, and we reflect more the image of the fat cows of Bashan than the glory of the Son of God.

To get a handle on all of this, remember Boniface’s handle. What the world bows before to satisfy its own lusts, we must take and use as leverage to chop down the idolatry. Young people need training in wisdom from the mature on how to guard themselves from the dangers of the Internet while at the same time being shown how to use it for Christ’s glory. Rather than doing Google searches to see the latest shenanigans of a movie star, the church must be searching out the wisdom and knowledge now available at its fingertips like it never has been before. Instead of blogging turning into a display of idleness and empty words for which we’ll be judged come the last day (Matthew 12:36-37), Christians must use it to get someone out there in cyberspace to really think about something important for a minute. Just as the Gutenberg printing press was used to spread the Reformation through literature, we need to cast out the gospel over the Internet to bring in a worldwide catch. So just for inspiration purposes only, take your keyboard, lift it high overhead, cry out, “Glory be to the God of heaven and earth!” then get to work. For much chopping, sawing, fitting and hammering needs to be done.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Axe Handle

(At a college dinner the other night, I read the following story with the title above.)

With his boots crunching the fallen leaves beneath him, and the early morning mist beginning to fade as the sun rose, the missionary walked determinedly toward the crowd that had gathered in the opening of the woods. The people, having been summoned from the surrounding villages the day before, stepped aside into huddled groups, some hiding behind the forest trees. They grew silent as they looked in horror at the missionary, who with clenched jaw and furrowed brow did not meet their stares. Instead, like a soldier marching into war he peered straight ahead to the object of his concern, his right hand tightening around the thin wooden handle of the axe he carried. Before him like a tower stood the great Oak of Thor, the tree of the god of Thunder, which had been worshipped for decades by the ancestors of the people now standing beneath its huge outstretched branches. As the missionary reached the base of the tree, he kicked aside the offerings of food and the crude, handmade artifacts made by this generation’s worshippers. He turned to face the crowd, the axe lifted high over head for all to see.

With the thunder of Elijah in his own voice, the missionary cried out, “People of Hesse, listen to me! The only true God of heaven and earth has sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, into this world as I have told you many times. Jesus died on a cross to take away your sins as you have heard, and from the grave in which He was laid God raised His Son up on the third day to grant a true power to live rightly for Him. He is not pleased with your veneration of this oak. His prophets mocked gods made out of wood and iron, and today I mock the god Thor. You live in ignorance and in the fear of the power of this false god. Today let it be known to you and all the tribes throughout this land that the true God, who created both trees and thunder, has defeated Thor through a lowly, simple servant. I dare Thor to stop me, and I laugh at my own dare, for like this tree he cannot hear me, and like this tree he will now fall.”

As the missionary turned to apply the blade of the axe to the thick trunk of the oak, the people cowered in fear. One brave soul, thinking he was showing compassion to the wayward missionary, called out, “Stop! Do not bring the lightening of Thor upon you!” Yet the warning only emboldened the missionary. He quickly pulled the axe back over his head, and with Gideon-like tenacity he swung, the sharpened blade of the axe digging deeply into the bark and flesh of the tree. Without pause, swiftly he jerked on the handle and drew the blade out again, and as fast as lightening chop after chop began to rain down on the unresisting tree. Chips from the tree began to form a small pile on the ground below an immerging v-shape cut in the trunk.

The longer the missionary swung the axe, the more tense and fearful the crowd grew. Any minute, they thought, and surely Thor would respond with a bolt of lightening from the sky. Yet the further into the tree the axe hacked, with more strength and fierceness did the missionary swing. Only once did he pause, removing his robe and wiping his perspiring face, then with new resilience he tore back into the work at hand. Where once small chips flew, now larger chunks were spit out by the hungry blade of the axe. As the morning wore on, the rays of sunlight from the strengthening globe above worked their way through the canopy of leaves above and seemed to cast radiance on the scene below. When the hollow space created by the axe passed by the halfway mark, and the tree began to creak its objections, a change came over the crowd. Still drawn back with fear, their curiosity transitioned from waiting to see the missionary struck from heaven to anticipation of the oak falling to the earth.

At last the missionary stopped, drawing great breaths as he leaned momentarily upon his axe. At least three –fourths of the trunk was now gone. With beads of sweat cascading down his face, he wiped his brow with his sleeve and, with a voice hoarse from the strain and emotion, he again spoke to the crowd. “Stand back and witness the fall of Thor! Glory be to the God of heaven and earth!” And with that, he approached the tree from the back side of the cut and again applied the axe with vigor. In a few moments the tree’s protests grew louder, as it groaned like an injured warrior and began to lean. Finally, a swing from the axe found the decisive chink in the tree’s armor, as a wedge flew out and the great tree started slowly its descent from above. Rather than running, the missionary merely took a step back and again rested on his blade’s handle, a growing smile beginning to cross his face. As the mighty oak leaned more and more earthward, it picked up speed. With a crack like thunder, the trunk broke. The tree roared one last time as it came to earth, its tremendous branches like a drowning man’s arms catching other limbs and small trees and bring them to their death with it.

The missionary, seizing the ensuing silence, leaped upon the remaining stump and for the third time lifted his voice. “Thor is dead! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved! Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins! Join me, for we will take this tree and make a house of worship to the true God! Help me, and here in the sanctuary of God’s forest you will have a chapel in which you can hear the great things of God.”

Over the next months, the missionary, with a growing band of newly baptized disciples, sawed and planed, hammered and fitted, the oaken wood to create a beautiful chapel. And set neatly upon the roof of the chapel was a wooden cross from the oak, a reminder to the gathered worshippers underneath what they heard from the missionary, that the only tree that can give life is the cross of Jesus Christ.


This short story is a historical fiction account of the missionary Boniface (the details of the actual felling of the tree have not been preserved). Formerly Winfrith of southern England, Boniface was born in 675 A.D., raised and disciplined in an Augustine monastery, and ordained (and renamed) as a priest in 705. Boniface went to the Germanic tribes in central Europe, and spread the gospel in places such as Frisia, Hesse, and Bavaria. This story of his cutting down the oak of Thor near Geismar and Fritzlar occurred in 722-723, and marked the beginning of a time when thousands professed Christ and were baptized.

In my next blog, I'll offer a modern application. But for now, answer two questions.
1) How is wood used as imagery in the story?
2) What two Old Testament figures are named, and what do they have in common with Boniface?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Fast Lane

"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." -Matthew 6:16-18

Though fasting is not widely practiced in affluent American churches, it is a spiritual discipline in which the Christian should regularly be engaged. A quick survey of Scripture will show that such things as times of trouble, urgent desires, and missionary expansion are all perfect opportunities to meet with prayer and fasting. The practice of deliberately withholding from your body normal foods, drinks and pleasures, known as fasting, done correctly, opens up an avenue to the Father's heart.

I emphasize "done correctly." I speak not so much of how often or how long or what type of fast, but the audience you seek. Jesus' words above tells us that if the attitude of our heart when we fast is to be seen by others, then we will get a reward. What is it? Well, simply that we get what we want. Others will see us, i.e., our hunger to be noticed will be satisfied when we seek the attention of men. Men will notice us, but is that really what the godly should yearn for?

No, when we fast let our hunger drive us to seek the attention of the Father. With joy on our faces and anticipation in our hearts, let every hunger pain or unmet desire be redirected toward getting the attention of the Father through prayer. For if our heart's hunger is to be noticed by God, what does Jesus say will be the result? Again, we get what we want. He will notice and will reward us.

So if you are in a trial, have gone too long with an unfilled desire, or want to see others reached for the gospel, give some time to fasting and prayer. Those who take a few trips on "the fast lane" are never disappointed in the end, for they ultimately arrive into the very presence of the Father Himself. And when we are there, even if the answer to our prayers does not come in the manner or timeliness we want, our every desire will be fulfilled in Him.

If you want a wonderful, comprehensive treatment of this subject, read John Piper's Hunger for God.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Silent Night I Understand, but Silent Morning?

Some Megachurches Close for Christmas - How do you like that for a title? I'm not making it up. Look for yourself at the link. How can it be that some of the super-sized churches in the land are closing their doors on the biggest Christian holiday?

