Friday, March 30, 2007

Chrysostom on Reading not Just Possessing Books

I recently came across this quote while reading in Chrysostom’s sermons on John’s Gospel. I thought it was just as relevant today.

Furthermore, tell me who of you, when at home, ever takes the Christian Book in his hands and goes through what is contained therein, and studies Scripture? No one would be able to say he does. However, we shall find that games and dice are in most houses; but never books, except in a few. And the latter have the same attitude as those who do not possess books, since they tie them up and store them away in chests all the time, and their whole interest in them lies in the fineness of the parchment and the beauty of the writing, not in reading them. They have not bought them with a view to obtaining help and profit, but are eager to acquire them to make a display of wealth and ambition, so excessive is their vainglory. Actually, I hear no one priding himself because he knows their contents, but because he possesses one written in gold letters.

Now, what profit is there in this, pray? The Scriptures were not given merely that we might have them in books, but that we might engrave them on our hearts. The very possession of them was of itself, in truth, an object of Jewish ambition, since their laws were set down only in writing; yet from the very beginning the Law was not given thus to us but was set down in the bodily tablets of the heart. I am saying these things not to proscribe the possessing of books, since, on the contrary, I approve this and desire it very much, but I wish both the letter and the meaning of them to be borne about in our minds, that, upon acquiring the knowledge of these writings, our minds may in this way be purified.

Chrysostom, John Saint. Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist: Homilies 1-47. Translated by Sister Thomas Aquinas Goggin. In The Fathers of the Church, ed. By Roy Joseph Deferrari. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1957. This link seems to be of a more recent reprint.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Learning Evangelism from the “Great Soul Hunter”

Our state Baptist paper just ran a short piece I wrote with this title. It arose from discussions in my Johannine Literature class. I continue to be intrigued by watching how Jesus handles people, particularly in John’s gospel. This brief column deals with Nicodemus and the woman at the well. The theme could be continued with Jesus’ dealing with the crowds in John 6 and 8.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hospital Visit

I have obviously been away from blogging for a while. I took my wife to convenient care Wednesday morning (a week ago) with sharp, terrible pains in her side. We were sent from there to the ER and eventually were in the hospital until Friday. There were some tense moments as the cause was unknown, and then the early diagnosis was a likely blood clot in her lung. Eventually they discovered there was no blood clot (great relief!), but the cause was pneumonia which was creating inflammation and irritation in the lining around the lung. Antibiotics have worked well so that we came home last Friday, and, while she is not back to 100% yet she is much, much better. We were sustained in many ways by our church and other believing friends. It has been a wonderful thing again to watch the church at work.

Our last night in the hospital, we had an experience that reminded me of the importance of the pastoral role. We were awakened about 2 am by much commotion. A man on the floor had suddenly quit breathing and there was a scramble to save his life. In the midst of it the grief of his wife could be heard. My wife stirred me suggesting a pastor might be needed. As I emerged from our room and let the staff know I was available if needed, I heard the wife of the man in danger cry out amidst her tears, “Oh, I wish my pastor were here!” It was no fault of her pastor’s that he was not there. They were from out of town and no one had expected the visit to be life threatening. I was able to sit with her and pray with her as she waited. In the end they were able to regain a pulse and eventually they were moved to another floor. The last I heard the man was continuing to improve.

This experience powerfully reminded me of the importance of the shepherding role. It is a lot easier to read and write sermons than to walk with a person through the valley of the shadow of death. I do not intend to minimize the importance of study or preaching, but simply to assert that our wrestling with God and His word should result not only in sound exposition but in a reservoir from which to draw to aid individuals facing crises in life. This is a demanding task, and we need much grace. We must also habitually walk with God to be prepared for these instances. I found myself feeling unprepared.

Also, the cry- “Oh, I wish my pastor were here!” – has stuck with me. How often is this the cry, spoken or silent, of people whose pastors see themselves as simply business managers, professional speakers, etc.? May this never be so in our flocks. Let us be faithful to the charge given by the Chief Shepherd to watch over those whom He has bought with His own blood (Acts 20:28).

