Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Church, the Safe Place to Become

Over the next few weeks at Union we are honored to have Nigel Goodwin as our Scholar-in-Residence. Nigel is founder and director of Genesis Arts Trust based on the Isle of Wight in the UK. Nigel was mentored by Francis Schaeffer, and he is passionate about the place of the arts in the faith.

In his opening lecture today Nigel stated that the ultimate questions people have today are two:
1. Does anyone love me?
2. Is it safe? (meaning is it safe here to show my fears, troubles, etc.)
Then he said, “Everyone is looking for a safe place where they can be and become whom they were created to be and become.” I immediately thought, “This is what the church is supposed to be.” The gospel, and the church birthed by that gospel, are the answer to these key questions people are asking. Only too often the church fails to be this. We miss this important aspect in our programmatic machines. This can also be lost even when profound truths are emphasized but there is no intentional effort made to connect us as people. We as pastors must lead our churches to becoming real communities of faith, where truth is both proclaimed and lived, where we know the Word and we know each other.

There are various ways we can move toward building real community where people can feel safe to admit their failings and seek help. At our church one main thing we have done is to set up our Sunday evening prayer meeting as a time for people to share. We gather in chairs turned to face one another with no other agenda than to hear from one another and to pray for one another. This is risky in a number of ways, not least in our typical church culture, the risk that it might be a bit mundane. But then life is mundane at times. Sometimes the meeting is fairly simple- no huge requests, etc. Some may consider it dull. At other times great suffering is made known, sin is confessed, joy is shared, etc. The feel of the meeting varies as does life, but over time a culture has developed so that people are often willing to share their needs and struggles. In this way we come to really know one another and are enabled to pray for and minister to one another.

This maybe done in various ways, but it must be done. I offer our practice not as the ultimate answer but the reflections of a fellow laborer.

Monday, February 26, 2007

John Piper on the Cure of Souls in Despair

When the Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait for God--and Joy , John Piper
(Crossway, 2006), pb., 79 pp.

I read this little book this weekend and was really helped by it. Piper deals well with the difficult issue of depression. This would be a helpful book to give to someone going through such a dark period. It is also a really helpful book for pastors, helping us to think through how to aid people in such situations. Piper draws deeply from Puritan authors who dealt with this topic. Too often today pastors are thought of as CEO’s, speakers, managers, etc., though in previous days we were thought of as “physicians of the soul.” I intentionally chose the title of this post to highlight the “cure of souls” which used to be the typical understanding of the work of the pastor.

The introduction and first chapter lay out the basic issues with helpful discussions of the place and value of medicine. Piper notes that medicine has a place and that there is nothing inherently wrong with its use. He does also note, though, that this does not negate the need for spiritual help. A chemical imbalance may trigger despair and medicine can help this. However, the doubt, etc. which may arise from this also needs to be addressed by the gospel.

Chapter 2 is an excellent discussion of the fact that the “dark night” comes to all at some point. Piper writes:

“It will be of great advantage to the struggling Christian to remember that seasons of darkness are normal in the Christian life. I don’t mean that we should not try to live above them. I mean that if we do not succeed, we are not lost, and we are not alone, as the fragment of our faith clings to Christ” (33-34)
There is much helpful guidance here about navigating and helping others navigate these dark times which come to almost all of us. Simply acknowledging that this is fairly common is a great help in contrast to those who seem to suggest that the typical path is one that grows brighter each day.

Chapter 3 counsels that one key way through the valley is to keep doing what you know you ought to do. Piper writes:

“Waiting for the Lord in a season of darkness should not be a time of inactivity. We should do what we can do. And doing is often God’s appointed remedy for despair” (45).
He quotes George MacDonald:

“bethink thee of something that thou oughtest to do, and go to do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feelings: Do thy work” (46).
Again Piper writes:

“If your feelings are telling you that staying in bed is the best thing today, preach to your feelings and tell them how foolish they are.” (47)
In touching this chapter just briefly, it may seem that Piper’s advice here is cold. That is not the case. It is refreshing and helpful; but you must read the chapter to get the full context. The counsel given here is very similar to the poem “Do the Next Thing.”

Chapter 4 examines the issue of unconfessed sin as the possible cause of the darkness. He is careful to say this is not always the case, but it can be. We fear confession because we struggle to believe the gospel- that God will forgive. Piper puts it well:

“The almost incredible of confessing and renouncing sin is that the Lord does not then rub it in our face but cancels it” (55).
Of course confessing to God may be easier than confessing to other people. This is dealt with as well, with Piper stating:

“The tender words, ‘I’m sorry, will you forgive me?’ are one of the surest paths to joy” (56).
Chapter 5 argues that the way out of darkness is looking away from ourselves. Self-absorption will only lead to more darkness. Chapter 6 then takes up John Newton and his relationship with William Cowper as an example of loving those in the dark of despair.

