June 27, 2011

In the Shadow of His Wings

Some time ago I was doing a little shopping at my favorite grocery store – Aldi. I don’t remember what I bought that day. But I do remember what I saw in the parking lot. No, it wasn’t a bunch of rusty old shopping carts, or tire-tracked garbage strewn here and there, or plastic bags blowing in the wind. The very absence of these kinds of things is one reason why Aldi tops my list! Rather, in the grassy berm alongside our local Aldi parking lot was a little family of Canada Geese (I've been told they really are Canada Geese, not Canadian Geese … look it up!).

There were two beautiful brown and black adults – mama and papa, I assume. And then there were four or five fuzzy little yellow goslings. And guess what I did? What every American living in the 21st century would do! I pulled out my trusty little camera phone, drove as close as I could, rolled down my window, and began snapping away. And, almost as soon as I began snapping, mama and papa goose began hissing! You’ve seen something like this before with big birds, I am sure. They straighten their necks. They hiss. They rattle whatever it is they may have to rattle. And they raise their wings in a threatening posture and begin to charge. And, believe me, I felt threatened. I wanted to be the one snapping them, not vice versa!

So I got my pictures from a little further away than I had hoped. And then I drove home eager to show the photos of mama and papa goose’s little ones to my little ones. But it occurs to me that I got something more than just a few grainy photos and some cheap groceries that day at Aldi. I also got a picture of the watchcare of our heavenly Father.

Did you know that four times, in the Psalms (17, 36, 57, and 63), King David refers to himself as taking shelter in the shadow of God’s wings? But what is he talking about? Does God have wings? Not literally, of course. So what did it mean for David to take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings?

It’s possible that He was referring to the ark of the covenant – where the blood of the sacrifices for sin was shed. Above that ark were two angels, with their wings stretched forth, as if sheltering the ark. Perhaps David was speaking about the ark, then, when he asked God to shield him beneath the shadow of His wings. Perhaps he was asking, in other words, that God would put David in that place where sin was atoned for beneath the angels’ wings; where blood sacrifice makes us safe and forgiven before God. That is a good place to be, is it not – where Jesus’ blood covers us from all sin? So I say perhaps that place of blood sacrifice is what David speaks of when he refers to being beneath the shadow of God’s wings.

But I think, probably, he has something else in mind in those various psalms. For, in at least three of the four psalms, David uses the phrase in connection with God’s protection from his enemies, not God’s forgiveness of his sins. In at least three of the four psalms, in other words, someone is threatening to harm David – just like those geese thought I was threatening to do that day in the Aldi parking lot! And so I think that, when David refers to taking refuge under God’s wings, he is picturing something like I saw that day in the grass outside my favorite grocery store. Maybe David had even seen something like I saw. Maybe he’d watched how birds respond when their young are threatened – how they hiss, and rattle, and raise their wings. Maybe he’d seen little goslings rushing under their parents’ bellies when they’d been given a fright. And, seeing these things, he said to himself: ‘That’s what God is like. I am His little one. And when someone threatens me, they threaten the apple of my Father’s eye. When they threaten me, His neck straightens out and His wings go up, and all who would seek to harm me have been fairly warned. That’s what My God is like – like a father goose whose children have been threatened!’

And isn’t that a beautiful picture – God hissing, and stamping, and spreading His wings when you are threatened? Surely that’s what He does! Surely He defends His people, and even fights for their cause. And so we ought to take refuge in the shadow of His wings! We don’t have to fight our own battles or defend our own names. Rather, we ought to find ourselves, all the time, waddling as fast as we can underneath His breast, and taking comfort in the shadow of His protective wings!

June 20, 2011

Lessons Learned in Europe, Part 5

This morning we come to a fifth and final lesson to be learned from a visit to the European continent. The first four have been as follows:

1. The value of Christian history
2. The sadness of neglecting that history
3. The communion of the saints
4. The menace of liberal theology

The fifth lesson from Europe is really the logical overflow of numbers 2 and 4. Because most of Europe has embraced a liberal view of the Bible, she has become disconnected with her history, and with her Maker. And because of that disconnect, European people make up the least Christian continent on the planet. According to the latest edition of Operation World (which you should all purchase immediately!), only 2.5 percent of men, women, boys, and girls on the European continent would be classified as evangelical believers. That is to say that only 2.5 out of every hundred Europeans would say that they are in relationship with God by faith alone, in Christ alone!

This is the continent that sent Christianity to America, and to the south Pacific, and to Africa and Asia! To be sure, they had quite a lot of American help in those last two places. But since our own access to the gospel came from Europe, nearly the whole modern world owes the advance of the gospel to its various shores to the work of God in this one smallest of continents between the years 1500 and 1900! And yet now it is the least Christian continent of them all!

