Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Snake Hunter

You have to admire the men pictured here. They are returning home from hunting an African Rock Python. Seeing how its jaws can expand wide enough to swallow an antelope, one might consider them brave in just carrying a dead one. In saying they hunt them you probably picture them surrounding one in a tree or on the ground, then using weapons to kill it or clubs to beat it. Remove that picture from your mind and read on. These men are much braver (or crazier, depending on your perspective) than that.

Adult pythons, usually 18-20 feet in length but which can get up to 28 feet and over 250 pounds, use the burrows of other animals to nest. These burrows can go down into the ground nearly 20 feet. The mother python will lay up to 100 eggs in her cache and then spend the next few months in her lair aggressively protecting them. This is where these men hunted. Again, you may imagine they smoked her out then beat her when she emerged from her tunnel. Keep reading.

To hunt this python, one of the men tied a leather coverings to his forearm and then held a bundle of lit twigs in his other hand for light. After securing a rope around him, he was lowered head first into the python's burrow, barely able to squeeze down. As he approached the snake face-to-face, he waved his leather-covered hand by the the python's mouth. The snake, already upset, struck the hand and began to swallow it. The hunter then quickly dropped the twigs, and with his other hand choked tightly the snake's never-ending throat right behind where his other hand was being swallowed. (This prevented the hunter from becoming its next meal.) At this point he undoubtedly yelled and kicked so his friends would pull him out of the hole. As he was extracted from the hole, the python was choking to death from the leather covering that had slipped off his hand combined with the choke hold of the hunter. The snake's body, naturally used when it falls on its prey with its weight and then crushes it with the strength of its death coils, was rendered useless by the narrowness of the burrow. Thus the snake, usually the predator, suffocated and became the prey. And yes, these men are taking this snake home to eat.

My job as a pastor regularly involves dealing with sin. Being it my own holed up in my own soul, working with others who have lived long in Satan's lair, or trying to hunt out the deadly lusts with searching preaching, the stubborn fierceness of sin confounds and (I must admit at times) scares me. Though these python hunters may get a certain adrenaline rush as they go down into that hole, I find little pleasurable or exciting in dealing with sin. I can even reason in my own mind, "If we are to let sleeping dogs lie, why not sleeping snakes?" Yet that's the problem. The serpent of old never sleeps, for he admits in his own words that he "roams about on the earth" (Job 1:7). And we know why. He is seeking someone he may devour (I Peter 5:8) through continually enticing them to follow their lusts. How tiring it can be to try to handle the slippery serpent and ceaseless sin. This "snake hunter" often wonders what the outcome is going to be.

Yet that's where this metaphor must go further. What encouragement can be found in turning again and again to the reminder from the Bible of the One who went into the snake pit for me! That dragon of old, with his jaws on the heel of the Savior, thought in his cunning he had brought an end to Christ at the cross. Little did he know his death bite was his own death warrant. That cross silenced forever his venomous accusations, and Jesus arose to crush his head. No wonder the Bible tells us we can see the devil flee when we resist him in Christ! Seeing salvation granted to the repentant, watching sanctification occur in His people, achieving reconciliation, witnessing an evil be used for God's purpose - these things and more remind me of the victory of the Lamb over the dragon.

O Lord, hear me pray what you have promised: "The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet!"

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Confession with My Tongue (in My Cheek)

December 10, 2008

President Kenneth A. Smith
Geneva College
Beaver Falls, PA 15010

Dear Dr. Smith,

Though I know you are a very busy man, I hope you can find just a few moments in your day to hear these confessions from a father of one of your students.

First, I swiped the photograph which you see in this letter, taken at your Family Day back in November, from Geneva's website. I am ashamed to admit that not only have I posted it here, but also on my computer desktop and my blog where this letter can also be found. (As Augustine in his Confessions shows, identifying particular vices and making them public is good for the soul's cleansing.) Though I should have asked permission, the beauty of the picture was too great to resist. Certainly you can sympathize with my weakness and find it in your heart to absolve me? Especially when you consider that I had even contemplated - but then strongly resisted the temptation! - asking you for a tuition break for helping advertise your fine institution in such a lovely way?

My second confession is that I grew a bit angry with you, as the head of Geneva, back in August. After leaving my little girl at your college, the next three days I literally felt like my heart had broken. It was like someone had died! This sweet daughter of mine, who for nineteen years had filled our home with joy, music, and love, was now gone. That I could have borne. Yet when I called her during those dark days of my soul, her voice did not sound quite like mine did. Oh, sure, she said she missed me, but she kept giggling afterwards which I did not think was very funny. She could not quite hide her excitement over such things as the new roommates she had, dining on a riverboat in Pittsburgh, or the classes she was looking forward to taking. Since I could not blame her, I blamed you for making the transition so painless. So please excuse my anger. But could you not at least consider instituting a two-day period of mourning for incoming students?

Having sat under your father's preaching for three years, I know the importance of heart applications of the law as is especially taught in the final commandment. So my final confession (I hope you are sitting down at this point) is that I secretly hoped Geneva might fail for my daughter. I had a black little hope that she might be so homesick, not like her classes, or at least miss the pastor back here so much that she would want to come back to Indiana. Instead, she has so many new friends we cannot remember all their names, has loved her courses and especially the music program, and is actually growing amazingly well in the church out there.

Thank you for reading my confessions. I know that looking at these things is never pretty. But, as Augustine explains it, neither was the desire for the pears that he stole.

Sincerely Thankful,

Barry York

Friday, December 05, 2008

Putting the Twig to the Nose

When my daughter Lindsay, home for the Thanksgiving break, asked me a question the other day, at first I wondered what they were teaching her at college. "Dad, what does 'putting the twig to the nose' mean?" she asked.

Then she told me she was reading Ezekiel for her Bible class, where the angel of God points out in Ezekiel 8:17 that men in Judah were guilty of "putting the twig to their nose." Considered the family's resident Bible expert, I enjoy it when my children ask me questions. Yet I had to admit to being a bit baffled by the expression, as I had not thought about it before. As our family happened to be traveling at the time, we discussed the context a bit, I told her it sounded like a pagan ritual to me, and then promised to look it up later.

What I found was interesting and (not surprising with the Word of God) fear-producing.

This verse with its expression is from a scene where the angel of God is showing the prophet why destruction is about to come upon Jerusalem. In the vision Ezekiel is shown 25 men worshiping in the courtyard of the temple. The problem is, however, that they are prostrated with their backs against the temple, praying to the sun in the east (Ezekiel 8:16). The angel then says,

"Do you see this, son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations which they have committed here, that they have filled the land with violence and provoked Me repeatedly? For behold, they are putting the twig to the nose. Therefore, I indeed will deal in wrath."

My research showed that my hunch was right. Often found in pagan worship was the practice of gathering a branch or bundle of twigs and then the worshiper would put them before his face near the mouth and nose as he prostrated himself and prayed to his idol. For these Jews worshiping the sun, it could have served as a type of veil to show respect to the sun-god, and it may have been a symbol of their recognition that life was dependent upon the light of the sun.

