Monthly Archives: November 2016

Hope in God’s Kingdom Ultimately, but Embody that Kingdom Presently

DOH | Matthew-KingdomThe day after the election I noticed that my Christians friends posting on Facebook tended to highlight one of two things. Some posted reminders about God’s sovereignty and how the Christian hope is always in God, not in rulers. Others lamented what the Trump election indicates about America, and also fears about what his presidency may mean for America’s future. But these two dynamics are actually twin truths that the Christian must hold together.

The eternal throne is occupied (Revelation 4:2). There is no vacancy. Therefore, we do not trust in princes (Psalm 146:3). In God we trust, because God alone reigns forever. He is King, and that is not saying anything political, and at the same time it’s saying everything political.

And yet, God’s reign is unfulfilled. “At present we don’t yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8). He is already reigning, but the world is still broken. So while we can rejoice the eternal throne is occupied, there is still much reason for mourning the state of things here, and longing for something better. The Old Testament prophets believed God was sovereign and yet wailed over the condition of Israel.

These twin truths guide Christian thinking about our situation. And the application for the church is this:

The church both hopes in God’s kingdom ultimately, but also works to embody God’s kingdom presently.

We can’t hope in God’s kingdom later while failing to reflect the kind of reign he will bring now. If we aren’t working toward embodying the kind of kingdom he will bring, what does that say about how much we really love his kingdom?

I joked with a friend this past week that after reading Psalm 146 it looks like God plays his political cards. God votes Democrat. It was a joke, but what I mean is this. Psalm 146 says we shouldn’t trust in princes, but we should trust in God who is King. And as king, he cares for the poor, the widows, the orphans and the prisoners. The socially marginalized and voiceless. And the Democratic party has carved out an identity as the party of the marginalized. So at least that element of the Democratic identity should resonate with Christians.

At the same time God is grieved by so much of what Donald Trump stands for. The media will want to show that Donald Trump was elected by evangelicals. In one sense they are right. Exit polls showed that four out of five white evangelicals voted Trump. But, we need to prove that Donald Trump does not represent Jesus followers.

We must speak to the good and the bad in a leader or a party. As Francis Schaeffer said, we would be “cobelligerents” to both parties but not allied to either. Thabiti Anyabwile in the Washington Post yesterday said we should “celebrate what we think is good while also protecting against what we think is bad. Having a chance to appoint Supreme Court justices should not be touted as a grand, unqualified victory if we also suspect the freedoms of ethnic groups will be restricted or ethnic peoples mistreated.” Whether you voted Trump or Clinton (I didn’t vote for either major party candidate), so much of what they each stand for should leave you very disappointed. Speak to the good and the bad.

But we must also act according to the best of the policies we support. Evangelicals are often guilty of wanting legislation that reflects Christian morality (e.g. pro-life), but at the same time, not wanting to deal with all the issues behind those policies (e.g. what drive women to abortions, like racial disparities, poverty, low-education and low income). So evangelicals vote for Donald Trump because he says he’ll defend pro-life causes, and yet evangelical haven’t done a great job caring for the poor, championing racial reconciliation, etc. We are pro-life in policy. But are we good at supporting those in need of help raising the child they chose to keep? And whatever your immigration policy preferences are, how are you doing at loving refugees and immigrants in your city? What steps (even if small) have you taken to actively work against racism toward racial reconciliation?

I was talking with a pastor once who pastored back in the 1960’s when there were some blacks in town who were moving to integrate the local elementary school. Members of his church went with guns and torches to intimidate these families and the children. I asked the pastor how he responded to his members. He replied, “As their pastor I was there to point my people to Jesus, not to get into the issues with them.”

Sadly too many evangelicals are still acting like that. We want to preach Jesus and emphasize personal piety but refuse to get into the messes around us. We should pray that the church in America will work to eliminate these discrepancies. May we hope in God’s kingdom ultimately, while still working to embody the kingdom presently.

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The Scars That Have Shaped Me

full_the-scars-that-have-shaped-me-8mx0s41nI just finished reading a friend’s newly released book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Our Suffering. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my Monday. My wife Stacy read the book as well, so as we went for a long walk on Monday afternoon, we reflected on our reading.

The personal tone of the book and the short chapters make it a perfectly suitable gift to give someone in the midst of suffering. This is no abstract, academic approach. It’s raw and revealing (as is her blog).

Embracing Lament

In numerous places Vaneetha highlights the importance of not glossing over our suffering with plastic happiness. “Lament highlights the gospel more than stoicism ever could” (33). “Deadening our desires may make us stoics, but it won’t make us passionate followers of Christ” (87-88). Don’t encourage those who are suffering to simply think positively. The Christian can fully acknowledge the pain of life, and in fact, this leads all the more to casting ourselves on Christ. She points to Spurgeon’s saying, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages” (94).

She points out that we are often uncomfortable listening to the lament of others (35). I know this is true of me. I confess this as my own sin, and was reminded that both in my marriage and in ministry, I am called to acknowledge the full reality of suffering in order to help others suffer well.

Her counsel for the one suffering is to avoid a positive thinking facade and embrace grief fully (141). Don’t cover up your grief with happy stoicism. Only those who can lament and grieve understand their need for God.

Personalities and Suffering

Vaneetha describes how personality types can multiply the experience of suffering. She suffers from post-polio syndrome, which severely limits her physical stamina and capabilities. This often renders her unable to serve others in ways she’d like to. This would be difficult for anyone, yet its even harder for Vaneetha who is very much wired to serve others. She sees herself as a “helper personality.” This is hardwired into who she is, which only heightens the grief of her inabilities  (87). Although her suffering has opened up opportunities to serve that she never imagined, it also limits her capability to serve in so many other ways.

