Monday, November 16, 2015

How Firm A Foundation

Yesterday, to close our worship service, we sang the old hymn “How Firm a Foundation” to encourage us to look at God and his word in the testings of life. I post it here for your meditation as you face whatever God has brought or is bringing into your life.

Remember the form of this hymn. The first verse is a call to Christians—the saints of the Lord—to take hope in the sufficient (“what more can he say”) Word of God to us. The remaining verses are all God speaking to us, and encouraging us with his promises.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.”

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

“Even down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.”

“The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

For those interested in helpful meditation on these truths, David Powlinson has an excellent and helpful chapter in the book Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. The chapter is entitled “God’s Grace and Your Sufferings” and it begins on p. 145. You can buy the book here or download a free PDF here.

I encourage you to find Powlinson’s chapter and read it. It will be worth your time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Love of God on the Bottom of Superior

Today, November 10, 2015, is the fortieth anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes freighter that was built and launched at Nicholson Docks just a few blocks from where I now sit. It was the largest Great Lakes freighter of its time, measuring more than seven hundred feet. On November 10, 1975, it was making its last run south with a load of iron ore headed for Zug Island (just about a mile north of here).

The weather forecast on Lake Superior was turning dangerous. Before long, a storm blew up with winds over fifty miles an hour kicking up waves twenty to thirty feet. The Edmund Fitzgerald maintained radio contact with nearby ships until its last transmission at 7:10 p.m. Sometime shortly after that, the ship sank to the bottom of Lake Superior near Whitefish Point, taking twenty-nine souls with her. She remains there to this day.

Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the shipwreck in 1976 in his “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It’s not a great work of musical art (or any other kind of art for that matter), but it has survived the years for its occasion. It gets played today all over. It’s morbid and sobering.

And it raises an interesting and difficult question:

Does anyone know where the love of God goes

When the waves turn the minutes to hours?

Where does the love of God go when suffering comes into our lives and the lives of others? Where is God in the midst of tragedy?

This is, in a nutshell, the problem of evil. If God is so powerful and so loving, why do bad things happen?

The whole problem of evil and tragedy in the world is a difficult one for Christians. I am not yet convinced there is a good answer, at least good in terms of making sense in our finite human minds.

I think there is a perfect answer bound up in the perfections of a sovereign God. But that remains for another world to be explained, if we could even grasp it then.

Truth be told, Christians aren’t the only ones with the problem of evil. Atheists and other non-Christians have the exact same problem. In fact, their problem may be worse since they do not have a coherent framework for even the concept of evil, much less its existence.

But what about the question? Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?

What should we say to these questions, whether raised by our own minds or the minds of others?

Well, first I would say the love of God doesn’t go anywhere. Of course, I am sure that Lightfoot wasn’t attempting to make a theological point by his use of the word “goes,” but I think the theological point should be made. The love of God does not go anywhere or cease to exist in the face of evil and tragedy, whether of human making or an “act of God,” as the insurance companies like to say. God’s love is constant, unchanging, and unmoving because it is who God is. When the Edmund Fitzgerald when down, God’s love was the same as it had been the day before or the day after, or forty years before or forty years after.

But second, in the midst of tragedy, I would not focus on the problem of evil. In fact, I would try to avoid it for the time. I would simply say, “We don’t know.” It is a mystery which we simply do not have the tools to solve at present. It is, in one sense, like an untimely death. You don’t know what caused it until the autopsy. But the autopsy must be done by someone with the knowledge and skill to reach right conclusions.

The problem is that in human tragedy, there is no one with the knowledge and skill to perform on autopsy for the Edmund Fitzgerald, or Hurricane Katrina, or an earthquake, or cancer, or anything else. We simply cannot explain the workings of God in this age except to say that we live in a broken world that groans for the redemption.

For now, rather than attempt to give answers, we weep with those who weep. We mourn with them in loss and grief. We share their confusion. We resist the urge in the moment to theologize, to explain, or to rationalize. There will be time for that later perhaps, when the fog has cleared a bit. But even then we must be cautious not to speak for God where God has not spoken.

For now, we take hope in Christ who rose from the dead in whom all the promises of God are yes. We take hope that one day he will right all wrong, will wipe away every tear, and will make all things new.

Until then, we recognize the this earthly life is but a temporary station that will be over all too fast in the best of situations. Don’t waste it by explaining the inexplicable. Use it to minister the grace of Christ to the hurting and love them for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Everything But the Band …

The Saturday game between Miami and Duke had everything but the band.

Oh, and competent officiating.

Now, I am not one to complain about officiating. In fact, I only complain when they are bad. I realize that sets me apart from everyone else, but I gotta draw a line somewhere. And “bad” is where that line is.

But I digress. The last play was amazing. Eight laterals and a touchdown later, Miami wins 30-27.

Then the replay process started.

Nine minutes later, Miami is still the winner.

Then the league got involved.

