April 23, 2014

"Before I was afflicted I went astray"

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

Some people seem almost to be born into suffering. Others of us grow well into adulthood before stumbling upon any really difficult times. Some, in fact, who read these lines are still waiting for the day of severe trial to come upon us. But all of us, if we simply live long enough in this fallen world, will eventually face what James calls “various trials.” It is part of living under the curse that has been brought upon the world by sin.

And yet James says that we should “consider it all joy” when we find ourselves caught up in these thorns of sin’s curse. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” What? How can that be? Well, God has many purposes of grace which, like roses, come attached to our thorny trials. But in this brief space, let me just mention one, in the words of the psalmist:

“Before I was afflicted I went astray,
But now I keep Your word.”
Psalm 119.67

Suffering, says the psalmist, made him more obedient to God! And this is one of the great lessons I have learned in my nearly twenty years as a believer in Jesus Christ. Suffering, in the hands of a gracious and kind God, can be like sandpaper, smoothing out the parts of our character that are still a little too rough hewn. I had heard this preached from Psalm 119, of course – even preached it myself, from this very passage! But until a little over a year ago, I am not sure I had learned it by experience. For, up until last February, I was still in the category of those who had not yet lived long enough to fall very far into life’s “thorns and thistles.” I had lived 35 years with very little of what might be called real tribulation.

But one winter Wednesday morning, for reasons that are too much to detail in this space, I found myself tumbling head over heels into a deep and long bout with what may only be called severe anxiety. Every day was a battle not to panic over some fear or other. And some days, if I could have painted myself in a word picture, I was reduced to nothing more than a puddle of emotions on the ground. Still to this day, I wrestle with anxiety and fear (albeit, thanks be to God, on a very low level, comparatively). But through this suffering, God really has helped me to better keep His word.

For one thing, He has shown me how weak and fragile I really am; how easily I will crumble if not upheld by His grace. And that has been one blessing of my struggles – being shown my weakness, and truly humbled. “Before I was afflicted” I thought I had my life basically together. I thought I was one of those ‘mature’ Christians … the kind who help others, but don’t need a great deal of help themselves! In short, I was not anywhere near as humble as I ought to have been. And I am still not. But I hope that my suffering has ever so slightly increased my obedience to the scriptures’ commands concerning humility.

And that humbling has, I hope, made me a more obedient follower of Jesus in another way as well. I have been brought, I think, to a much fuller obedience to the biblical teachings concerning compassion – and particularly with those who just can’t seem to get it together emotionally or mentally. God let me live, for a few months, inside the dungeon in which many people spend years or decades … so that, when I came out, I might love those people a great deal more like Jesus does. And love is really important. “Before I was afflicted” I did not know how to love fully; I did not have an appropriate level of compassion toward certain people. And I still have a lot of learning to do … and perhaps some more sandpaper to endure. But through my suffering, I definitely grew to better keep God’s word in this one area.

So in some small way, I have begun to be able to say with the psalmist: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word.” And that has been another of the most important lessons of my almost two decades as a Christian.

April 14, 2014

The Bible's Hymnbook

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

Did you know that the Bible has a hymnbook inside? That’s right, there is one particular portion of the Bible that is meant to be sung – namely, the book of Psalms! That’s why, at the head of certain psalms, you read instructions like: “for the choir director; with stringed instruments” – because the psalms were meant for singing! The book of Psalms (or the psalter, as it is sometimes called) is a kind of Bible hymnbook, putting words into the mouths of God’s people, so that they may sing them back to the Lord!

Now, it may be that the psalter’s musical nature does not surprise you; you may already know that the psalms were meant for singing – not least because the book itself often tells us that we are looking at a song! But most of us did not grow up hearing it actually done. We grew up with the great hymns of the faith, and sometimes with more modern gospel songs and choruses. And we are thankful, today, for a new wave of modern hymn-writers like the Gettys, Stuart Townend, and so on. But many of us did not grow up learning, by example, that the psalms were meant to be sung, too! And so, while we realize that the words on the page before us were sung by David, and Asaph, and their contemporaries … it may not occur to us that they should also be sung by us too!

This was my basic approach to musical worship until just a few years ago. The Indelible Grace CD’s had introduced me to a few psalms set to music. And that was neat. But it had never occurred to me that there might even be a more thorough and disciplined way to sing from the Bible’s songbook. But then I began to listen to some preachers overseas, and to benefit greatly from their preaching of the gospel. And, by and by, I discovered that their congregations sing the psalms exclusively.  Believing, as I heard one man put it, that they are on 'safe ground' when singing the words that God Himself has inspired, these brothers and sisters sing nothing but the psalms when they gather in corporate worship. And so the psalter is, literally, their hymnbook! And they are not an anomaly in the history of the church (psalm singing having been much more of a staple in times gone by).