I encourage all pastors to take the time to read this book as a part of training ourselves in the cure of souls. This is our work. Piper helps us grow in this are and in his footnotes points us to a wealth of Puritan literature on the topic.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Richard Alleine on the Oversight of Souls

Alleine (1611-1691), like his other Puritan counterparts, understood the importance of oversight. Addressing his hearers on the importance of guarding their hearts (Prov 4:23-27), he mentioned others whom God has ordained to watch over us. He quoted Hebrews 13:17 and then wrote:

“We deal so plainly and so closely with you, we are so instant in exhorting, reproving, warning, and watching over you, because we must give an account of how we discharge our duty towards you”
(Instructions About Heartwork , 7)

May our ministries also be shaped by this crucial truth.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Bunyan on the Privilege of Church Membership

“Church fellowship, rightly managed, is the glory of all the world. No place, no community, no fellowship, is adorned and bespangled with those beauties as is the church rightly knit together to their head, and lovingly serving one another … Hence the church is called the place of God’s desire on earth (Ps. 132:13-16).”
(The Desire of the Righteous Granted)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Baptist Identity Conference & Humility

The Baptist Identity Conference held here at Union last week has been the topic of much blogging, for which I am glad. If you have not seen the links elsewhere, you can look here to download audios of all the sessions.

These presentations are useful for pastors. If you are a Southern Baptist pastor, these are significant discussions about the future of the denomination with which you affiliate. If you are not a Southern Baptist, there are some helpful deliberations in general about how we interact with fellow believers, cooperating, etc.

The thing that was most encouraging to me, however, was the tangible sense of humility present in most of the sessions I was able to attend. Humility was even specifically addressed by many of the participants. Regardless of your denominational affiliation (or lack of), humility is something which desperately needs cultivating in American Christianity. When too many pastoral bio’s describe ourselves in embarrassingly glowing terms, when the culture around us sees “arrogance” and “pastor” as practical synonyms, we need a fresh baptism of humility- and in this case I think my paedo-baptist friends will agree with me in desiring a full immersion rather than just a sprinkling. :)

To this end, let me again recommend C. J. Mahaney’s book, Humility: True Greatness (previously commented on here).

While reading another book (Kim Riddlebarger’s The Man of Sin) I was struck by how often pride/arrogance is the mark of those who rise up against God. The building of the Tower of Babel is an effort in self-exaltation:

"Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth." (Gen 11:4, ESV)
Any time our efforts in building any institution (denomination, school, programs, etc.) has as its goal making a name for ourselves, we will deserve the same condemnation as those in Babel. In this situation, we cannot expect God’s blessing and must expect to find him destroying our works.

Or note Nebuchadnezzar who when he expresses his pride in building his own kingdom is humiliated by God being turned into a beast for a time (Daniel 4). Could it be that some “Christian” beastliness which occurs is the result of our proud, self-centered efforts to wrest praise for ourselves?

Note also Daniel’s prophecies of key anti-God leaders. While Christians differ on the referent of these prophecies, the mark of arrogance is unavoidable.
Daniel 7:8, 11- This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully… Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.
Daniel 8:25- By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall become great.
These words describe arch-enemies of Christ. Woe to us when they too easily describe us.

We claim to follow the one who said:
“How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44, NIV).
We cannot truly pursue the glory of God and our own glory at the same time.

Rather than new initiatives or campaigns we need a serious and sober call to humility. I see it being modeled by some leaders. We pastors must lead the way in our example. Truly the way forward is down. May with the hymn writer be:
Content to fill a little space,
If Thou be glorified

Monday, February 19, 2007

Example of Pastoral Preaching

This is not a great title, but I did not have a better one. I want to point you to the sermon preached at our church yesterday by Lee Tankersley on Luke 6:17-49. Lee always does a good job with the text, but this Sunday, due to the nature of the text, the pastoral struggle was particularly evident. I am not sure if it shows up in the manuscript as much as it does in the audio, but Lee stressed his concern on the one hand not to interpret the text so as to open his people to being taken advantage of and on the other hand not wanting to insulate us from the piercing of the text. This is the heart of a pastor and not merely a preacher. This is evidence of one who realizes his task is not merely to craft an interesting oration but to teach people how to live, indeed to mold lives according to the Word of God. The struggle under the weight of this task is apparent in the sermon.

While people’s styles are different, this is the manner in which preaching must be approached. We are to preach to the people right there in front of us, really expecting that they will take seriously what we say and act on it. And we are responsible then for how we teach them to live. I encourage you to take some time to listen to this example of one brother doing just this.