To try and understand a confusing turn of events, I've tried to outline the logic for you below:

1) Megachurches have church services for the unchurched. This comes straight from the horse's mouth, as Cally Parkinson, spokeswoman for the megachurch pace-setting congregation of Willow Creek Community Church, said, "If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don't go to church, how likely is it that they'll be going to church on Christmas morning?" she said. Did you get that? In case her tongue-twister passed you by, what she is saying is that church services are for the unchurched. If that is still confusing, I'm sorry, but it only gets worse (By the way, notice she is a spokeswoman. Is this a cabinet level position with the Pastor?).

2) The unchurched would not turn out significantly enough on Christmas Sunday to make market resources worth expending. Ms. Parkinson (Blogger's note: I'm really not trying to pick on this lady, as her position as spokeswoman for Willow Creek means she has to be an extremely nice lady. To see that other trendsetters are doing the same, Andy Stanley's North Point Community Church is also closed for Christmas. ) said further that church leaders felt that it would not be an effective use of church resources to hold Sunday services on December 25th. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday in 1994 "only a small number showed up to pray." See, it's the numbers that help us to start making sense of this. This simply would not be "an effective use of staff and resources" says Cally.

3) Thus, therefore and consequently, management notes that church will be closed for Christmas so families can spend time at home together for the holidays. Another megachurch spokeswoman, Cindy Willison of the evangelical Southland Christian Church, said "at least 500 volunteers are needed, along with staff, to run Sunday services for the estimated 8,000 people who usually attend." Thus, they won't be open for Christmas so they can enjoy the holiday with family. If this sounds much like an announcement from some major corporation like Wal-Mart, now you know where these guys are getting their ideas. Someone else before me has called a megachurch a "Wal-Church."

So there we have it - churches closed on Christmas. So though you still may not understand them, at least now you can understand my blog title. Some other fun titles for this blog would be:

  • I'll be Home for Christmas
  • Since We Have No Place to Go, Let It Snow
  • O Stay Home All Ye Faithful (or should it be Unfaithful?)

Can you add your suggestion to the list?

But I need to get to my real point. To be honest, as a Reformed Presbyterian type, Christmas on Sunday poses a problem for us as well. Believing that the Bible does not teach us to honor Christmas as a special holy day (where we get the word "holiday" from, by the way) and holding that we are only to do that in worship which God's Word commands, we can feel a bit awkward when normally churched, or unchurched people for that matter, show up Christmas morning. People come expecting special sights, but we do not have trumpets, Advent wreaths, manger scenes, etc. They may want to sing Silent Night but instead hear acapella psalm singing. Not following a liturgical calendar we may not even have a particularly Christmas-y homily. Might it be to our advantage, to increase Reformed profit and market share, to close our doors as well?

Well, that's where we must revisit the first assumption the megachurches make as outlined above. The church services are not for the unchurched, nor are they even primarily for the churched. First and foremost, the service is for God! By virtue of His Son being raised from the dead on the first day of the week and God's command to make this the true "holy day," we are invited to gather to honor our risen King each and every Lord's Day or Sunday (for the Biblical rationale, see Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith). Though many of our Christian brothers view December 25th as a special holiday, and it is not my point here to criticize them for it (Romans 14:1-5), in fact we should see each first day of the week as a holy day. Those truly familiar with the Christmas story should know that the Lord who was born in an obscure carpenter's family, who was lain in the dirtiness of a manger, and whose birth was announced only to lowly shepherds, is not all that interested in pomp and ceremony nor mass marketing. Rather, where He sees the humble of heart seeking Him in word and prayer, that's where He will reveal Himself as Immanuel - God with us. On each Lord's Day we should want to be with God in His assembly, because He desires to meet with us.

So this December 25th (and December 11th, 18th, January 1st, Super Bowl Sunday, etc...) let's go eagerly to the house of the Lord. If other assemblies choose to remain at home, people want to open presents or watch TV with their families, or visitors are not all that impressed with our simplicity in worship, what's that to us? We have an engagement with the King. Let us humbly seek to honor Christ with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Come As You Are, But Don't Leave That Way

On Sunday evening, November 20th, our family was heading home after a wonderful Thanksgiving Psalm Sing in Lafayette, our hearts full of the grace and wonder of God. As we drove east on SR 26, I noticed ahead a car off the right side of the road with headlights pointed at us. As we passed by at 45 mph (slowing to try and see in the dark what was going on), we realized this car was down in a ditch about five feet below the road. We stopped, turned around and drove back. Jamey and I hopped out of the van into the cold, dark night to investigate, while Miriam took the wheel to try and position our vehicle more safely on this two-lane road.

We came upon a Chevy Malibu with its tail end wrapped around a telephone pole. In the dark it was at first difficult to see if anyone was in the car, but as we dropped down into the ditch and started yelling the passenger door opened and out stumbled a man about thirty years of age, the door closing behind him. He was dressed in boots, blue jeans and a leather jacket, with five ear rings adorning his left ear, and he was cursing up a storm. We found out his name was Rob and inquired if he was all right. He assured us he was uninjured. He again cursed and used the Lord's name in vain at having wrecked his stepfather's car. It was only then that we heard cries from the back seat. We realized children were in there.

They were Rob's five year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. At first it seemed that Rob was just going to leave them in there, but when I pointed out that the pole had crushed the back of the car between them and that they were sitting on shattered glass, he swore again and then worked to extricate them from the car. Fortunately, from all we could see they had escaped injury as well. His adorable, sobbing daughter sat on my lap as we struggled to find and get her coat and shoes on in the dark. His son stood there sullenly, and I could see from the headlights of our van now pointed over the scene the look of distrust and disgust that should not be present on any son's face as he watches his dad.

As Rob called his stepfather on his cell phone, who lived nearby, to come to bring them home, we put the shivering children in our van to warm up as they waited. In the process of helping, two, open, sixteen-ounce beer cans between the front seats confirmed the hunch the wrecked car, Rob's demeanor, and his son's look had given me. Rob had been headed east, lost control in his drunkenness, done a 180, and then walloped the back end of his car around the telephone pole. As we waited for the help to arrive, and as many passing cars slowed down or stopped as people offered help which Rob declined, I confronted him.

I told him that he had been drinking and had nearly taken his life and his children's in the process, which he acknowledged. As he stood there lighting up one cigarette after another, it was clear that he was not so drunk as to be completely unaware of what was happening. I explained that I was a pastor, and that his swearing at God was blaming the wrong party and offensive to God. Rob told me he was returning from having picked up his children from his wife, who had left him for another after ten years of marriage. He had also been to church that very morning, the "Harley-Davidson Church," that makes bikers like him feel welcomed by telling them "come as you are." The way he explained it, his going to church and his drinking were for the same thing - to help him get over losing his wife.

On the roadside I told Rob that God certainly welcomes all to come despite their appearance, but if they do not leave inwardly changed by their encounter with Christ, which was obvious in his case, then something is dreadfully wrong either with the one preaching or listening, or both. I told him that the Lord of heaven had sent a preacher along right then to call him out of the mess he was making of his life. As we looked at the totaled car, Rob heard that it's one thing to come to God with your life a wreck, but it would be foolish to leave it that way.

As we parted, I prayed for Rob and his family's salvation, and tell you this to ask you to do the same. And let us join together in telling sinners that they can come to Christ as they are, wrecked lives and all, but they certainly cannot leave that way, for far greater judgments await those who spurn His salvation.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Law of Naboth's Vineyard

The encroachment of government on personal rights and responsibilities is the result of our increasingly godless society. As man trusts the Lord less, he puts his trust in other men, particularly rulers, more. How a few recent examples have made me painfully aware of that lately!

