September 28, 2009

Welcome to our World

Salome Carmichael Strassner (we think we'll call her Sally).

8lbs, 6oz. Born September 28, 2009 at 10:56am. Both mom and baby are healthy!

Salome (pronounced SAL-uh-may) was a follower of Jesus who was also, it would seem, the wife of the fisherman Zebedee (compare Mark 15.40 and Matthew 27.56) and, therefore, the mother of "the Sons of Zebedee" - better known as the apostles James and John . Comparing these two verses with John 19.25, it is also possible that Salome (unnamed in John 19.25) was also the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. Confusing? No worries. It is not for Salome's genealogy that we pay tribute to her in the naming of our second little girl. Rather ... we admire Salome because she seemed to always be there at the crucial moments in Jesus' life. Only she and a few other women followed Him all the way to the cross (Mark 15.40). And it was Salome (along with two more Mary's, Mark 16.1) who showed up at the tomb early that Sunday to care for Jesus' body. We admire her ... and we pray that our little girl would have similarly firm and tender faith.

Amy Carmichael was a woman of no less character. The planned subject of my annual missionary biography/sermon this December, Carmichael was an Irish missionary among the destitute girls in India (many of whom had been dedicated, by their parents, to the gods and made, as young girls, into local temple prostitutes). She rescued them, taught them, and raised them for Jesus. Miss Carmichael was also the author of a large amount of wonderful devotional literature. ... and a composer of hymns. She was (and remains) an example to us all ... including (we hope) her newest namesake. Read more about her here. We could do a lot worse than to have such a thoughtful, Christ-and-others-loving little girl!

As for Strassner ... well, that comes from me. Nothing profound there, I suppose. But we hope she will bring honor to the name. Pray with us that she would.

September 21, 2009

'Tis the Gift, Part 2

"Better is a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred."

One of the great lessons of Proverbs 15.17 is that you don’t need to have a lot on your plate (literally or figuratively) in order to be happy. Love for God and man will do quite nicely if you want a happy life. And that means that there may be great value in being intentional about not having to have the fattened ox – even if you can afford it. There is value in having a lifestyle and schedule that look more like a simple plate of steamed vegetables than like the buffet at Golden Corral. Simplicity and contentment are important biblical virtues – and ones that, in our culture, we are not very good at.

Do you remember what it was like when you were young, and just getting started in life? Maybe when you got your first apartment, or first car? Or perhaps when you first got married? Your furniture was mix and match. Your car didn’t have any of the accessories that now seem so indispensible. You only had one TV. You had to really be careful with your monthly budget. And do you know what? I’ll bet that some of you look back on those days with fond memories. They were good days. Life was simple. You didn’t have much. But you didn’t need much. Sure, you couldn’t afford the fattened ox. Maybe you (like me) took Ramen noodles to work with you every day. You only had a little. But you had love. You had real friends. And, because life was so much simpler, you actually had time to spend with them! And you were happy.

I don’t remember, to give a personal example, if Tobey and I ever had a happier Christmas than our first one as a married couple. We didn’t have any Christmas decorations – and couldn’t afford any. All we had money for was a $19.95 tree from Home Depot … but no lights or ornaments. So I used the Paint program on Microsoft Windows and hand-drew (with the talent of an 8-year-old) some angels, some stars, and some Christmas bells. Then we printed them, cut them out, and taped them onto the shiny side of some old CD-Rom’s and used the holes in the middle of the discs to hang our ‘ornaments’ on the tree.
We were so proud! It wasn’t the prettiest tree we ever had (as I am sure you can tell ... and will comment on below!). But we were together! And Christmas was really about Christ!

These days, Christmas decoration is always a mess. Ornaments break. I get tangled up in the lights. And it’s always a big fiasco that ends with me having to apologize. And I wonder, sometimes, if it wouldn’t be better to just go back to the old, simple way we did it at first.

And you may wonder that about various pockets of your own life. Things used to be so much simpler … and, perhaps, happier. What happened? Somewhere along the line you stopped being content with less; with “a dish of vegetables” so to speak. Somewhere along the line the “fattened ox” became more and more appealing and (seemingly) necessary … and “love” (perhaps for God as well as man) began, first, to be assumed, and eventually to be pushed, ever so slightly, to the side. You didn’t actually intend to become unloving. But somehow there was just less time and energy to put into your spouse, your kids, your friends, and your Bible. After all, it's a lot of work fattening up whatever particular “ox” has become so important to you.

But Solomon would have us know that it’s not too late to go back. It’s not too late to get rid of some of the gadgets; to cut some things out of the schedule so that your family is actually home together more than two nights a week; to cancel the cable or scale back to one TV; to stop spending so much time, money, and energy on things you don’t really need … and won’t even want in a year’s time. It’s not too late to learn (and apply) the importance of simplicity and contentment.

'Tis the Gift to be Simple

"Better is a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred."

