September 21, 2015

"Summer is ended"

Here is Jeremiah’s lament over the spiritual lostness, deadness, and fruitlessness of his countrymen. Destruction is coming upon them because of their sin. The situation is dire. Repentance and redemption are paramount. And yet here they sit, at the end of summer, unchanged and unsaved. “Harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

Now Jeremiah may have written these words, literally, at the turning of summer into autumn, after all the fruits had been harvested, preserved, and so on. But Charles Simeon was probably correct when he saw in Jeremiah’s harvest and summer imagery a metaphor for the spiritual privileges that the people of God enjoy.*

Living under the consistent sound of the word of God is like dwelling in a land of perpetual summer! And I’m not thinking of the scorching, dry summers that many of us have come to dread … but summer in the sort of place where the mix of sun and rain are just right for growing things like tomatoes, and beans, and peppers, and blueberries, and so on! And (especially in those days before the supermarket) what a pity to live in such a place, and yet to find, even at the end of summer and harvest, that you do not have enough food to last you into the winter season! What a perfect symbol of wasted opportunity and squandered privileges!

Well, that seems to have been the situation of the Israelites! The spiritual privileges that had been theirs; the opportunity to hear God’s word from God’s men; the opportunity to have forgiveness and redemption preached to them through the temple sacrifices had all been immense – like the sun and showers of a perfect growing season! But there was precious little spiritual fruit. They had lived their whole lives in a harvest season, as it were … and yet most of them remained spiritually barren! And so it is a poignant lament when Jeremiah cries over his people that “harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.” The people had squandered nearly all the opportunity that came as a result of their Israelite births!

And Jeremiah’s lament is one that must be cried over some church-goers, even in our own day! Because, oh, what a privilege it is to sit under a sound gospel ministry! You may not have the best pastor or the most anointed preacher … but if you have a real shepherd and a gospel preacher, you have more than most of your neighbors! Your access to the sun and showers of God’s word makes you something like the fruit trees in a land where summer brings, not drought, but every inducement for the trees to produce their fruit. But is there fruit in your life today? And, when the summer of your gospel privileges someday comes to an end, will there be anything to show for the privileges you have known? Will you finally be saved, in the end?

As our physical summer has just come to an end, it is a good time to assess ourselves in regard to what we have made of the spiritual summer time that many of us have enjoyed in the church for many years. A new school year has begun, young people … but have you yet begun with the Lord Jesus? The tomatoes have been harvested and enjoyed, but is there any fruit being borne in our lives for God? Could it be that some of us have been hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, week by week, for much longer than just these few months of summer, and yet are we still unsaved? Are we still unrepentant? Unbelieving? Unchanged?

Oh, may you not come to the end of God’s harvesting season in this world, or to the winter of your own life, and still be forced to say: “Harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

*Indeed, the whole way in which I unfold the meaning and application of Jeremiah 8:20 in this article is based on Simeon's interpretation.  See his sermon on Jeremiah 8:20-22 in his Expository Outlines of the Whole Bible.

September 15, 2015

Sundays in Narnia

I’ve been thinking a little more than normal, in recent weeks, about what we might call church culture – and particularly how a local church’s culture / ethos / first impression affects those who walk into our Sunday gathering for the first time or three.

Of course there is a sense in which guests should walk in and feel somewhat comfortable with their Sunday morning surroundings. The language we use should be intelligible English. Our building shouldn’t be dingy or bizarre or difficult to find. Our welcome should be warm. Their children should be safe. And so on. Church shouldn’t be a forbidding, or unwelcoming, or completely unintelligible place for the first time guest. And I hope our churches are not any of those things. Let’s continually work to ensure that they aren’t … but are, rather, just the opposite!

And yet, some reading I’ve been doing* has me more and more convinced that, while a church’s culture should not at all be inhospitable, yet it should also be quite challenging, in many ways, to the man who comes in off the street (or out of a less biblically thoughtful church culture).

