May 8, 2018

Glad That We Came

“I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the LORD’”

So wrote David in Psalm 122. He was glad when it was time to go to worship! Similarly, I have often prayed, in my pulpit prayers, that God would enable us to leave our Sunday gatherings ‘glad that we came’ – glad to have made our way, that day, to the house of God. And I do hope that that is your experience of Sunday worship – that you are glad to go to God’s house, and that you leave glad that you went! So let me give you three suggestions to help you be glad to go, and glad that you went, “to the house of the LORD” from week to week.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” It will be much easier to be glad to go to worship, and to be glad that you went, if you are not thinking about getting get back home to watch the game; if you are not mulling what you need to pick up at the store that afternoon; if you are not stewing over a list of chores you hope you might complete by Sunday’s end. In short, you will be much more likely to soak in the blessings of the day if you don’t have anything else on which you are fixated, anywhere else to be, or anything else to do on the Lord's Day; if you’ve organized your Sundays such that soaking up spiritual blessings is the order of the day. The less your bread is saturated with distractions, the more capacity it will have for sopping up the honey of the things of God!  See Isaiah 58:13-14.

Walk with God the rest of the week. Enjoy the honey Monday through Saturday, and you will be all the more eager to come to the honey festival on Sunday! “Taste and see that the LORD is good” all week long, and you’ll have a hankering for the big meal on Sunday. But if you satisfy your taste buds with other things all week, don’t be surprised if you feel rather meh about coming to the Sunday feast.

Pray for your Sunday services. Describing the childhood church-going experience of the great missionary John G. Paton and his siblings, John Piper has said that “the meat at the temple was so rich, they were eager to get there.”* Pray that your church services will be like that! Particularly, pray for those who prepare the meat – for those who select and lead scripture readings and songs, and for your pastor and other teachers as they prepare the sermons and lessons for God’s people – that they would prepare and serve you an absolute feast, week by week! Pray that “the meat at the temple” would be “so rich” that you would be “eager to get there” … and then glad that you went!



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*Taken from Piper’s biographical message, You Will Be Eaten by Cannibals! Lessons from the Life of John G. Paton.  Piper is describing, in his own very memorable words, what Paton himself says about his childhood church-going.  The quote is found in the audio version of the message, though not in the written manuscript.

April 26, 2018

If We Confess Our Sins


April 19, 2018

"Lift it up, do not fear"

"Get yourself up on a high mountain,
O Zion, bearer of good news,
Lift up your voice mightily,
O Jerusalem, bearer of good news;
Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
'Here is your God!'"
Isaiah 40:9

Some of you will know, and others of you may be surprised to know, that I sometimes struggle with significant fear in the matter of lifting up my voice to speak God’s word. Sermon preparation can, at times, be quite nerve-wracking as I agonize over whether I am getting this or that item right. Second-guesses (not of the Bible, but of myself) also occasionally come into my mind, mid-sermon: ‘Did I say that right? Is the way I phrased that sentence misleading? Did I cite that commentator correctly?’ And then, even after my voice has been lifted up, and the sermon is done, there is the further challenge of putting the sermon online, and wondering the above sorts of things all over again. Pray for me! For, though such fears may sound absurd, they seem very real when I am in the midst of them.

Maybe you are sometimes afraid of (or afraid while) lifting your voice, too. Maybe, when sharing the gospel, or teaching a Bible class, you worry about whether you are getting it right – not because you don’t know the Bible well enough (which is a legitimate reason to second-guess yourself!), but because you’re a worrier, like me. Or perhaps you have a fear of speaking God’s word to people because of the potential of getting a poor response from them. ‘Will they mock me? Will they become angry with me? Will they distance themselves from me, relationally?’ And then there is just the plain old fear (regardless of the content spoken) of speaking in front of a group, or to someone we don’t know well – a fear which can weigh heavily upon us in various situations, including those in which we are called to speak for our God.

How do we overcome such fears? Well, I’m no expert. I often struggle mightily. But one strategy I’ve found helpful is to quote or paraphrase to myself, just before going into the pulpit, those words from Isaiah 40:9 – “Lift up your voice … Lift it up, do not fear.” These words, of course, remind me that I must not fear. But they also imply, it seems to me, that I need not fear; that the God who has called me to speak for Him will be with me in that speaking, so that I can be confident, rather than afraid. And maybe Isaiah 40:9 will be helpful to you in that way, too. Store it in your memory bank, and remind yourself of it when it’s time to speak for the Lord.