Do you believe that? That it’s better to be poor, simple … and loved than to be rich and unhappy? I am sure most of us would agree with Proverbs 15.17, at least in principle. But it’s another thing in practice, isn’t it? For most of us aren’t used to not being able to eat our favorite foods, or not being able to have our air conditioning, or our television, or the various forms of high speed technology upon which we rely so heavily. And so, if push came to shove, I think a great many of us (myself included) would have a hard time putting Solomon’s words into practice. We are far too used to having it all.

Indeed, far from being happy with the fattened ox, we grumble because it’s not cooked right; because it’s too salty, or not salty enough. And we do the very same thing when our television reception, our internet service, our automobiles, and our health care options aren’t just the way we want them. Sometimes we even do the grumbling at the very ones we claim to love. And I say we are addicted to having it all and having it our way … to the point that, if we were put to the test, some of us might just choose the “fattened ox served with hatred” rather than “the dish of vegetables where love is.”

Truth be told, I must confess that I am the chief of sinners in this regard. I was admiring, not long ago, Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Potato Eaters (public domain, pictured below) – a simple portrait of five poor, plain, but dignified and contented family members sitting around a table with nothing but potatoes and coffee to fill their stomachs. And the painting, along with Solomon’s maxim in Proverbs 15.17, made me long for simpler days – for simple and happy family life; for real contentedness.

But often those longings aren’t genuine longings; they aren’t longings about which I am actually going to do something. They are just the butterflies of nostalgia fluttering in my breast. For when the rubber meets the road – when the food is no good; when the internet fouls up; when the digital converter box doesn’t work like it’s supposed to – I don’t often say to myself, ‘Well, I have a wife and kids that love me, and a Father in heaven that does, too. So what’s the big deal about some burned toast?’ Rather, I get irritated … and murmur, and complain, and frustrate myself and everyone around me. And I suspect that some of you do the same.

So we need to learn the lesson of Proverbs 15.17. We need to really believe (and act like we believe) that it is better to be poor, simple … and loved than to have everything we thought we wanted, and still be unhappy. And maybe a starting place is remembering how much we have been loved by Jesus. The Creator of the universe gave up His only Son … for us? Jesus endured the agony of the cross … for me? Isn’t that enough? Do I really have to have the American Dream? Or can I say with Paul that “to live is Christ”? Can I say that I am thankful for whatever “dish of vegetables” God has seen fit to give me … so long as I have Jesus? And can you?

September 14, 2009

Looking for Jesus

Julia’s eyes lit up. We had just finished reading the story of little old Gideon, with God’s help and against all odds, winning a battle and rescuing God’s people … when I said: ‘Can you think of any other stories in the Bible where one person rescued God’s people when everything seemed to be going against Him?’ After thinking for two or three seconds, her eyebrows raised and a big grin came across her face. ‘Jesus!’ she exclaimed.

I just love that. Each night in family worship, no matter what the story we’re reading, we always find a trail back to Jesus. Isn’t that what He said we’re supposed to do? Don’t “Moses and … all the prophets” speak “the things concerning” Jesus (Luke 24.27)? So of course we should read of Gideon and think of Jesus! And the same is true when we read of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Esther, Samson, Ehud, and so on!

Every portion of the Bible is, somehow, pointing us to Jesus. Maybe it’s direct teaching about Him (as in the four Gospels). Or perhaps the passage you’re looking at is a prophecy about Him (see Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, etc.). Other passages of scripture are foreshadowings, or pictures, Jesus. That is, they tell a story that is a lot like the story of Jesus, and that was meant to help people expect and recognize the coming Savior (as in the accounts of Gideon, or the Passover, or the serpent on the pole in Numbers 21). Still other parts of the Bible point out our need for Jesus (i.e. our sin) – think of the Minor Prophets, the first two chapters of Romans, and so on. And of course, much of the latter portion of the New Testament explains the aftereffects of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (answering questions like: ‘What has Jesus actually accomplished for us?’ ‘How do we take advantage?’ and ‘How do we live once we become His followers?’)

The way a passage points to Jesus is not always the same. But, in some form or fashion, they are all about Him (again, Luke 24.27) … and you should read them that way. You should read your Bible, do your Sunday School prep, teach your children, and listen to lessons, lectures, and sermons LOOKING FOR JESUS … every single time. And you should hold your teachers accountable to do so, too!

And I am so excited when I sometimes hear that some of our folks are really getting this! Recently someone said to me:

‘I am studying Exodus, and it has been so exciting, each time I study, looking for Jesus.’

Someone else recently said of the sermons:

‘I listen to you … expecting, in each sermon, to hear the simple gospel message somewhere. And when it happens, I say: “There it was”. '

A couple of years back, someone said to me after a lesson I taught:

‘I kept waiting and waiting for you to get to Jesus … and if you didn’t get there, I was going to stop you and make sure we did!’

And, more stingingly, someone recently said to me:

‘I think that might have been the first time when I can’t remember you showing us how the passage pointed to Jesus.’

All these things warm the heart of this pastor – even when it is being pointed out that I, perhaps, missed the mark. These remarks mean that many of my people are getting it. They’re getting Luke 24.27. Are you?