Individual personality and desires can intensify the experience of suffering. Some losses are felt more acutely based on pre-existing desires. For someone who loves the outdoors and enjoys exercise, it will be extremely difficult to deal with physical limitations like chronic joint pain. Whereas for someone who likes being inside and would rather read a book than go for a walk, physical limitations while still difficult, might be easier to bear.

This is important to remember in walking with someone through pain or suffering. If they seem to be “blowing things out of proportion,” we should remember that what might seem like it should be small or manageable to us may be of much greater significance to another person. We should avoid dealing with problems by offering solutions, and rather deal with individual people by listening to their experience of suffering and how they are processing it.

Pray for Healing?

“In the midst of broken dreams and reinventing pain, how should we pray? Should we pray for healing and deliverance, believing that we just need to ask because God can do anything? Or should we relinquish our desires to God, trusting that even in our anguish he has the perfect plan for us? Yes. When life falls apart, God invites us to do both.”

In this section and throughout the book, Vaneetha strikes a helpful balance in encouraging prayer for healing without putting hope in the healing itself. Our hope is in God and not in his gifts (66). Abraham’s faith wasn’t in the promise alone. His faith was rooted in the Promisor (80). God’s refusals remain his mercies (82).

In this sense she says we can consider the future and ask God for healing. There is no need to fear the “what if” of the future. What if the healing doesn’t come. What if the suffering doesn’t end. Rather, we can pray for change, and yet remain confident in God’s mercy “even if” the change never comes. “Replacing what if with even if in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges” (118)

Where to Go in Suffering

At one point, Vaneetha says that the best place to go in the midst of suffering is the Bible and prayer. “Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall” (123). These answers might sound simplistic if they didn’t come from someone  who has walked through so much suffering and has found through the experience the reliability of this counsel.

Throughout the book she shows how God’s Word has ministered to her in the midst of her suffering. It was instructive to me to see many familiar passages from “the sufferer’s perspective” (71-72).

The Word and prayer are deep wells. I should encourage the sufferer to return to these wells even when they seem dry. And then I should pray that the Lord would give refreshing through these means of grace.

Seeking to minister to a friend in suffering will include asking God to bring them comfort and hope through his Word and through their prayers. While it may not always be right for me to instruct a sufferer in truth (as in the ill-timed exhortations of Job’s friends), I ought to pray that God would speak to the heart of my suffering friend through the Spirt and by the Word.

J. C. Ryle’s Five Hints for Simplicity in Preaching

ryle1bJ. C. Ryle’s preaching advice deserves at least as much attention as his amazing beard. After forty-five years in ministry as a preacher, J. C. Ryle delivered a lecture entitled “Simplicity in Preaching.” He recounts his early years in ministry, preaching to laborers and farmers in a rural parish. He remembered hearing of a farmer who enjoyed Sunday more than any other day in the week, “Because I can sit comfortably in church, put up my legs, have nothing to think about, and just go to sleep.”

Ryle learned that preaching with simple clarity was extremely important, and yet extremely difficult. By “simple” Ryle did not mean to imply childish or simplistic. Rather, he gives these five hints for attaining elegant simplicity: use clear thoughts, simple words, simple style, direct style and many stories.

First, take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. (Clear Thoughts)

Ryle says this is the most important of the five. “If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.” Ryle says spending too much in obscure prophetic passages or the book of Revelation will not lead to simplicity. Such passages are “almost impossible” to make simple. Ryle doesn’t say to avoid these books, but only to handle them “occasionally, at fit times, before a suitable audience,” and only if you really understand the passage. Other advice in this section: 1) don’t force true doctrine out of the wrong text, 2) have clear divisions in your sermon, even if they aren’t explicit, 3)  the divisions should serve as hooks or pegs to help people remember your sermon, and 4) examine and analyze sermons which draw people together. Ryle says he regularly examine C. H. Spurgeon’s preaching because it was able to hold together a large crowd. “How thoroughly [Mr. Spurgeon] brings before you certain great truths, that hang to you like hooks of steel, and which, once planted in your memory you never forget!”

Second, try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can, simple words. (Simple Words)

Ryle isn’t necessarily suggesting single-syllable words only, but rather “words which are in daily common use amongst the people.” Ryle points out that knowing your audience is important here. The extent of your vocabulary should vary based on the education of your audience.

Third, take care to aim at a simple style of composition. (Simple Style)

“Beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause…Write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” Remember that a reader is able to help himself by looking back a few lines and refreshing his mind. The listener would be helped by a verbal equivalent. That is, the preacher should continually restate his idea in various ways. State your point fully, then offer the same idea in a proverb or epigram (something that’s tweetable). Ryle says that tweetable comments are of “vast importance” (maybe a slight paraphrase).

“Proverbial, epigrammatic, and antithetical sayings…give wonderful perspicuousness and force to a sermon. Labour to store your minds with them.”

Fourth, use a direct style. (Direct Style)

Address your congregation directly. Use ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than ‘we’. Ryle says, “I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that ‘we’ was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone, but that parish clergymen should always talk of ‘I’ and ‘you’.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. (Many Stories)

Stories are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” Jesus used illustrations, metaphors and stories constantly. If you pause in your sermon and say, “Now I will tell you a story,” then it might wake the sleepers. Therefore, preachers should heed the Arabian proverb, “He is the best speaker who can turn the ear into an eye.” Ryle says, “Illustration, I confidently assert, is one of the best receipts for making a sermon simple, clear, perspicuous and easily understood.” Yet he also warns that there is a limit. Overly detailed or drawn out stories, or too many of them in a single sermon, may be as dangerous as having none at all.

In some concluding words, Ryle says,  “We must talk to our people when we are out of church if we would understand how to preach to them in church.” And then he reminds the preacher that all the skill and simplicity in the world is useless without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach.