Saturday, July 4, 2015

A Psalm for meditation on July 4

Here's the passage I am meditating on this July 4, during a time of spiritual famine in our beloved nation-

Psalm 33:17-22 The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue. Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Redeemer Pulpit: Did God actually say marriage is between one man and one woman?

Several months ago one of my elders suggested I do a short topical sermon series between book studies.  So I planned four sermons to bridge between finishing 2 Corinthians and starting Isaiah in August.  The series is based on the four hottest cultural issues I could think of.  The purpose is to alert my congregation about a biblical response to alarming matters that impact us.

This particular sermon is on Scripture's teaching about marriage, the rapid change in our culture concerning marriage, and how Christians should respond.

The sermon is meant for my congregation but applies to any Christians committed to God's Word. When planning the sermon I had no idea the Supreme Court would legislate same sex marriage two days before I would preach it.

Listen Here to "Did God actually say marriage is between one man and one woman" By Pastor Tony Felich 

Schaeffer foretold the dynamic that has come to pass

In light of the historic legislation passed by the Supreme Court (yes, I know this isn't the Court's role, but it accurately describes the effect of their decision), legalizing same-sex marriage, I thought revisiting prophetic words from Francis Schaeffer would be enlightening.  Below is an excerpt from a lecture Schaeffer gave in 1982, and also part of his "Christian Manifesto" published the same year.

Schaeffer displays what happens when a society replaces Christian truth (which is actual truth) with humanism.  Remember, this was written over thirty years ago, at a time when it seemed "conservatism" was on the upswing.  As Schaeffer was fond of saying, conservative humanism is no better than liberal humanism. 

So, Humanism is the absolute certain result, if we choose this other final reality (instead of Christianity) and say that is what it is. You must realize that when we speak of man being the measure of all things under the Humanist label, the first thing is that man has only knowledge from himself. That he, being finite, limited, very faulty in his observation of many things, yet nevertheless, has no possible source of knowledge except what man, beginning from himself, can find out from his own observation. Specifically, in this view, there is no place for any knowledge from God.

But it is not only that man must start from himself in the area of knowledge and learning, but any value system must come arbitrarily from man himself by arbitrary choice. More frightening still, in our country, at our own moment of history, is the fact that any basis of law then becomes arbitrary -- merely certain people making decisions as to what is for the good of society at the given moment.

Now this is the real reason for the breakdown in morals in our country. It's the real reason for the breakdown in values in our country, and it is the reason that our Supreme Court now functions so thoroughly upon the fact of arbitrary law. They have no basis for law that is fixed, therefore, like the young person who decides to live hedonistically upon their own chosen arbitrary values, society is now doing the same thing legally. Certain few people come together and decide what they arbitrarily believe is for the good of society at the given moment, and that becomes law.

Now, compare what Schaeffer said to what Romans 1 describes:

Romans 1:[18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. [19] For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. [20] For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. [21] For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. [22] Claiming to be wise, they became fools, [23] and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. [24] Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, [25] because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. [26] For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; [27] and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. [28] And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Tragedy of Alex Rodriguez

Being a Yankees fan doesn't stop me from being rational.

I find Alex Rodriguez to be one of the most tragic figures in the modern sports era, especially since the MLB World Series was cancelled in 1994. It seems MLB's declined popularity after the strike of 1994 was a contributing factor for the league's lax oversight of performance enhancing drug usage. To be sure, Alex Rodriquez is one of hundreds of players who likely cheated over the past twenty plus years. In his case, however, it is very difficult for common man to understand why a person of such God-given talent would resort to PED's. Yet he did just that, lied about it multiple times, and did it again. I hope he has a great year for the sake of the Yanks and the $25 million they're paying him this season, but I find him to be a sad player that's hard to like.

Yesterday he reached the 3000 hit milestone, a feat accomplished by only 28 players (out of 18,000) in MLB history.