  • The problem of increasing costs of local government coupled with an accounting error to the tune of $10 million in our city's budget in a previous year left local leaders with a great shortfall in income. The solution? Our property taxes were increased by 40%.
  • Our church building sits kiddy corner to the public library in downtown Kokomo. For over a year now the library board has been considering different plans for expansion and renovation. One of the plans we recently discovered on their website, in the area labelled "demolition," involves the "removal of the Presbyterian church." That's us! To this date, no one from the library or city has yet to contact us.
  • I've had to oversee my mom's healthcare, and she is turning 65 in a few months. So I've been trying to figure out Medicare. Despite the claims of the Medicare literature (complete with colorful drawings and tables) that they are making it easy to understand and decide on the best option, even with a few math degrees I'm struggling to make heads or tails of it. A recent cartoon captures my experience so far. An elderly man is holding up some bottles of pills to his adult daughter and he says, "This one's for a good night's sleep and this one's for the headache I get trying to understand the new Medicare drug plan."
Though there will be a great crisis caused at some point because there will be too few workers to fund too many retirees' medical needs, at least for the moment Medicare is more a nuisance to me than anything. Certainly I detest paying several hundred more dollars per year in taxes, but at the very least I can hope (I'm not holding my breath) that the increased property taxes are only temporary until the crisis passes. As much as these other examples concern me, it is the middle example above that has me the most concerned over the arrogance of government when they no longer fear God. The library has stated that it hopes that it will not have to pursue "eminent domain options," but with the recent Kelo decision by the Supreme Court local governments have been emboldened. Our local officials have not even had the courtesy to ask the Presbyterian church if it would like to be demolished, and some involved have made bombastic statements in public meetings as to how "easy" it will be to expand our way.

These things remind me of a story from the Old Testament about a king named Ahab. Seems that Ahab wanted a certain vineyard adjacent to his own royal gardens that was owned by a man named Naboth. When Ahab found Naboth's vineyard was not for sale, a plan was hatched by his seductive wife Jezebel. They ended up holding a sham trial against Naboth with false witnesses, sentencing him to death, and then after he was executed - voila! - they seized his property. The "Law of Naboth's Vineyard" then is this: What rulers want, rulers can have. If they want more of your income, they can have it. If they want your property, it is ultimately theirs. If they want to take care of your doctor's bills, they can do that for you. What rulers want, rulers can have.

However, there is one thing rulers may want to keep in mind. Ahab and Jezebel found this out the hard way. The Law of Naboth's Vineyard is universal. In other words, the Lord of lords and the King of kings can employ the same rule. What the Lord wants, the Lord can have. The only difference is that unlike arrogant government officials who apply this law to seize things to advance their personal power and political purposes, God applies this law to execute justice and protect the poor. When He pronounced Ahab and Jezebel's demise (you can read about it in II Kings 21:19-26, but be warned that it is not for the squeamish), the Lord makes it clear that He wants their lives and properties because they had taken Naboth's.

So rulers, pause before you seize. You can apply the Law of Naboth's Vineyard, but there is a great King to whom we can pray who also operates by the same law.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Group Counseling

Having been exposed a great deal recently to psychiatric wards, waiting rooms and mental health counselors (Clarification: Not for myself), I have been amazed at the number of people seeking counseling. The wards and waiting rooms are full. Prescription drug sales for depression are at all-time highs. The patients speak of their psychiatrists and counselors with awe and reverence.

So you can understand why as a preacher I was both amused and encouraged by a recent quote by Jay Adams about preaching:

"Preaching is nothing but group counseling...(and there is) no difference between counseling and preaching except that the latter is louder."

Few view preaching this way, as large group counseling. Few pastors would think this as they take their place behind the pulpit. Yet preachers are to proclaim the word of God to the congregation as counsel from the Lord. Every time the congregation comes and sits under the preached word they are to be, according to II Timothy 4:2, "reproved, rebuked, exhorted, with great patience and instruction." Sounds like counseling to me! The preacher is to see himself as a pastor or shepherd (the Greek word translated pastor means "shepherd") being used by the Lord to guide the entire flock to the green pastures and quiet waters where people's souls can be restored (Psalm 23).

The reason so many are seeking the word of counselors is that they have forsaken the word of God. The reason so many are filling their mouths with pills is because they are not being filled with the word of God. The reason so many revere the word of the psychiatrists is that they speak with more authority than preachers do who have the word of God. Only when ordained preachers begin to see themselves with the authority of God's license upon them to speak directly to the ills and needs of the people, and then faithfully guide them, will the authority of the false teachers (i.e. Christless psychotherapists) be exposed.

In his book whose title gives its outline, PsychoBabble - The Failure of Modern Psychology and the Biblical Alternative, Dr. Richard Ganz, former psychologist turned pastor, states "The key to Biblical change is often confrontation." Until pastors can boldly or (remembering Adams' quote above) loudly start confronting their listeners with truth in their weekly times of group counseling, and also equip their congregations to serve those hurting in their midst as Ganz also outlines, we will continue to see the shriveling of souls and the inability to cope with life that is so present all around us.

Does this suggest a new way to invite all these psycho-dependent people to church? "Where you going?" they ask. Then you say, "To group counseling. Want to join us?"

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Two Blogs for the Price of One

Perhaps you have noticed I have not blogged for over a month. Yet today I'm offering two blogs (see below). What's the deal? Two brief explanations.

First has been that the trial with my mom has taken time away for extras. The past two months have been filled with multiple moves, hospital admittances and visitations, appointments for legal, financial and medical counsel, etc. Recently Mom has been showing some signs of stabilizing, though we continue to be greatly concerned for her spiritual state. Last night we moved her into a studio apartment at the assisted living place. Though she still has a long road to go for true recovery, we hope this place will be long-term for her and the dealing with emergency-like situations will cease. In the midst of the struggle and pain, it helps to keep a sense of humor. Celia asked last night, "Why did we put Nanny into a little compartment?" Unlike what this suggests, she has very comfortable surroundings, Christian care, and many people showing her God's love. Please pray she could receive it.

Another reason I'm writing today is that I'm changing somewhat the nature of this blog. So far, I have been putting Biblically-based essays here that take quite a bit of time for me to write. But as I learn more about blogs, I'm seeing that short comments on a variety of issues are common, and I think will fit in well with what I want to do here. So I've decided to update this blog more frequently by writing on what I can rather than just when I am able to do an essay.

I hope that's agreeable to those who take the time to read this. If not, I guess you can ask for a refund!

Amongst the Lambs

My wife and I decided to teach the primary class in our Sabbath School program at the church this fall quarter. As the pastor, I must confess I have thought on more than one occasion that "I am too busy with more important things" at the church than to teach 3-7 year-olds. Yet in the few weeks we've been in there, I have been reminded how important time with the lambs can be.

For consider some of the lessons the Lord is teaching not them but me:

Explain the Scriptures simply - Our church is memorizing Psalm 40 this quarter, and I have been singing it (poor kids!) and then having the children fill in words when I pause. As the psalmist speaks of God bringing him out of the pit, one line says the Lord brought me "out of the dungeon mire." When I asked what "mire" was, one girl said, "That's the store where Mommy shops." We laugh at these things, but I have had adults who have had no Scripture training make similar comments. Pastors and teachers need to work hard to explain the Scriptures simply. When I asked them if they would like to be down in a deep, dark hole filled with icky mud at the bottom, a resounding, unanimous "NO!" filled the classroom, and they took another step in their understanding of salvation. This brings me to the next lesson God is teaching me.

Tell stories with excitement - It amazes me how these children, wiggly after sitting in church for 90 minutes plus, hungry for lunch, excited to be with their friends, will grow quiet as you tell them a Bible story with enthusiasm. Huge grins develop as you show them different animals God created. Eyes widen in horror as you tell them about Cain killing his brother Abel. Hands shoot up in the air to answer questions. I have been reminded how at the Banner of Truth Pastor's Conference I attended last May, Pastor Stuart Olyott of Wales had a sanctuary of grown men captivated by his child-like telling of gospel stories of Jesus. Whether preaching, leading family worship at home, teaching Bible studies, counseling or evangelizing, there is nothing like a parable or story to bring truth home. Is that not how the Bible is written? Is that not how Jesus preached?

Don't dim enthusiasm for prayer - Adults have much to learn from children when it comes to prayer. The children, unencumbered by tradition and protocol, pour out their little hearts in honest prayer. These can range from the humorous, little details of life such as "Please help Jack's daddy's green car go faster" to those with eternal-weight in them like "Please help Daddy come to church like he promised." Why is it that the simple prayers of children or young believers always excite me as I listen, but so often the petitions of older believers, including my own, lull me to sleep? Where is the faith to ask God to meet the details of life as well as to conquer the impossible?