However, there is a powerful double entendre in this expression that only the Hebrew reveals. The word for "nose" in the Hebrew (אַף -"aph") can also be translated as "anger" or "ruin." The snort of emotion from the nose and the flaring of the nostrils provide the reason for this association. Sometimes scholars in different English versions can translate a verse using these two different meanings with the same effect, as in Job 4:9.
  • "By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of His nostrils they are consumed" (KJV).
  • "By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of His anger they come to an end" (NASB).
With this in mind, John Calvin said that by God describing them as putting the twig to the nose, they were in effect putting the twig to their ruin. In other words, by putting the twig to their nose, they were putting the twig to His nose. They were arousing His burning anger, which is why He follows this expression with these words, "Therefore, I will indeed deal in wrath."

How careful we must live! These Jews who thought they were being trendy by using a worldly worship practice were in reality putting more wood on the fire of God's anger by the very act. As Paul said in Romans 2:5, "Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God."

Perhaps from this we could develop a new proverbial warning when we see a believer pursuing evil things or churches turning their back on God's Word as they embrace worldly goods? "Don't put the twig to your nose!"

Monday, November 24, 2008

Offering Thanks Like a Pilgrim

Around 200 people gathered last night at Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church for a Thanksgiving Service. Brethren from the Elkhart, Lafayette, and West Lafayette RP congregations joined us for this annual event, along with friends from other churches and the community.

With the title above serving as our theme, the evening began with the following explanation:

The roots of Thanksgiving in our nation are found in those first Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Mayflower in 1620. After 66 days at sea, they arrived at what would be called the Plymouth colony on November of that year in what is today Massachusetts. Right before they landed, 41 persons on board gathered and signed the Mayflower Compact, which was a document explaining how this new colony would be governed. It was a covenant that spoke of how they would order and preserve themselves in order to accomplish the goal of their voyage, which was done (I quote from the Compact) “for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country.”

They would need their faith in God. William Bradford, the eventual governor of the colony, suffered the tragedy of having his own wife drown while the Mayflower was still anchored in the harbor and unloading passengers and supplies. On land, harsh weather, lack of food, and threats by Indians met them. Despite their best efforts to build shelter quickly and to endure the winter, by April of 1621 half of the original 102 people had died.

Yet through the spring and summer of that next year their fortunes turned. Crops began to grow. More permanent housing was built. Peace occurred with the Indians native to the region. So in the fall of 1621, Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the Native Americans who had helped them. The thanksgiving turned into a three day event filled with feasting and laughter, and games and races took place.

During it all, whether laying a loved on in a freshly dug grave or rejoicing over a birth or harvest in the new land, the Pilgrims continually turned to the psalms of the Bible to express their heart cries and joys to the Lord. Being of Puritan belief, they had set aside ceremony in worship so common in their homeland for the simplicity of worshiping God in spirit and truth. As such, the Pilgrims used the psalm-book written by Henry Ainsworth in 1612, believing that the singing of the Word of God was commanded in the Scriptures and exemplified in the life of Christ and His apostles. They used the Ainsworth Psalter because they believed it to be a more true and literal translation of the Psalms. We are going to begin our service tonight by singing Psalm 100 from this psalter (Note: A page featuring a portion of this psalm from the 1612 Ainsworth Psalter is pictured above.)

Yet we are singing this psalm and others for more than sentimental reasons. The Pilgrim’s example and story are worth noting, for we are to see ourselves as on a pilgrimage to a better country. Those who have been brought out of the death and destruction of sin and into the kingdom of the eternal God by the work of Jesus Christ are like Israel of old - we are on a pilgrimage through this world's wilderness to our heavenly destination. The Psalm book is written for pilgrims, and as the structure of this service will show, gives us:

  • the cries we need to express in our distress,
  • the direction we need for our journey,
  • the redemption we need as found only in Christ,
  • and the promise we need that heaven indeed will be granted to those who walk by faith.
We then enjoyed a service of singing these types of psalms, reading of relevant Scripture, and prayers of gratitude. Toward the conclusion, we also sang Psalm 23 from the 1640 Bay Psalm Book (the first book published in America), as its familiar words of the Good Shepherd leading His sheep along a path that passes through enemies and dark vales ends with the assurance that He will bring us to His home - a true pilgrim's anthem! For our final selection, we sang from Psalm 84 and experienced in our hearts this truth that it contains:

Blest are they who in Thy Strength confide, and in whose heart are pilgrims' ways!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All A-Twitter

Yet another technological wonderment has hit the internet. This will be old news for the young people, I'm sure, but hang in there for a moment while I explain it to my generation. It's a service called Twitter that has a little bluebird as its logo. Basically put, it is like making the wall of Facebook instantaneous without all the dressings. Oops! That still won't explain it to most of my middle-aged friends. Let me be a bit more specific.

Rather than a blog like you are reading now, Twitter is a micro-blog that allows a constant updating of thoughts (limit of 140 characters) from the Twitter subscriber and those he allows to respond. These mini-posts can either be read on the Web as a continuous list of comments or sent via e-mail or text message. As the developers state, Twitter answers the basic question, "What are you doing?" Friends can post what they are doing or thinking at any moment and, wham, all those who care can receive the news on their cell phones or computers. Major corporations and news agencies are using Twitter to give people instant updates (called "tweets" in Twitter Land) on exciting new products or breaking stories.

And, yes, the church has "flocked" to the action. WORLD magazine reported on Westwinds Church in Jackson, Michigan, that has used Twitter in their worship services. As the pastor preaches or the musician performs, the congregation has had services where they can post their thoughts on a Twitter site that is being projected on large screens in the sanctuary. Though the pastor recognizes not everyone will appreciate this innovation (he has even had to deal with inappropriate things being said on the screen), he believes these concerns are outweighed by the way Twitter gets everyone to participate more greatly in the service. He claims the Twittering they do through the week helps the church body stay connected.

As you may have anticipated, for all of its technological glory and I'm sure helpful applications in certain areas, I am now getting ready to tell you that I have concerns about a casual use of Twitter. But please listen to me before you accuse me of being as afraid of technology as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, mad as a wet hen that I did not think of it first, or trying too hard to be wise as an owl. On its website, Twitter itself points out the problem when it says this about its own service: "With Twitter, you can stay hyper–connected to your friends and always know what they’re doing...Twitter puts you in control and becomes a modern antidote to information overload." These paradoxical statements point out my dual concern.

On the one hand, do we need to be hyper-connected to our friends? Do not cell phones, e-mails, Facebooks, text messaging, etc., have us so hyper-connected already that we are being constantly interrupted by others? Besides, do I always want to know what you are doing? Better yet, do you always want to know what I am doing? I hope not! Do you not have better things to do? Like thinking about what you were doing before you were interrupted by yet another "tweet?"

Then on the other hand, is not their own description a bit delusional? How is getting constant information an "antidote to information overload?!?!" We think we are in control, but does this not lead us more toward a life of being controlled by friends who want to tell us instantly what's on their mind, no matter when or what it might be? In normal conversations, are we not bothered by those who constantly "crow" about their accomplishments, "chirp" with the latest gossip, or "squawk" about their problems?

And using Twitter in worship? C'mon! This is Quakerism run a muck! How can you truly listen to the Word of God when you are constantly glancing at the latest cool comment someone posted or trying to think of one of your own? Guys, make a date with your wife or girlfriend at a nice restaurant in order to have a meaningful conversation with her. But before you order your food, encourage her to use her cellphone and text her best friend during the meal about what you are doing and saying. Then you'll have the just the faintest of an idea of how the jealous God feels about this latest idolatrous distraction modern man has introduced into His worship.