Yet, it feels somewhat fake.  Wallace Matthews with ESPN captures my sentiments on A-Rod-

"Again, no matter what you think of steroids, there can be little dispute over another contention -- that the athlete who resorts to them feels that in some way he or she needs them to perform.

The sad fact is the tragedy of Alex Rodriguez has less to do with a failing of character than a failing of confidence.

At some point in his athletic life, A-Rod stopped believing in himself.

And as a result, none of us can ever fully believe in him -- or what he did on a baseball field."

 - Wallace Matthews (ESPN)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

My prayer for the Church and our Nation

Our Father, bring to the remembrance of your people your ancient and time-honored promise: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways;  then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

We do humble ourselves and seek your face this day.  

Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for You. ‘You show lovingkindness to thousands, and repay the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children after them—the Great, the Mighty God, whose name is the Lord of hosts. ‘You are great in counsel and mighty in work, for your eyes are open to all the ways of the sons of men, to give everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings.

Father we confess that we are a wayward people.  We are broken and battered by sin.  Father, we as a church must confess our sins before confessing those of our nation.  We have not been the salt and the light you have called us to be.  We have timidly hidden your light under a basket.  We have not sought holiness in our own midst as the best way to make an impact on our countrymen.  In many ways, the Church has done it’s best to blend in to the world.  Forgive us father for our sins of complacence, compromise, and apathy.  

Father, as citizens of the United States of America, it seems we are regularly astonished by how seemingly unstable our world is.  Help us, as your people, to hold fast to what we know to be true- you are still on the throne.   You have not ceased to be sovereign.  Father, before we ask for your healing, wisdom, and protection, we must confess to your our nation's great and grievous sins, of which we are to some degree a party to.  

We confess to you that:

Wrong ideas and sinful living have cut us off from the full extent of your blessings.   We have cast off the restraint of your Word and have sought after our lustful passions.  We have been greedy for wealth and possessions. It seems the richer our nation has grown the more we have tried to isolate ourselves from you- as if we do not need you.  Father we are likewise grieved for the 1 million babies we have sacrificed on the altar of convenience in this land over this past year.  Forgive us for not shedding more tears for the unborn, for having no memorial service for them.  We have sought to hide behind barricades of selfishness;  shackles have imprisoned the great heart of America.  It seems that only when a tragedy or disaster happens do men and women invoke your name.  We act as though we can completely ignore and even rebel against your Holy Word for year after year- but when we need you- you’d better listen or else we will blame you or say that you are not real.  God forgive us from this extreme arrogance, pride, and out-right rebellion!  

Father, teach our nation we cannot leverage the God of the Universe.  You have blessed us immeasurably because of your grace not because of our goodness… and our response has been to hand you rebellion.  God, thank you for not reigning down fire and brimstone upon us this very day.    

Lord God of Hosts, Forgive us!  O God, by your guidance and power may we become a nation contrite in heart- not proud and arrogant, a nation confessing her sins- not exalting immoral living, a nation keenly sensitive to all unresolved justice and wrong still in our midst- not tolerant of any injustice or cruelty.

We know, our Father, times are desperate and we need you.  We need your strength, your guidance, your wisdom.  There are challenges and problems far greater than any wisdom of man can solve.  What shall our leaders do in such an hour?

May your wisdom and your power come upon our local leaders, our governor, and our state legislators. May your wisdom and your power come upon President Obama, Vice President Biden, their staff and advisers, the Senators and Congressmen, to who have been entrusted leadership.  May the responsibility lie heavily on their hearts, until they are ready to acknowledge their helplessness and turn to you.  Give them the honesty, the courage, and the moral integrity to confess that they don’t know what to do.  Only then can they lead us as a nation beyond human wisdom to you, who alone has the answer.  If our rulers will not heed your Word and lead us according to your timeless Law, spare us their influence O God and remove them from office!

Our Father, as important and influential as our elected officials are- you have not given them the task and commission of being salt and light. Our Father, we recognize that government has it’s divinely instituted place, however we also acknowledge that it is a temporary institution.  Father, we confess that blaming elected officials can be a guise and an excuse for not taking responsibility for our own sin.  Lord, we are your Church- those called by your name.