Monday, February 12, 2007

A Layman’s Advice to Preachers

Tim Ellsworth has written a great piece by this title. He provides a list of sound requests from the pew for those of us who preach. Check out the list. It is a good advice. It is reminiscent of Wylie Johnson’s "The Preacher from the Layman's Viewpoint" written back in 1954.
Check out Tim’s comments and pass them along to others.

Love Your People By Giving them Good Hymns

For some time I have been contemplating posting something on this topic. I am regularly reminded of the great value of good, rich songs in corporate worship. We have such a treasure of them. I admit I have a bias for grand, old hymns, but there are also some new ones I really like. The point though is to give our people songs that nourish their souls. The songs we sing shape our thoughts and lives perhaps even more than sermons, because we sing them regularly. Let us then give them really good ones that capture and explain the message we are preaching. Great hymns are gospel songs which deal explicitly with sin, the cross & resurrection and the hope of heaven. They move us away from the glib assertions that all is well right now to the reality of our struggle with sin and death, all the while anchoring us in the hope of the gospel. This is real world stuff, and I know how much I need it, how much it ministers to my soul. I am so blessed to be in a church which uses them.

So, love your people, aid them, teach them, cherish them, protect them, encourage them, support them, fight for their souls by giving them good, gospel-centered songs.

I will list here just one example (of hundreds). I mention this one because we sang it again yesterday and it always means so much to me.

“Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken”
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
all to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
all I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still mine own.

Let the world despise and leave me,
they have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
And while Thou shalt smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me,
show Thy face and all is bright.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure!
Come, disaster, scorn and pain!
In Thy service, pain is pleasure;
with Thy favor, loss is gain.
I have called Thee, “Abba, Father”;
I have set my heart on Thee:
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather,
all must work for good to me.

Man may trouble and distress me,
’twill but drive me to Thy breast.
Life with trials hard may press me;
heaven will bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me
while Thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’twere not in joy to charm me,
were that joy unmixed with Thee.

Take, my soul, thy full salvation;
rise o’er sin, and fear, and care;
Joy to find in every station
something still to do or bear:
Think what Spirit dwells within thee;
what a Father’s smile is thine;
What a Savior died to win thee,
child of heaven, shouldst thou repine?

Haste then on from grace to glory,
armed by faith, and winged by prayer,
Heaven’s eternal day’s before thee,
God’s own hand shall guide thee there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
swift shall pass thy pilgrim days;
Hope soon change to glad fruition,
faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

- Henry F. Lyte, 1824, revised 1833
(and, yes, we sing all the verses!)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Pilgrim's Progress

I am finally catching up with the rest of Christendom in reading Bunyan’s classic. I have read various children’s editions and felt I knew the story from the abundant allusions one comes across. Nevertheless, I had never read it and finally have begun to do so. I am approaching the conclusion now and have really enjoyed this edition. Of course you can find various renditions, but this one has been very helpful. The language has been slightly updated to ease reading, but it is not a heavy handed revision. You can still sense the 17th century language, with many archaic words and phrases retained with bracketed explanations. Bunyan’s marginal notes have been moved to footnotes and the editor has added a few more explanatory notes. I do wish the editor had made clear which notes were original to Bunyan and which had been added, though of course one can readily compare another edition.

This edition would be great for a group study or for a gift. I hope to post soon some reflections on church and pastoral ministry from the reading.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Note to Reformers

"I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the greatest pope" - Martin Luther

In our work of reforming the church in our day, this statement from a great Reformer is a good reminder to us. There are errors within our churches which grieve us deeply because we believe they grieve God deeply. We do see insidious encroachment of paganism within the people of God as was described in the book of Judges where people practiced paganism in the name of Yahweh. These things should and do bother us. They even discourage us at times.

However, we must remember that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, and our greatest battlefield is not out there anywhere but in our own hearts. Let us not become so engrossed with the planks in the eyes of the church out there that we become ignorant or careless about those in our own eyes. We must continue to be aware of our own need for being personally reformed according to the Word of God and growing in holiness. This will guard us from arrogance and infuse us with graciousness and mercy as we do the necessary task of pointing out error. One cannot truly labor for the purity of the church while bypassing the pursuit of personal purity.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Place of Solemnity and Ritual in Worship

Having pointed out something alarming in the Episcopal Church yesterday, let me today point out a great article from an Episcopal priest. I read this article back in November and have been meaning to comment on it since. The article, subtitled “An Episcopal Priest on Casual Ministers & Reverent Marines,” appeared in the November issue of Touchstone. I thought this was a powerful piece, and I encourage you to read it. It is only 1.5 pages in the print magazine. The article grew out of the stark contrast observed at a funeral between the presiding minister and the Marines involved.
The author noted:

The care and dignity of the military rite put the Christian rites to shame. I don’t believe that the priest was intentionally irreverent or unprepared. But by comparison with the marines’ reverent ritual, the chapel service and the committal seemed slapdash.

