Thursday, October 26, 2006

Preacher Confessions

If the title led you to believe you would read a juicy bit worthy of the National Enquirer, sorry to disappoint. Thankfully, that is not the case. The confessions I am about to make would be more like the equivalent of a fumble in football or error in baseball rather than a betting or doping scandal. Also, these are preacher confessions versus minister or pastor confessions. We are talking pulpit errors here.

However, I do not want to diminish the importance of carefulness. In his experience-filled book on the work of preaching called Preaching & Preachers, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones speaks of the need for attentiveness to the true theme of the text in sermons. "...there is one golden rule, one absolute demand - honesty. You have got to be honest with your text." The goal of the preacher is to bring out God's truth in the text. He must then treat the text honestly by relating to the congregation accurately God's purpose in giving us that portion of His Word. If this be the case, then a carefulness to the details of the text, or any aspect of the sermon for that matter, is essential.

Having fumbled, bumbled and mumbled over some things the past few weeks, and having had them brought to my attention either by others or by that nagging feeling something was amiss, I thought it would be good to go public here and clear the air. If magazines feature corrections for the sake of accuracy, why not preachers?

1) Historical blunder- A couple of weeks ago, to illustrate Abraham's military move to rescue his nephew Lot, I told the story of Richard Cameron and his urgent prayer "Lord spare the green and take the ripe!" before he rode off into battle and his own life was taken. My problem? In the midst of telling this story I kept saying "Richard Baxter." Though perhaps I could defend substituting in the name of a English Puritan pastor (whose book The Reformed Pastor is one of my faves) for a Scottish Covenanter pastor in the same time period by saying that was better than calling him, say, "Richard Dreyfuss," for those new to or learning church history it could be quite confusing. And for those who knew the difference, nothing like taking away the power of the point you are urging on the congregation than a repeated faux pas. How can they listen to you when they keep hearing a mistake that's like fingernails on chalkboards?

2) Orinthological misidentity - In Genesis 15, Abram is instructed to prepare birds and animals for a covenant ceremony God makes with him. We are told that "birds of prey" then swooped down on the dead animals. Abraham had to drive them away, and God explains this as a prophetic warning that Abraham's descendants would be oppressed by other nations. Wanting to make a connection with the verse where our Lord states that "where the corpse is, there the vultures are also," I kept referring to these birds of prey as vultures. Yet the mistake pointed out to me is that birds of prey are birds like eagles, hawks, falcons, etc., not scavengers like vultures. My eagerness to make a valid connection caused me to read the connection back into the story and misemphasize it. It is one thing to be circled by vultures and quite another to be circled by eagles. Not too many teams named the Vultures!

3) Theological blurring - Lately, when teaching about an early church heretic named Cerinthus, I called him a Docetist. That is true only in that Cerinthus' teachings led to Docetism. Docetists were people who believed Jesus only appeared to be human, that actually he was a spirit who took a human form. Thus, they denied the actual crucifixion of the man Jesus. Cerinthus, however, distinguished between Jesus the man and Christ the spirit. He believed prior to the crucifixion the Christ-spirit left Jesus the man who then really died on the cross. Later followers of Cerinthus' teaching fell even further from truth into the Docetic heresy by saying Jesus the man did not even exist.

One of my favorite quips about preaching is by Jay Adams, who said, "A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew." Clarity is essential to preaching, and in reality is ultimate to it. So on a more serious note, I hope these confessions will clear up any dimming of the glory of the Lord that may have been brought on by this preacher.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Little Men

As our nation grieves over the outbreak of violence in the recent school shootings in the Denver, Colorado and Lancaster, Pennsylvania areas, we may want to take this opportunity to teach our sons a lesson.

They need to be men and protect the women in their life, no matter how little they may be or how dangerous the situation.

Have you noticed that both shooters walked into classrooms and ordered all the boys to leave? According to news reports, none of the boys involved refused either gunman's request. No boy's life was taken. They all complied and in each case left girls with a man obviously intent on harming them.