Rejoice in small, tangible blessings - The children were absolutely fascinated with the pet lizards we brought to class (a visual for "the creeping things that creep on the earth" from Genesis 1:26). They ran, held hands, and shouted during a walk around the block as they pointed out what God has made. A couple of crackers and juice have been received like some great banquet is being served. One gal joyfully took out of her purse a walnut she had found on a walk with Daddy in order to show the class. Every week they give their offering for a Compassion child in the Philippines with tremendous excitement and joy. Yes, it helps we collect it in a toy dump truck (I kept forgetting to get a basket), but still how often my heart is dull to the daily blessings God sends my way by the truckloads. Rejoicing with the lambs is helping me see God's green pastures more clearly.

Show affection warmly - My wife has no problem with this. She is a nurturer, and how quickly these young ones run to her for a hug or a lap to sit on. And how quickly, once they know and trust you, they want to show affection. I, on the other hand, have often been too reserved during my ministry to extend a hug or show affection. As one young fellow, who is not my own child, crawled on my lap this week to help me tell a story, I saw how these young ones are breaking down my resistance and are confirming something I've been feeling in my bones as I am becoming an older pastor. God's people need the personal, fatherly touch, be it a heart-felt handshake, a welcoming hug, hands laid on in prayer, or a sympathetic pat. Certainly boundaries of propriety exist that must be carefully maintained, but we need also to be careful not to be overly constrained. We are, are we not, the body of Christ?

So if you hear me getting really excited when I pray, get surprised by a hug from me, or just come upon me looking at a walnut with fascination, now you know why. I have been playing and learning with the lambs, and "out of their mouths pour forth God's praises."

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Thoughts of God

"For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God." -I Corinthians 2:11

Lately I have been going through a trial like I have never experienced with my mother. Having remarried following my father's death, these last few years have seen the marriage turn bitter, Mom fall into deep depression to the point she no longer wants to live, and divorce papers served. I will avoid speaking of the myriad of details and struggles we have gone through this summer trying to minister to her, but to give you an idea of how deep the waters have become: Just this week I had to seek court-appointed guardianship over my mom as she has quit eating and drinking. The doctors are contemplating inserting a feeding tube so that she will not take her life through self-starvation. Since mom would resist this, I needed the authority to keep her from committing what I'm calling "passive suicide."

My next blogs were going to be on doctrinal matters, but I felt the need to write about this real life issue this time. I have hesitated for several days to write publicly about this out of respect for my mom, but the Lord has given me freedom to do so for several reasons. This has become so public, with doctors, lawyers, and even judges now involved, that there is no place for secrets about what is happening. Also, the church I pastor and ministry friends have been incredibly involved and supportive of me, and desiring to encourage the people of God is another reason I thought writing might help. For currently I know of other people going through their own great struggles, and as I'm repeatedly asked, "But how are you doing?," I wanted to share one of the chief ways the Lord has and is sustaining me at this time. For though I have had times of weakness and struggle in knowing what to do, I want everyone to know the source of the strength I am finding.

I recently began a preaching series I'm calling Heart Songs of the Savior: The Psalms in the Life of Christ. One of the key themes I'm seeing in the Scriptures is the ultimate purpose God had for writing the Psalms, the 150 songs that form the "hymnbook" of the Bible. Surely God the Father had many reasons for recording these songs to help His people, but His greatest intention with these psalms was to give His one and only Son the comfort and guidance He would need when He left heaven and became man. God knew His Son would suffer greatly as He entered into this world of brokenness as the Son of Man, so He prepared songs of love, strength and encouragement to sustain His Son through His earthly life and ministry, particularly as He knew it would lead to the cross. As I will be showing the congregation, that the Psalms were constantly on the heart of Jesus can be seen in His teachings, actions and prayers. We hear in these psalms the love and conversation flowing back and forth between the Father and the Son. The gospels give us the teachings and miracles of our Lord; the psalms help us know what He was thinking at the time. The Spirit of God is revealing to us what was in the heart of our Savior, and seeing what Jesus thought during His difficulties has helped me in mine. Just as my spirit is telling you what's in my heart through these words, God's Spirit reveals what's in the heart of God through His Word, and it is especially in the Psalms that we see this.

For instance, that Psalm 22 was on Jesus' mind as He hung on the cross is no secret, for He quotes from it (see verse 1) and the description of His suffering, be it the wagging of the heads of His persecuters, the nakedness He felt, or the gambling over His clothes, is detailed explicitly in this psalm just as it is verified in the gospels. But we also have then the thoughts of Jesus recorded in the psalm which are found nowhere else. To meditate on Jesus' thinking and prayer to His Father as He hung there, "But You, O Lord, be not far off; O You my help, hasten to my assistance" (Psalm 22:19) helps me enter His sufferings more truly which, in turn, assures me He hears my same cries for help. O how close He is to me! How He understands all pain and struggle! What an intimate Savior I have!

Thank God He has given us in the Psalms the words of prayer and solace we need to be completely honest about our pain and sorrow in His presence. And thank God He has shown us how perfectly He understands us by giving us the very thoughts of Jesus. May He then comfort you with the very comfort of Christ.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Why I'm a Freewill Presbyterian

I know only Baptists and a cute boy in a politically correct movie are supposed to be the "free willy" types. Far be it from a Presbyterian to be labelled such. But I have become utterly convinced that the Will is free and not corrupted by sin, perfectly capable of making choices that will affect all eternity. The Will makes decisions, and because of the freedom of the Will some go to heaven and some go to hell.

Oh, by the way, did I mention the particular Will that I am speaking of is the Will of God? I'm a "God's Will is Free" Presbyterian.

Please forgive me if I'm being too "in-your-face" with this pronouncement. But if churches can put their love for man's freewill on their signs and in the names of their associations, then do I not have the same right to proclaim my love for the free will of God?

Freewill teaching, the belief that fallen man has the freedom of will to believe upon Christ or not, is historically known as Arminianism. This doctrine is named after the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius who died in the seventeenth century. Arminians believe that though man has been affected by the Fall, sin has not so altered what constitutes man's soul that he is left unable to choose Christ. They teach that free will, given to man at creation, "was not lost in the Fall," to quote a Freewill Baptist website. Often the motivations touted for this belief are that we must protect God's reputation against charges of being capricious or unjust. In other words, if man is not free to choose Christ, then God is unfair, for He chooses to favor one with eternal life and yet not another for no apparent reason.

What the proponents of freewill teaching do not see, in the words of the famous title of the book by Martin Luther, is the "bondage of the will." Man can no more choose life with Christ than he can his time of birth or nationality. Perhaps reading familiar verses with emphasis can help us see this. John 1:12-13 states, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." Unless God enlivens a heart to respond to the offer of Christ in the gospel, man will not come. Indeed, man cannot come, for sin has bound his will to be enslaved to its lusts. Each man is constantly choosing death over life and, except for the intervening grace of God, would continue to do so. If God be not free to choose whom He will to be in His heaven, no man would be there.

Just as the Lord of heaven and earth determines where and when a particular man will be born into this world, He also determines those who will be born into the kingdom of God. God chooses for you what natural color your hair and eyes are. The fact that you may dye your hair and wear tinted contacts may change the outer appearance but not the natural, intrinsic color you possess. So men also may go to great lengths to say they have changed the fundamental dispositions of their souls, but God's Word tells us they are incapable of such. As Jeremiah stated, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil" (Jeremiah 13:23). Only the Lord can remove the leprous, spotted covering of our sin from us. And only He can decide to do it in His sovereign time and grace.

J.I Packer, in an article entitled "Arminianism" from the fifth volume of the Puritan Papers, asks, "How can Arminiansm be cured? Only God can finally set men's heads right, just as only He can set our hearts right." May the Spirit of God set our heads right, for the wondrous truth of the gospel is that through it God Himself sets the sinner free. Heaven is the ultimate place where our minds and wills, completely freed from every lust and evil desire, will only want what God wants. We will will to give Him complete glory, and what thinking will accomplish it? Saying "Praise be to me, I chose Christ," or "Praise be to God, Christ chose me?" (See John 15:16 for the answer.)