Remember, too, that your opportunities to speak “the good word of God”, and any specific gifting you have for doing so, are among the talents (Matthew 25) that God has entrusted you to steward. And you mustn’t hide them in the ground. You must use what God has given you, my friend! You must “lift up your voice”! “Lift it up, do not fear.” You won’t do so perfectly. You won’t always do so painlessly. But, with God at your side, you may do so confidently!

April 11, 2018

"Let love of the brethren continue"

The following article was composed, specifically, for the Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church family ... but may be of help to others in thinking about (and continuing!) the love that exists within your own church family.  May it be so!

‘What are the strengths of the church?’

That’s the question someone recently asked me, concerning PRBC.  And it's a good question!

I was glad to answer, in the words of one of our other elders (Charles) from awhile back, that the church has proven to be a kind of nest; a safe haven and soft landing spot for those who have needed such – younger Christians, strugglers of various kinds, people who just need a calm and nourishing church atmosphere where they can, for a season, gain (or re-gain) spiritual strength. This is an important ministry!

I was also happy to reply that our church has been, for well over a decade now, relatively conflict and controversy free. The spirit of unity here has truly been a gift from the Lord, and surely has been one reason we’ve been able to be the aforementioned safe haven!

It is also true that the family at Pleasant Ridge truly cares for one another. I am so pleased to see folks giving rides, visiting the nursing home, providing meals, helping with children, and so on. This is a sign of strength! And let me add, here, that a friend of mine recently pointed out to me how much the people of PRBC love me. Thank you, brothers and sisters! Your care for one another has extended wonderfully to your pastor and his family!

Praise the Lord for His kind working in and for us! And thank you, church family, for walking with and serving Him in these ways. It occurs to me that they are all related to that fruit of the Spirit which is love. And let me encourage you, now, to “Let love of the brethren continue” (Hebrews 13:1).

Sometimes we may need to be encourage to begin loving one another in ways that we haven’t been doing. Other times the call may be to rekindle our love for one another. And then there are times when we are loving one another, and simply need to be reminded to continue down this happy path! And so let me encourage you in this latter way.

You have been a marvelous safe haven, PRBC, for so many people. “Let love of the brethren continue.” You have walked together in a Spirit of wonderful unity. “Let love of the brethren continue.” You have cared so well for one another, and for your pastor and his family. “Let love of the brethren continue.”

“By this” said Jesus “all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). So, my brothers and sisters, “Let love of the brethren continue.”

April 3, 2018

Light

“So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.” 2 Peter 1:19

This fallen world, even for the Christian, is so often “a dark place”, is it not? The culture in which we live is shrouded in a godless midnight of unbelief and idolatry. Our own circumstances, when we are in difficulty, can be like dark clouds looming over our heads. Depression, too, can be like a dreadful series of gloomy, sunless days. And then there is, of course, the darkness of our own sin, ever lurking in our hearts, and breaking onto the surface far more than we would like. And so we can identify, I think, with Peter’s reference to “a dark place.”

And yet praise God that we have “the prophetic word” – the Bible – which serves us as “a lamp shining in a dark place”! Praise the Lord for the lantern of the Scriptures! And let us be sure that we use them as such; that we “pay attention” to them! Let us hold the lantern up above our lives, so that we can actually say with the psalmist, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). Dark as things may be, we don’t have to grope around in that darkness! Praise God, He has provided us with a lamp!

And praise Him, too, not only for His provision of light, now … but also for His promise of light, later! For the days will not always be dark, says Peter. They will only be dark “until the day dawns”; until Christ, the Light of the world, shall return to this earth like the morning sun, and shall dawn upon His people with the brightness of His glory. In that day, the midnight of our godless culture will give way to a bright morning sun! And for the Christian, the light of Christ’s presence will, in the words of Henry Van Dyke*, ‘melt the clouds of sin and sadness’ and ‘drive the dark of doubt away’!

So let me urge you, Christian friend – to make use of the provision, and to bank on the promise, of light from the Lord! Open the written word and let it be, for you, “a lamp shining in a dark place.” And look forward to the coming of Jesus, the incarnate Word, who is “the Light of the world”, and who will soon dawn on His people like the glory of the morning sun!


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*From the hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. Van Dyke, it seems to me, rightly employs the words quoted above as a prayer for present light from the Lord (which light the Lord often gives!). I make use of his phraseology, however, as also being an apt way of describing the future dawning of Christ’s light.