And so I began thinking to myself: Maybe we moderns are missing out, not singing very often from the Bible’s own hymnbook! I do not necessarily agree with the reasons my brethren give for singing nothing but the psalms. But their commitment to actually sing the inspired words of the Bible makes me realize that we are the poorer if we do not do so. Because there are so many times – maybe especially in times of sin and sorrow – when the psalter says to the Lord exactly what we were thinking or feeling, but didn’t know quite how to put it into words (or if it was even proper for us to put such thoughts into words). And there are other times when the psalms rise to heights of poetic praise that even the best hymns have trouble duplicating. And it is a wonderful thing if we can open the book of psalms and let God put words of prayer and praise right onto our lips – and doubly so if we can add the emotion, and feeling, and aid to memory that comes with song!

So try it out in your own corporate or family worship. Get ahold of a good psalter (like Sing Psalms or The Scottish Psalter – online, Kindle, or paper); turn to a psalm that has been particularly helpful, or is particularly timely; count the syllables in each line; find a well-known tune that matches the meter you’ve just counted; and then sing back to the Lord His very own words! You’ll find yourself blessed, encouraged, and with a much better grasp of this wonderful book of the Bible called Psalms. It’s one of the greatest lessons of my nearly twenty years as a Christian – the psalms were meant for singing!

April 10, 2014

Philippians Sermon Series

We just completed a 12-part study of Paul's letter to the church at Philippi.  Listen in:

Philippians 1.1-5 - "To all the saints ... in Philippi" - MP3
Philippians 1.1-11 - Paul's Heart for the Philippians - MP3
Philippians 1.12-18 - "The greater progress of the gospel" - MP3
Philippians 1.18-26 - "To live is Christ and to die is gain" - MP3
Philippians 1.27-2.5 - "Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel" - MP3
Philippians 2.5-11 - Christ Humbled and Exalted - MP3
Philippians 2.12-18 - "Work out your salvation" - MP3
Philippians 2.19-30 - Men of "proven worth" - MP3
Philippians 3.1-11 - "The surpassing value of knowing Christ" - MP3
Philippians 3.9-21 - "I press on" - MP3
Philippians 4.1-9 - The Beauty of Christianity - MP3
Philippians 4.10-23 - "Giving and receiving" - MP3

April 8, 2014

"Call the sabbath a delight"

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

I am so thankful to have grown up immersed in the life of a local church. Well (and happily!) do I remember my childhood days in the house of God – the various Sunday School rooms, the dark wooden pews, the children’s choir practices, the Christmas wreath dotted with light bulbs which each represented a certain amount of money given to our missions offering, and so on.

I also remember some striking people and incidences from those formative years. One of them was of a young man in our congregation – I believe he may have been preparing for ministry – standing up one Sunday to make public confession of sin. I suppose all such public confessions are memorable (and God used a later one, in a different church, to finally bring me to Christ) … but this particular confession is memorable to me because of exactly what was being confessed, and how I remember it to have been received.

As I recall, this man stood behind the pulpit at one of our meetings and publicly confessed the sin of eating out at restaurants on Sundays. He was emotional, and obviously convicted. After all, part of the requirement of the fourth commandment is not only that we ourselves refrain from unnecessary work on the Lord’s Day, but also that we do not ask others to work for us, either. And this man was distraught at having done so. But what was also interesting, as I say, was how I seem to remember his confession being received. I was a child then, so maybe my memory is not clear; and maybe I do not fully remember the whole picture … but it seems to me that I remember the reaction to the young man’s confession being somewhat indifferent. Almost like: ‘He’s all broken up about that?’

Such, I suppose, is the lack of concern for the fourth commandment in the modern American church. Shutting things down on Sunday? And giving that day wholly to rest and worship? Didn’t that go out of fashion several decades ago? It did … but not, I am afraid, because of any new biblical illumination. Rather, I venture that the shrinking of Sunday has simply followed the culture’s desire to acquire. Life must go on, even on the Lord’s Day, because there are profits to be gained, and projects to be completed, and progress to be made, and great television programming that cannot be missed!

Sunday, as far as the majority American culture is concerned, is just another Saturday. And so most people – even evangelical Christians – give the sabbath scarcely a second thought. And such was my own mindset (not counting that memorable confession in my childhood church). Before I was converted, I could not wait for church to end so I could get home and watch the ballgames. And even after I was converted (and actually liked going to church!) it never occurred to me that the command is to “remember the sabbath day”, not just the sabbath morning. I never pondered that the whole day is to be set aside from our usual work and entertainment (see Isaiah 58.13-14 for entertainment). And so, for most of my life, I missed out on the blessing and delight of a whole day spent in worship, and rest, and Christian fellowship, and edifying reading, and the like. I never knew the refreshing that such a day can bring; nor had I once considered the gospel portrait that is painted when we deliberately rest from our own striving and trust that God will take care of us.