The author then made six observations. I will highlight three:

1. It is hard to be casual and solemn at the same time.

2. It is hard to be solemn if you are in a hurry.
Haste says that something else is more important than what you are doing at present…
The trend … in the last forty years has been to shorten the services, to streamline things, so that people don’t get bored. ... The mentality says, “We know you have more important things to do, so we’ll get through the worship as quickly as possible.”

3. Ritual still has power, even in a culture that in many ways despises it.
My point is not to embrace all of Episcopalian liturgy but to highlight the importance of solemnity and meaningful acts in our worship. Breeziness may be hip, but it is not well suited for arresting the attention of a flighty culture with eternal verities.
I encourage you to read this article and consider the way in which you lead the people of God in worship.

Monday, February 05, 2007

New Episcopal Bishop’s View of Christianity

Today’s issue of USA Today has an article on Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, whose installation has caused a fissure in Anglican life. The article is interesting in what you see of her vision of what ministry is about. Perhaps the most striking part is at the end. Another bishop affirmed her saying:
"She's profoundly faithful to the central claims of the church and the
Scriptures. People who say she's not are making that up."
Then we have this from Schori:
She sees two strands of faith: One is "most concerned with atonement, that Jesus died for our sins and our most important task is to repent." But the other is "the more gracious strand," says the bishop who dresses like a sunrise.
It "is to talk about life, to claim the joy and the blessings for good that it offers, to look forward.
"God became human in order that we may become divine. That's our task."
Whatever that is, it is not faithful to the central claims of the Church and Scripture (1 John 4:1-6). This only serves to remind us of the need to faithfully teach our people the Scriptures in this day.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Titus 1:6, believing/faithful children

I had thought for sometime about writing something on the interpretation of Titus 1:6. In stating the qualifications for serving as an elder/pastor the text states that “his children are believers.” It could also be translated “his children are faithful.” The standard commentaries do not wrestle much with this issue, but it is huge in considering who should serve in this important role. In dialogue with Justin Taylor I discovered he had written a paper on this very topic. I am very pleased to see it is now available in the most recent 9 Marks newsletter. This is a well written piece and I commend it to you. I agree wholeheartedly with Justin that the text is not requiring that a pastor’s children be Christians but that they be submissive and obedient.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Humility: True Greatness, C. J. Mahaney

Humility: True Greatness , C. J. Mahaney

This is an excellent, convicting, concrete, cross-centered, gospel-filled, immensely helpful and humble book. We have already ordered copies to have available at our church.

I decided to read this book because Mahaney himself and those who serve with him exude such a real, tangible spirit of gracious humility- not simply the negative side of not being puffed up, but also the positive side of actively noting evidences of grace in others.
This is such a rare thing, and I wanted to hear from one who evidences this grace.

Anyone might compile the appropriate verses and comment on them. This book, however, is the fruit of wrestling with the Scriptures and his own soul over a number of years. As such it is a great example of real soul work.

I have wrestled for weeks about how to write appropriately about this book. It may take several posts, but let me go ahead and comment on why this book is useful for pastors in particular. It would be great for anyone, but here are some thoughts on why this is a good book for pastors, specifically, to read:

1. Pastors are often thought of as arrogant people and much that is out there in terms of leadership material only encourages this more. This book is a good reminder of the way of Jesus. Here are a couple of notes I jotted down while reading this book:

“Note how self-centered, self-adulating, self-advancing so much church literature and pastoral bio’s are.”
“Is there any wonder we lack the power of God?”
2. The book itself is a great example of pastoral work, what the Puritans called “soul work.” We have here an example of a wise pastor dissecting the messiness in our souls and applying the balm of the gospel. This is our work (in spite of what is often said today), and here we have an example to imitate.

3. We are responsible to lead our people away from the paths of pride that seem so natural to us (especially once they are decorated with church trappings), and towards the way of humility that is so foreign to us. As Mahaney writes, “If humility is to endure in our families and churches, it must be cultivated by parents and pastors and passed on to our families and churches” (156).

4. Lastly, some who rightly emphasize the need for substance in teaching fail to apply truths in compelling, concrete ways. Mahaney excels at this and can serve as a model.

I would urge everyone to get this book and read it. Skip a couple of meals in order to get the money to purchase it if necessary.