March 21, 2018

Hope in Wormwood Days

I hope, from time to time, to be posting some of my articles over at servantsofgrace.org (check them out for a great deal of other helpful content, too).  When I post there, I hope to link here.  Here's the first installment:


March 8, 2018

"God blesses us"

“God blesses us,
That all the ends of the earth may fear Him”
Psalm 67:7

What a marvelous reminder, in Psalm 67, of the stewardship with which we, as God’s people, have been entrusted! One reason the church is so blessed; one reason God so “cause[s] His face to shine upon us” (v.1) … is so that we might leverage His blessings for the purpose of spreading His fame to “all the ends of the earth”! Read the entire psalm, and notice how it both begins and ends with this theme – we are blessed, so that the nations might bless God!

One specific blessing spoken of in Psalm 67 is the blessing of temporal prosperity – a good harvest season. But perhaps other sorts of blessings are in view. Or, at least, the psalm can surely be applied to other sorts of blessings. And, in these few paragraphs, I want to think, particularly, about how the church in America is blessed, and how we ought to steward those blessings for the glory of God in world missions.

That’s not to say, for one second, that only the church in America is blessed; or that the church in America is more blessed than the church in other lands! Not so! Psalm 67 applies to all Christians everywhere! And we would do well to remember that the church in other lands is blessed in unique ways, too. Christians in many other lands are often blessed with fortitude in suffering; or with deep, child-like humility; or with habits of prayer which we Americans could stand to learn from. And, of course, the church in every place is blessed with the same word of God, the same Holy Spirit, the same gospel, and so on!

So the purpose of this article is not to puff up the American church. But since Psalm 67 does apply to our blessings, too; and since I am writing primarily for an audience that resides on American soil, I write for that audience. And I point out three particular blessings which the Lord has poured out on this particular portion of His vineyard, and remind us that God blesses us in these ways for the sake of spreading the gospel; that “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him”! It’s not an exhaustive list of God’s blessings, but I hope a helpful one.

So then, for the sake of His fame among the nations, God has blessed the American church with:

1. Financial blessing. We have so much in this country! And the churches in this country have so much, too! We are blessed, financially. Think of how amazing it is that Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, a fairly small congregation, has well over $100,000 at our disposal, every year, to use for the glory of God. And PRBC is not abnormal. The American church is financially blessed! And let us never forget that the reason is not only for our own up-building in grace, but also so “that [God’s] way may be known on the earth, [His] salvation among all nations” (v.2, emphasis added).

2. Linguistic blessing. English is spoken and/or understood so widely in today’s world, is it not? Which means that we English speakers have ready linguistic access to people from all sorts of places. That doesn’t mean that long-term missionaries shouldn’t take the time to learn the native tongues of the people to whom they minister. They should! But the fact that English is today’s lingua franca means that we who aren’t long-term missionaries have amazing access (at home, and abroad, and online) to people from many nations, tribes, and tongues. And we have such access; God has allowed our language to become so widespread, not for our own ease, but “that all the ends of the earth may fear” the Lord!

3. Theological blessing. Make no mistake, America is probably the world’s chief exporter of false teaching. And I’m not overlooking that. But America, by God’s grace (alone!), is also blessed with sound theological seminaries, Bible colleges, and book publishers that Christians in many other countries drool over. We are extremely blessed with access to solid theological training and teaching. And we are blessed in that way, not to keep all that learning simply to ourselves, but to bring good news to the nations as well!

So, my friends, let us steward these blessings well! Let us give of our financial blessing to the cause of world missions! Let us take advantage of our linguistic blessing by sharing Christ with people from many nations! And let some of us take all of the theological blessing available to us, and go – moving abroad, learning another language, and making the knowledge of God available at “the ends of the earth”!

February 27, 2018

Numb?

I have written before about how much I enjoy the Winter Olympics. And, for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed them once again this time around. There’s something deeply delightful about being cozied up with your family, on a winter’s eve, watching these great triumphs on snow and ice.

But one thing (among a few) that saddened me this time around was how often I heard God’s name, on broadcast television, being taken in vain. During both the broadcasts and the commercials, the holy, holy, holy God could be heard, over and again, being used as an exclamation, rather than in true reference to the Almighty. It was disturbing and disheartening … not only because people used God’s name that way, but because we have apparently reached a point, culturally, where it is no longer even considered shameful to do so (or to broadcast people doing so), even on the once somewhat-sanitized airwaves of broadcast TV.