All this reminds me of the men of Athens. When Paul arrived, the Scriptures in Acts 17 say that "all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new." They were all a-twitter over anything new they could hear. But when Paul began speaking the gospel, what did they think of him? They called him the "babbler." This word babbler in the Greek is literally "seed-picker," and was used to describe birds as they flitted here and there picking up and dropping seeds. So the babbler goes about, picking up and dropping news wherever he goes. Ironically, though the Athenians were the ones guilty of constantly tweeting with new news, they viewed the one with Good News as the babbler in the bunch.

Sounds a bit bird-brained to me.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Forgiving Yourself?

Imagine having witnessed the following:

A man came running up to a police officer standing on a corner. "Sir," he shouted desperately, "someone just stole my wallet. You have to arrest him before he gets away."

The policeman responded, "Now calm down, sir. When did this happen?"

The man replied, "Just five minutes ago, officer. Please hurry!"

The officer held his hand up patiently to quiet the man. "Now, sir, can you describe the thief to me?"

Hurriedly, the man spurted out, "He is about five foot ten, 180 pounds, wearing a blue button-down shirt with khaki pants and running shoes. He has light brown hair, blue eyes, and a mustache. Oh, and a large mole on his right cheek."

As the man who lost his wallet was describing the thief, the officer was busy looking him up and down. He then said to the man, "Excuse me, but that description describes you exactly."

The man nodded eagerly. "Exactly! I stole my wallet. Now hurry!"

At that point, I doubt the officer would arrest him, though he might have the man committed to a psychiatric hospital. You cannot steal your own wallet. Yet, spiritually speaking, many sound as confused as this man.

How many people, seeking counsel for some difficultly or trauma in their life, have said to me, "I'm having trouble forgiving myself." Undoubtedly, in the process of recounting their own contribution or response to the problem, they mean by that they are having difficulty shaking guilt and shame over their sin. Yet this language is unhelpful and untrue, and is actually a sign of the deeper problem the counseled one has.

For you cannot forgive yourself. You cannot steal your own wallet. You cannot write yourself an IOU. You cannot be indebted to yourself. Forgiveness implies that an offense, a spiritual crime, has been committed against another. Either God or another person - or both - is the one who has to release you from your debt.

Is this not what we express in the Lord's Prayer? "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." No self-forgiveness heard there. Indeed, nowhere in the Scriptures are you encouraged to forgive yourself. Is it not for obvious reasons? You cannot steal your own wallet. Any debts you must pay are held by others. One cannot be indebted to self, just as one cannot truly give himself a gift on his birthday.

Usually I find that those who use this language of self-forgiveness have a greater problem. They are morbidly self-centered. Using the language of "I cannot forgive myself," they are seeking pity for themselves rather than taking responsibility for what they have done to others. In vain human pride they consider more greatly the embarrassing shame of their actions on their own reputation than the painful hurt their sins have brought to God and their fellow man. Those that go down this path find it is an endless cycle of trying to reassure themselves that they are not as bad as they feel. The problem is, that is a lie. They are actually worse than they are making it out to be.

Indeed, "forgiving myself" is the language of self-salvation, an expression of justifying one's self by works rather than by faith in Christ. Nothing is more odious in the eyes of God than wretched sinners ignoring the cross work of His Son in a vain attempt to forgive themselves. As the Lord's Prayer teaches us, there is a better way. Through the blood of Christ we can ask God to remove the penalty for our sins from us. Living under the blood of Jesus, we can maintain a posture of willingness to release any who might have hurt or offended us.

To paraphrase John Newton, great sinners need a Great Savior. I have yet to find a person who can forgive himself like Jesus can.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Differing Weights & Scales

Though I missed it, I guess this past Sunday was "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," as some ministers decided to tell their congregations for whom they should or should not vote. In response, Cal Thomas, a Christian political commentator, has made it quite clear that pastors and churches are really not to be involved in the business of addressing political matters. The great pastor and theologian Martyn Lloyd-Jones would seem to agree. In urging the preaching of Christ rather than politics, he said, "I am in no position to stand and address a company of Christian people as to whether I think the Government has acted rightly or wrongly. That, I repeat, is not the primary business of the Christian minister."

I find myself drawn to the spirit of Thomas and Lloyd-Jones' point, as our focus in the pulpit should always be in the exaltation of Christ. Certainly turning the pulpit into a place for political stumping is foolish at best and idolatrous at worst. Yet I still find that I cannot agree with the gagging effect on the preacher these men's chief idea if practiced would bring. At key times and issues, pointing out the rightness or evil of our governing leaders and their policies is how we exalt Christ.

For instance, take the current financial chaos our nation is facing. Our government is voting whether to give these failed financial institutions an incredibly large bail-out - $700 billion! You do not have to be a mathematician to know 700,000,000,000 dollars is a lot of money. Neither do you have to have a PhD in economics to understand why we are in this crisis. You just need to understand two things. 1) Money is printed at the will of the government and therefore its value is changed as they try to control the economy. This is akin to having a yardstick that is one day 34 inches and the next 41. 2) On the insistence of the government, through its making of laws and regulations to promote "equality," this money has been loaned out by banks and loan institutions (i.e. Fannie May and Freddie Mac) to thousands and thousands of people that you or I wouldn't even loan a shovel to based on their reputation, much less the amount of a house.

And I'm not supposed to say anything? What did the prophets do when confronted with corrupt rulers and practices? What did Jesus say to those who suppressed the poor through evil monetary policies? Does the Bible say anything about changing scales and differing weights? Consider:

"You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small. You shall have a full and just weight; you shall have a full and just measure, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. For everyone who does these things, everyone who acts unjustly is an abomination to the LORD your God." Deuteronomy 25:14-16

This is not only law. It is basic wisdom:

"Differing weights are an abomination to the LORD, and a false scale is not good." -Proverbs 20:23
"A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is His delight." -Proverbs 11:1

We have grown so accustomed to an economic system based on differing weights and measures that when things grow haywire and unbalanced, our collective response is to take from one side (tax, increase money supply, borrow) so we can put more on the other side (entitlements, loans, grants). We have forgotten that slightly more than a century ago the chief campaign point was the money system we would use. We need to see that the problem is not so much that the balance is tipping, but that differing scales are causing the tipping.

With that in mind, might I add that those telling pastors to be quiet are just part of the same problem? For at the same time they are instructing preachers not to speak about politics, politician and pundit alike see no irony in moralizing, using the church, and invoking God's name when it serves their cause. Talk about differing scales!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Veiled Thoughts

"Perhaps nothing is more mysterious than a veil or curtain."
So began my last sermon
on the mystery in Ephesians 3:1-7.
And so begins this collage of "veiled thoughts" today.


In society, mystery is caused by a lack of evidence or facts.
In Scripture, mystery is caused by a lack of spiritual insight.


God not only created light.
He created darkness also.
He is Lord of both.
So says the prophet Isaiah.


Men cannot figure women out because of what women veil.
Women cannot figure men out because of what men reveal.


He who would obfuscate the clarity of Genesis 1
is not qualified to teach Sunday School,
let alone adults in higher education.


The great temptation for the preacher is the desire
to be heard rather than for the congregation to listen.


It is the wise man who understands
how the word gentleman is formed.


Sin always starts with a lie.
It will only end when the lies cease.


Some might view the election as
Smooth Talk versus Straight Talk.


A new twist on an old saying at our house?
Better smiles with a lizard in hand
than tears with two 30-feet up our backyard tree.


Even in the "greed-filled" game of Monopoly
the losers are not allowed just to print more money.


Take a quarter and notice that its edge is milled.
Find out why.
Then you'll understand why they are printing more money.


One reason children ask so many questions is
so that parents can learn to be more sure of their answers.


With Christ, when I believe then I see.
With man, when I see then I believe.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sicut Sagittae

Sycamore Covenant Academy (SCA), an academic and discipleship ministry of our congregation, opened its doors this week to start our seventh year. We are more excited than ever, as we have over fifty students with several of them being from new families (some from surrounding areas such as Peru, Marion and Indianapolis) participating. It has also been encouraging to see the Lord provide great teachers and courses to offer. Plans are underway to offer once again our Hope for Today Tutoring twice a week to underprivileged children in the neighborhood. Watching our own youth sit down with these youngsters and read the Bible to them, pray, and help them grow in their reading skills was last year, and will be again this year, fun to watch.

I am also excited and thankful for the new logo you see (click it to go to the SCA website) that Susan Spiegel designed for us that captures the essence of this ministry. We feature a sword and a shield because our theme statement reads this way:
  • Raising Our Children in the Fear of the Lord
  • Arming Our Children with the Knowledge of His Word and World
  • Sending Them Out to Possess the Gates of Our Enemies
Of course, this may appear to be "too militant" for the squeamish humanism that guides so much of our educational policies in this generation. However, as I will explain, this language is lifted straight from the Bible and is capturing spiritual truth about our children. And any secular humanist who would accuse us of being militant should first consider that we're all involuntarily paying for the schooling of his child - if he has any - with our tax money.

This language comes from Psalm 127 you see referenced on the shield and the covenant truth it conveys. In this psalm our children are described as gifts to us from God Himself, who are to be handled as arrows in the hands of warriors (hence the quiver on the shield). In other words, they are to be prepared to be sent out so that as they represent Christ they "will not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate" (Psalm 127:5). Our youth are to be prepared to deal with all the arguments that God's foes raise against the truth of His Word. This promise from Psalm 127:5 is an echo of God's earlier promise to Abraham, who was told after he had offered his child Isaac to the Lord these words: "I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies" (Genesis 22:17). Since in Christ all these promises have become "Yes" for us (II Corinthians 1:20; Galatians 3:7-8, 29), Christians should be raising their children in the hope and anticipation that God will mightily bless them to go into the strongholds of His foes and win them over, with compassion and persuasion, to the ways of the Lord.

This explains then the Latin phrase from the Vulgate version of Psalm 127:4. Sicut Sagittae means "Like Arrows." As we teach, catechize, and train our youth to serve, SCA is just one means in which our church is seeking to join with many others across the land who are desirous of sending their children out like arrows of light in this dark generation. If our secular enemies howl in protest over Christian's influence in civil discourse, government, business or education, it will only mean that we are hitting the target.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Beating the Jonah Syndrome

As Hurricane Gustav churned in the Gulf of Mexico a few days ago, reports circulated that it could grow into a monster Category 5 storm. I, like many others, kept tuning in to find out if it would strike New Orleans with more or greater force than Katrina had done three years ago. So great was the possible danger that it caused a major political party to cancel its campaigning for a day. Yet Gustav weakened, its center headed west of New Orleans, and it only struck the city with a glancing blow. The cameras trained on the levees, which showed the angry sea waves sloshing over the top, were not able to deliver stunning pictures of their collapse and the re-flooding of this city. So though the winds of political campaigning have picked up again and are blowing as strong as ever, thankfully the winds of Gustav died down and the city of New Orleans was spared.

At least that last phrase in the sentence above is what one is expected to say publicly. If the truth be known - and here is where you may lose any respect you might have had for me - there was a part of me wanting to urge the hurricane on. "Strike this wicked city and finish what Katrina did not, " would summarize my dark sentiments.

For rather than repenting of its sins following Katrina, New Orleans seems to be more determined than ever to hold onto its Mardi Gras lifestyle and resume its violent and immoral ways. Crime continues to increase. Its murder rate far surpasses that of other American cities known for their violence. So like the prophet Jonah, who made a shelter for himself outside the ancient, wicked city of Ninevah, then sat under its shade so "he could see what would happen to the city" (Jonah 4:5), in the comfort of my home I watched the TV reports to see what would happen to New Orleans. Insurance companies continue to call these natural catastrophes "acts of God" when it means they do not have to cover the disaster, but no one seems truly to believe that the God of heaven would send these storms purposefully. Is it not about time God shows them? This is what I am calling the Jonah Syndrome, the desire to see the wicked get their due now.

The more I think about it, I'm sure this syndrome is more widespread than one may think. For in the Scriptures it was not limited to just Old Testament prophets. Two of Jesus' disciples, common men like us, wanted to call fire from heaven down right that moment on one city that had rejected welcoming Christ into their midst (Luke 9:51-55). Indeed, with vengeance being routinely condemned in Scriptures (Matthew 5:38-42; Romans 12:19-21), even if you did not secretly root for the hurricane, surely you have wished for a lesser disaster to fall on that person who wronged you?

It is not just the desire to see evil punished that constitutes the Jonah Syndrome. God's Word instructs us to pray that would occur (Psalm 94:1-2; Acts 4:24-31). I'm reading in Isaiah currently, and in chapters 23-25 he tells of the destruction of another seacoast city, the ancient and wicked city of Tyre, and says, "I will exalt You, I will give thanks to Your name...for you have made a city into a heap, a fortified city into a ruin" (Isaiah 25:1-2). Rather, behind this syndrome is the impatience of wanting action now and the lack of horror regarding what God's judgments mean for its recipients.

For remember that Jonah was disappointed. After he had warned Ninevah that a disastrous judgment of God was coming, only to have them repent on a massive scale, God relented in sending it. When Jonah later expressed his frustration and anger that God had spared these evil people, how did the Lord respond? With a question. "Should I not have compassion on Ninevah, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?"

Certainly like the psalmist we can cry out "How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult?" But then we need to see the Creator's compassion, His patience in waiting for people to repent. Like God, we should take no delight in the death of the wicked. For they will get their due soon enough. Even if it does not happen in our lifetime, on God's calendar it will be all too soon.

Indeed, about 150 years after Jonah God raised up another prophet to Ninevah, named Nahum. His message? "A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished...(speaking of the armies that would ruin it Nahum says) With an overflowing flood He will make a complete end of its site...Woe to the bloody city, completely full of lies and pillage!...There is no relief for your breakdown, your wound is incurable" (Nahum 1:2-3, 8; 3:1; 3:19).

The time for judgment on Ninevah had finally come. May we grow in compassion and strength knowing that it always does.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I am the Lord's!

This past Sunday, after a year of special preparation, five teen-aged young ladies professed their faith publicly at Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church. Centering my preaching on Isaiah 44:3-5, where God promises the outpouring of His Spirit upon the children of believers, I reminded the congregation that what we were witnessing in these covenant youth was a powerful working of God. Though these young ladies have grown up in nurturing homes, my theme was that "the church needs to learn to anticipate and celebrate in the protective salvation of covenant youth in the same way it rejoices over a dramatic conversion." These young people were not justified by their family nor by their age. Rather, they have been justified by faith in Christ as the Spirit of God has worked in their lives according to His promises.

Because young people growing up in the church often have difficulty expressing their testimony, as the "normal" testimony paradigm is of a dramatic conversion, we have put together a "Covenant Child Testimony" worksheet to help them. Through interviewing their parents and looking at God's work through generations, it is designed to help them identify God's active influences in their own lives. We were greatly blessed hearing the testimonies of the five ladies who worked through this. I thought I would share below this worksheet in the hope it might encourage others.

in the name of the Triune God we baptized these young ladies years ago as infants of believers, God was placing His name on them. In essence, God was saying, "You belong to me. I have put you in a Christian home and in the church. Thus, you are to walk in the way of your parents and inherit the blessings of My kingdom. You are to grow up and one day call upon Me. You are not to view Me as only the God of your parents, but as your Lord and God." That is what we witnessed Sunday. These young ladies were speaking from their hearts the words found in Isaiah, "I am the Lord's!"

How exciting is that! Centuries-old prophecy fulfilled right before our eyes!

COVENANT CHILD TESTIMONY (For those whom Christ placed in a Christian home)

Introduction to a covenant testimony. If you were brought up in a faithful Christian family, you may not remember the exact time of your conversion. You may even think that your testimony is “not as exciting” as one who was dramatically converted out of a godless lifestyle. Yet remember that God was working in your life even before you were born. As He tells us in Deuteronomy 10:15, “Yet on your fathers did the LORD set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day.”

Interview of Parents. The Scripture above from Deuteronomy reminds us that God can and does work through families and generations. Talking to your parents can help you to prepare a faithful testimony of God’s work in your life. Set up an interview with your parents and ask them the following questions:

1. Briefly explain how you became a Christian.

2. What evidence are you aware of that God was working in the generations of our family before us?

3. Have you seen evidence that Jesus Christ has saved me from my sin? What do you see?

4. What are some definitive moments in my life when you have seen me learn to trust Christ and walk with Him?

5. Do you think I am ready for the responsibility of coming to the Lord’s Table? Why?

Personal Review of Your Life. Now jot down things that come to mind with regard to these subjects:

1. Memories you have of the Christian training in your home (“We had family worship every night,” “We saw the Lord answer our prayers,” “We memorized Scriptures”).

2. Struggles with sin that Christ is helping you overcome, particularly ways you have seen yourself become less self-centered and more Christ-centered.

3. Significant verses that God has used in your life.

Writing of your testimony. Using the ideas gathered above, write out your story in such a way that a listener could understand how God saved you and what it means to believe. Try to keep this story around 5 minutes in length. Put in details that help aid the story, but avoid too many details that clutter it up.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rolling in the Light

A blogger's inner musings:

What about reviewing some of the great books I've been reading - Rutherford's Letters, Keller's The Reason of God, Owen on sin, etc.? Naw, certainly someone else has done it better - just use them in preaching. Hey, what about false unity at the Olympics? Ministry of the youth? Intern outtakes (catchy name but might make Bill and Jason mad)? Nope. Nope. Nope. Maybe another time (especially the one on interns). Could write about my final breakfast with Lindsay before college. No, too personal. But her lifting her iced coffee to her mouth and sucking her spoon thinking it was a straw sure was funny. Hey! There's an idea! Funny things this summer...
Last week I visited Bill Scott, a member of our church who is now a double amputee, at the nursing home where he lives. After nearly dying twice earlier this year, the Lord has amazingly raised him up. Bill was in good health and spirits, and is looking forward to his 70th birthday next month. It was a glorious, unseasonably cool August day, and as we visited Bill was sitting in his wheelchair as I reclined on a bench out in front. As we were reading and discussing from I John 1:5-10, a lady visiting her mother walked by who obviously knew Bill. Overhearing our conversation, she paused in front of us and asked, "Bill, are you walking in the light?" Bill paused for a moment, then said, "Naw. I'm rolling in the light."

A few weeks ago Trevor and I were in the neighborhood by the church handing out flyers for an upcoming event. He was on one side of the street and I on the other. As Trevor approached a rather rough-looking group of young men on a front porch, he was too pre-occupied about what he was going to say to the guy in front of him to notice exactly what that wrapping was around his neck. Suddenly it lifted its head and hissed in his face. Trevor realized he was nose-to-snout with a boa! He took a step back and then finished his invite like a man. As he related this to me later, he said, "When I first walked up, I thought it was too warm for him to be wearing a scarf."
While tending a booth for Sycamore Covenant Academy (see our new website!) at the local home school opening fair, I was glad to see again the physical therapist who had worked on my knee after ACL surgery years ago (when a guy massages your knee for weeks on end, you tend not to forget him nor he you). After a bit, he said, "You know why I remember you so well, don't you?" Thinking he was about to recall some spiritual insight I had given him in our many conversations or at least how well I had done in therapy, I responded humbly yet expectantly, "No. What?" He asked, "Do you recall that one time I lifted your foot in the air to test your flexibility, put your leg back down, then asked if you had a dog?" He remembered me by what he had found on the bottom of my shoe.
Want some guaranteed giggles? Go to the local pet store, buy an American chameleon (an anole) for five or six bucks, and give it to your nearest five year-old girl. I actually got two, one for Celia and one for Spencer. They dubbbed them "Spiffy and Spoofy," avoiding the more prophetic-type names like "Squishy." This morning I left with her giving me my customary hug, she laughing in delight as on one hand was Spoofy and on the other was Spiffy (don't ask me how she tells them apart, but she does). Receiving lizard hugs, hearing her constant commentary as we catch crickets and flies for them out back, and receiving reports when I come home from work makes me shake my head in wonder at how God can give so much pleasure to one of His little ones through one of His little "creeping things" (Genesis 1:25). Yet I guess I should not be surprised. If we are to marvel at these little creature's wisdom in getting into king's palaces (Proverbs 30:28), should I really be that surprised at the uninhibited wonder she has in what the God of wisdom has created?
A blogger's final musing:
Hmm. I hope laughing at these things out loud on a blog is not too unbecoming for a pastor. But am I not like that lizard in her hand - small on the earth, yet in the palace of the King? Is not this whole creation for us to delight in? And am I not like a little child by a daddy's side? Does He not find delight in us as we learn to wonder in Him? Surely those who read will understand that, won't they?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

On Our Twenty-Third Anniversary

To my beloved wife,
For in you I see

Our blissful union,
What sweet communion!
God’s fragrant rose of Sharon to me,
My lily in life’s valleys,
Your love is better than wine.
For in you I see no other could be mine,
In you I know a love where hearts twine.

The Blessed Union,
O what fierce Communion!
God’s King over His bride,
Our Lion strong made the Lamb slain,
Your love is stronger than death.
For in You we see the enemy slain by mere breath,
In You we know love without width, height or depth.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Are You Taking Care of Business?

