July 18, 2017

People of Song

Sitting in the little chapel each week, her tired head usually hung down toward the floor – her shoulders slouched forward, her chin angled towards her chest, her eyes either closed or staring blankly. She was weary with age, and cobwebs had settled over her mind. And yet (memorably, beautifully!), when greeted, or handed a hymnbook, her chin would lift, and her deep brown eyes would brighten – maybe almost surprisedly, because she had been gently startled out of the fog … but softly and thankfully, because she was grateful to have been awakened by an act of kindness.

In the few times we met, she never spoke to me. I doubt if she spoke much at all anymore. But it was one of the highlights of my occasional trips to preach in that little chapel to see her eyes brighten when she was approached. I hope I shall see them again in heaven … and hear her voice responding, for the first time, to mine in conversation.

Thinking back on that day, I am reminded of the importance of singing in the Christian life! Yes, we must memorize scripture itself. And learning a catechism by heart is excellent as well. But singing is also so helpful in learning and retaining our theology! Music – and good poetry, set to it – seem to have a way of sticking with us, perhaps (like my aged friend) even when many other things have drifted beyond our mental grip. My elderly friend didn’t seem to be able to say anything, but she could still sing something! And praise God it was a hymn!

Now, it’s very possible that my elderly friend’s memory, by that date, was outdistancing her cognizance. That is to say that I am not sure how well she understood what she was singing. Her mind was, indeed, very tired. But, be that as it may, the singing seemed beautifully to touch her in a way that nothing else did, so that I think she must have gotten something out of it, even if it was just a brief memory of the Lord’s goodness, and/or of the pleasure of singing to Him – either of which would be an exceedingly valuable ray of sunshine, living most of her days, as she did, in the fog. I don’t know, in her condition, that she got much from my sermons (indispensable as preaching is), but she did seem to get something from that old hymn!

So what will you (and your children) have to feed on, some day, in the nursing home, if you get to the point at which most other forms of memory and communication are virtually gone? Oh, let us be people of song! Let us sing, not only in our church services, but in our homes and daily lives. And let us sing the best songs! Let us imprint good theology deeply upon our minds so that it will perhaps still be there when so much other memory is gone!

And let us imprint it there, too, so that it will be there in all these intervening years when we can pause and think about what we are singing, and what our God is like. My friend may not have been able to really grasp all that she was singing on that day. But, if she still knew the song then, when her mind was all but withered away, surely she must have known it ten and twenty years before, when she would have still had the faculties for thinking it through. And so let us have songs stored in our memories, too! Let us sing and learn and have on our hearts the best songs of the faith … such that we can meditate on good theology while we still can! Let us be people of song!

July 13, 2017

The Ministry of Refreshment

Are there people in your life who refresh you? People whose presence, or encouragement, or perspective, or hospitality, or kindness, or generosity leave you feeling energized and happy as you walk away from your time together? People who, when you are with them, you find yourself loathe to leave, and desiring to linger? I hope you know that feeling! I hope you know and are loved by such people!

The church family in Colossae knew such refreshment. They had experienced it in the hospitality of Philemon, in whose home they met (Philemon v.2), and by whom they were loved (v.5). Paul commends Philemon in these memorable words in v.7: “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Isn’t that a wonderful compliment? Isn’t it one that you’d like to be written of you? “The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”

Sometimes we might pour out refreshment in just the way that Philemon did – by hosting church gatherings in our homes. We normally meet, of course, in the church building, rather than in homes. But there is a delight that takes place in those times when we do gather in someone’s living room, and are blessed not only by the activity at hand, but by the setting and the hospitality. And praise God for the folks who host us!

But there are other ways, too, in which we can refresh “the hearts of the saints”. Maybe we host, not an official church gathering, but an informal dinner or dessert or time of fellowship with a handful of brothers and sisters in Christ. Or perhaps we send someone a hand-written note of encouragement. Or maybe we prepare dinner for the family of a sick or nursing mother. Perhaps we notice a particular physical need (or even want) of a young family, and find a way to meet it. Or we watch the kids so that mom and dad can have a date night. Or we regularly invite singles over for Sunday lunch. Or take time to go visit old friends out of town, to remind them that they are cared for and nor forgotten. And you can brainstorm other avenues of refreshment, too, suitable to the needs of the people around you.