Is the only story of resistance by any boy the one that ended up being a lie? A young man went on the Today show portraying himself as one who had initially resisted gunman Duane Morrison at the Platte Canyon High School tragedy. Yet the very next day he appeared again on the same show admitting he had not even been in the same classroom. He said, "I hope that people will know me for who I am, and not a liar." Sorry, but after trying to get attention as a hero, when girls are being molested and dying, it is a bit too late for that. And besides, even his lie reveals cowardice. As part of his lie, the fifteen year-old boy had said he still left when his life was threatened by Morrison. Are not heroes supposed to be willing to sacrifice their lives?

Some might object that expecting preteen boys or even high school guys to face down a mad gunman is asking too much. Yet I direct you to the only story of bravery I have so far run across in these tragic events, which almost reads like an indictment against my gender. Fox News reports that in the one-room Amish school house, some of the girls who survived the shootings related that thirteen year-old Marian Fisher, one of the older girls whose life was taken, begged to be shot first. Apparently she hoped by giving her life that the other girls would be able to escape. Should it not be the boys, in this violent, terror-filled world, who are trained to protect girls with their very lives? Again, the objection may be they are too little. Sorry, but even grown men feel like grasshoppers at times - just ask ten of the spies who went into the Promised Land (Numbers 13:33).

The church must train its boys to be little men who grow up to be big ones. At a young age they need to learn to show respect for their mother, sisters and other ladies in their lives. Small acts done early such as holding the door open for a lady or standing when a woman enters the room will develop into larger ones such as providing for and protecting wives and children later. Boys should be taught when it is appropriate to defend themselves and others. They must be trained and directed into leadership responsibilities in the church. And they need to be severely reprimanded when they fail in any of these things. Most importantly, they need to be inspired by the men in their lives with instruction and stories of courage such as what men did on the Titantic or on United Flight 93. If called upon, it is a man's duty to show the greatest love as Jesus did, which is laying down your life for another (John 15:13).

The evangelical church has grown feminine or, in the words of another, its "men are soft." How much more ecclesiastical and societal decay (translate that "death") will have to take place before strong bass voices, theological acumen, male moral purity, men crying to God for strength they do not have, and even a sword or two when necessary (see Luke 22:36-38) will be found among the people of God again?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

America's First Book

The first book published in colonial America was the Bay Psalm Book. According to the website of the Cambridge Reformed Presbyterian Church (which my friend Dr. Christian Adjemian pastors),

"The book was published in 1640 in what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts in a print shop now long gone, located in what is today Harvard Square...The preface to the Bay Psalm Book was written by John Cotton...(and is) an explanation and defense of the American Puritan understanding that the Book of Psalms is God's hymnbook for the Church. This is a belief that was shared by all Presbyterian churches until the 19th Century."

One of the ten existing copies of this work is on display as "America's First Book" in the Library of Congress. The Bay Psalm Book was used extensively throughout the colonies and went through many revisions and improvements.

My point in drawing your attention to this is to encourage you to read the preface which supports and defends the practice of the church singing the psalms in its worship. The preface begins with this eloquent statement:

"The singing of Psalms breathes out nothing but holy harmony and melody..."

but then quickly raises the concern against the church setting psalm singing aside:

"...but such is the subtlety of the enemy, and such is the enmity of our nature against the Lord and His ways, that our hearts can find discord in this harmony and notes of division in the holy melody."

The preface then goes on to answer the following three questions:

1) First, which psalms should be sung in churches: the psalms of David and other biblical writers, or psalms composed by godly and gifted men throughout the history of the church?
2) Second, if we sing psalms from scripture, should we sing them in strictly literal translations, or should we use the metrical forms common in English poetry?
3) Third, by whom are they to be sung? Should the whole church sing with voices together, or should one man sing alone while the rest join in silence and close by saying "amen"?