I pray for the pulpits of this land- restore a biblical spine to those called to preach.  Free us from the love of personal affirmation, the enslavement of numbers and church “growth”, the fear of man, and the scourge of watering down your Word.  I pray for the church to return to the same things that moved the Reformation and brought revival to this land in it’s early days- 

The Bible is the only measure and ultimate authority for all matters of faith and life
Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man.
Grace is the only method of divine salvation- we cannot save ourselves.
Faith is the only means by which the righteousness of Christ is imputed.
God’s glory alone is the chief end of man and the motivation for living.

Revive the pulpits in this land.  Revive those sitting in the pews of this land.  God, please shed your grace on us!

We do pray that you, O Holy Spirit, in your own mysterious way, would prevail upon the wills of men that they may do the will of God.  All these things we ask in that name above every name, that name before whom all nations of the earth shall bow, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.  Amen.


-Tony Felich, Redeemer Presbyterian Church

Thursday, April 9, 2015

On this date: Robert E. Lee and Dietrich Bonhoeffer Connection

Today marks to historic events in the lives of important Christian leaders.

On this day one hundred fifty years ago General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.  I find Lee to be a very intriguing figure

"We failed (to win the Civil War), but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained."

On this day seventy years ago German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis. His most popular work is "The Cost of Discipleship", but his best work (in my opinion) is "Life Together". In that book he gave pastors very important advice that I have tried to heed:

“A pastor should never complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.”

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Resurrection of Christ meets us at the Crossroad

I remember a philosophical crossroad in my teens when it was clear that either Jesus was who he claimed or life was basically a strange absurdity. 

Of course, it wasn’t enough for Jesus to claim an ability to make me right with God through faith in him, there had to be a validation by God Himself about Christ. The Resurrection is that validation. Without his resurrection, Jesus is no real help to anyone and not really substantially different from all the various religious prophets and gurus whose corpses still lay in the ground. Would you trust a builder who couldn’t build his own house? Would you trust a mechanic who can’t fix his own car? Then why would you trust a “prophet” who claims to know the way to eternal life but couldn’t defeat death himself? 

The crossroad is real, I hope everyone sees it- either the resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, or Albert Camus was right about life as an absurdity. All religions do NOT lead to the same place. Only one “religion” is lead by a living Savior. If he’s not alive, how could there be real answers with other dead promise makers? If Jesus didn’t rise we should all just fake as much meaning about this absurd life as we can, to pass our days, and hope it ends upon physical death. If Jesus did rise, we should all do our best to tell every person we know- so they can be saved from what awaits those who are not “in Christ”. 

I am convinced by the eyewitnesses recorded in history and what the bible describes as assurance from God’s Spirit that Jesus did rise- so this is why I put forth this post to all those I know and love. He is risen.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Please God, rescue our persecuted brothers and sisters!

As we move toward a weekend that commemorates the most important events in the history of earth (the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ), we must not ignore living in an unprecedented epoch of persecution against Christianity.

Today's murderous attack on Kenyan Christian students is another reminder of how bad things are for so many who identify themselves with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We ought not be naive to think such days won't come upon Christians in this country. Open Doors is a Christian persecution watch group who issues a poignant reminder for all believers:

"1 Corinthians 12:26 tells us that we are one body—when one member suffers, we all suffer. When one member is lifted up, we all rejoice. Persecuted Christians and Christians in the free world are not two separate entities, but rather are one body. The persecuted church needs the free church to support them and most importantly to lift them up in prayer. The church in the free world learns lessons from the persecuted who have stood strong in the face of persecution. Christ is the head of the body and uses the church (both free and persecuted) in unique and powerful ways."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Carson qualified to critique the "Scientific" Consensus on Human Origins

Ben Carson, the former neurosurgeon who is running for president, made waves this week when he denied evolutionary “science” and affirmed “creationism” in an interview. The response to Carson has been culturally revealing. He was immediately labeled some kind of religious zealot and castigated for disagreeing with the so-called “scientific consensus”. 