Friday, March 16, 2007

Note to reformers, 2

The church of God in our day is in dire need of reformation once again. I believe that is a given among us. Yet, this is a daunting task and if we put our hands to it we will face exhaustion, desperation, despondency and frustration in addition to open resistance. In this then we ought to look back to those who have gone before in the reforming work to learn from their lessons. Luther again instructs us here reminding us of a truth that we certainly know but very easily lose sight of in our labors. Hear his counsel in two excerpts from his letters:

"Christ knows whether it comes from stupidity or the Spirit, but I for my part am not very much troubled about our cause. Indeed, I am more hopeful than I expected to be. God, who is able to raise the dead, is also able to uphold his cause when it is falling, or to raise it up again when it has fallen, or to move it forward when it is standing. If we are not worthy instruments to accomplish his purpose, he will find others. If we are not strengthened by his promises, where in all the world are the people to whom these promises apply?"[1]

"I simply taught, preached, wrote God's Word: otherwise I did nothing. And when, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philp and my Amsdor, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a Prince or Emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing. The Word did it all."[2]

The Word of God will do this work. Our task is simply to be like Ezra of old setting our hearts to study the Word, practice it and teach it (Ezra 7:9-10). Then whether flourishing in our hands or simmering, lingering after our apparent defeat, the Word will do this thing.

Jeremiah tells us the Word of God is like a hammer crushing the rock (Jer 23:29). The Word has the necessary power. Our task then is- whether you can handle only a small hammer’s worth or whether you can wield a huge sledge hammer’s worth- take up whatever of the hammer you can and bring it to bear on the rock around you. Compare not your swings with others, simply take what you have to offer and bring it to bear. And do so in faith- for the Word will do this thing! God has promised.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Vol. 18 of Library of Christian Classics, ed. Theodore G. Trappert (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 146‑7.
[2] Quoted by John Stott in in Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 25.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Celebrating the ‘Corporate’ in ‘Corporate Worship’

Too often in our churches today we fail to appreciate the importance of the corporate aspect of our worship. We are encouraged to ‘forget that anyone else is around’, to ‘tune everyone else out,’ or to ‘pretend it’s just you and God.’ Have we forgotten that the Scriptures envision our worship as involving “addressing one another in psalms hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19)? Additionally, often our worship is dominated by the work of the ‘professionals’ while the congregation is relegated to ‘audience.’ We forget that congregational singing was one of the key recoveries of the Reformation. Luther wrote hymns, Calvin versified Psalms while enlisting Marot and Beza to do the same for the purpose of teaching the people to sing the truths of the Bible. In fact when Geneva asked Calvin to return (after previously ejecting him) one of his stipulations upon returning was the instituting of congregational singing. I think we have often underestimated the importance of this aspect of our worship.

Much could be said here, but I want simply to recount one of many personal instances which have driven home to me the fact that I need to see/hear my brothers and sisters worshipping. Recently, I found myself wrestling with my unruly attention during a sermon. The sermon was good, but my attention and discipline was not. A brother came to mind who had had a death in his family that week. I had not seen him when church started so I resolved to contact him that afternoon to check on him. Later in the sermon, however, the preacher made a humorous comment and I heard behind me a laugh which I immediately recognized as the laugh of the brother I had intended to call. I was encouraged to know he was back in town and with us.

As the sermon closed and we moved to communion, we began to sing, “My Jesus, I Love Thee.” As we came to the third verse, we sang, “I’ll love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death.” My mind immediately went to my brother sitting behind me. He had just walked through the issue of death. The weight of the words pressed my heart with renewed force, as I thought of him and choked up. When we began the next verse with its affirmation of the hope of heaven, I stopped singing and leaned back to hear my brother. It was one thing for me to affirm these truths in my situation, but it meant much more to hear my brother who had just buried a dear relative express his confession of hope in heaven. I might have just floated through some more words if I was alone, but I was moved to tears hearing his voice singing:
In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.

Oh, how I need my brothers and sisters in worship. Their trust and confidence in uncertainty and loss bolsters me. Their passion and fervency stirs my dull heart. I need the community of faith, so I deeply appreciate a pattern of worship which allows me to hear from one another and not simply watch a stage.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Alexander Maclaren on Earthiness of True Spirituality

I am currently teaching my class on John’s gospel and letters here at Union. In dealing with John 2 I came back across this quote I had gleaned earlier from Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910), a prominent Scottish Baptist preacher. This is a long quote, but I kept it all because it makes a good point about the folly of dividing life along the false divide of sacred and secular. Particularly helpful is his point that because we are so accustomed to drawing pleasure from tainted sources we often are skeptical about joy and pleasure itself. There is much to help us here in pastoring Christ’s church.