On one hand, I’m not at all surprised. So much other sin, these days, is portrayed (and sometimes celebrated) on television … and tolerated (and sometimes enjoyed) by viewers. Why should I expect the broadcasters, the advertisers, or their viewership to care about the 3rd commandment? And yet, on the other hand, NBC did issue an apology, at one point, when microphones picked up an athlete using the ‘F’ word. Apologies were also issued for certain socio-cultural gaffes made by on-air personalities. And yet God’s name was blasphemed left and right … with the network and other responsible parties apparently recognizing, neither that such language is inappropriate and foul, nor that the reason it is so is because of the greatness of the One whose name is being misused!

Why am I pointing these things out? Not to be a culture warrior, lambasting NBC, or the television industry in general. And neither am I trying to gather stones for us to cast at our culture or our neighbors. Nor, even, am I writing in order to address the redemptive task of graciously engaging our neighbors on such matters, and pointing them away from sin and to Christ. In this space, rather, I’m simply concerned to urge that we Christians beware not to be taken (or to allow our families to be taken) along for the cultural ride.

Did you watch much of the Olympics? And did you pick up on what I am pointing out? And do you notice (and cringe at) the misuse of God’s name on so many other channels, shows, and other forms of media? Or have you become desensitized to this grievous offense against God (and/or others like it)?

I’m not saying that being insensitive to the misuse of God’s name by others is the same thing as engaging in blasphemously yourself. But surely our numbness to His being dishonored is a grief to the heavenly Father. And furthermore, unless we awaken from such spiritual sedation, we may soon find that we (and our children, who learn from us) will not only begin to be numb to offenses against God, but also to fall into them ourselves!

And so it’s worth asking – not for the sake of throwing stones; and not just for the sake of kindly helping take specks out of others’ eyes; but for our own sakes – it’s work asking if we even notice the way God’s name is bandied about, so carelessly, in our culture. It’s worth asking, too, if we’re bothered by such misuse of His name (and, indeed, if we’re bothered enough so as to shut the TV off when it’s bad enough; or to turn certain portions on mute; or to pause and discuss with our children the sadness of what we just heard or saw). And it’s worth asking these sorts of questions about any number of other offenses against God that are considered normal in our present cultural milieu.

Let us not be numb to the dishonor of our God!

February 20, 2018

A Breath of Fresh Air

How about the weather these last two days? Monday and Tuesday have felt like spring! And I am most thankful, not just for the warmth itself, but for how the warmth has beckoned me to breathe fresh air. Monday afternoon found our family on a lovely walk, breathing in more such air than we have for many days. And today (Tuesday), after many weeks breathing the stale, re-circulated, indoor air of a cooped up winter, windows are opened wide, allowing both home and office (and their occupants!) to breathe the fresh breaths of spring! And how good such breaths are, both for mind and body!

And it occurs to me that we can speak similarly about “a Sabbath well spent”.* It occurs to me that, after six days of breathing what often feels like stagnant air – after six days in the office; after six days in the rat race; after six days of toil; after six days of paperwork, or computer screens, or deadlines, or sweat, or stress, or pressure, or difficult co-workers – “a Sabbath well spent” (a  Sabbath used in the way God intended it, in other words) can be a breath of fresh air! It can be like the throwing open of windows, or the taking of a brisk spring walk, after a week trapped indoors.

Think of it that way! Think of your Sunday opportunities – for physical rest, for praise (at church and at home), for prayer, for sitting under the preached word, for fellowship, for edifying reading – think of them as a weekly fresh air walk, or as the flinging open of the windows, so that the draft of a different and healthier air can blow through the corridors of your life. Think of Sunday as a spiritual fresh air day!

Strive, yes, to breathe more and more of that air, seven days a week! But recognize that, if some days and weeks are more like a cooped up January, there is always a fresh-air day just around the corner! There is always this one day on which you don’t have to breathe the same old air, as it were – a day on which you are entitled (and commanded!) to get out of the rat race; to lay down the labors of the rest of the week, and to throw open the aforementioned spiritual windows of praise, fellowship, the word, and so on!

So commit to doing so!  

Commit, first of all, to setting aside your normal labors on the Lord’s Day – which is commanded, by the way, even if those labors are not stressful, or like stagnant air!  This commitment is right and healthy, whether you think you need to get away from your work or not!  And, if the Monday-Saturday routine is stressful or stagnant, such a commitment will get you, one day a week, out of the stale air!   