Back in 2008, the film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” persuasively contended the mainstream science establishment suppresses academics who believe they see evidence of intelligent design in nature and who criticize evidence supporting Darwinian evolution and the modern evolutionary synthesis as a "scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation's laboratories and classrooms.” No matter your position on creationism (or intelligent design), before you buy the so-called “scientific consensus” Carson is getting mocked for criticizing, see that film and do some reading on how modern origins studies are being conducted, and by whom. 

As for Carson getting ridiculed because he is some stripe of creationist, I think he’s pretty qualified to give an analysis. Carson was a professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics, and he was the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. At age 33, he became the youngest major division director in the hospital's history as director of pediatric neurosurgery. He was also a co-director of the Johns Hopkins Craniofacial Center. He specialized in traumatic brain injuries, brain and spinal cord tumors, achondroplasia, neurological and congenital disorders, craniosynostosis, epilepsy, and trigeminal neuralgia. Furthermore, several scientific organizations and fellowships have given him awards and inducted them in to their halls of fame, not to mention he has 38 honorary doctorates for his contributions to modern brain surgery. See his full Wiki page here. 

Oh, I don’t know, I think he’s probably qualified to critique the “scientific consensus” on most things. 

The fact a man like Carson is getting attacked about this matter of origins, reveals how strong the suppression of true scientific work and discovery has become today. No one will benefit from the way things are in this arena.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bavinck on The Relationship Between Scripture and the Church

By way of comparing the Roman Catholic and Protestant (Reformed) views of Scripture's relationship with the Church, Herman Bavinck provided a helpful statement (see full treatise here):  

Hence, the relationship between Scripture and the church is totally different in Protestantism than in Roman Catholicism.  In Rome’s view the church is anterior to Scripture; the church is not built upon Scripture, but Scripture arose from the church; Scripture does indeed need the church, but the church does not need Scripture. The Reformation, however, again put the church on the foundation of Scripture and elevated Scripture high above the church. Not the church but Scripture, the Word of God, became the means of grace par excellence. Even the sacrament was subordinated to the Word and had neither meaning nor power apart from that Word. Now, in accordance with Christ’s ordinance, that Word was indeed administered in the midst of the congregation of believers by the minister, but this did not alter the fact that that Word was [also] put into everyone’s hands, that it was plain to everyone who studied it with a desire for salvation, that it exerted its power not only when it was proclaimed in public but also when it was studied and read at home. In that way Christians, who accepted that Word with a believing heart, were liberated from sacerdotalism. No longer did any person or thing stand between them and Christ. By faith they appropriated the whole of salvation, and in the sacrament they received the sign and seal of that reality. Thus the Reformation changed the Roman Catholic doctrine of the means of grace.

Monday, February 23, 2015

God is Speaking

Great works of literature are like grand and inspiring monuments.  They have the ability to stand tall and evoke many thoughts and emotions across the generations. Masterpiece novels and epic tales told by the written word provide timeless inspiration. The written word remains the greatest medium for capturing a moment in time or creatively depicting something imagined about the future. There is no more effective non-verbal mode for communicating than the written word.  For all the advances in the realm of film and visual media, most who experience both agree that a book is better than a movie.  Despite immersion in visual media and the non stop exposure to selfies and pictures, short written tweets or status updates are powerful communication tools.  The written word is incredibly potent.  

The Bible is a written collection of books, poems, songs, and letters, written over centuries.  The Bible is not like other works of literature.  Books, novels, poems, songs, articles, though inspiring and timeless, are not in themselves dynamic.  Human writing is not living.  Once ink is put on paper (or characters on a screen), there is no intrinsic life in the words that remain.  There is no ability in written ideas or stories to make impact, nor is there any accompanying, external force that helps us better understand and appropriate what might be learned.  Books are tremendous, but essentially lifeless in themselves.  The Bible, on the other hand, is living.  