Twenty-four hours later, Miami is still the winner, but now with a huge asterisk.

The league admits that the officials got it wrong both on the field and on the replay. A Miami player was down prior to his lateral, meaning that the game should have ended right there with Duke having won.

The league takes this so seriously that they suspended the whole officiating crew, replay officials included, for two games.

But they don’t take it seriously enough to actually fix the problem. And the result is that Duke is hung out to dry. With a win, Duke controls their own destiny. Run the table and show up to be a sacrificial lamb for Clemson in the ACC championship. With one loss (that the league declared wasn’t actually a loss), they can still get there, but it’s harder now.

Here’s the thing (and I have changed my opinion on this slightly): The ACC can and should fix this. They should declare Duke the winner. Because they already did declare Duke the winner. The only place they haven’t declared it is in the only place that matters—the standings.

Let me use a golf illustration. A player hits his second shot on a par 4 over a hill towards the green. He walks up to putt and can’t find his ball. He declares it lost and goes back and plays another ball which would now be his fourth shot (because of the penalty). This time he putts and makes the putt for a bogey, only to find that his original ball is in the hole.

What’s the ruling?

It’s a birdie, not a bogey.

Why? Because under the rules, the hole is over when the ball goes in the hole, even if you don’t know it. Thus, the second ball no longer matters.

In the Miami-Duke game, the game was over when his knee hit the ground. No matter how many laterals, yards, minutes, or days later, the game was still over. The rest of the play was nothing but exercise.

There were no other plays that perhaps could have changed the outcome of the game.

It’s not a judgment call in which you are undermining the officials by second-guessing their ruling (such as a pass interference call, as Lions’ fans [if there are any left] will remember).

No, this is black and white. A game-ender. Duke won.

The ACC should agree with their conclusion and fix the standings. Give Duke what they earned—which is the opportunity to control their own destiny.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Cross of Ordinariness

A few years ago, D. A. Carson wrote a book entitled Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson. Another book is ordinary for D. A. Carson, who has written more books than many people have read. But this was no ordinary book, not even for Carson. It was a book about his dad.

Now the truth is that we would have never known of Pastor Carson were it not for Doctor Carson. That’s because, by all human standards, Pastor Carson was just ordinary. He never pastored a big church. He didn’t publish a lot of books. He wasn’t even a full-time pastor for much of his ministry. He spent some of his latter years tenderly caring for his ailing wife. And then he died.

He was, in a word, ordinary.

He was, in two words, like me. And like you … just a guy you’ve never heard of, living somewhere you’ve never heard of, pastoring a church you’ve never heard of. And doing it without giving up. He was just ordinary.

In these days, it is easy to fall in love with big. It is easy to see the extraordinary pastors and measure ourselves against them. It is easy to get discouraged by their visible fruit. It is easy to wonder what they are doing that we aren’t. It is easy to listen to them preach and copy their style, or God forbid, even their messages. It is easy to dream about what could be, if only you had a little bit more of this or a little bit less of that.

Then, it is easy to despair when driving to your second job, wondering if you shouldn’t just pack it in, box up the books, and go dig ditches or sell widgets because you will never be whatever that other pastor is. It’s not that it’s too hard to be that. It’s that you can’t get there from here. Your gifts, your abilities, and your opportunities simply are not sufficient for that.

And so you resign yourself to being ordinary. And let’s face it: In a world driven by success, ordinary is hard.

This is where a reality check helps.

The reality is that most churches are less than one hundred people and they will never be bigger than that. In fact, tens of millions of Christians meet every week in assemblies that wouldn’t even move the needle in a megachurch. And these small churches are pastored by people whose name will never show up on a conference speaking list or an Amazon search result. They will never be known outside their small church. They even wear a name tag at their local pastor’s fellowship to remove the awkwardness of having to introduce themselves yet again to the same people who forgot them from last year.

And the reality is that that’s okay. Being ordinary is, well, ordinary. What’s extraordinary is someone who is okay with being ordinary.

You see, most us of will have to bear the cross of ordinariness. It will weigh heavy on us. It will threaten to do us in and drive us off. If we give it too much thought, we still stumble under its weight. We will seek for the next best method or the next best church. We will lay in bed in the dark and wonder with tears if we are wasting our life. We will get up on Sunday and put on a good face and summon the energy to preach from a heart weakened by ordinariness. We will go home on Sunday afternoon and sleep off the disappointment and try to forget we have to start all over tomorrow. We will drift through a football game tempted by the fast food commercials, not because we are hungry, but because we think “Would you like fries with that?” has a better chance of a yes than “Will you follow Jesus with us?” And let’s face it, hearing “no” is a lot easier to take when it is about French fries than it is when it is about Jesus.

The reality is that though the cross of ordinariness may stress us and alarm us, it need not kill us. You see, to some God has given ten talents, and to others five, and to others one. He does not judge the man with one talent by the same standards he judges the man with five or ten. He will judge us according to the talents he has given and the vineyard in which he planted us for this season, however long it might last.