And commit your Sundays also, not just to getting out of the rat-race, but to positively breathing the fresh air!  Commit to open the windows, or to go on a fresh-air walk, so to speak.  Commit, in other words, to really do the things that make Sunday a breath of fresh air!  Breathe that air in – by means of rest, praise, prayer, fellowship, the word, and solid Christian books. Don’t sit, on a spring-like day, in the same stagnant air in which you’ve been languishing. Breathe the fresh air!


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*I quote this phrase from Matthew Hale’s classic poem “a Sabbath well spent”. In this poem, Hale rightly points out how a well-spent Sabbath brings contentment and health for the week that follows, though I have used his words  in writing about the blessing of the Sabbath coming on the heels of the week that was.

February 12, 2018

Some Helpful Books

Some books are best read straight through, in fairly decent-sized chunks, and without a great deal of starting and stopping … so that you can keep the train of thought, or the flow of the story, straight in your mind. Other books, however, while they can be read fairly quickly, can also serve you quite well by taking up regular residence on your nightstand, or beside your recliner, or wherever it is that you tend to go in the quiet moments … and by being dipped into and mulled over, here and there, in smaller or larger chunks, over the course of many months or years. And, with the reminder that the Bible must always be the first and foremost book in our lives, I encourage you to read the spiritually edifying variety of both sorts of books!

In the space below, allow me to recommend a handful of books that fall into the latter category – the kind you might keep nearby your bed, or beside your favorite chair, or wherever you do your reading … so as to dip into them at various times. Each of them would be of certain benefit to you.

The Valley of Vision. A collection of Puritan prayers (gathered under various topical headings) which, although not divinely inspired, will read something like a collection of psalms. Use them for meditation, and to prompt your own prayer life. Available in paperback or leather bound.

The Letters of Samuel Rutherford. Written in beautiful, poetic prose, Rutherford’s letters are devotionally warm, pastorally helpful, and will encourage you to want to know more of Rutherford’s Savior. Charles Spurgeon called these letters “the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere men.” You might begin with the abridged version.

Spurgeon’s sermons. Charles Spurgeon was called “the prince of preachers” for a reason! And generations have benefitted from the hundreds of his sermons that have been preserved. Warm, straightforward, and consistently making “a bee-line to the cross,” his sermons make for some of the best reading that any Christian could do. One readily available volume (of 28 sermons) is CH Spurgeon’s Forgotten Early Sermons.

Operation World. If you want to pray for the spread of the gospel among the nations, this book is a wonderful resource. Containing important information, statistics, and prayer requests for each nation of the earth, this book has the potential to draw out your mind and heart in pray for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

May God grant you fruitful reading!

February 6, 2018

Rescue Psalms

I have lately been making my way through the Psalms, and have sometimes found myself reading cries and petitions that don’t seem to have a great deal of immediate application to me. I’m thinking of those psalms in which the psalmist groans for deliverance from his enemies. These 'rescue psalms' (as we might call them) are wonderful psalms! And yet, what to do with them when I don’t really have a great many earthly enemies? What does an American, living a pretty easy life, do, for instance, with verses like the following?

Lord, how long will You look on?
Rescue my soul from their ravages,
My only life from the lions.
I will give You thanks in the great congregation;
I will praise You among a mighty throng.
Do not let those who are wrongfully my enemies rejoice over me;
Nor let those who hate me without cause wink maliciously.
For they do not speak peace,
But they devise deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land.
They opened their mouth wide against me;
They said, “Aha, aha, our eyes have seen it!”
You have seen it, O LORD, do not keep silent;
O Lord, do not be far from me.
Stir up Yourself, and awake to my right
And to my cause, my God and my Lord.
Judge me, O LORD my God, according to Your righteousness,
And do not let them rejoice over me.
Do not let them say in their heart, “Aha, our desire!”
Do not let them say, “We have swallowed him up!”
Psalm 35:17-25

What do I do when there is no one (seemingly) “open[ing] their mouth wide against me”? A few thoughts on how to make good use of these psalms:

1. Remember our brothers and sisters who do have such enemies. Persecuted Christians in places like North Korea, or the Middle East. Christian business owners in this country, under fire for trying to work according to their consciences. Abused women and children. And so on. There are those for whom the words of such psalms are very immediately relevant. So use the psalms to pray for them!