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  - Hebrews 4:12

We should never see the bible as a one dimensional, static account of anything.  The Bible was penned by divinely appointed authors who were specially empowered and guided by God Himself to communicate exactly what he wanted. The same Holy Spirit who superintended the writing process also attends that Word forever.  Reading the Bible is experiencing a living document.  Add to the divine authorship and attendance, a Christian has the indwelling Holy Spirit to make Scripture understandable.  If these amazing realities weren’t enough, the Holy Spirit works more to enable the reader to live according to what is written.  No other written document can do what Scripture can do.   There is still more!  The prayer of Jesus compels the Father to actively use the Bible to change us-  

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” -John 17:17

A.W. Tozer was convinced a vibrant relationship with God could not be had if we fail to understand how the Bible is a living Word. The Bible is God speaking to us. Tozer wrote-

“I believe much of our religious unbelief is due to a wrong conception of and a wrong feeling for the Scriptures.  A silent God suddenly began to speak in a book and when the book was finished lapsed back into silence again forever.  Now we read the book as the record of what God said when He was for a brief time in a speaking mood.  With notions like that in our heads how can we believe? The facts are that God is not silent and has never been silent.  It is the nature of God to speak.  The second Person of the Holy Trinity is called the Word.  The Bible is the inevitable outcome of God’s continuous speech.  It is the infallible declaration of His mind for us put into our familiar human words.”  - A.W. Tozer in “The Pursuit of God”

I agree with Tozer, a new world will arise out of the religious mists when we approach our Bible with the idea that it is not only a book which was once spoken, but a book which is now speaking.  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Why is American Sniper destroying box office records?

How is a rated R movie about an unpopular war destroying box office records this weekend? 

I think it is a combination of the person Chris Kyle was and the desire to feel a sense of justification for the war in Iraq. 

Chris Kyle was a compelling person because of the rare and genuine WWII era patriotism he exhibited. No matter how you feel about the Iraq War’s initial justification, once our troops were in Iraq, those attacking were mostly principled insurgents and sworn enemies of the U.S. They weren’t fighting for Iraqi independence, but rather to disrupt the reorganizing of the nation, post-Saddam Hussein. Kyle was involved in the vast sweeps of Iraqi cities to rid them of insurgents so Iraqi citizens could live peacefully as a new government was formed. There are impassioned differences of opinion about the U.S. conducting this war/nation rebuilding operation, but for the period Kyle was there, it was an apparent “good vs. evil” type mission, and that’s what he was fighting for. Of course, for him and his comrades, it was also a fight to keep each other safe and successful. 

So, as a snap shot of a war that makes most Americans uneasy, Chris Kyle’s patriotism, heroism, and success are something to appreciate. Furthermore, the movie gives insight to the hardship of our military volunteers and their families. It pictures the incredible struggle they endure with stressful separations, then assimilating in and out of two vastly different worlds- tense foreign combat and suburban American family life. We get a glimpse at the life-altering injuries many soldiers must live with, coupled with the psychological damage myriads suffer (Kyle died trying to help a soldier with PTSD). The movie did a commendable job steering clear of the most controversial elements of the War (politics/religion/economics) and told a true story of an uncommon, authentic human being, who displayed a humility that allows us to relate with him. 

I do wish the film would have revealed, as the book did, Kyle’s maturing Christian faith. There is a selflessness about Kyle that is remarkable, even Christlike. After all, it was Jesus who said and then demonstrated- “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The fact “American Sniper” is on pace to have the biggest opening weekend in U.S. film history is a testimony to the movie striking just the right chord at just the right time.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How well do drums assist the congregation in singing?

Church musicians should be playing to assist the congregation in being one voice of praise to God. Their task is to help the congregation worship, not perform for them or overpower them.