I and my family have experienced a great deal of such refreshment from God’s people, near and far. Thank you! And I have seen it on display, as an observer, many times in our church … as many of you refresh, and are refreshed by, one another. Again, thank you! Like Paul, “I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Let’s keep doing it! Let’s continue to excel in the ministry of refreshment!

July 4, 2017

"Power is perfected in weakness"

These were the Lord’s words to His servant Paul, as Paul quotes them in 2 Corinthians 12:9. And, in the context, the idea is clearly that it is the power of Christ that is perfected in the weakness of His servant! Christ shows Himself most strong in His people precisely when those people are weak! For it is then that we (hopefully) depend on Him most desperately. And it is in our weakness that it will be obvious that the strength comes from Him, and not from us (2 Corinthians 4:7). And so (2 Corinthians 12), Christ’s “strength is perfected in [our] weakness.”

Now that sounds really great, when rolling off the tongue, doesn't it? Christ’s “power is perfected in [my] weakness.” Marvelous! Print it on a greeting card!

But when we actually begin to be put in a position to experience this truth … well, that’s sometimes a horse of a different color, isn’t it? IBecause most of us don’t actually like to be weak! We don’t like the feelings of struggle or inability or feebleness. We want to be strong! We want to be able to do it! And so, quaint as it may sound to say: ‘O yes, Christ’s “power is perfected in [my] weakness”’ … it is not so quaint when we are actually confronted with our weakness, is it? What our flesh so often wants to say is not: “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10) … but simply: “I am strong.”

Wouldn’t we often prefer that God prove Himself strong by taking our weakness away, rather than by manifesting His power in our weakness? There’s nothing wrong with asking Him to remove the weakness, of course. Three times Paul asked for God to do so; for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (vv.7-8). But God’s answer (v.9) was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” ‘I’m going to leave you in weakness,’ in other words, ‘because it is in your weakness that My power is most gloriously manifested.’

What about that? What if God does that in your life? What if, in order to most gloriously demonstrate His grace and His might … what if God decides to leave you with “a thorn in the flesh” that “torment[s]” you (v.7)? What if He decides to show His power in and through your weakness, rather than by taking it away? Even though God will be showing Himself strong, you are still going to feel weak in the midst of it all, aren’t you? Because you are weak! And oh, my friends, I have to confess that I don’t like the sound of that! It’s not what I wish for. I don’t want to be weak. I don’t want to be frail, and afraid, and unable. And yet it seems, lately, that this has become my lot. And surely some of you could say the same. But let us believe the word of the Lord, and be “content with [our] weaknesses” (v.10) – and even embrace them – since it is in them that Christ shows Himself most strong!

And so the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9 may not be as quaint as it at first sounds. But it is true!  And it is glorious, and best.

June 29, 2017

"More hope for a fool"

The first eleven verses of Proverbs 26 have some strong words to say concerning fools – don’t honor a fool (vv.1,8); don’t trust a fool as your courier (v.6); don’t hire a fool (v.10); there is “a rod for the back of fools” (v.3); and other pointed statements as well! Indeed, ten of these first eleven verses of Proverbs 26 speak to the subject of fools … so that we have, in this portion of scripture, some very practical counsel for how to respond to them!

But then, in verse 12, comes this brief and fascinating little surprise:

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.

Wow! After all he has said about the folly of fools (and perhaps after we have nodded our heads, knowingly, at his description of the very sorts of people that we actually know), Solomon throws verse 12 in for a kicker … saying, in effect: ‘But, as bad as it is to be a fool, there is someone worse off, even, than that! For even a fool has more hope than “a man wise in his own eyes”!’

Now, first we must ask: What does Solomon mean by “wise in his own eyes”? What sort of person is he critiquing? Does he have in mind the person who thinks himself wise, but who actually isn’t as enlightened as he thinks? Or is he referring to the person who actually has accumulated some wisdom, but is all too aware of that fact, to the point of arrogance? I tend to think it is probably the former, rather than the latter (see vv. 5 and 16 for contextual clues). Neither position is a good one, of course! But I believe Solomon is probably referring, in verse 12, to the man who believes himself to be wise, but who isn’t nearly as sage as he thinks.