Walking into a truly biblical (not perfect, but biblical) church should be something like walking into a whole different culture; a whole new world, really – one that (intentionally) does not put the newcomer to Christianity immediately at ease in every way.

Now, many a church leader will be uncomfortable with a sentence like that. Because many a modern church leader has gone out of his (or her) way to create a Sunday morning ethos that looks and sounds very much like what the man on the street experiences at the theatre, the ballgame, the concert, the restaurant, and so on. Often out of good motives, churches attempt to create a Sunday morning aesthetic that feels as familiar and palatable as possible to the outsider. Sometimes churches have even styled themselves as ‘a church for people who don’t like church.’ To put it plainly, churches are bending over backwards to create a Sunday morning experience that doesn’t feel all that other-worldly and strange and different from everyday life.

But here is the problem. God is other-worldly. He is holy, holy, holy! And, thus, to the sinner, He is strange, too! And so are His ways and (purportedly) His people. “Our citizenship is in heaven.” And therefore God calls us to a whole different set of values than what we find promoted in our news media, TV commercials, movie theatres, public schools, literature, and so on. He calls us to stand out as lights “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” And so you would think that, when people like that gather to worship a God like that …you would imagine (wouldn’t you?) that their meetings would look and sound and operate on a plane that would make them, while not unwelcoming to the newcomer, immensely different, and challenging, and other-worldly!

The Sunday morning worship gathering should be – both for the newcomer, and for the long-time Christian who finds Sunday meeting an oasis from the hubbub and glitz and temptation of the other six days – like stepping through one of C.S. Lewis’s portals and into an entirely different world … with different values, and different assumptions, and different anthems, and different customs, and an altogether different sort of inhabitants. We ought to be, in some ways, as strange to a newcomer as a snowy wood inhabited by talking animals. Lucy understood the trees, and the snow, and even the English language of Mr. Tumnus. But there was no doubting that she was no longer in England! And such should be the experience of the man on the street when he steps into the new world that is the gathered church of Jesus Christ. There will, of necessity, be much with which he is familiar. But the differences ought to be profoundly obvious and challenging and (we hope) intriguing to him!

And yet the difference is not to be the trading of one earthly culture for another. This is not a plea, in other words, for the church to go back in time – singing, dressing, and speaking as though we were from a different era. That is mere traditionalism – the attempt to replace modern American culture with the culture, for instance, of the 1950’s. That sort of strangeness is of no avail! No! The man or woman who walks into our services ought to feel, not like he’s entered a different era, but a whole new world! And in any number of ways …

For instance, the modesty of people’s dress should be an immediate sign that one has entered a new realm. Note that I didn’t not say ‘the formality’ of the dress (for God cares little for that). But in a world where people show way too much, the church should look altogether different on a Sunday morning. And when it does, the guest is immediately struck with the realization that she is on more holy ground than she usually dares tread.

And the praise, too, should be a great challenge to the outsider’s worldview. Here are a bunch of people voluntarily singing aloud together … and without the necessity of a great band, a humming beat, or any alcoholic lubrication? Where else on earth can you find a scene like that? And there seems to be a reverence about their singing … and an intenseness about the words more so than the pulse of the tune. And the words themselves are not about everyday themes; not so much about horizontal loves (like the standard fare on the radio); not much about the singers at all, in fact. The lyrics can only be described as vertical, self-effacing, other-worldly!

And observe how parents and children sit together, and how the children are learning to actually sit still for over an hour, and how the teenagers don’t seem to be embarrassed by their parents, and how the men are actually present with their families on a Sunday morning (and singing, too!).

And then there is the preaching. Can people really sit, in 2015, for 45 minutes … listening intently to someone explaining the Bible? With no moving pictures? And no theatrics? All the more interesting because the message seems to be, not about a cause of some sort, but about a Person. Indeed, they talk so much and so well of this Jesus that it’s beginning to seem like they actually do mean it when they speak of Him being alive, and their only hope.