The answers, though not a complete treatise, are worthy of our study. As the preface closes with the following words, note how different is the spirit of these godly forefathers than the one typically found in the modern evangelical church:

"If the verses, therefore, are not always as smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect, let them consider that God’s altar does not need our polish (Ex. 20). We have chosen to respect a plain translation rather than smooth our verses with the sweetness of paraphrase: and thus we have honored conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into the English language and David’s poetry into English meter; that so we may sing in Zion the Lord’s songs of praise according to His own will; until He take us from hence, and wipe away all our tears, and bid us enter into our Master’s joy to sing eternal Hallelujahs."

If even the federal government can acknowledge this work as "America's First Book," what does it say of modern churches and their leaders who do not even know this heritage exists?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Child Will Save

Joseph McDougall was a physician in Nova Scotia who in the middle of the last century had a twenty-three year-old woman patient dying from tuberculosis. She was the mother of a one-year old child and had contracted this disease from her husband, a soldier in World War II. Perhaps if McDougall had practiced in other places, he could have performed procedures to help. Yet this young woman had a tubercular cavity in the lower lobe of her right lung and he could not operate. One procedure they had tried already had nearly killed her. So as she went from 125 pounds down to 87, they explained to her and her husband that she would likely die.

She made it known several weeks beforehand that she wanted to go home from the ward for Christmas. They did not think she would live that long, but on Christmas Eve she was still alive. She honored her promise to the doctor, not holding her young child at all and wearing a mask all the time except when she was alone with her husband. She returned to the medical center late Christmas day, and in the ensuing days her condition worsened further still. Yet she hung on to life. By February, she fell below 80 pounds, and began vomiting and refusing food. That is when they discovered a gift that she had been given on her trip home at Christmas. She was pregnant.

A medical abortion was refused, and the doctors reasoned that her body would reject the baby eventually. The doctors fed her intravaneously as she struggled for weeks, sure she and her baby would succumb. Yet in late March, they began to notice improvement. Her temperature went down. She began to eat and gain weight. An X-ray showed that growth of the tuberculosis cavity had stopped, and a later one revealed that the diaphragm from the growing womb had pushed up and closed the cavity. The end result was that a normal baby was born and the mother was healed. In this case, the child saved the mother.*

Knowing that you live in a nation where daily thousands of young children, by the desire of their parents, are ripped to pieces before they ever see the light of day, and that this practice is defended as a "civil" right, can be disheartening and just plain sickening. Yet the story above is not just a medical marvel, but a reminder of a Biblical truth that can encourage us in the pro-life community. Children will eventually save us from this plague, for children always do.

When Jewish babes were being tossed into the Nile by order of Pharaoh to diminish Israel and appease Pharaoh's gods, one was tossed obediently into the Nile but just happened also to be in a wicker basket. That child, named Moses which means "drawn out," grew to draw out Israel from this awful slavery. Recall the last plague on Egypt? The God-ordained death of the wicked's firstborn, an act not only of God's perfect justice but a foreshadowing of where true mercy and salvation would come. For this Moses was merely a picture of a "greater Moses." In the days when "Rachel was weeping for her children" because Herod had ordered mass infanticide, a child was carried away from this bloodshed by his parents down to that same Egypt. This child, the Son of God, arose to lead all who believe in Him out of the awful slavery of sin, leading his own mother to say of this child, "my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior." In that case, the child saved the mother - and a whole multitude more.

So let us not lose heart. Even as those outside the kingdom of God work hard to protect the right to kill their own offspring, the Lord is raising up a generation of children who love Him and will be used by Him to persuade hearts of abortion's wrong and draw us away from this evil practice. It will happen, for remember that "from the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength because of Your adversaries, to make the enemy and the revengeful cease" (Psalm 8:2). We do not merely have to hope that will be the case. Because of the Son of God, the One who though dead now lives, we must believe it shall be.

*From the December 2000 Focus on the Family Newletter. Go here to read the more complete details of this amazing story.