There is some free willing worth proclaiming!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

An Unapologetic Apologetic

Among all the threats and attacks on the gospel currently in the world, is there any more formidable than that posed by Islam? Whole nations lay under Islam's sway. Christians in lands such as Indonesia and Sudan are regularly persecuted and driven from their homes, while Muslims freely migrate and populate Western nations. Given that the birthrate among Muslim women tends to be double and triple that of those in the Western nations where Christianity has historically been strong, one wonders how these nations will look in the next few decades? Since the London bombings, Muslim clerics have become further emboldened to declare that the fault for these crimes lies not at the feet of the ones setting off the bombs or those who inspired their hatred, but the British government for supporting the war in Iraq. They are predicting more acts of this nature. If you are in the U.S. or Britain, you should feel a sense of a looming crisis coming our way.

George Grant believes the conflict of Islam is the greatest of the church's battles. The author of the book Blood of the Moon (Understanding The Historic Struggle Between Islam And Western Civilization), Grant posted this on his blog the day of the London bombings: "The reality is that the greatest human conflict of the past century has not been between Communism and Democracy. It has not been between Liberalism and Conservatism. It has not been between Socialism and Capitalism. It has not been between Rich and Poor, Proletariat and Bourgeoisie, Industrialism and Agrarianism, Nationalism and Colonialism, Management and Labor, First World and Third World, East and West, North and South, Allied and Axis, or NATO and Soviet....The most convulsive conflict of past century—and indeed, the most convulsive conflict of the past millennium—has undoubtedly been between Islam and Civilization; it has been between Islam and Freedom; it has been between Islam and Order; it has been between Islam and Progress; it has been between Islam and Hope; it has been between Islam and the Gospel. While every other conflict pitting men and nations against one another has inevitably waxed and waned, this furious struggle has remained all too constant. The tension between Islam and every aspiration and yearning of man intrudes on every issue, every discipline, every epoch, and every locale—a fact that is more evident today than perhaps ever before."

Yet perhaps what makes Islam particularly threatening to the gospel currently is the sympathy the faith of Mohammed enjoys. Even in the countries where Muslims have carried out terrorist activities, leaders such as Bush and Blair continue to maintain that Islam is a good and peaceful religion. How can one explain that while court decisions have removed Bibles from public schools and are removing the Ten Commandments from our public places, that same government can supply Korans to Islamic militants being held in Guantanamo Bay? How is that attendance at mosques is increasing in the U.S? Bottom line, why is Islam being looked more favorably upon in many quarters in our land than Christianity? It has to do with apologetics.

The science of defending the Christian faith is known as "apologetics." Apologetics comes from a Greek word that means "to speak on one's own behalf," such as the defense offered in a courtroom. Simply speaking, just as countries have failed to protect themselves from the bombs of the Muslims, all-in-all the church has failed to defend itself and promote the gospel against the Islamic insurgency. Though many others, the aforementioned George Grant being one of them, have much more to offer in way of apologetics against Islam than I, please allow me to stress here the need to practice apologetics within the Christian church. Islam is making great inroads in the West because professing believers, spending more time watching the evening news than reading their Bibles and history, do not see the true dangers of the religion of Mohammed. I offer the following apologetic point with the hope it may help some within the sleepy, evangelical church to awaken by shining some light on the darkness of the religion symbolized by a sliver of a moon. In my mind this point may be the only one that carries enough threat to awaken fellow Christians.

Remember, before, during and after the Crusades there was Jihad. If you have ever spoken to a Muslim who is trying to show you the superiority of Islam over Christianity, he will quickly bring up the Crusades as evidence of the church's hypocrisy in its abuse of Muslims. One only needs to consider the timing of the movie Kingdom of Heaven to see how the Islamic apologists have won the culture war here. Why did Hollywood produce a movie portraying the Crusades, the regrettable action of the Catholic church to take back militarily the Holy Land from the Muslim Turks in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, during a time that Muslims through the 9/11 attacks, Madrid and London bombings, Sudanese and Indonesian wholescale persecution of Christians, etc., are clearly the ones on a "jihad" or holy war? Don't hold your breath waiting for the movies showing the beginning of Islam.

We need to remind the people sitting in the pews that Islam began with tribes devoted to Mohammed warring against and defeating the inhabitants of Mecca in 630 A.D. This was then followed by waves of fierce Arabic warriors devoted to Mohammed sweeping into power over Christianized lands in all of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe over the next century. In every place they conquered, the inhabitants were forced to recant the Christian faith and swear allegiance to Allah and his prophet Mohammed or face the sword (Note: My apologies for this misrepresentation - in some areas they spared you the sword and let you practice Christianity if you paid a tribute to Allah). Only the victory by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D. prevented the complete conquest of Europe by the Muslims. So while we can acknowledge the abuses and misguided nature of the Crusades, let us remember that Islam began by jihad, and those following Mohammed 1400 years later continue it upon the "infidel" lands of our day.

Those in Western government and media who have kidded themselves into thinking that Islam is peace-loving and Muslims want democratic rule need to point to one nation where Muslims have been or are in power these past fourteen centuries and that has been the case. Think of it - in Iraq we are trying to force upon them by military might freedom of democratic rule, a political fruit that our largely Christian forefathers yearned for and bore. We may have swept out one demon in Iraq named Sadaam, but time will show that seven more wicked will go in and live there, and the last state of Iraq will be worse than the first (see Matthew 12:45). Surely many individual Muslim citizens exist that are not terrorists, but as the "nice laddies" who blew up subways in London showed, Islam as a worldview is an oppressive and violence-spawning religion. "By their fruits you shall know them," the Lord said.

The average American Christian needs to wake up, for not a movie but a war is coming to a neighborhood near you unless God intervenes. George Grant predicts in the same blog article cited above that unless something miraculous happens, what took place in London will become a common occurrence in Dallas, Atlanta or Chicago. How many more suicide bombers have to kill our troops, or will have to explode in our neighborhoods, before we recognize this truth about Islam?

In another attempt to get your attention, one glorious day we will see the Lord Jesus Christ cast the false prophet Mohammed, who dared deny the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord, into Hell where he will burn in torment forever. If that thought does not absolutely delight you but rather offends your interfaith sensibilities, I cannot apologize but merely point out that it proves you have already been lost in the apologetics war. Go read Psalm 139:19-24 over and over again until you can truly pray and sing it sincerely. I just hope it does not take someone you love sizzling in a terrorist (i.e. Islamic) attack to get you to do it. Until the Christian church starts praying with far more earnestness for Islam's absolute demise, the crescent moon will continue to rise.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Night Dad Died

Note: Recently I drove past the hospital where my father had died. I realized that the day was the seventeenth anniversary of his death. My mother, who has yet to recover from the loss of my father, was in the car with me. Thoughts such as these whirled through my mind.

The night Dad was to die,
He was hundreds of miles from me away,
And so did my childhood then seem.
With memories already fading like a dream,
We jumped in the car and drove all day,
Reaching the night Dad was to die.

The night Dad was dying,
I arrived as he was taking life's last breaths,
The one who had seen me take my first.
Each of us seeing in the other the pain of the curse,
That life is just a gasp, and then comes death,
Grieving the night Dad was dying.

The night Dad lay dying,
His earthen hand in mine began to yield,
When, with sudden grasp, concern for my infant son arose.
Later, with tiny hand 'round my finger wrapped, "How," I pose,
"Quickly death follows on birth's heels,"
Pondering the night Dad lay dying.

The night death came to Dad,
He struggled to speak his love for me,
A body broken the key to a long-closed heart.
How his words tore me apart,
Bringing forth tears so hot, so free,
Feeling the night death came to Dad.