“It is not without meaning that Jesus began His work by sanctioning and hallowing common, and especially family, life. What a contrast there is between the simple gladness of the rustic wedding and the temptation in the wilderness, from which Jesus had just come? What a contrast between the sublime heights of the prologue and this opening scene of the ministry! What a contrast between the rigid, ascetic forerunner and this Son of Man! How unlike the anticipations of the disciples, who would be all tingling with expectation of the first exhibition of His Messiahship! Surely the fact that His first act was to hallow marriage and family life has opened a fountain of sacred blessing. So He breaks down that wicked division of life into sacred and secular which has damaged both parts so much. So He teaches that the sphere of religion is this world, not only another. So He claims as the subjects of His sanctifying power every relation of manhood. So He says at the beginning of His career, ‘I am a man, and nothing that belongs to manhood do I reckon foreign to Myself.’ Where He has trod is hallowed ground.
The participation of the prince in the festivities of his people dignifies these. Our King has sat at a wedding feast, and the memory of His presence there adds a new sacredness to the sacredest, and a new sweetness to the sweetest, of human ties. The consecration of His presence, like some pungent and perennial perfume, lingers yet in the else scentless air of daily life. ‘Sanctity’ is not ‘singularity.’ We need not withdraw from any region of activity or interest for affection or intellect, in order to develop the whitest saintliness. Christ’s saints are to be ‘in the world, not of it,’ like their Master, who went from the wilderness and its fearful conflicts to begin His work amid the homely rejoicings of a village wedding.
Further, He manifested His glory as the ennobler and heightener of earthly joys. That may be taken, with a possibly permissible play of fancy, as a lesson suggested, if not as a meaning intended, by the change of water into wine. The latter is, in the Old Testament especially, a symbol of gladness. The Man of Sorrows brings the gift of joy. To make men glad is an object not unworthy of Him. If we may so say, it was worth His while to come from heaven and agonise and die, that He might pour everlasting and pure joy into weary and sad hearts.
We are so much accustomed to draw joys from ignoble sources, that in most of them there is a trace of something not altogether creditable or lofty, and hence we often fail to estimate rightly the importance of joy as an element in Christian life. But Christ came to give the oil of joy for mourning, and He does so in part by transforming the less potent and invigorating draughts from earthen waterpots into the new wine of the kingdom. The commonest joys, if only they are not foul and sinful, are capable of this transformation. If we bring them to Jesus, and are ‘glad in the Lord,’ He will ennoble them, and they will tend to ennoble us.”

-Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel of St. John (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1893), 24-25.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Centrality of Preaching

Having just commented on people yearning for substantive preaching, I came back across this quote from Al Mohler which I read a few years back. He says it well- as usual. :)

When you hear people speak about how to grow a church, how to build a church, and how to build a great congregation, few and far between are those who say it comes essentially by the preaching of the Word. And we know why, because it comes by the preaching of the Word slowly; slowly, immeasurably, sometimes even invisibly, and hence we are back to our problem. If you want to see quick results, the preaching of the Word just might not be the way to go. If you are going to find results in terms of statistics, numbers, and visible response, it just might be that there are other mechanisms, other programs, and other means that will produce that faster. The question is whether it produces Christians.
Indeed, such techniques will not produce maturing and faithful believers in the Lord Jesus Christ because that is going to come only by the preaching of the Word.
- “The Primacy of Preaching,” in Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching, ed. Don Kistler, p. 17-18

Monday, March 05, 2007

Voice from the Pew

Preachers are often told that people really are not interested in substantive content in sermons. I know of pastors who have been severely criticized for dealing with texts that people did not find easily digestible, or useful enough in drawing crowds. Shallow, generic “life-thoughts” will appeal to some, but there is an increasing number of people who are crying out for substantive teaching as they yearn to know God and to have something weighty enough to serve as an anchor for their souls.