And Solomon’s statement, there in v.12, comparing this over-confident man with the fool … that statement would be quite striking, even if we just took it by itself. It would be a significant thing to say, even if it were said in a vacuum, that is better to be a fool than to over-estimate one’s own wisdom! But Proverbs 26:12 does not come to us by itself; it does not exist in a vacuum! We find it, rather, at the tail end of the eleven verses that precede it … ten of which portray for us the fool in all his folly!

And it’s quite the unflattering portrait, isn’t it … this portrait of a fool? Solomon’s brushstrokes reveal the character of a person who is untrustworthy; whose counsels are not worth heeding; who is not to be honored; who needs sometimes to be put in his place; and who (like an animal) requires stern discipline to keep him on track. He’s a sad clown of a man, the fool.

And yet even this man has “more hope” than “a man wise in his own eyes”! Because perhaps the fool will receive the rebuke “his folly deserves”, and at least allow himself to be put in his place (v.5). But “a man wise in his own eyes” will think he knows better, even when the rebuke has come! And nor will he seek out or listen to more gentle forms of counsel, either! He already has the answers!

Beware of this, brothers and sisters! Beware of over-estimating your own wisdom! Beware of being unteachable! Beware the folly by which we spurn the counsel of God and of others – or (maybe even more often) by which it just never occurs to us to ask for such counsel – because we have yet to learn (or perhaps to accept!) just how little wisdom we ourselves have actually obtained, and how much we still have to learn.

There is great wisdom in realizing that you are not as wise as you might be tempted to think … and in seeking wisdom from God and from wise fellow men and women! Have you come to realize that? Are there areas in which you need to humble yourself, and to admit that you need counsel, and to seek it out, and to heed the wisdom that God provides you through it? Is there counsel or rebuke that you have spurned, but need to revisit? Bad as it would be for you to be a Proverbs 26 fool, there is even less hope for the man, woman, girl, or boy who thinks he already has all the answers!

June 22, 2017

"Arise!"

So said Jesus to a young man in the seventh chapter of Luke: “Young man, I say to you, arise!” But the most interesting thing about Jesus’ hearer, in this instance, is not that he is young, but that he is dead! Indeed, it is his funeral day. His widowed mother is there, walking along with the coffin. The funeral procession inches along to the graveside. And there is the young man, to whom Jesus spoke, being carried along by his pall-bearers. And what sort of person interrupts such a procession? What sort of person comes from the outside and stops a funeral party on the way to the graveside? What sort of person, indeed, not only interrupts a grieving funeral party, but actually begins speaking to the corpse, and expecting lifeless ears to hear? This had better work! The dead man had better be able to hear, and to arise, or the whole thing is going to be incredibly embarrassing … and quite impertinent, and hurtful to the grieving company.

But, of course, the voice is that of Jesus! And so it does work! The dead young man does indeed hear the Master’s voice; and he does indeed sit up in his coffin! Praise God! Praise the Son of God whose voice is so powerful, He can make even the dead to hear!

You’re probably familiar with the story. So familiar, in fact, that we know that it is inevitable that the dead man will hear Jesus’ voice and respond to it. That’s what happens in the New Testament, right? But does it occur to you to apply this same logic to that person in your family, or your workplace, or among your friends … that person who is spiritually dead, and seems like the last person on earth who would actually listen to the word of Christ, and heed it?

The reason why such people seem so unlikely to respond is because they are, indeed, dead! Dead to God. Dead to spiritual realities. Dead to the life that is in the Son. And so of course he or she is uninterested in your gospel, and in your Savior, and in coming to church with you. He or she really is, spiritually, dead! And, perceiving that to be so, we may sometimes hold out very little hope that they will ever listen, or that they will ever believe. And we are right in ascertaining their deadness to our message! But let us not forget that the voice of Jesus is so powerful that, whenever He chooses, He can speak to dead ears (and hearts, and minds) and cause them to hear, and to arise! As it was with the young man being carried by the pallbearers in the ancient city of Nain, so it is with young and old in your city, and in your family. Yes, they really are spiritually dead! But that is no impediment if Jesus deems that they should hear His voice and live! So keep giving them His word! Keep speaking to them His gospel! Keep warning them of their sin, and of hell. And keep attempting to woo them to the Savior, and to His heaven. Time may come when He will interrupt their slow march to an eternal grave, and bid them arise from the dead … to the rejoicing of mothers, friends, and the crowds round about!