The night Dad died,
His departing soul touched mine,
Impressing upon me the mortal that I am.
Putting in me the longing for the land
Where I will be, by promise divine,
Forgetting the night Dad died.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Children Worshiping God

A Position Paper of the Session of Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church

“Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 19:14

An increasingly common practice found in the evangelical church is that either prior to the worship service or at some point during it, the children of those assembled are removed to another part of the building to participate in activities separate from the ones in which their parents are engaged. Often deemed “Children’s Church,” “Young People’s Worship,” or simply “Youth Activities,” the children of the congregation are offered fare that is supposed to be “more on their level.” Youth leaders use a wide array of activities, games, visual stimuli and dramatic portrayals to hold the young people’s attention and seek to instruct them in the faith. Often the explanation for this practice is that the children cannot comprehend what is taking place in the worship service, and that the adults need time to be undistracted by children’s needs so they can concentrate on the service. Yet in response to this movement we would raise the following questions: “What is the will of the Lord for the children of the church? Does the Lord of the church desire the children to be present in the worship assembly?” We believe questions such as these can be answered with three Biblical truths.

The Lord Views the Children of Believers as Heirs of the Kingdom of God

One of the underlying reasons for this practice of separating the children from their worshiping parents is the lack of belief in the church to see that the Lord regards the children of believers as belonging to the church. That children of believing parents are to be considered as members of the covenant community has been the case throughout the ages. When God first began to reveal the gospel through Abraham, who is not only to be recognized as the father of Old Testament Israel but the father of the New Testament Church as well (please see Galatians 3:6-9), He included the children of Abraham in all His promises to him. These promises, the highlight of which was the removal of sin and the restoration of life with God, were received by faith and were to be symbolized with the rite of circumcision. The Lord gave the promises not only to Abraham but to his children, and thus He commanded that the sign of these promises be placed not only upon Abraham but also his children. ”I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you…This is My covenant which you will keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:7,10). Circumcision was to teach Israel that only through the blood and pain of a male descendant of Abraham would the filth of their sin be removed. Though literally dozens and dozens of Scriptural references could be given regarding God’s promises to the children regarding this truth, let this quotation from Deuteronomy 30:6 suffice, “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, so that you may live.’

These promises made to Abraham and Israel came to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. As the One who at Calvary removed our defilement by being made our circumcision (II Corinthians 5:21; Colossians 2:11), all the promises of God have become, as the Apostle Paul tells us, “Yes” in Christ (II Corinthians 1:20). The church of the New Testament, consisting of both Jew and Gentile, has become the New Israel, the spiritual descendants of Abraham (Romans 4:9-12). One of those glorious promises God has made through Abraham to us is that the children of believers in the New Testament age are then regarded as heirs of the covenant God made in Christ. As Peter preached the gospel at Pentecost and urged the listeners on toward faith and repentance, baptism, and the reception of the Spirit, he declared to them, “For the promise is for you and your children…” (Acts 2:39). Consequently, in Christ the sign of the promise was transformed and applied to the children of believers. The cleansing waters of baptism replaced the bloody rite of circumcision for, as the Apostle Paul states, “in Him you also were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism...” (Colossians 2:11-12). That baptism was applied to both believers and their families then should be expected and demonstrated in the New Testament, which is seen in the household baptisms that are recorded (Acts 16:15, 31-34; I Corinthians 1:16). As baptism signifies entrance into the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:13), the children of the church are to be viewed as members of the church and heirs of the promises of God.

When Abraham looked at the stars as God commanded him and he believed that his descendants would number as such, the Bible declares that God was preaching to him the gospel (Galatians 3:9) and granting Abraham righteousness by his faith in this promise (Genesis 15:6). The glorious promise, like a lost treasure the modern church is yet to rediscover, is that the Lord desires to shed His grace down to a thousand generations of those who love and follow Him. How this wonderful good news should capture the heart and imagination of every local congregation! “The lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to the children’s children, to those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them” (Psalm 103:17-18). Thus, with respect to the church gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day, the proclamation of this wonderful news and the desire to pass the gospel of Christ down to the next generation should be a central reason for the church’s assembly. The church should labor and anticipate that the children unto many generations – indeed unto a thousand! - would be blessed of God by being regenerated in His timing so they too can trust in the Lord (Isaiah 65:23; Deuteronomy 7:9).

This then speaks directly to the issue at hand and leads us to the next truth regarding our covenant children.

The Lord Commands the Children of the Church to Worship Him

If God did not expect our children to participate in worship and share in the means of grace, then we would expect that when He addresses the worship assembly He would not command the children to worship. Yet this is exactly the opposite of what we find in Scripture. Many passages we use to call the congregation to worship speak to the young as well as the old. For instance:

  • “O fear the Lord, you His saints; for to those who fear Him there is no want. The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they who seek the Lord shall not be in want of any good thing. Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:9-11).
  • “Praise the Lord from the earth,…Kings of the earth and all peoples; princes and judges of the earth; Both young men and virgins, old men and children. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is to be exalted…” (Psalm 148:7-13).
  • "Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise in the congregation of the godly ones. Let Israel be glad in his Maker; let the sons of Zion rejoice in their King” (Psalm 149:1-2).

The Lord of the church expects the youth of the congregation to be found among the assembled, as sons and daughters of the King, eager to rejoice and praise His glorious name.

The New Testament epistles testify to the expectation that children were to be found among those assembled, as the Apostle Paul in the book of Ephesians directly addresses the children following exhortations to their parents. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1-3; see also Colossians 3:20). Since these epistles were to be read to the assembled congregation, it is apparent that children were included in the gatherings of the early church. This would also mean that the other aspects of apostolic instruction that preceded or followed the specific directions to the children were for them to learn as well. If the truth be known, often the leaders of the modern church do not want the children to be there because, like at a stage production, their cries and noises will ruin their carefully crafted “shows” for the audience. Nothing like a baby screaming to ruin a good solo! But the church is not an audience, and worship is not a show. Rather, the church is the household of faith where the family of God gathers, including its youngest members, to sit and learn at the feet of Christ, and to rise as one to praise His holy name. As heirs of the kingdom of God, the children should be found learning and worshiping right alongside the rest of us.

To those in church leadership or others who would think that their worship assemblies are not really the place for children, or have the misconception that Christ does not really care if the children are there or not, we would remind them of the reaction of the disciples, and then the strong words of Christ, when some parents wanted Jesus to bless their children. When the disciples saw these parents trying to bring their young children to Jesus, and saw some of them even bringing babies, they tried to stop them. “Jesus cannot be bothered with unimportant things like children! Those crying babies will drown out the message!” they protested. But Jesus saw the faith of the parents, He saw heirs of the kingdom, and so He rebuked His sincere but blind disciples with these words, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” He bids them come. They belong in His presence. The kingdom is theirs. Will you really stop them from coming?

The Lord Expects the Church to Carefully Nurture His Lambs

Having hopefully convinced our readers of the importance of including our children in the worship of God, a final important truth to help in the application of this practice must be noted. Children are, well, children, and as such must be nurtured along in the worship of God. They cannot be expected to behave appropriately, give proper devotion, and receive God’s blessings without proper instruction. We are warned by the Lord to not put stumbling blocks in front of our little ones (Matthew 18:1-6), so it would be prudent to give some further instruction on how to best aid the lambs in Christ’s flock.

To the parents: As parents of a covenant child, you must view your child as a gift of God to be trained in the way he should go (Psalm 127:5; Deuteronomy 6:5; Proverbs 22:6). If you want your child to worship the Lord on Sunday, then you must train him by worshiping God with him the other days of the week as well. If possible, it starts while they are nursing babes – singing and reading the word of God while you hold them in arms. As he learns to sing, pray, and listen to Scripture around the table or beside the bed in your home after a meal or before bedtime, he will then grow to love coming to church and doing the same with other friends in a more formal setting. You must constantly remind him of his baptism, that the Triune name of God is written upon his heart and life (Isaiah 44:1-5; Matthew 28:19-20), so that when he comes before God in worship he comes knowing he belongs to Christ. You must also press upon him as he enters young adulthood the need to profess publicly his faith in Christ, bear the marks of true Christianity, and seek communicant membership in the church, to show he has received the inheritance of God’s kingdom. Finally, never let the public worship of God be a safe haven for disobedience (“Mom and Dad won’t discipline me here because they would be too embarrassed.”) Take a misbehaving child out of the assembly and correct them so they learn that God expects their fear and obedience at all times, especially in His presence.