2. Remember these psalms for when you do need them. Life is not always easy! And a time may come when someone does set him or herself up as your enemy … either because of your faith, or perhaps for some other reason. Gossip, slander, persecution, abuse, unfair lawsuits. These sorts of things can happen. And we’ll need the likes of Psalm 35 then! So remember that they are there! Keep them in your back pocket, as it were, and pull them out when the tough times come.

3. Remember that you do have enemies. Maybe not in the form of other people who desire to “swallow [you] up” … but your own sin is a mortal enemy! And so are the devil and his minions. And so, when sins, or doubts, or temptations, or the devil’s accusations are laid before you like snares, the rescue psalms can be taken up then, too. “Rescue my soul from their ravages, My only life from the lions.”

4. Remember the Messiah. Two of the seven statements Jesus uttered from the cross are direct quotations from the sorts of psalms I have in mind in this article (see Psalms 22:1 and 31:5), and a third is closely connected with Psalm 69:21. So Jesus was thinking of these sorts of psalms when under the thumb of His enemies! And that means, I would say, that we should be thinking of Him when we read them!* No one ever suffered like Jesus! And He repaired to the psalms in the midst of His suffering! And so when we read the suffering and the cries of the Psalms, let us think of this ultimate Sufferer, and praise God that His cries were heard … and that, in Him, so also will be the cries of His people!


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*Not to say that everything in the rescue psalms has a correlation in Christ’s suffering and cries. But there are correlations – some more general, others more direct  that you will notice if you are looking for them.  So look for them!  Think about how what you are reading in the Psalms compares to the sufferings and/or cries of Christ.  And, if your Bible contains cross-references, use those to help you!  Not every correlation may be listed in the cross-references (so do some comparative thinking on your own, aside from the cross-references).  But some such correlations (especially the more direct ones) may be noted in the cross-references. And so it would be a good exercise, when reading the rescue psalms, to scan down through those cross-references, looking to see if they call attention to any correlations between the psalm and the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Doing this with Psalm 35, while working on this article, the NASB cross-references informed me, for instance, that Psalm 35:19 is quoted in John 15:25 in reference to the sufferings of Jesus: “They hated me without a cause.”

February 3, 2018

The Olympics, the Nations, and the Gospel

The games of the 23rd Winter Olympiad are just a few days away. And the Strassner family loves the winter Olympics! Every four years, we huddle together in front of the television for those 2-plus weeks, delighting in the artistry of phenomenal athletic skill brushed across the brilliant white canvas of winter scenery. I can’t wait!

One of our family traditions is that each of us chooses a different country (in addition to the USA) for which to cheer. And, since we want to actually see the teams and athletes for which we have chosen to cheer, we choose countries that tend to do well in the Winter Games. This year we’ve got Norway, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands – eight of the top ten medal-winning countries from 2014 (the others were Russia and the USA). 

But how fares the gospel in these eight countries? That’s the question that occured to me recently. For answers, I turned to the 2010 edition of Operation World (a must-have Christian resource, by the way). And the statistics I turned up were striking. Of the eight countries for whom we are cheering, none of them (as of the 2010 statistics) is more than 8.4% evangelical. In France, evangelicals make up only 1% of the nation’s populace. In Austria, the percentage is half that! And even in nearby Canada, there are less than 8 evangelicals per 100 people! This is striking. In fact, of the 26 nations that won medals at the 2014 Sochi Games, only four (the USA, South Korea, Australia, and Finland) have evangelical populations that number above 10% (percentages, again, according to Operation World). 

What this means is that, if and when you watch the Winter Games, chances are (first of all) that you’re going to be watching a great many men and women whose athleticism marvelously demonstrates the image of God in man … but who do not know that God, and who do not know “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Pray for them. Pray, too, for their countrymen who have travelled to see them (and who are part of the same statistical milieu). Pray for Christian athletes, coaches, and officials to be witnesses for Christ. And pray for the witness of local South Korean believers, of missionaries in the area, and of others who may come in on short-term mission trips specifically to share the gospel with those in town for the Games. The statistics indicate there will likely be plenty of folks who need evangelizing.

The statistics also mean that, if and when you watch the goings on in PyeongChang, you are also going to be seeing the regalia and hearing the names of a whole host of nations whose countrymen, back home, desperately need evangelizing as well! America is the most evangelized of any nation that won a medal at the last games … and you know how much we need the gospel here. So what must be the need in a place like Austria, or China, or Slovenia (0.1% evangelical!), or Japan? Think of this when you watch the games. Root for these nations, as it were, in prayer! And maybe someone who reads these lines will even be moved to go to one or other of them, carrying the gospel, and pursuing a prize even greater than Olympic Gold!