And are they really listening to this man telling them, week by week, that they aren’t actually good people; that they are sinners; that they are hopeless without God’s miraculous and merciful intervention in their lives? What on earth would coax people to put up with such? Or is it that they are in tune with something (or Someone) that is not actually on earth?

And the prayer meeting! Even many church-goers will find this a whole new experience! People actually circling together and sending all these pleading words heavenward … and truly believing that there is someone out there who is listening? Seeing a group of Christians earnestly praying together is perhaps the most other-worldly sight that a modern American will ever see!

But, you see … the man on the street will never see these things; he will never be challenged to enter, himself, into a different world and take up a new citizenship if the church continues to trip over itself trying to look more and more like the culture with which such a man is already familiar. We think we are doing people a good turn, by dressing the Sunday meeting in more culturally ‘relevant’ garb. But we’re actually shooting ourselves in the foot – we who are called to woo people out of their allegiance to this kingdom, and into citizenship in an entirely different realm … “the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son.”

Truly, one of the best things we can do for our neighbors is to strive to create a church culture that is not immediately recognizable and comfortable to them … but attractively other-worldly; appealingly (and biblically) strange; intriguingly unlike anything they have ever encountered before. Like they have, in walking into our gathering, crossed the border into an entirely different and better kingdom.

*Specifically, Rosaria Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Terry Johnson’s chapter “Restoring Psalm Singing to our Worship” (in Give Praise to God; Philip Ryken, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan, eds.).

September 7, 2015

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

Several days ago ... and I almost never have the wherewithal or interest to pull this off ... I devoured nearly an entire book in a single day. It was Rosaria Butterfield's The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, and I highly recommend it.

Carl Trueman's words of recommendation hit the spot for me:
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I do not agree with everything she says; but I did learn from everything she wrote. It deserves the widest possible readership.
Indeed, I was moved and challenged and refreshed and compelled by this book like I haven't been in a long time. It is the personal memoir of a woman who was a highly successful lesbian professor of English … and whose life, in her mid-thirties, was utterly altered by what she calls a train wreck conversion.

The lessons are many – one of the most powerful being how she was slowly led to Christ and his cross by the patient friendship of a local pastor and his wife who opened their homes, listened, loved, and accepted who Rosaria was, without condoning their new friend’s lifestyle.

She also makes no bones about the fact that she wasn’t looking for Jesus, didn’t make an easy and quick ‘decision for Jesus,’ and was only won over by the sovereign, electing grace of God that overcame her in spite of herself and her sin. And she seems quite content – even glad – to confess that it happened that way! God gets the credit!

Some of what she says is edgy, maybe even stinging. Perhaps it needn’t be quite so much that way in every case. But sometimes we who are tempted to cocoon in our Christian culture circles need to hear, plain and simple, how outsiders view us (and some of the flaws that this outsider-turned-insider can still see).

One of the amazing things about the book – perhaps especially noticeable because I read it almost all the way through in a single day – was how the beginning of the book and the end of the book really seemed like they were written about (and almost like they were written by) two different people. And, in the most profound sense, they were! I’m no literary scholar, but Butterfield’s later accounts of her life as a pastor’s wife and adoptive homeschool mom read so very differently from her descriptions of her English professor days at the beginning of the book – and not just in content, but in the very feel of the words! But such is the change that Christ brings. We cannot tell our old stories in the same way that we rehearse the new.

In closing, here is one quote that I found particularly challenging (though it has not so much to do with the narrative of Butterfield’s conversion, but rather the convictions that she now holds as a Christian) Speaking of her Reformed Presbyterian denomination's commitment to biblically simple corporate worship, Butterfield writes:
In an RP church, you will get no show, no comedian pastors, no rock bands, no videos, no interpretive dancing. Either Jesus comes to worship with us and the Holy Spirit fuels and fills us and God is honored or we have, simply, painfully, nothing at all.
Read it again, slowly. Then read it a third time, plugging the name of your church into the first sentence, along with whatever ambiance, aesthetics, experience, or tradition you have come to believe necessary for you to 'really worship.' And then ask if you could still leave the second sentence as-is.