To the church: If you are in church leadership, you will find your ministry judged by God if you view children as a bother rather than the blessing and joy that they are, and if you regularly separate the children from God and their families. The children will grow up feeling that separation and living it out, and we are aware of many sad instances where this is the case. Rather, the church should work at promoting an environment in worship where the whole people of God are brought together as one. Pastors should make sure that the parts of the service can be understood by young and old alike, even addressing the children at times before a song, through an object lesson, or in the midst of the sermon to remind the children the things of God are for them. The church is a body, and members should seek to serve those with young children, providing help to young mothers, a nursery or crying room for the very young or the disobedient or the children of visitors, and patience and understanding when a child is unruly. The congregation should be diligent in seeing that the children are included and cared for in every way in the worship assembly.

Is not the last promise of the Old Covenant and one of the first of the New that the Lord would “restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers?” (Malachi 4:6; Luke 1:17). What better way can this be seen than in having young and old, parents and children, seeking the Lord together in worship? Sadly, the church has fallen away from this glorious vision, and the last threat of the Old Testament has come true, as seen in the lost children of our present generation. “I will come and smite the land with a curse,” the Lord threatened in the last verse of Malachi. May we seek the Lord and follow His will for the children of the kingdom, that His blessings may be restored to us again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Modern man thinks he does not worship idols, which only proves that he does. How so?

Consider for a moment the current epidemic of pornography. With the advent of the Internet and personalized computers, the pornography industry, put into check somewhat by the morality movement during the 1980's that led a few national chains to quit carrying obscene material, has returned with a vengeance. Some of the facts:

  • Estimates are that as many as 200,000 Americans exhibit addictive behavior to pornography, much like a drug user.
  • The Justice Department estimates that nine of 10 children between the ages of 8 and 16 have been exposed to pornography online.
  • Two-thirds of the divorce lawyers attending a 2002 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said excessive interest in online porn contributed to more than half of the divorces they handled that year.
  • The pornography industry in the United States alone is a $10-14 billion enterprise.
  • One of every seven calls received at Focus on the Family's Pastoral Care Line regards internet pornography. One survey showed that forty percent of pastors had viewed internet obscenity in the last month.

That pornography is a major problem even in the church cannot be denied. What the church must see, but its very nature makes it impossible to see, is that pornography is idolatry.

For what is idolatry? Coming from a compund word that means "to serve images," idolatry is defined to be in part "blind or excessive devotion to something; image-worship or divine honour paid to any created object." The guy sitting at the computer screen gawking in awe at the image of a naked woman may scoff at the other guy gazing in awe at the image of the naked Buddha and say, "I would never do anything so stupid as that!", but then again that's the way of idolatry. Idolatry has blinded both fools.

For that's one of the most horrible judgments for idolatry. Listen to the pronouncement against the idolator in Psalm 115:4-8:

"Their idols are silver and gold, the work of man’s hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but they cannot hear; they have noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; They cannot make a sound with their throat. Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them."

What the guy worshipping the beautiful body of the porn star does not understand is that his fantasy to actually see, hear and touch her is but a lie, and the awful truth is that he is actually becoming like the image in front of him. The Buddhist wants to reach a higher idealized state, and, oh boy, so does our pornographist, but he deludes himself. So I say to you who view pornography, "Don't you understand? That's not a real woman in front of you, but an image of her. She - no - IT cannot hear you, see you, feel you, talk to you and, quit kidding yourself, it certainly does not want to be with you. And do you not understand that is now what's happening to you? You cannot see, hear or feel either. You have become like the goddess you are worshipping - blind, deaf, insensitive, and unfeeling."

How? The pornographer is blind to the shame he brings upon his family. He is deaf to the cries of the men, women and children used in this shameful industry, and the eventual disease and death that come upon them. He cannot feel the pain he causes his wife by his cyber-adultery, and his protest that it is not adultery just proves all over again he has become like the idol (Besides, the Lord Jesus says it is adultery (Matthew 5:28).) He grows insensitive to the people around him, using them for his own lusts and pleasures. No wonder the vast majority of rapists, molestors, kidnappers and incest committers have used pornography prior to their crimes.

Any hope for the one practicing pornolatry? Yes, but all I will tell you here is that the first step involves tearing out your eyes (Matthew 5:29). If you think that's a bit too radical, then there's not much that can be done for you. But then again, if you are a pornographer, that's just your problem. What you cannot see is that you cannot see. What you cannot hear is that you cannot hear. What you cannot feel is that you cannot feel. After being told you are an idol worshipper, the best I can do for you at this point is just ask you the simple question of the TV commercial: "Can you hear me now?"

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

On Depression

On the Today show recently, actor Tom Cruise, speaking out of the convictions of his Scientology worldview, made headlines for attacking those who use medications such as antidepressants. One of the people he mentioned was actress Brooke Shields, who used the antidepressant Paxil following the birth of her child. Ms. Shields, who has written of her experience in a book I have not read called Down Came the Rain : My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, quickly responded with an editorial in the New York Times defending her use of the medication.

This "Star" Wars interchange cited above of "Cruise" missiles being fired against the "Shields" defense system caught my attention. I have watched a close family member struggle with bouts of severe depression for many years now who has chosen to treat it primarily with drugs and psychiatry. Unlike the way these two have portrayed themselves, I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject. But being a student of God's Word and also of people, I would just like to offer the following observations about the topic of depression, in the hope it could help you or someone you love.

Depression is a God-given emotion indicating something is drastically wrong. We have emotions that we enjoy, such as happiness or excitement. These positive emotions can often be attributed to God, even by an unbeliever. But we also have emotions with a more negative image, such as sadness, anger or fear, that our liberalized society cannot imagine being associated with God. Yet they come from His hand as well. He has given us these emotions, for the perfect Man, Jesus Christ, displayed sadness (Luke 19:41), anger (Luke 19:45-46), and fear (Luke 22:42), all in the same horrible, passion-filled week. Just because these emotions are so often used sinfully by man does not make the emotions themselves sinful. And depression is one of those emotions God has made us capable of feeling as a sign that something is terribly wrong.

Feeling depressed when a tragedy strikes, a disease afflicts, a relationship breaks your heart, or sin abounds in your life is the only way we should feel at those times. The Lord, who has made us in His image, created us to feel this way. He Himself feels exceeding sorrow when He looks upon these types of pains, as seen by the above Scriptural references or many others that could be given. Rather than trying quickly to suppress this emotion of depression, we should first see what it is trying to tell us. Just as anger indicates a problem that needs to be resolved, so depression is telling us something is not right and we need to be careful to not short circuit its message.

One of the liberating aspects of the psalms of the Bible is that they allow for the reality that the child of God will feel depressed, distressed and overwhelmed at times, and encourage us to acknowledge this. Two examples:

"My voice and prayer, O God, attend;
From ends of earth to Thee I send
My supplicating cry,
When troubles overwhelm my breast;
Then lead me on the rock to rest
That higher is than I."
-Psalm 61, Stanza 1, The Book of Psalms for Singing

"Thou Who before hast made me see
Much evil and distress
Wilt me revive and bring me up
From depths which me depress."
-Psalm 71D, Stanza 13, The Book of Psalms for Singing

Unlike Mr. Cruise, whose Scientology leads him to believe that learning to clear the mind through secret knowledge is how the negativity of such things as depression is overcome, or Ms. Shields and the multitudes who turn to mind-dulling medications to cope, the psalmist looks at his depression honestly. He knows that God has made him "see much evil and distress." He admits these troubles have overwhelmed and depressed him. Some times the psalmist realizes his depression is brought on by factors outside his control, such as seeing enemies pursing him or friends forsaking him. At other times, he recognizes his own unconfessed sin has made him feel this way, indeed that God himself has made him feel this way (See Psalm 32:3-4, then read the rest of the psalm). Though postpartum depression is common even among godly women, did Ms. Shields ever consider her immoral lifestyle and her divorce (My internet searching for this blog came across comments where she is openly saying she still loves her first husband while married to another man!) may have as much to do with her depression as hormonal or chemical imbalances?