On Saturday, July 26th, I participated in the funeral of George Todd, a family friend and the father of Angi Hindman, a former member of our congregation. With Angi's permission, the message I gave at the funeral is below.


Are You Taking Care of Business?
Psalm 116:15

I had the privilege of visiting George and Bev a little over a week ago, on Thursday, July 17th. George was in the hospital then, waiting to undergo the test that eventually told him the cancer had spread into his body. After that time with them, I had left town and upon my return had actually planned to visit with George again this very day. Instead, on Monday it became clear to George and the family that the end was drawing near more quickly than they had anticipated. He requested of his family that I share with you what we had discussed. So I come today as a minister of the Word of God to testify to you what I witnessed in that hospital room and with a sense of being commissioned by George himself to tell you these things. This I consider not only a tremendous privilege, but on this day above all a sacred and solemn duty.

To say George was a businessman is to state the obvious. He was the owner of the S.U.S. Cast Products facility here, and when he took me on a tour a few years ago his clear business sense flowed during our conversation. He spoke of capitalizing on certain markets, ways they had recently been able to save on production costs, and his plans for expanding their operations. Jeff, on that day he told me of how he was looking forward to handing things over to you as his son. Not many men know how to take care of that business in the careful way you would testify that your father went about it. As his obituary notes, George served on different boards in the community, including the Chamber of Commerce, and was a member of the Rotary Club. Yet you did not need to know of these positions to know that with George Todd you were dealing with a businessman. From the first day I met him, being the pastor of his daughter Angi, just his personality alone emanated that here is a no-nonsense, business kind of guy. Though he was a kind man, he was a man who expected no monkey business. He would shoot straight with you and expected the same in return.

And that’s what took place last Thursday. An honest conversation. I asked George a question, and now apparently he wants me to ask it to you (And if George wanted something done, it better get done!) So here's the question: “Are you taking care of business? The most important business?”

To help you in answering that question, look at the front of your bulletin where you will see a verse from Psalm 116. It is verse 15 which says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” If you are not careful, you could quickly read over those words with the quaint sentiment of a Hallmark greeting card. Yet to the thinking man or woman, these words should actually be quite provocative. "What do you mean that the death of a godly one is precious to Lord? Someone we love suffered, at times horribly so, and has been ripped away from us!" Since it says the death of a saint is precious to the Lord, perhaps we might reason that it is speaking of the preciousness of God in receiving a departed spirit into heaven. Yet though there is truth in that, it is not the meaning of the verse. Let me tell you of my conversation with George, as it will help answer our question and open up this verse to us.

In my visits with George, both on the 17th and some weeks prior to that, he was expressing doubts. Though he had professed faith in Christ, and was showing more and more fruit of that to those who knew him, especially in these last years and days, he had regrets over things he had done and things he had left undone. The pain of cancer was there, but a deeper pain was being felt on the accounting sheet of his conscience as he acknowledged failures and shortcomings. He wanted to express himself more clearly in his relationships with friends and family, especially his children and grandchildren, and show fuller expressions of his love than he knew he had time to do. What was he to do with his conscience?

On that Thursday meeting I read to him excerpts from the letters of Samuel Rutherford, a Puritan pastor in Scotland during the 17th century. Rutherford, imprisoned for his faithfulness to Christ, used that time to write letters to his friends. One was to a public official named John Kennedy who had recently escaped shipwreck at sea. Hear part of Rutherford’s counsel to him as he expresses in business languiage what lessons he should draw from his narrow escape:

"Now, in the strength of Jesus dispatch your business; that debt (of death) is not forgiven, but deferred: death has not bidden you farewell, but has only left you for a short season. End your journey before the night come upon you. Have all in readiness against the time that you must sail through that black and impetuous Jordan; and Jesus, Jesus, who knows both those depths and the rocks, and all the coasts, be your pilot. The last tide will not wait you for one moment. If you forget anything, when your sea is full, and your foot in that ship, there is no returning again to fetch it. What you miss in your life to-day, you may amend it to-morrow; for as many suns as God makes to arise upon you, ye have as many new lives; but ye can die but once, and if you mar or spill that business, you cannot come back to mend that piece of work again. No man sins twice in dying ill; as we die but once, so we die but ill or well once. You see how the number of your months is written in God's book; and as one of the Lord's hirelings, ye must work till the shadow of the evening come upon you… Fulfill your course with joy, for we take nothing to the grave with us, but a good or evil conscience."

I told George, using Rutherford's words, that he needed to take care of the business of dying well. As he did not have much time, dwelling on regrets or wishing he could do more was not to be his pursuit now. It was to end his life with a clean conscience, in peace, in a demonstration of trusting Christ through the agony of death. That’s what Bev and the children and grandchildren needed at this time.

But where does the clean conscience come from when you know you have not done all that you should? Listen to Rutherford advise another man whose conscience plagued him:

"Your heart is not the compass Christ sails by. He will give you leave to sing as you please, be he will not dance to your daft tune. It is not referred to you and your thoughts, what Christ will do with the charters between you and him…Your thoughts are no part of the new covenant; your dreams change not Christ. Doubtings are your sins, but they are Christ’s drugs and ingredients that the Physician makes use of for curing your pride…In the passing of your bill and charters, when they went through the Mediator’s great seal, and were concluded, faith’s advice was not sought. Faith has not a vote besides Christ’s merits; blood, blood, dear blood, that came from your Surety’s holy body, makes that sure work."

George understood. He said, “No place for pride anymore, huh?” He knew it was not his business accomplishments nor the ones that were now more important to him - his family accomplishments - that ultimately mattered. It was trusting in Christ’s blood for cleansing. He trusted in the precious blood of Christ to take all those debts off his accounting sheet. He knew that his true business was to make that hospital room where he would die a sanctuary testifying to that truth.

And in the final day, those final hours, with his family at his side, that is what happened. They saw an ill man die well. He died in their very arms, but more importantly, he died in the arms of Christ. When the tide came, when the greatest of all enemies came into that hospital room, when death took their husband and father away, peace, precious peace, was in that room.

Hearing this helps open up our verse, and will help you to see how to answer the question about whether you are taking care of business. For how is the death of a godly one precious in the eyes of the Lord? That word precious means "costly, expensive, highly valued." In the Bible it is a business term used to give value to such things as expensive jewels, costly stones and (George would have liked this) precious metals. When God looks from heaven, and sees one of his godly ones trusting in the blood of Christ that is more precious than silver or gold - for only it can purchase a soul from sin and hell - God himself values that as precious. When a person comes to the end of his life with a diseased body, knowing as George did it would lie here today before us as a shell, and believes the resurrected Christ will raise it one day to be a body immortal and imperishable, that is valuable, weighty, precious in the eyes of the Lord. The God of heaven values faith in His Son above all else.

I stand before you today, at George’s request and as God’s representative, and ask you, “Are you taking care of real business?” Twenty years ago this summer my businessman father died, and now here I am his age at his death. Those years have passed by like the snap of a finger. So will the time that separates you from your funeral. So I ask you, "Will you go to the grave as George did, with a conscience cleansed by Christ's blood?"

"Are you taking care of business?"