Let me just mention the few countries that I was privileged to pass through back in May. Germany, home of Martin Luther and the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation is now only 2.1% evangelical. Switzerland, the land of Calvin and the birthplace of evangelical Presbyterianism is slightly better – but still only 4.4% believing. Little Liechtenstein, which was hardly touched by the Reformation, has only one evangelical church and 186 believers. Even when we consider that the entire population is just 36,000 … we are left with only 0.5% believers. In Austria, the percentage is exactly the same. Only one-half of one percent of Austrians believe the gospel! In the Czech Republic, it’s 0.7%. And in the rapidly declining United Kingdom, the number of believers stands at 8.8% … and falling.

What are we to make of this, by way of application? I think it’s to say that Europe is now one of the great mission frontiers of our world. When Americans think of sending missionaries, we are accustomed to think of Africa, and China, and the Muslim world. And rightly so. There are great needs in each of those places. And, within those places, there are tribes and people groups that are even less Christian than Liechtenstein and Austria. But on the whole, it seems to me that mission-minded people need to start paying much, much more attention to the continent of Europe. It’s already the least Christian continent on earth … and the situation is not getting better, overall.

No, in Europe there are not very many hungry mouths to feed or AIDS orphans to care for. There are not hidden tribes who have almost no contact with the outside world. But that doesn’t mean all is well. The people there – 97.5 percent of them – are dying and facing eternal judgment without Christ. And so, as I conclude these thoughts on Europe, I give a final plea. Might not some of you go to Europe? Not, as I did, to visit family homeplaces, and bathe in Christian history … but to make your own homeplaces, and to be a part of a new chapter of Christian history.

I am certainly not the Holy Spirit. So I cannot tell anyone where they should or should not go. And I would be thrilled if some who read these pages went to Africa, or China, or the Muslim world. We must go to those places ... and some of the best folks I know work in them! But, after all that I saw and experienced in mid-May, I would be delighted to see a few of us pack up our bags for Liechtenstein or Austria, too. I would be thrilled to see some of us go to Scotland and re-proclaim the gospel of John Knox and the Covenanters. I would be amazed if God would raise up some of us to go to the land of Luther and preach the gospel of salvation by faith alone with the same passion with which he did.

In spite of all its history and outward religious trappings and landmarks, Europe is the new mission frontier. May God give us grace to see past the spires and into the streets … and to take the gospel there once more.

June 13, 2011

Sermons from the End of the Old Testament

Recently (and originally quite unplanned) we undertook a series of sermons from the final two-and-a-half centuries of Old Testament history - the time period of the Jewish exile into Assyria and Babylon, and then the return and rebuilding efforts in Jerusalem. This time period, it seems to me, has a lot to say to the 21st century church. So, over the course of several sermons, we tried to pull out just a very few of those lessons - mainly from the words of the prophets as they spoke into the situation for the good of God's people. So listen in:

Hosea 1 - Severe Mercy*
Hosea 5 - Total Depravity

Again, this is not a point-by-point study of all the historical or theological ins and outs of the period of the exile and return ... but a look at God's prophetic words to His people at various points along the way (with a particular eye toward how God's words then are so apropos today). I hope you are informed, challenged, encouraged, convicted, and brought closer to God in Christ. Many blessings.

*The sermon title "Severe Mercy" is taken from the book of the same title, by Sheldon Vanauken.

Lessons Learned in Europe, Part 4

Over three weeks, I have mentioned three lessons that the continent of Europe taught me during my time there in May:

1. The value of Christian history
2. The sadness of neglecting that history
3. The communion of the saints

Now, today, let me mention a fourth lesson: The menace of liberal theology. What is liberal theology? Simply put, it is man’s attempt to make the teachings of the Bible more palatable to modern tastes. Sometimes that means denying certain biblical ethics as incompatible with our modern understanding of things – sexual norms, gender norms, and so on. Other times, liberal theology means smiling demeaningly at people who actually believe in things like the virgin birth, or the parting of the Red Sea, or the miracles and bodily resurrection of Jesus. ‘Everyone knows these things didn’t literally happen’, they say. ‘For, clearly, they are incompatible with modern science’. Incidentally, they are incompatible with science – that’s why we call them supernatural! But liberal theology, uncomfortable with supernatural events that we cannot explain with modern methods and reason, reject the supernatural events in the Bible as legend; as mere poetic ways of teaching ethical lessons; as little more than religious counterparts to Aesop’s fables.