The depressed then need real friends, not just sympathetic well-wishers. In having observed many people dealing with the depressed, it amazes me how often the well-wisher will express sorrow, take them to yet another counseling appointment, and encourage them to try yet another pill, then away from the afflicted's presence criticize the depressed for giving up or for being selfish. The well-wisher often sees exactly what the real problem is, but does not treat it with the right cure and so compounds rather than lessening the problem.

Proverbs 27:6 says, "Better are the wounds of a friend than the kisses of an enemy." Real friends speak with gentleness the honest truth the depressed need to hear. The well-wisher says to the depressed it is too bad you are so down; the real friend encourages them to take Biblical steps to lift their souls up to God. The well-wisher says he is sorry the depressed could not make it to church; a real friend tells the depressed he should have been there and, by the way, I'll pick you up next week. In a situation involving sin, the well-wisher often sidesteps and avoids any mention of it; the real friend sees a call to rebuke and seek restoration. You can give your depressed family member or friend no better comfort than to bring the gospel of hope to them. Though there may be times when medication may be needed short-term to calm a severely distraught person much as we use morphine to treat pain, this is not the solution. The depressed need to hear of the deliverance of Christ, and must be encouraged to treat their soul not with Prozac or Praxil but with the peaceful balm of Christ.

The depressed must learn then to preach to themselves, not just listen to themselves. This is the excellent point made by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, who was both a doctor and a pastor, in his book entitled Spiritual Depression. Dr. Lloyd-Jones quotes from such psalms as Psalm 42, where we read:

"O why, my soul, art thou bowed down?
Why so discouraged be?
Hope now in God! I’ll praise Him still!
My help, my God is He!"
-Psalm 42A, Stanza 6, The Book of Psalms for Singing

He then points out how often in the Scriptures the psalmist speaks to himself. Here for example he's telling his soul not to be discouraged, but to find hope and help in God. Even in his depression he will praise God, for he knows his deliverance will come. The depressed need to preach the gospel to themselves.

If you have ever been around someone who has severe depression, they usually are not speaking to themselves, but instead listening to themselves. "I can't go on anymore." "I don't feel like it." "My problems are too great to overcome." At the heart of these comments is unbelief . They are not trusting in the power of the Lord to deliver them from their woes, be it traumatic experiences or deadly sin. That's ultimately why God allows depression in the first place, that we would be so overwhelmed that we would finally realize what has been true all along. Without Christ, everything is hopeless. And when one is finally brought so low that he or she finally cries out in faith to Christ, that person will find deliverance from their distress. The One whom sin and death could not hold, who has the key to hell in His hand, is powerful to save. An active belief in Christ and the experience of salvation inevitably bring the peace and joy that lift the greatest depressions.

If only Mr. Cruise and/or Ms. Shields would vigorously discuss that!

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Drama in Worship

It's too bad pastors today are trying to be dramatic and, in doing so, are missing the real drama found at every worship service.

What do I mean?

A common trend in evangelical churches is putting on stage a piece of drama before the congregation in the midst of the worship service. The lights dim. A spotlight shines on center stage. Mood music flows into the sanctuary to build anticipation in the audience as the performers take the stage. Usually then a scene meant to portray a Biblical story or emphasize a spiritual truth is performed to draw the congregation into the theme for that day's service.

The only problem with this is that in trying to be trendy and dramatic, usually with the design to bring in the numbers, the church is missing the real drama of worship. Again, what do I mean?

The Lord of the Scriptures has given us commands regarding His worship, commandments that could be summarized in this basic statement: "Keep it simple and pure." As the Apostle Paul told the "always-looking-for-a-good-show" church at Corinth:

"I am afraid, that as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ" (II Corinthians 11:3).

In worship the Lord has told us that the church should be content with and devoted to teaching, fellowship, the sacraments, prayer, and giving (Acts 2:42-47). For this is where the real drama is found.

In particular, consider the reading of God's Word. When the Word of God is opened and read, think of what is happening. The Lord who brought the heaven and earth into being with His speech is now speaking to the congregation. The One who shook Mt. Sinai with thunder and lightening in giving the commandments to His people would now like your attention. He who still speaks and shakes the world with earthquakes, storms and tsunamis with His voice (Psalm 29:3-9) and destroys powerful nations and rulers with His breath (Isaiah 40:21-25) would like to talk to you about your standing before Him. What drama in just the reading of the word!

Then there is the preaching. As the preacher approaches the pulpit (if he's worth the trouble of listening to at all), he comes to that pulpit a-trembling. He is fully aware that he is a sinful man, and is a "dying man preaching to dying men." The only way he can even think of doing what he is about to do is because he has been cleansed and called by the Spirit of God. He clings to the pulpit to steady himself as he considers that he is about to open his mouth and, in the presence of God and His people, speak on behalf of the living God! Who is capable of such things? Yet as an ambassador for Christ he must speak (II Corinthians 5:20), and as he does his only hope in surviving the experience without judgment and the only source of boldness he can find for this task is that what he now proclaims is the Word of God. As Paul said,

"For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe" (I Thessalonians 3:13).

When the gospel is proclaimed, dead sinners are raised to life. When the gospel is preached, saints experience God feeding them and having fellowship with them. When the gospel is heralded, the Spirit of the God of heaven is at effectual work in the lives of people. What a call then to worship! What a hope the gospel brings! And what a judgment already being shown on those multitudes who would rather see a two-bit skit than be fed the very word of God. What a drama is unfolding every week at the house of the Lord!

And as for this preacher, the gospel is all that I have to offer, but what a gospel I have to offer!

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Under the Sycamore Tree

When the Old Testament prophets wanted to paint a picture of peace and prosperity, they would often use fig trees as imagery of God's goodness. As Moses sought to instill in Israel the vision of the Promised Land, he said that the Lord was bringing them into a "good land of...fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees..." (Deuteronomy 8:7-8). During the days of King Solomon, when Israel was at rest on all sides from her enemies and enjoying great economic prosperity, we read that "Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon" (I Kings 4:25). Since fig trees produce tasty fruits and have abundant green leaves that provide shade, they were often planted near wells to keep the sun off the water so that it was cool. A man seated under a fig tree eating the fruit above him while enjoying the refreshing water of the well was a picture of a man at peace and rest with God.

The Lord used this imagery to work the other way, though. Later, when Israel's unfaithfulness brought ruin upon them, the prophets such as Jeremiah cried out on behalf of God, "I will surely snatch them away,” declares the LORD; “There will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither; and what I have given them will pass away” (Jeremiah 8:3). Yet even in the midst of judgments the Lord always promised the hope of restoration, and if Israel or any nation would repent of their wickedness and seek His face once agaon, His promise was as follows: ‘In that day,’ declares the LORD of hosts, ‘every one of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and under his fig tree” (Zechariah 3:10).

That in essence is what our website, and indeed our congregation, is all about. An invitation to come and sit under the tree, though in this case it is a sycamore tree. Years ago our congregation chose Sycamore for its name because of this tree's abundance in central Indiana and particularly because they are found by streams of water. These verses from Jeremiah 17:7-8 have become our theme:

"Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose trust is the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit."

And indeed the Lord has blessed the congregation of Sycamore RP Church with a great measure of His presence and the spiritual fruit that follows. So I invite you to come and spend some time sitting under the Sycamore tree with us. Review a sermon on a section of Scripture to hear our teaching. Look over our ministries and activities. Read a story under our Lake Woes-Be-Gone tab that captures some of the spirit and fun we enjoy as a congregation. Come each week and taste some food for thought here at our "Under the Sycamore Tree" blogsite. Better yet, consider visiting us for worship and a meal some time. If you come seeking the presence of the Lord, we believe you will find His Spirit with us.

With this in mind, should it surprise us then that when Jesus began His public ministry, He found one of His first disciples (Nathaniel) waiting for Him where else but under a fig tree? (See John 1:47-18). To him Christ promised he would see the heavens opened and the angels delivering blessings from above to God's people through Himself (John 1:51). So come, sit under the shade of the tree with us for a while, and let us wait upon the Lord to visit and bring us His rich blessings. May the Lord grant you His peace.

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