June 25, 2013

"The ancient paths"

“Thus says the LORD, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls.’” Jeremiah 6.16

It seems to me that those words of God, originally spoken through Jeremiah to God’s Old Testament people, are as apropos today as ever. How readily we either forget (or simply reject) “the ancient paths;” the biblical truths and godly habits that made the great men and women of old what they were!

Sadly, as in Jeremiah’s day, it may often be that we simply want things our way, and don’t really care about what God says. But maybe, too – in this modern culture of ours, with all its technological advances and corresponding bustle – we assume that contemporary living precludes (or even makes obsolete, impractical, or frankly burdensome) the more methodical rhythms of life that Christians, not so long ago, found to be the very life-breath of their faith. How obvious it sometimes seems that, in this rapidly moving culture of ours, we have to live in the fast lane, and not in the well-worn footpaths of our great grandparents. But it is not that simple, is it? If we’ll slow down just a bit, we will often find that “the good way” is to be found on “the ancient paths” – in the same truths and habits that godly people have practiced for centuries, but which have fallen out of fashion in our own fast-paced day. Let me mention three of those “ancient paths” that I earnestly desire to see Christians walking on, once again:

1. Family worship. I wonder how many adult Christians, reading these words, grew up with the daily routine of sitting down together as a family to read the Scriptures, to sing praises to God, and to pray together with mom and dad. Maybe more than I think. But I’d suspect far fewer than I’d like to think. We grew up watching TV as a family, perhaps playing games together, and maybe even eating dinner together (as rare as that may sound today!). And there may well have been health in those things (especially the games and the dinner!). But “the ancient paths” – the godly examples of generations gone by – tell us that there is a peculiar blessing in father and mother leading the family in devotions together, day by day by day. Here is where children became strong in the Lord, in times of old – not simply in a once a week Bible class (helpful as those are), but under the consistent tutelage of mother and father, each night, at home! This is “Where the good way is.” So turn off the TV, put down the video game controller, and “walk in it.” Stepping back in time may mean great leaps forward in faith!

2. The psalms. We may, today, think of many of our hymns as “ancient.” But before hymns became the order of the day (and long before the era of CCM!), Christians were in the habit of singing the psalms – rendered in rhymed, metered verse. And, while we are surely enriched by theologically robust hymns (both old and new), it seems a pity that Christian individuals, families, and churches are often so unacquainted with the psalms, set to music and sung as heart cries to God! So often, as we have said in recent weeks, the psalms put to voice exactly what we were feeling, but hadn’t the words to say – especially when we are struggling. Some hymns do the same, but probably not as many … and rarely, if ever, as powerfully as the inspired psalms. Christians of old had them readily at their disposal, as divinely given aids to prayer and praise. We should, too! So pick up a psalter at your Christian bookstore (or find a free version online) and return to “the ancient paths, Where the good way is.”

3. The Sabbath. How does a modern Christian have time for all these old-time habits? Isn’t there a reason why these things have fallen out of contemporary practice – namely that modern life is incredibly busy and full? Well, yes! That’s exactly part of our problem! So one solution is that we ought to carefully consider our schedules – our extra-curriculars, our overtime, and so on – to see if maybe we’re just a teensy bit overbooked! But you know, the Christians of old were busy, too – what with milking the cows in the morning, and the ploughing the fields until dark, and all the added time that it took to wash clothes, and cook meals, and so on! In fact, though I have no way to prove it, I suspect that the average person two and three hundred years ago was far busier than we are today (if we count busyness in terms of real, productive work). And yet they had time for their souls!

How so? Partly because, unlike many modern Christians … they actually took seriously (and delighted in!) the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” There was a time when it would have been unthinkable for a serious Christian to spend his Sunday pulling in overtime, or mowing his lawn, or sitting at the ballpark, or getting the shopping done, or raiding the smorgasbord! Not because any of those things are bad, in and of themselves … but because there is a full complement of six days on which to do them; and because, on this one day, we have far more delightful engagements to attend to! What a blessing we should consider it to have a whole day free of errands, free of appointments, free of have-to’s, free of pressing studies, and free of the other days’ work! We pay big bucks to get those kinds of freedoms at the resort! But every week God is offering us a day of freedom from secular affairs – completely set aside to rest our bodies and feed our souls. It’s not a very modern thing to do, I know. Some might even snort at our “ancient” ways of thinking. But if Jeremiah 6.16 is right (and of course it is!) then it is in just such “ancient paths” that we will find “the good way.”