That is liberal theology. In essence, it is a rejection of the Bible’s truthfulness and reliability as a historic source of information, and as an abiding guide for moral and ethical norms. Now, liberal theologians still quote from the Bible, of course. That’s how they make their living. And it wouldn’t be very economically advantageous, in many of their pulpits, to just admit that they scarcely believe in God at all. So they still dabble in religious and spiritual matters, and throw in a few Bible verses here and there … but with a rationalistic, slithery, unbelieving slant behind everything they say.

Many American churches are overrun with this kind of ‘ministry’, too. But, for more than a century, this kind of infidelity to the word of God has been the overwhelming norm in Europe. And what has been the result? A continent whose every city is laced with wonderful church spires … but whose people account for the smallest population of Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming Christians of any content on the planet. Even Asia – with its Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu strongholds and megacities – has a greater percentage of evangelical believers than Europe! That should absolutely astound and alarm us – especially since religious and social trends in Europe seem so often to make their way to the United States within a few decades.

What will become of our country when its churches begin closing at the rate they are in Europe? How difficult and dark might things become? It’s already happening, in increments. But the continent of Europe stands as one gigantic, church-spired warning sign that things can get much, much worse. So let us learn the lesson! Let us hold fast to the word of life. Let us be delighted that the Bible tells us things that can only be true if there is a supernatural God out there somewhere! And let us pray for a great awakening of biblical faith – both here in our land, and across the way in the once great continent of Europe!

June 6, 2011

Lessons Learned in Europe, Part 3

So far, in my reminiscences on two weeks in Europe, I have reflected on the value of Christian history and on the sadness of forgetting that history. For this third article, I’d like to fast-forward to the present day. For the work of God in Europe, though so obviously evident in days gone by, is not limited to the past. Yes, Europe (like America) is becoming more and more secular with each passing decade. Yes, when looking at the continent as a whole, the gospel light seems to be growing dimmer and dimmer all the time. And yes, as a future article will detail, Europe is really the 21st century mission frontier (the least evangelical continent on earth). But … when you look at the content and its various cities up close, there are still some marvelous works of God taking place. And we were definitely privy to some of them in mid-May.

In specific, what we saw was what Christians so often experience when they travel – the communion of the saints; the way in which Christians who have never met one another before can instantly recognize and treat one another as brothers and sisters. In this regard, the trip was a great encouragement to me!

It started on the first Sunday in Germany (our second day there). After having spent Saturday evening in a former family hometown, the plan was to hop on a ferry, cross Lake Constance, and try and find a church to attend in the city of Konstanz. I had found an evangelical church online, which advertised that their services were sometimes translated into English. But I hadn’t written down the address and we didn’t know how easy it would be to find it. So there we were on the ferry, steaming along, and falling into conversation with a young German woman who spoke near perfect English. It turns out she is an evangelical believer who was on her way to church in Konstanz that morning, where she’d be translating the service into English for some Nigerian guests! So guess where we went to church? And guess whom we sat next to? It was really marvelous to see God provide, and to experience the welcome from Heidi and a congregation of probably 50 or so German believers meeting in a house for the singing of praise and preaching of Christ! For those two hours, we were part of their family!

We had the same experience the following Sunday at Musselburgh Baptist Church, near Edinburgh. Pastor John Shearer and his wife Jan graciously picked Justin and me up at our transportation hubs, hosted us overnight, fed us the best meals we had the whole trip, and made us feel very welcome in their church home. In addition, John took us around Edinburgh, seeing some of the aforementioned historical markers, and even climbing Arthur’s Seat with us just before dusk! And all of this, in my case, for a ‘chap’ from America whom they didn’t know from Adam!

The worship service at Musselburgh was no less warm and encouraging! Lively singing, lively preaching, and a reverence for the Lord’s Supper that we’d do well to import to this side of the Atlantic!

From there we went on to Glasgow where the good folks at St. George’s-Tron Church and the Cornhill Training Course worshipped with us, fed us, invited us into their homes, toured us around, and so on. Especially bright was the evening invitation to the home of Ross and Ann McMahan. Ann is the secretary at the Cornhill center. Before she’d ever met us or seen our faces, Justin and I had an invitation to spend an entire evening in the McMahan home, where we were treated wonderfully and shown around their church building and their city of Greenock.

Again I repeat that all of these things were done for us, in spite of our being complete strangers! It was the perfect illustration of 3 John 5-6, in which God’s people are urged to send visiting Christians “on their way in a manner worthy of God”, and “especially when they are strangers”. This is the Christian ethic, is it not? And it is the communion of the saints! These various Christians warmly welcomed “strangers” because, in Christ, we are not really strangers at all … but brothers and sisters in Jesus! What a privilege to be a part of such a family. May God grant us, on this side of the water, to send many such brothers and sisters on their way just as worthily!