January 23, 2018

Reckoning with Death

A singer whose inimitable voice was very much a part of the soundtrack of my youth; two babies and a grandfather, loved by folks in our congregation; a long-serving deacon in a sister church; a gospel minister whose story of perseverance, hope, and love for his daughter has been greatly moving to me – each one of them departed from this life in recent days.

Monday was the ten year anniversary of the death of a dear friend; a death which – both for the pain that it brought, and for the backdrop for God's kindness that it proved to be – left a deep imprint on my life. And then it was one year ago this coming Sunday that a man died whom I, from a distance, had come to consider as, in some ways, my pastor.

Some of them died tragically; others more ‘naturally’. Some are gone, as we say, ‘too soon’; others had lived full lives. But they are all gone, leaving gaps that cannot be humanly filled in the lives of those who loved them.

It’s a strange thing, death. So unnatural (when seen in the light of Genesis 1), and yet so inevitable in this now-fallen world. So certain, and yet still always so painful. So wrong, and yet so filled with significance:

Death should make us hate sin for having called down such a curse upon the world. Death should urge us to love others more deeply, who are with us only for a short while, in this life. Death should motivate us to be all the more urgent about making ready (and helping others make ready) for the life that is to come. And death should move us to love Christ who, out of love for His own, entered into death on their behalf, and defeated it for all who will call upon His name.

Let Him be our hope in the face of death – the hope we share with those around us who are facing death; our hope when we grieve the loss of our loved ones; our hope when we wade, with Bunyan’s pilgrim, through the river of death ourselves (knowing, in the words of Samuel Rutherford, that Jesus “knoweth all the fords”); and our hope for life beyond death, since He has died and risen on behalf of His people!

Let us reckon rightly with the reality of death, which is ever present all around us. Let us understand and accept its inevitability. Let us learn and apply its lessons. And let us look to Jesus in its face.

January 15, 2018

A Vapor

Step outside on one of these cold winter days, and watch your breath as you exhale. In all seriousness. Don’t just read this article. Go outside, literally, someday soon, and observe the vapor of your breath as it eases from your lips … and then disappears, so very quickly, from before your gaze! Why? Why go out into the cold to take in such a sight? Because this is a portrait, says James, of your life in this world! “You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). And it will do you good to go outside, and to envision what James has written, and to consider the brevity of your life. And, as you consider that brevity; as you meditate on the fleeting nature of the vapor, I hope three demeanors of heart and mind will come over you:

First, humility. This is the demeanor that James is promoting when he likens our earthly lives to vapors: ‘“You do not what your life will be like tomorrow.” Your life is so fleeting! And therefore you ought not to go making boastful plans about where you are going to go, and what you are going to do. “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that’”’ (see James 4:13-16). The fragile, fleeting, vapor-like nature of our lives ought to humble us into a constant awareness that our plans, and even our awaking tomorrow morning, are always ‘Lord willing.’

And then also, the vapor-like brevity of our lives in this world ought also to promote a sense of urgency. If life is a vapor, shouldn’t I want to capture the few brief ticks of the clock that I have been given, and use them well for the One who gave them? Life is too short for spiritual dilly-dallying! It’s too short for just whiling away the months and years, not really doing anything that will make an impact for eternity! You only have a few years (if the Lord even wills for you to have that long) in which to serve the gospel in this world! Don’t dawdle that time away! And let me remind you, also, that since life is so short; and since we don’t know how short (since we don’t know if we will even wake up tomorrow), it is great folly to put off being ready for your own eternity! You don’t know if you will have tomorrow, or next week, or next year to repent of your sins and trust in Christ! So do it before your vapor disappears!

And then also, as you consider the vapor of your life, may such a consideration, if you are in Christ, bring you serenity. For, if this life is a vapor that will soon fade away, then those who are in Christ don’t have very much longer to endure their trials, do they? The non-Christian will perhaps take some of his difficulties with him, even into the next life (and will then face even greater difficulties, to boot). But for the believer, “the sufferings of this present time” will evaporate along with the vapor of earthly life in which they arose! And since vapors are but brief, relief is not too far in the future! It won’t be long and we will be with Jesus! And all will be well! And that should make us just a little more calm in the face of our trials! Someday soon we will suffer, and struggle, and sin no more!