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Forgiveness in Rwanda

In the first months of our marriage, Miriam and I signed up to support a child through Compassion International, a ministry that with a few dollars each month provides needy children around the world with food, clothing and Christian teaching. I still remember excitedly opening up the packet with Miriam and seeing the picture of a little boy from Rwanda named Hahirwabimera (we nicknamed him "Wabi") that we had been assigned. Compassion personalizes its ministry by sending regular updates, pictures and letters from the child, and assists you in corresponding back. Over the next few years we enjoyed developing the relationship with Wabi and found great joy in seeing his smiling face and reading his cute letters.

Yet this relationship with Wabi came to an abrupt end in 1994.

When Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana's plane was shot down leading to his death, the civil unrest and tension that had existed in this country from centuries of tribal tensions exploded. The majority Hutu tribe enacted a genocide against the Tutsi tribe and Hutus who had been unloyal to the president's leadership. In the course of four months roving gangs killed between 800,000 to a million of their neighbors. Think of it - nearly one out of eight Rwandans slain. Because the ministry of Compassion was so disrupted by this violence, we lost all contact with Wabi and do not know today if he perished in the bloodshed.

It was with great interest then that I read a recent review in WORLD magazine of a movie entitled As We Forgive. Director Laura Waters Hinson and narrator Mia Farrow document the fascinating history that is being made even now. The current Rwandan government, still faced with tens of thousands jammed in their prisons waiting court appearances for their part in the genocide, has in the last few years released around 40,000 of those who were not leaders in organizing the violence but who have confessed to murder. They are being sent back to the very neighborhoods they once lived in and being instructed, with the assistance of the church, in seeking reconciliation with the families of the ones they murdered. To demonstrate their remorse, the ex-prisoners are helping rebuild the homes and schools of the communities they had destroyed. According to the website, Hinson's film focuses on two particular women going through the great inner struggle of facing the men who took their loved ones' lives.

I'm intrigued enough that I bought the DVD today. You can see the trailer here. For what greater sign of God's working can there be than forgiveness of this magnitude? The title of course comes from our Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who have trespassed against us." Let us also remember what's at stake, for the Lord follows this model prayer with these words of instruction and warning: "If you forgive others for their transgressions, then your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions" (Matthew 6:14-15).

Forgiveness is the key to ending all civil wars, be they the national ones such as Rwanda, the private ones in too many homes, or the ultimate, cosmic one between God and man.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

92 Years and Psalm 92

Paul Faris, a founding member of the Sycamore congregation, will celebrate his ninety-second birthday next week. As I reflected on Paul's influence on my own life, I wanted to share it with members of the congregation who might not know Paul but are benefiting from the ministry he continues to have here. I thought perhaps this would encourage others as well.


Paul was raised as a Covenanter, coming from generations of Farises who have been in the Reformed Presbyterian Church. As his grandson James Faris, pastor of the Southfield RPC, tells it, for at least ten generations in his family line the men have alternated in their vocations between farmers and pastors. James and his grandfather fell in the "pastor" generations, so despite growing up on a farm in Dennison, Kansas, Paul went into pastoral ministry. He graduated from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1944. His "official records" indicate that he served three congregations (Quinter RPC and Sterling RPC in Kansas, and the Lisbon RPC in New York) over the more than forty years he was in pastoral ministry. The recognition by the church of his godly testimony and gentle shepherding over the years was seen in him being given an honor unique in the RPCNA - he was chosen as Moderator of Synod not just once but twice.

Yet truly Paul helped pastor a fourth congregation, namely Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church. In 1984 Paul retired with his wife Ruth in Flora, Indiana, in order to be near the West Lafayette RPC, his family, and help with a church planting work in Kokomo. In January of 1985 Paul preached and led bi-weekly worship services in the homes of the core families. Providentially, it was in 1985 that Miriam and I moved as newlyweds to West Lafayette so I could do graduate work at Purdue University. One of my memories of those first months worshipping with the West Lafayette church was of this group of people who were there one week and gone the next. I soon learned what they were doing!

However, tragedy struck this work the following year in the Spring of 1986, all in the course of one month. The husband of the family who originally started the work in Kokomo was found to be in adultery (his eventual excommunication took place at my first session meeting as a new intern!). An experienced and gifted church planter, Pastor Bob McCracken, declined a call to come to Kokomo. And Paul's beloved wife Ruth, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer only a few months prior, died. Clearly the Lord had closed the door for the time, and the worship services and work in Kokomo were suspended.

However, Paul, the few other families involved in the Kokomo work (The Dinkledine, Faris, and Parman Families), and the session and congregation of West Lafayette persevered in their vision. Having sent me to seminary, they eventually called me to come back in 1991 and lead the effort here in Kokomo. What I want to testify to in this rememberance is Paul's support of me. He constantly encouraged me with his prayers and comments, occasionally corrected me with a spirit of gentleness, and was always sharing insights through stories, reflections or articles. With the ever present twinkle in his eye and boyish grin on his dignified face, he continued to use his blend of earthy, Spirit-filled wisdom as he preached for us when needed and led Bible studies and classes when called upon. In 1994, when it came time to organize the congregation, despite his status as "retired" he agreed to serve as a ruling elder when the congregation elected him. For over five years he served faithfully, providing a comfort to new members with his maturity and fatherly concern, and especially enriching the three "rookie" elders (Greg, Tom and I) in our knowledge of ministry and the RP Church.

Though he has now lived for several years with his daughter and her family back in Lisbon, New York, who care for him, Paul has kept his membership in our congregation and continues to remain interested and pray faithfully for the Sycamore congregation. The heritage he was given has been passed on, as he has children and grandchildren serving as pastors, elders, deacons, pastor's wives and missionaries. If there is one word that comes to my mind as I think about this beloved saint, it is covenant. The Lord has kept covenant with Paul, and Paul has shown through a long lifetime of service covenant faithfulness to his God. As Psalm 103:17-18 says, "The lovingkindess of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children's children, to those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them" (Psalm 103:17-18).

It is great to know God's promises like these and believe them. Yet for me it has also been such a wonderful blessing and confirmation to see them in the life of Paul Faris.


Paul also taught me a great deal about the psalms. Cannot help but think of how on his 92nd birthday he fulfills what the 92nd Psalm says of the righteous man, "When old they still bear fruit and flourish fresh and green."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On Compassionate Conservatism

In April I had the privilege of sitting in a meeting where Marvin Olasky, editor of WORLD magazine and author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, met with a dozen or so leaders of inner-city ministries in Indianapolis. He had featured several of these organizations in another of his books, Compassionate Conservatism (see Chapter 3 "Indianapolis: How Government Should Work," especially pages 65-80), which was published in 2000 and has a foreword by our current president when he was still governor of Texas. In essence he was revisiting these ministries, as the presidency of Mr. Bush draws to a close, to evaluate the impact of the compassionate conservative movement on them.

Mr. Olasky told us that the conservative movement has in large part been a failure. He believes it has failed because the approach by the current administration in Washington has been contrary to the core principles they claimed to represent. Rather than using poverty-fighting tax credits or vouchers to decentralize such things as care for the needy and education, more and more government control has been enacted. The lack of the use of the veto by the president has bloated the budget. The war in Iraq has led to an increase in government power. These factors and others have caused compassionate conservatism to be sneered at as empty rhetoric rather than embraced as a good governing philosophy. Mr. Olasky even painfully joked that he may write another book entitled The Tragedy of Compassionate Conservatism.