And when this season is over, whether by being planted in another vineyard or by being planted in the ground to await the great resurrection day, he will judge us only by the gifts and calling he gave to us. He will not judge us by the calling he gave to someone else.

So, like Tom Carson, grow where you are planted. Serve in an extraordinarily ordinary way. And be content to let God keep the final score.

It’s doubtful your son will write a book about you. But that’s okay too. Just be encouraged by the book that Doctor Carson wrote about Pastor Carson.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Same-Sex Marriage in Kentucky

SCOTUS has rejected without comment (unfortunately) an appeal by a Kentucky county clerk to impose a stay on a lower court order that she must issue same-sex marriage licenses against her religious convictions.

I say SCOTUS’ refusal to comment is unfortunate because it is a coward’s way out. They have smiled on the imposition of a religious test for public office with nary a word.

“A religious test,” you say? Yes, a religious test. As it now stands by judicial fiat, persons of religious conviction may not hold a county clerk’s position in the state of Kentucky. They are now required to abandon their religion at the door of the office, which means effectively, that they can have no religious convictions (since a conviction, by definition, cannot be left temporarily; it can only be compromised). If you can abandon your religious conviction when you go to work, you don’t have a religious conviction. You have a preference.

The solution to this situation is simple. SCOTUS should have reversed its earlier embarrassment and rejected same-sex marriage. This should have been done for the preservation of culture and families.

An even simpler solution would be for the couple to travel twenty-two miles—yes, only twenty-two miles—to the next county where they could easily get a marriage license without attempting to force a citizen to violate their religious convictions.

But they didn’t. They chose a road of national exposure, legal bills, and frustration.

One of the parties says, “I feel sad, I feel devastated. … I feel like I've been humiliated on such a national level, I can't even comprehend it."

Yet the humiliation is his alone. And it’s hard to imagine that someone living in Kentucky cannot comprehend that there are people with convictions about marriage and family.

To avoid humiliation, he could have driven a short distance and easily gotten the license months ago. He could have already “married” his partner and been done with it, and no one would have ever known.

How do I know this? Someone real quick tell me anyone who has gotten a marriage license in a neighboring county in the last two months.


You probably don’t know a single person. And you would have never known this person had he simply done that.

But instead, he chose to make himself a national spectacle. And now, he must accept the consequences of that.

But there’s a bigger problem. He is humiliated about the wrong thing. He should be humiliated for being in a same-sex relationship violating what he knows to be true. He should be humiliated for his ignorance that rejects the Creator’s plan for life. He should be humiliated for living life the way he is living. He should be humiliated for making it public.

Instead, he confirms the truth of Romans 1. Though he knows God, he rejects that knowledge. Therefore, he has been given over and is now demonstrating a hardness of heart that has led him to make a spectacle of himself in front of a whole nation.

Not only that, he takes pleasure in the things of which he should be ashamed. Knowing, and yet ignoring, that those who live this way (among other ways) are worthy of death, he not only does it, he gives hearty approval to those who do it along with him (Romans 1:32).

And he tries to force his religious convictions on others who disagree, all the while begging for tolerance for himself.

What should this Kentucky clerk do?

Some are calling on her to resign, saying she shouldn’t hold office unless she can do what the office requires. There are several problems with this.

First, it amounts (as I already pointed out) to a religious test for office. She is being told she cannot hold her religious convictions and also do her job. And yet there is no good reason for this. Marriage licenses are a small part of her job, and those could be easily issued in a neighboring country.

Second, it amounts to an override of the vote of the people. The people of this county elected her to this position. The radical homosexual lobby has no right to try to negate that vote. At the next election, they may throw all their resources at the ballot box and try to remove her by the legal means—namely, electing someone else. To force her out of office for being a Christian is a tragic denial of democracy.

Third, she could easily do the job she was elected to do. The job requirements changed by judicial fiat after she took the job. She should not be held liable for a job she did not sign up for.

Fourth, the problem is easily remedied by other counties who will do exactly what this couple wants. Which confirms the point that they don’t want a marriage license; they want an issue. The marriage license would have been easy to come by. If that was their desire, it would have been long ago done.

In this day and age, individual Christians must decide on their convictions (as opposed to their preferences). For better or worse, the pressure is now coming from outside our own hearts to decide what we believe.

What would I do if I were a county clerk in Kentucky? I have no idea. But I am firmly convinced that judges have no right to demand her to do this.

What should we as Christians do? We should love people. When we have encounters with those who differ with us on same-sex marriage, we must love them with gospel love, showing them the way of the Creator both for life and eternity.

We should look on them with pity, because there is a great Savior who looked on us with pity and loved us and saved us in spite of ourselves.

We should minister to them with hope, knowing that God is bigger than sin and eternity is longer than life.