June 2, 2011

Lessons Learned in Europe, Part 2

Last week I began a series of articles recounting some spiritual lessons I learned while globetrotting across western Europe. The first of those lessons was, very simply, the value of Christian history. Everywhere you look, across Europe, are spires, and monuments, and statues, and so on … many of them reminders of men and women who lived (and often died) to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as faithfully as they knew how. So much so that it almost seems as if every town (especially in Protestant-rich Scotland) has an encouraging Christian story to tell.

But something struck me as Justin and I stopped off at many of these plaques and places – namely that there weren’t many others stopping off (with a few notable exceptions!). Cars swooshed by. Crowds of tourists with their cameras ushered past. And locals with their lattes in hand hurried by, on their way to work or lunch. And most of them seemed completely oblivious to the momentous events that took place on the very cobblestone patches of sidewalk on which they were walking! So that’s the second lesson from Europe: The sadness of history forgotten.

Now let’s at least give the locals the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if I drove by Thomas Boston’s ruined church, or John Knox’s burial site five days a week, I’d become pretty oblivious, too. And, for all I know, there may be some hugely important historical location right under my nose here in Pleasant Ridge that I don’t even know about! So maybe that’s the reason few people seem to notice the famous churches, graves, and monuments. But I halfway think that the reason many European people do not know (or acknowledge) the Christian history all around them is because, in some cases, they’d prefer not to remember (or acknowledge) it.

The classic example of this (maybe not just in Europe, but in the whole world) is the burial place of John Knox. Knox not only brought the full force of the Protestant Reformation (and thus, the good news) to Scotland, but he also organized the Presbyterian Church, which has been the dominant religious group in the country for 450 years. Furthermore, he led Scotland to be the first nation in the world to make public education a priority for every citizen and, through his politics and religion, laid the foundation for the democracy that is now enjoyed as the only acceptable norm throughout the entire English speaking world! Politically, John Knox was something akin to the Thomas Jefferson of Scotland. And theologically, he was the Martin Luther of the English speaking world. But today people park their cars on top of his grave site! I’ll explain …

As I said last week, the church building in which Knox preached the gospel so powerfully is located on the Royal Mile, which undoubtedly has to be the most popular historic and tourist destination in all of Scotland. And St. Giles Cathedral is (besides the castles at either end of the Mile), the most noticeable building on the street. Indeed, the church’s spire is one of the dominating landmarks on the Edinburgh skyline. Everyone who goes to Edinburgh sees and knows St. Giles. And, not surprisingly, John Knox is buried in the old churchyard. But here’s the catch. Some years ago, the churchyard was paved over and turned into a parking lot for the church and nearby political offices. And, not only did they not leave the Knox tomb cordoned off as a special, fenced in historical landmark … but they didn’t even put a sign or a plaque in the pavement to tell you that John Knox is buried beneath your radiator! The only indication that space 23 is any different from the others is a one-foot-square piece of concrete (with no inscription) laid flush with the asphalt next to the number ‘23’. In other words, if you didn’t know the story of Knox’s tomb being paved over, you’d probably assume that the little yellow-painted slab concealed a plugged up drain hole or something of the sort!

Now, austere and self-effacing man that he was, Knox would probably not be alarmed at the hiddenness of his burial plot. And neither should we be if no one ever knows where our bodies lie at rest. But the reason it’s so sad is not because they have merely forgotten Knox, but that he seems to have been intentionally obscured. In other words, Knox isn’t buried in space 23 as a way of honoring his humility … but as a way of hiding the legacy of a man whose staunch Bible-based theology, frankly, embarrasses most modern Scots. Many people don’t want to remember Knox. And, in their most touristy area, the powers that be have made an intentional effort to obscure him from view as much as possible – because of what he believed!

And my sense is that this kind of ignorance is the reason why so many other sites go unnoticed as well. It’s not that Mary and Tom and Jane intentionally ignore the martyr’s monuments and so on. It’s that the culture in which they live is now embarrassed by what those martyrs and preachers believed … and thus draws very little attention to their memorials. And the result is that many people, I feel sure, have no idea what they’re walking past! They’ve forgotten the history, at least partially so that they might also forget the theology. That’s the sense I get, anyway. And it’s a sad thing – and one that happens in America in much the same way!

So let us be different. Let us remember Christian history – not mainly for the sake of the men and women of the past, but for the sake of the God and the truth which they served!