Below is a response from a survey student after listening to a sermon I assigned. For the record, this was not one of my sermons. :)

"I love sermons like this because it isn't 3rd grade Sunday school like …. I want to hear intellectual study. When preachers give a lesson like this it keeps me interested"

Let us give them real substance, explained and applied of course, but not diluted and dumbed down.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Mourning Over Lost Souls

People often think that a firm belief in the sovereignty of God in all things including the salvation of souls will undercut evangelistic zeal. History is full of examples to the contrary, and the Puritans are key examples. I previously mentioned Richard Alleine’s book Instructions About Heartwork . In this book Alleine has an entire chapter entitled, “Why Should We Mourn Over Lost Souls?” Here is an excerpt. Could you expect anything more passionate?
“Oh, pity these lost souls! Do you have any compassion? Parents, have you any compassion for your sinning children? Friends, have you any compassion for your sinning friends? Draw forth your compassion in sighs and lamentations; pour forth your hearts through your eyes; weep over them; look upon the ignorant and sottish ones; look upon the profane ones, the lying children, the swearers and cursers and drinkers, the unruly children among you, and let your eye affect your heart” (67).
Oh, as pastors we especially must have this heart toward the lost. In the busyness of life it is so easy to allow the reality of their eternal fate to slip from our view, to fail to live each day in full view of eternity. Let us pause long enough for these realities to move our souls once more that we might be reminded of the earnestness of evangelism. Then we will be able to speak with people as Alleine did. Here are just a few excerpts from his address directly to the unconverted:
Sinners, will you yet go away thinking that it is well with you? … Do the pleasures of sin make your chains pleasant to you? … Have you no pity on that poor soul of yours, but you will give it up to be racked, torn, and burned forever rather than for its sake deny your will, your lust, or your appetite?” (68-69)

Friday, March 02, 2007

Loving and Living the Scriptures

One of our Wednesday night classes at church is studying J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. I am enjoying going back through the book because it is so good. Here is a quote from Packer about how the Puritans viewed the Bible. I have elsewhere, in a different context, written about the propriety of talking about loving the Bible in spite of what some may say. May this approach to the Bible mark us and our people.

“For Puritanism was, above all else, a Bible movement. To the Puritan the Bible was in truth the most precious possession that this world affords. His deepest conviction was that reverence for God means reverence for Scripture, and serving God means obeying Scripture. To his mind, therefore, no greater insult could be offered to the Creator than to neglect his written word; and, conversely, there could be no truer act of homage to him than to prize it and pore over it, and then to live out and give out its teaching. Intense veneration for Scripture, as the living word of the living God, and a devoted concern to know and do all that it prescribes, was Puritanism’s hallmark.” (98)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

More on Great Hymns from a Children’s Book

At my blog on children’s literature, The Children’s Hour, I have recently posted a review of Mr. Pipes and the British Hymn Makers, by Douglas Bond. It is a great book with insights useful for adults as well as children. Here are some particularly good quotes that speak to our role in directing the worship of the church.

“Many hymns are prayers that express our desire after God better than we can ourselves. It is a glorious thing to worship God, and hymns will give you words with which to worship Him”

“Precisely,” said Mr. Pipes. “You see, Drew, when singing a hymn we join our voices in worship with Christians throughout the ages. Singing great hymns can help Christians avoid the foolish notion that our spiritual moment in history is better than other times.”

“. . .nothing we do in worship more unites our hearts and lifts us above ourselves than singing hymns set to grand music that reflects the beauty and order of our Creator.”

“Mr. Williams wrote hymns worthy of God in all His majesty and splendor, solid and deep hymns that first humble us with God’s holiness and then lift us above our sinful selves, overwhelming us with the splendor of God’s love and grace, freeing us to worship Him as He deserves.”

“He likes the word ‘grace,’” said Annie.
“That is because Newton understood the word ‘sin,’” said Mr. Pipes.

“Their first few visits to church with neighbors at home now seemed more like a trip to the circus compared with this [worship at Mr. Pipes’ church in Olney].”

“I want you both to be lovers of Christ’s church—yes, with all her warts—for she ever shall prevail, and those in her true communion on high will dwell with our blessed Redeemer Who bought His bride, the church, with His precious blood.”