This guy gets the award for the worst possible example of helping a congregation my opinion, of course.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Coaching soccer is more than coaching soccer to me

This is my ninth year coaching soccer for our school team, the fifth as the varsity coach for Heritage. Coaching, for me, is a way to make a deep, long-lasting impression on young men, in a relatively short period of time. The unique way competition impacts people makes me stay in the game, so to speak. I absolutely relish the preparation process required to ready a team for competitive play- especially a team that no one thinks should be good. I like recruiting guys who lack experience, but have the athletic ability, with training, to become solid, contributing players. Like a nerd analyzing a game of Risk, I am constantly scrawling potential line ups and formations on pieces of paper throughout the day.

The value of the context of team sports and competition lies in what is required to congeal and be competitive. Players must develop fitness, skill, and tactics. Individual players are responsible and accountable to their teammates to grow in all areas. Perhaps the most important life lesson from team sports is learning, as a member of a team, to know your role and execute it with full vigor and faithfulness. Playing for a team bears a strong resemblance to being a member of a church.

To become competitive and ready, we have to work hard as a team for weeks. When the season starts, the grind gets increasingly challenging as things shift from the initial physical preparation to a more mental contest. The relentless rhythm of 2-3 games per week goes on for two months. Staying fit, nursing injuries, keeping school grades up, and battling general fatigue, contribute to the character-building exercise the whole team sport experience is about. Over a 12-week period, through the regular flow of game preparation and playing, guys grow close and develop a strong basis for ongoing friendships. I get the opportunity and privilege to spend many hours under intense circumstances with young men who are in the thick of their character development. In most cases, I develop substantive relationships with my players. Often enough I will think I didn’t connect well with a certain player, only to see our relationship grow after they graduate. The coach-player relationship is unique and can be life-shaping. I have had some wonderful, learned, and godly teachers in my years of formal schooling, but for the most part, the men I have leaned on most for counsel and guidance have been my former coaches. It is the task of a coach to assess a player’s ability, help them improve, develop, overcome obstacles, and fulfill their role so they contribute well and enjoy the team sport experience. Being a coach bears a strong resemblance to being a pastor of a church. 

I have always been thankful Redeemer allows me to coach the school team.  It serves as a way I can directly interact with the students of our school.  This year, eight of the players are also members of our church, one is my oldest son, which is pretty cool.  In our four years of official KSHSAA membership, we are 56-13-5.  Not bad for a small, 1A school!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Gospel Ministry: To spend and to be spent...

Over my years of pastoral ministry I have gone through brief periods of depression.  In Scripture you find many people going through periods of despair, melancholy, and depression.  Abraham, Jonah, Job, Elijah, David, and the so-called "weeping" prophet Jeremiah are all examples of people who are on biblical record as having been depressed.

Thankfully, God has given me a sensitive wife who knows when I am in a funk.  She challenges me with God's Word and promises. She also nudges me toward some fellow elders, pastors, and godly counselors in our church to encourage, exhort, and sometimes rebuke me. These faithful friends help me get back my gospel bearings, so to speak.  Just today one such brother was encouraging me by asking questions and reminding me of God's faithfulness and provision.  He asked me a great question- "Tony, when did you know God was calling you to ministry."  As I started to answer his question and remembering a very distinct sense of call while in high school, I became enlivened about the reason I do what I do.  I want people to know the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I want people to know how they are made right with God- through faith in Christ and His work on their behalf.  I want to see people who have not previously believed, trust in Christ and be transformed.  I want people who have been believers for a long time to be encouraged afresh in the gospel. I want to minister in a church where I have the opportunity to remind the precious Sheep for whom Christ died, of their high privilege in Christ. Preaching, teaching, and promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ is the simplest way to describe my purpose and calling.  I fully affirm what is clear in Scripture- the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.  Only God can remove the scales from someone's eyes so they can lay hold of Jesus.  Still, I am pained greatly when people reject the gospel.  I am grieved when believers seem to forget the gospel.

Over the years I have come to realize that Gospel ministry is a depressing calling at times.  It just is.  I think pastoral ministry is prone to epochs of melancholy and discouragement.  I know I am not the only pastor to experience this or think it.  Charles Spurgeon, the famed London preacher of the Nineteenth Century, in "Lectures to My Students" warns of the tendency to depression when laboring in gospel ministry:

Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust? 