So step out, in the days ahead, into the cold winter’s air, and learn the lessons of the vapor.

January 8, 2018

Farewells

Farewell. It’s a word we don’t use terribly often in modern English. But it’s an activity in which we must all engage … farewelling those who pass from the scenes of our lives, or at least from the everyday scenes. And we’ve become quiet experienced at it here at PRBC. For, in the decade-and-a-half that this has been my church home, the Lord has seen fit, both to gather a handful of our number into His heavenly presence, and also to send a great many handfuls of PRBCers to live, work, and worship in other earthly locales. And so we’ve had to wish a great many people God’s blessings as they have gone on from our fellowship. And we do so again this coming Sunday.

Now, in this day of phones, email, automobiles, and airplanes, farewelling a moving friend is not nearly so stark a goodbye as it once would have been. I am able to stay in quite easy touch with former PRBCers in Washington, and in Florida, and in many places in between. And so maybe we don’t feel these sorts of farewells as keenly as we might have if we’d lived in the days of the covered wagon. But it’s still hard to see people go. And it’s hard to be the one who goes (probably harder, in many cases).

And yet I am reminded today, as our brother and sister and their children depart from us, that even if they were heading out on the Oregon Trail, never to see our faces again in this life; or even if they were departing this life altogether … the farewelling would only be for this life. Because, for the believer in Jesus Christ – in addition to being “always … with the Lord”, and being finally rid of our sin forever – the eternal world that lies before us will also be a grand reunion of the saints, will it not? As my friend Eileen once told me, on her way into surgery, ‘I will see you soon … either here, or there!’ And she was right! If we are in Christ, we will see our Christian friends again! Perhaps face-to-face, thanks to automobiles or airplanes. Maybe on FaceTime or Skype. But assuredly in glory!

Now, I doubt there will be a Pleasant Ridge seating area in eternity. But we will all be in the same congregation together once again! And I feel confident we will track one another down, and fellowship together, once again, just as we did here at the crest of this hill in Cincinnati (only, in that day, we will do it without time constraints or sin!). And so, in this day of farewells, we look to that day of reunions. And thus we can be “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”

January 3, 2018

"Who can stand before His cold?"

It’s been chilly, has it not? Six below zero when I checked the weather app on Tuesday morning! And, though it’s been warmer since, it’s still been pretty frigid for the most part! And it got me thinking of the psalmist’s question, quoted above. Here’s a little more of the context, from Psalm 147:

12Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem!
Praise your God, O Zion!
16 He gives snow like wool;
He scatters the frost like ashes.
17 He casts forth His ice as fragments;
Who can stand before His cold?

In short, snow, frost, ice, and cold are listed, here, as reasons to “praise the LORD.” In them we should see cause for magnifying our God, rather than for murmuring in our grumpiness; inducements to song, rather than to sourness! And so praise the LORD for these phenomena of winter! Praise Him, for instance, for what the snow has to teach us about His forgiveness (Isaiah 1:18) and His word (Isaiah 55:10-11). Praise Him for His creativity, seen in the beauty of the frost, and in the glory of a tree branch glazed with ice. And praise Him for the mighty power by which He brings these weather events to pass!

Indeed, I think it’s that mighty power that is in view when the psalmist asks, at the end of verse 17, “who can stand before His cold?” How mighty is our God? Well, one example of His power is that He can so drop the temperature (v.17) that the human body cannot long stand before it without substantial help! Yes, with coats, and gloves, and hats, and thick socks we can stand (for a while) before the coldest days of winter. But not on our own. And not even in our normal attire. And all sorts of bad things can happen to us if we try!

And so “who can stand before His cold?” No one!

And when we realize this fact; when we realize that it’s so cold outside that we cannot long stand before it without significant protection, our response should be to recognize the amazing power of the God who sends the cold … and to praise Him for it (v.12)!

When God hems us in with the cold, He is demonstrating that He is God, and that we are not! And we should be thankful that we have a God like that – a God who is actually God; a God who is powerful enough to hem us in; a God before whose power we actually cannot stand! Because the God whose might is potent enough to produce unbearable cold is the same God who also wields that invincible power to protect, provide for, and redeem His people! And we need a God like that, don’t we? Indeed, we wouldn’t have Him any other way!

So praise the LORD that He is so much mightier than we! And remember (and praise Him for!) that glorious reality the next time you find yourself unable to stand before His cold!