June 10, 2013

"Limping on his thigh"

That is how the patriarch Jacob carried on with life (Genesis 32.31) after meeting with God one night, and wrestling with Him until dawn – “limping on his thigh.” During the wrestling match, God had touched Jacob’s hip, dislocating it … presumably so that Jacob would know who was man, and who was God. Yes, at the end of it all, the Lord blessed Jacob … but He also broke Jacob. Jacob came away with a new name, and a new life … but also with a limp. And so it always is, said Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Genesis 32, with those who have come face-to-face with God. ‘How do you know you have met with God?’ the doctor asked. ‘You limp.’

I find that to be a profound insight – surely drawn, not only from the illustration of Genesis 32, but from observation of the saints as well. Those who have truly met God are humbled. They no longer walk with their chests as far out as before. Their self-assurance has been met with the reality of their helplessness in sin and their frailty before a holy God. And so, spiritually speaking, they walk with a limp. They have been mercifully crippled by the reality of their sin and smallness … so that they will no longer rush ahead of God in their pride and self-confidence. Christians – those who have truly met God in Christ – come away with a limp. Thank you, Dr. Lloyd-Jones, for pointing out such a helpful illustration of the Christian life from Genesis 32!

But it occurs to me, in recent days, that that initial limp; that initial humbling; that initial touching of the hip that occurs when we first come to Christ is often not the only humbling that we need … nor the only time that God touches the hips of His beloved people. We may find ourselves wrestling with God many times over the course of our journey to the celestial city. The Father’s discipline for our sin; periods of great trial, or pain, or discouragement, or fear; grief and loss – all of these can be seasons of wrestling. And in each case, though God graciously brings us through … we may come out of the wrestling match with a limp; with an indelible reminder of our weakness, and our need to be trained by the Father’s wise hand. When temptations or trials or terrors overcome us, we are reminded again of just how fragile is our frame; and how broken is our world. And, in many cases, we are never quite the same again. We go on our way, limping on our thigh.

But is that a bad thing? Not if God is the one who has touched our hips! For surely a God-given limp is better than a carefree stroll over the cliff-edge of sin! Surely it is better to realize our frailty than to carry on with a false sense of security. And the limp does that for us. It keeps us sober, humble, dependent. The limp reminds us of how much we still need God, even after the struggle. Like Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12), it keeps us relying upon God’s grace, not our own ability. So thank God when He gets you through a season of trial or wrestling of soul. But don’t begrudge the limp that may remain.

June 3, 2013

Out of the Mouths of Donkeys

Riding along on his faithful donkey, Balaam was about to make a colossal mistake (Numbers 22). God intended to pronounce a blessing upon the people of Israel, but Balaam was heading down the trail, entertaining thoughts of cursing them for a bribe. And in his path stood the angel of God, sword drawn, ready to strike Balaam to the ground. It is a foolish, foolish mistake even to entertain the thought of cursing God’s children!

But, even in his sin, God was merciful to Balaam – allowing his donkey to spot the angel, maneuver Balaam past him two times, and keep him alive. But Balaam could see neither the angel, nor or the hand of God. He was angry. What was wrong with this wretched donkey that kept straying off the road? Why was it making such a fool of him? What an inconvenience!

Have you ever felt like that? When the car breaks down? When the fax-machine won’t work? When the email won’t go through? And do you ever consider that God might be protecting you from going down some road of sin?

Sometimes, when we are hell-bent on sin, God may throw a very frustrating, but very merciful curveball at us. That smart-aleck email won’t go through. Our car just won’t get us to that place we never should have gone in the first place.

Other times, we never know why God trips us up or interrupts our routine. Maybe that too-long phone conversation that causes you to run late was actually keeping you out of a car wreck! Do you ever stop to think of these kinds of things? God is merciful even when the donkey veers off track!

Well, Balaam wasn’t getting it. So finally, God opened the donkey’s mouth to illuminate things to poor, ignorant Balaam. And Balaam was in such a rage about being inconvenienced that he didn’t even notice how odd it was for his donkey to be speaking!

Do you ever get like that? So frustrated with God’s providential interruptions that you fail to hear what He is saying to you through them? What would our busted radiators and flat tires say if they could speak? What rebukes might our frozen computer screens offer if they could talk? What might that 10 minute long train say to us if God opened its mouth? Most of us never stop to listen.

If we did, we might just hear them say: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”—even dead cell-phone batteries, cantankerous co-workers, long check-out lines, and rambunctious donkeys.

So, let’s let God be God. And let’s listen when our ‘disobedient’ donkeys speak! We just may hear a message of mercy!