Passionate longings after men’s conversion, if not fully satisfied (and when are they?), consume the soul with anxiety and disappointment. To see the hopeful turn aside, the godly grow cold, professors abusing their privileges, and sinners waxing more bold in sin — are not these sights enough to crush us to the earth? The kingdom comes not as we would,  the reverend name is not hallowed as we desire, and for this we must weep. How can we be otherwise than sorrowful, while men believe not our report, and the divine arm is not revealed? 

All mental work tends to weary and to depress,  for much study is a weariness of the flesh; but ours is more than mental work — it is heart work, the labor of our inmost soul.  

How often, on Lord’s-day evenings, do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us! After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break. 

It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed; we are to spend and to be spent, not to lay ourselves up in lavender, and nurse our flesh. Such soul-travail as that of a faithful minister will bring on occasional seasons of exhaustion, when heart and flesh will fail.

So I have come to expect periods like this over the course of my life.  Such episodes are used by God to show His power through our weakness, for which I am extremely grateful.  Paul said it well- "Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart." (2 Corinthians 4:1)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The only anchor that holds

Today was a very difficult day. It started with news of a brother in Christ, who used to be a member of the church I pastor, but is still in close contact with many of us, being in the last stages of cancer.  Then, a young woman in our church was diagnosed with a similar stage 4 cancer.  When she was initially tested, it seemed to be caught early and there wasn't any real concern it would be this advanced. But the results of the more advanced tests showed it was much more involved and serious.  Honestly, even though I have seen this kind of thing before, I was shocked along with her family.  There were virtually no signs before three weeks ago.

How do you counsel a person who is confronted with this news?

In this case, I have been blessed and encouraged by her immediate reflection on biblical, eternal truth.  She goes right to her bible.  This is a person who is herself a highly competent medical professional, yet finding herself on the other side, so to speak, is taking the medical analysis and diagnosis in stride, and going to the Scripture for her guidance and comfort.  She knows she is in Christ.  This isn't to say she isn't in some way fearful and upset, but I can attest she is not angry with God and she is sure of her eternal destiny.

Of course, despite the seriousness of her diagnosis and incurable nature of her kind of cancer, there is chemotherapy that has shown itself to slow down the advance of the disease.  We are asking everyone to pray the chemo works and gives her many more years.  Knowing this woman, she will live life to the fullest as God gives her however many days he has allotted (remember, none of us live one day shorter or longer than God ordains).  Even the chemotherapy's effectiveness is by God's grace.

On days like today when I visit with a Christian who has just received very difficult news, and I witness them speak eternal truth in the midst of incredible adversity, I realize they have been prepared by the Word, for just this time. When I pick up their bible to read them comforting texts from Scripture, and all the texts I turn to are already underlined, I am overwhelmed by what God does to nourish His children. My job, every pastor's job, is to feed the whole counsel of God to the Sheep for whom Christ died. It is the only sure anchor that will hold them when (not if) the storm comes. I have seen this countless times. I know it is true.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Reclaim and Gain!

I recently helped plan and lead our annual presbytery middle school youth camp. It spans four days and includes a non-stop schedule of games, activities, large group gatherings, bible teaching, singing, devotions, food, fun, fellowship...and exhaustion for old dudes like me.