One of the fascinating facts Mr. Olasky offered to show the impact of government programs on the work of private charities in caring for the poor was a study by Jonathan Gruber on church charity from 1929-1939. He noted that following the great Stock Market Crash of 1929, despite the huge economic hardships the nation faced, there was no decrease in charitable giving. However, later during the New Deal, as federal programs arose to provide relief, the church's charitable giving decreased 30%. Gruber's research substantiates what many would expect. If the government takes over care of the needy, the church will do less and less.

The impact of this is spiritually devastating. As Americans continue to turn from God to men who act as gods, and trust in princes for their piece of the pie rather than the Prince of Peace, the church will find it more and more difficult to capture hearts for the gospel. Especially among the poor with whom we work, we find their dependency on government programs and their immediate looking to a public agency to meet yet another crisis they have encountered make them hardened to Christ. So what are we to do?

Since Jesus Himself has commissioned the church to care for the needy and will judge us accordingly (Matthew 25:31-46), we must by example show true compassion for the poor. The church must never forsake that role. Yet we cannot stop in simply ministering to the poor. The church must not only be found muscling its way to the front lines in the war on poverty, but as we do so we must also, through preaching, praying, persuading and proving to elected officials our resolve, win the war for poverty. The church must become so effective in doing what Christ created it to do, and so able to demolish arguments raised against it, that the government learns it is best to step aside and get out of our way.

For could another reason that compassionate conservatism has failed be that the church has been too conservative with its compassion?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Notable Quotables

Along with around 300 others including our interns Bill and Jason, I attended the Banner of Truth Conference at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, last week. The Banner has been publishing Puritan literature for over fifty years now, and offers this conference to minsters, elders and theological students to refresh them, which it did for me. I thought I would offer several of the quote-worthy insights I heard last week that stimulated my heart and mind. Some are from saints of long ago that perhaps I had heard before and rejoiced in their remembrance; others were fresh words from the ministers who spoke at the conference. They are in no particular order.


I long for love (for Christ) without any coldness.
Like a calvary officer keeps his blade clean, so God uses a holy minister as a sword.
It is not great talents God blesses, but likeness to Jesus.
A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of the Lord.
Robert Murray McCheyne


Be killing sin or it will be killing you.
John Owen


A spark starts an entire combustion engine and puts it into motion.
Cannot the Spirit of God, sought in prayer, spark great life in us?
Craig Troxel


If you need a sign hanging on your forehead saying "Holy to the Lord,"
then there is reason to doubt that he possesses his own sufficient holiness.
Richard Phillips (speaking of the high priest's sinfulness in comparison to Christ's perfection)


Remember the children.
David Campbell (on preaching to the entire congregation)


For eight-six years I have served Him and He has never done me wrong as my King.
Shall I now blaspheme Him?

Polycarp (speaking of Christ before his martyrdom)


Yes, Jesus did say to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan."
But it could have been worse.
He could have said, "Get behind Me, Peter."
Ian Hamilton


We are all unbelieving believers.
Thomas Hooker


Without the anointing of the Spirit, the ministry of the word is as dry as a bone.
Do not see what you cannot change (in the church).
Iain Murray


Calvinism is simply Christianity on it knees.
B.B. Warfield


Monday, May 26, 2008

Fish in a Bowl

Goldie and Boldie were goldfish who lived in a fishbowl. They were happy there - for a while anyway - as their bowl was a nice little place for them to dwell. The blue, white and purple gravel at the bottom was kept bright and clean. They loved darting in and out of the sunken ship that lay on its side in the colored gravel, spending their days pretending they were hiding from sharks in the gaping hole on its side or discovering treasures that lay long hidden. The constant stream of bubbles rising from the boat to the surface above tickled their tummies as they swam through them. Chasing one another round the bowl, gobbling up the regular feedings of the rainbow-colored food that appeared on the surface each day, and floating quietly side-by-side when darkness fell on their world filled their fishbowl days with gladness.

As time went on, as time will do, Goldie began to notice something different about Boldie. Where once he had been eager to have swim races or play fish games all day long, Boldie spent more and more time staring out of the bowl. Though Goldie would occasionally look out of the bowl, such as watching for the owner to drop their food, she was far more content with her fishbowl world. But not Boldie.

Every person who walked through the room or child that ran by Boldie would follow with his goldfish eyes. Where before he would have spent the better part of his day swimming around with Goldie, now he had his little fish lips pressed close to the glass of the fishbowl looking at the other world that existed outside. If the TV was on in the room, he became motionless, hanging in the water gazing at the constantly changing colors on the screen. He began to miss meals, leaving his share of the speckled food floating up above. No matter how hard she tried, Goldie could not get him to play games or to come back into their ship hideout anymore.

Perhaps all of this could have been overlooked if it had not been for the cat.

Boldie's greatest fascination was with the grey-striped cat that visited their bowl each day. Its larger than life face filled the side of the bowl like a close-up of a monster in a horror film. In their younger days whenever they saw the hungry green eyes staring in at them, Goldie and Boldie would flash away behind their ship and wait for it to leave. Goldie still reacted this way, but not Boldie. Indeed, Boldie's response now was utterly strange to her. The listlessness he normally had left when the cat appeared. He would dart excitedly around flashing his tail, seeming to delight as the cat's eyes grew wide with excitement. When the cat would slap a paw against the glass, Goldie, peeking out from behind the ship, would close her eyes in dread. But Boldie's animation only grew, as this caused him to swim in quick circles and blow bubbles.

Yet the cat visits always ended as quickly as they began. When the cat turned and slinked away, Boldie grew still and returned to staring out the glass. No amount of urging or nudging by Goldie could get him to play with her.

One day, during a cat visit, as she spied from behind the ship Goldie saw the unimaginable. As Boldie raced around in front of the cat's huge face, suddenly a giant paw flew into the water, scooped up Boldie, and sent him hurtling out of the bowl. As Goldie raced to the glass of the fishbowl to see what would happen, the next minutes were awful. Boldie flopping on the floor gasping. The cat swatting him around mercilessly. The owner running in yelling loudly. When at one point she even saw Boldie in the mouth of the cat, she raced into the hole of the ship.

A few moments later she heard a plop. Looking up, she saw Boldie had been dropped back into the bowl. As he floated downward, he struggled to swim. Goldie saw the reason why. Running along his left side, from his mouth, across his gill, and back toward his tail, was an ugly, red scratch.

Boldie lived, but was never able to swim straight again. The scratch, though healed, made a scar across his scales that pulled his head on the left side back slightly toward his tail. Yet that scar served a greater purpose. It also pulled his eyes away from the world outside the glass and back to the real one he shared with Goldie.

Right now, as you finish reading this little story, your nose is only inches away from a piece of glass called a computer screen. Think of it as the glass of a fishbowl for a moment. How much has your heart been taken away from the loved ones in your own world because of undue devotion to a world in cyberspace you cannot truly experience? Have you even become excited by devotion to "a monster?" A secret, illicit relationship? Viewing pornography? Playing endless video games? The problem with virtual reality is it actually seems so virtually unreal. So other worldly that it will not harm us. Beware becoming a fish in a bowl.