In fact, in my early days in Cincinnati, Sundays were, bar none, my least favorite day of the week. Because after Sunday morning (which is always exhausting for a preacher), I went home, ate lunch, tried to catch a little of the NFL, and then spent the bulk of the afternoon working on my message for the evening service. No rest! Very little time for fellowship! No time for contemplation, or edifying reading, or prayer. Just another day of frantic labor, with a little bit of an entertainment escape tucked in the middle. And I was exhausted at the end of it all … and frankly disliked the Lord’s Day because of it.

But then, largely through the influence of Alistair Begg, I stumbled across one of the oldest commandments in the book … and realized that I’d been ignoring it – to my own detriment, and to the Lord’s grief – nearly all my days. God really has set aside one day in seven for us to rest, and worship, and feast on spiritual food. The Puritans called it ‘the market day for the soul.’ And I’d been starving myself all along for neglect of it.

And so, changes were in order – no more laboring in my office on Sunday afternoon; television off on the Lord’s Day; entertainment plans and household chores put off to others days – all changes that made Sunday, by far, my favorite day of the week! Sometimes I struggle to fully follow through on these commitments, I admit. But Sunday has become a drastically different day for me and mine. And I absolutely love it! I love having a whole afternoon with nothing on the docket, so that I might often spend it visiting with church family, with no rush and no agenda. I love the opportunity to read Christian biography, or to listen to other preachers on a Sunday evening. I love the freedom to read to my children, uninterrupted. I love not having to think about work, or laundry, or finances, or the broken down car for an entire 24 hours! And, quite frankly, I love a Sunday nap! In the words of Isaiah, I have learned to “call the sabbath a delight.” And it has been one of the most valuable lessons of my nearly twenty years as a Christian.

April 1, 2014

The Treasure Chest of Church History

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

I don’t remember exactly how it happened … but, some time during my final year of seminary, I came a across a collection of cassette tapes by a man called John Piper. Yes, the John Piper. Except that I didn’t know he was the John Piper at the time. I had heard of him as a speaker at Louie Giglio’s Passion conferences. But I didn’t know much about his books, or his powerful preaching, or his now-famous statement that ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.’ My first real introduction to him was actually in the role of history teacher. For the tapes in my hands were a series of biographical messages that he had delivered at an annual pastor’s conference hosted by his church. I had heard of Spurgeon, Edwards, Luther, Calvin, and Augustine in my seminary classes. But somehow (and in spite of my being a history minor in my undergrad degree!) the value and joy of church history did not dawn on me until I started hearing it retold from the mouth of the preacher!

And that is what Piper did with those biographical messages – he preached! The lives of the great saints of God – Bunyan, Paton, Simeon, Brainerd, and Cowper – became, each one, like an hour-long sermon illustration, driving home for me all sorts of biblical truths, all through the lenses of real-life men who lived them out. And I fell in love – not so much with Dr. Piper, or with any particular one of the characters he brought before me – but with history itself; and especially with the history of Christ’s church! Soon I was on to other historians as well – Iain Murray especially, and later Michael Haykin and (with my kids) Douglas Bond – discovering one remarkable saint after another; learning the history of true, Holy Spirit revival; and marveling at how often our forebears trusted God through great trials and persecutions. And a whole host of new heroes, and hopes, and dreams, and even theological convictions began to blossom as new fruit in my heart!

I am undoubtedly a more sound, stable, mature, and fruitful Christian (and pastor) because of my now decade-plus love affair with church history and biography. For instance, I am so much better prepared to suffer (and to help others do so) for having observed how the men and women of old did so with such great “faith and patience.” I’m also much less enamored the latest Christian fads, having observed how the saints of old spread the gospel so successfully with nothing of the sort. The hymns, too, have become just a little richer for me, for having learned the stories of some of their authors. My theology has received many good doses of iron as well … by having discovered the much more robust and biblical theology of certain men of old. Furthermore, by learning from some of the more simple pastors of a bygone day, I have learned a great deal about being, not only a preacher, but a real shepherd of souls. And learning the history of revival has shaped my theology perhaps as much as anything else I’ve read outside the Bible.

“And”, in the words of the author of Hebrews (in his own review of the lessons of history, ch.11) “what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I” go on reciting for you all that church history and biography have to teach us. Better that you set out, yourself, on the same journey back in time on which the Lord has taken me these last dozen or so years. Start with some of the authors mentioned above. Or ask me for some book or listening recommendations. And start digging, for yourself, into the goldmine of the past. Joy, and perspective, and depth, and wonder, and fruit await you in the treasure chest of church history!