One of the highlights of our camp is tubing on the Lake of the Ozarks. We rented two boats and dragged kids around for hours each day. Hearing the kids tell of their wild rides on the tube is tremendous fun.  They tell of being dragged on "suicide runs" at 100 mph and getting 2, 4, 6, even 10 feet of air! They pit the craziness of each boat driver against the other.  The boat drivers pride themselves on providing a safe, but terrorizing ride for those who dare to mount the tubes. Each likes to be known as a touch more insane than the other. Insanity is a highly lauded trait by middle school students. Often times, if the mood of the driver is maniacal enough, a tube rider gets thrown off.  Keep in mind, the boat is going 40-50 mph (although the kids will swear it's going faster) with 100 feet of rope pulling the tube.  So when a person gets launched off the tube, they are out in the middle of the lake all alone for as long as it takes for the boat to circle around quite a ways and get to them.  I've been out there, having been thrown off myself.  Even though you have a life jacket on, there's a sense of helplessness treading water for the time it takes for the boat to come and get you.  What if they forget? What if they just leave you there? It can be a touch scary.  Imagine if you didn't have a life jacket?  You can only tread water for so long.  It's a long way to shore.  Way too far for most people to swim. I think you'd eventually drown as you fatigue and the water overcomes you.  Dark thought, for sure. Notice the look on this poor boy's face.  He's wondering if we'll come pull him out.

If a church is practicing biblical discipline, there are times, hopefully rare, when a person has to be removed from the church because they are mired in a sin they will not repent of.  People are not to be excommunicated because of sin, but rather for sin they won't stop and repent of.  Repentant sinners make up the membership of any truly Christian congregation.  Sinners who won't repent aren't actually Christians (repentance is a necessary part of trusting Christ).  Now, as it works, there are times when people fall in to terrible, habitual sin, and it becomes open and scandalous. They are confronted, but won't repent.  Such a thing happened in the Corinthian church, and Paul instructed the church  to remove the person (1 Corinthians 5:1-3).  In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul refers to the same case or perhaps a different one, where a person was previously removed for unrepentant sin.  However, after being removed for a time, the person repented! The discipline of the Church was used by God to provoke a godly sorrow for their sin.  If a person is truly a Christian, and gets trapped in a sinful pattern, eventually God will give them repentance.  Church discipline has as its' chief goal the restoration of the offender.

The problem in Corinth was the congregation apparently not accepting the now repentant sinner back in to the congregation.  Notice what Paul says to them-

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough,  so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. - Paul to the Corinthians (second letter, 2:5-8)

Paul begs them to forgive, comfort, and reaffirm their love for the man!  The man was becoming excessively sorrowful. Such repentance is a product of God's supernatural work and an awesome thing (yes, awesome may be used here). When a person repents like this, the church must do as Paul instructs here!  Forgive, comfort, and love them back in to fellowship!

The Westminster Confession, chapter 30, speaks about the several purposes of church discipline, but first sentence captures the chief one- "Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren..."  I love this expression of biblical teaching about church discipline.  It is for reclaiming and gaining!

Back to my description of getting thrown off a tube and treading water in the middle of a scary lake until the boat comes to get you.  When the boat comes along side a kid who can't climb back in to the boat on his or her own, an adult will reach over the side of the boat,  grab their life jacket, and pull them up, out and in to the boat. I have done this dozens of times, yanking helplessly floating kids out of the lake and in to the boat. I am reclaiming them from the sea!  I reclaim and regain them!

This is a picture of what we do for the repentant sinner floating in the sea of despair, about to be overwhelmed by the burden of their sin.  They are sorry for their sin, but paralyzed by all the pain and misery it has caused.  This is why Paul describes the man as nearly "overwhelmed by excessive sorrow." Interestingly, the greek word for "overwhelmed" is often used in conjunction with a sense of drowning.  When God gives us repentance for our sin, part of the effect is a real and heavy sorrow for the pain we have caused.

A person out in the lake floating needs to be yanked out and brought in to the boat, lest they become overwhelmed with the water and drown.  A person who repents of their sin will need immediate comfort and love, or they'll become overwhelmed, like the man described in Corinth.  Reclaim and gain them! 

You might need the same help some day.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Advice for Preachers from R.B. Kuiper

"A simple and conversational yet forceful sermon delivery commands both respect and response. Enthusiasm inspires. Logic is convincing, the illogical confusing. As preachers, let us have a heart. Let us stop wearying our audiences. Let us make our preaching so absorbingly interesting that even the children would rather listen to us than draw pictures and will thus put to shame their paper-and-pencil-supplying parents." -R.B. Kuiper