Is meeting with the Triune God enough for us? And, when we gather, do we really expect to meet with Him, or just with a set of people and norms that have become comfortable to us? And, if it’s the latter, have we really gotten what Rosaria Butterfield got when God shook her life to its core, and rebuilt it all over again?  Perhaps God might grant us a train wreck of our own.  

September 5, 2015

'Or ... nothing at all'

In an RP [Reformed Presbyterian] church, you will get no show, no comedian pastors, no rock bands, no videos, no interpretive dancing.  Either Jesus comes to worship with us and the Holy Spirit fuels and fills us and God is honored or we have, simply, painfully, nothing at all.
Rosaria Butterfield

Read it again, slowly.  Then read it a third time and plug your church name into the first sentence, along with whatever ambiance, aesthetics, traditions, or experience you have come to believe necessary for you to 'really worship.'  And then ask if you can still leave the second sentence as-is.

May God give us more pastors, elders, and congregations with the heartbeat of Mrs. Butterfield and the Reformed Presbyterians. 

September 4, 2015

Some Thoughts for Labor Day

We all love a holiday, don’t we? An extra day off work (maybe even a paid one!). A free day with family or friends. Maybe some shish kabobs on the grill, or a nap in the afternoon. And so we welcome with glad eyes this three day weekend, and the extra day of rest that falls on Monday.

And it’s only natural. Because we were made for rest. That’s right! God made us, yes, for work – “six days you shall labor”. But God also made rest part and parcel of the human experience, too … even before the fall. Adam and Eve, even before the fall, would have put their heads down each night on some sort of Edenic pillow, closed their eyes, and rested from the day’s labors. And even in the garden, God marked one day in seven as a special day of rest, based on the fact of His own resting from the work of creation. And so I say that rest was built into God’s plan, and into man’s DNA, from the beginning. We were made for rest!

Think it out ...

First, we were made for daily rest. Every one of us, if we hope to be healthy, must get a certain amount of sleep each night. It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? The machinery at the various factories around town can run night and day, for weeks on end, without a break. But you were made to shut it all down for approximately one third of every day! Why? I think John Piper is right when he says that our need for sleep reminds us that we are not God!

But then also, we were made for sabbath rest … for a weekly break from the normal routine; a day when all the normal chores get put off until another day, and all the normal games go back into the closet, and we worship and rest and enjoy what God has given us as a gift – one day in seven for spiritual and physical refreshment and recharge.

And that sabbath rest is emblematic of our gospel rest. We rest from our labors one day in seven, not only to remember God’s rest in creation, but also so that we might have a weekly reminder that it is not in all our striving and laboring for God that we attain heaven. No, no! “In repentance and rest you will be saved” (Isaiah 30:15) – rest in the work that Christ has done on your behalf; rest in the fact that His sinless life and His substitutionary death are enough to secure us a home with God!

And speaking of our home with God, there we will enjoy our eternal rest. The weekly sabbath points to this, too. And so can a holiday like Labor Day. We long to get to this day, and this weekend … because we know that we can punch out on Friday afternoon, and just enjoy for a few days. And that longing that we feel for the sabbath, or for the weekend, or for the holidays is, at its deepest level, a reminder that we were, indeed, made for rest! God “has set eternity in [our] heart.” And one of the ways we can sense that this is true is by our longing for rest, and feasting, and joy, and fellowship. It’s true we don’t always make good or godly use of that rest. But the fact that we long for it is a signal of something profound. We were made for eternal rest!

So, yes, work hard on those “six days” that God has given for our various labors! But then, when it comes time to put your feet up, or to lay your head down, remember that the delight you feel in that respite is God’s way of wooing you to Himself – to His good pattern for your life, to His gospel, and to the unsullied shores and unhurried days of His eternal rest.