The whole Bible – indeed, the whole universe – is all about Jesus! So keep thinking (and reading your Bibles) that way … LOOKING FOR JESUS!

September 8, 2009

Another Kind of Weekly Labor Day

Last week I quoted Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who once said: “Preaching is the closest a man will ever get to giving birth.” Then I asked you to pray for me as, each week (in preparation and delivery), “I am in labor until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4.19). So each Sunday, for the preacher, is a labor day … a day, in some small way, of giving birth.

But I also got to thinking … each Sunday can also be a labor day in the more classic sense of the phrase Labor Day. I used the words ‘labor day’ as a bit of a play on words last week. But it is true that each returning Lord’s Day has the capacity to be a bit like what we normally think of when we use the phrase Labor Day. Each Sunday can be, if we are willing to take advantage, an amazing day of rest. So that, when I come home from Sunday services exhausted, from a different kind of labor day … I have in front of me an entire afternoon, evening, and night of complete restfulness – a weekly Labor Day. And so do you!

On Sundays, (on top of the opportunities for spiritual rest, fellowship, and food at 9, 10, and 11am) you and I have the chance, most weeks, to have an open-ended lunch date – either with your wife or husband, or with Christian friends. We can sit around our dinner table (or theirs) and visit as long as we like. On Sunday you can snuggle up under the covers and take as long a nap as you want. Wake up at 5pm, or 6, or 7? No sweat! You don’t have anything pressing on your calendar. It’s Labor Day. And there is no guilt, either. After all, the Lord has told us to take a day off (Exodus 20.8-11)! And then, when we finally wake up from our nap, we have the whole evening, as families, to talk, read, jump on the bed with the kids, etc. And there is still time left, in all this, to do some extended reading in the Bible and in good Christian books. Imagine the possibilities for enjoyment, personal growth, and good old-fashioned rest that lie, all within the bounds of one day a week, set aside for worship and for rest. A Labor Day every week!

And all this because we choose to take advantage of God’s gift of a day of rest! We choose to “desist from our own ways” (Isaiah 58.13). That is, we choose to get the yard work done another day; to go to Meijer another day; to pay our bills and balance our checkbooks another day; to do the laundry another day; to go to the ballgame another day, and so on. And when we do it, the Lord seems to help us get all these things done in the other six days … even when it doesn’t seem possible! I can testify that this is true!

What’s my point? Not that I really have the 4th commandment figured out. I am still tempted, like many of you, to spend the day ‘getting things done.’ So my point is not that I’m doing it perfectly. And even if I (or you) were … what is there to brag about? We’re just taking advantage of the system! We’re just grabbing the free cookies that God has laid out for us each week. So try it out … this weekly Labor Day.

“If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58.13-14).

For more on the Lord's Day, jump to this series of articles from some time back.  When you get there, scroll to the bottom of the blog and read the articles, bottom to top, in chronological order.

September 1, 2009

A Weekly Labor Day

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, arguably the greatest preacher of the 20th century, was once asked, upon completion of a sermon: ‘Doctor, how do you feel?’ Relieved, came the reply. ‘Why relieved?’ Because preaching is the closest a man will ever get to giving birth, was the doctor’s answer. And I hope I know exactly what he means.

Now, let me insert my disclaimer: based on what I have seen, I know the comparison, in many ways, is a bit of a stretch. I’d much rather preach a hundred Sundays than go through what I’ve watched Tobey go through! But there are some ways, at least, in which Lloyd-Jones’s statement, I think, rings true. And the apostle Paul would agree. He wrote like this to the Galatian Christians about his ministry to them: “I am … in labor until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4.19). In other words, ‘Ministry is like giving birth. I feel like I am in labor as God makes you into His children, through my small efforts.’

And so it ought to be for the preacher worth his salt. He ought to be so bound up with the spiritual well-being of his people, so desirous to see them come out healthy, so concerned that “Christ be formed in” them … that every sermon, both in the preparation and in the preaching, feels like just a little sliver of child birth.

He is straining, and pushing, and hoping … and straining, and pushing, and hoping some more that his people will be born, or continue to grow. He is passionate about souls – both those who might be born again and believe through his word, and those who believe, but need to be nourished and molded.

And, not only that, but he is intensely interested in and passionate about his subject matter … God’s word, and God’s Son. He puts his all into the work of study, and writing, and re-writing, and praying, and praying some more, and trying to get it just right, and finally delivering it all, Lord willing, in the power of the Spirit … so much so that, when he finishes, he almost feels, at times, relieved. Not that he is glad it’s over and he doesn’t have to fool with preaching again for a few days. Not at all. But relieved because the experience is more exhausting (and fulfilling) than it looks. It’s an emotional version of labor.

This is often the feel of passionate preaching. It is, in some small way, like labor (though not physically, thank God!). And it all spurs me simply to ask that God would make it so in me. That I would prepare, pray, and preach with every fiber of energy I have to give to it. That I would spend myself in God’s service … and have that glorious feeling, each Sunday afternoon, of having given birth to something for God’s sake. So would you pray for Tobey and I … as we both face, in the days ahead, ‘labor days’ of various kinds?