Remembering a Birthday While I Can Still Remember…

These are all my grandchildren, to this point. Don’t they look like an intelligent lot? They really are and and I love them all, and their parents. Yesterday was my birthday and it was most wonderfully affirming. Not only did my kids take me to Top Golf (indoor driving range) where we also had lunch, but my son Jamie who now lives and works in Switzerland was there for a surprise visit. (He had a conference in Canada.)

That evening, we all had dinner together and they gave me a Shutterfly book of remembrances that contained pics and little affirmations from my local and extended family, including the wonderful bunch from Australia and my future daughter-in-law from England. It was like being present at your own funeral service – and cheaper.

The whole day (including my Facebook greetings) was a reminder of what a blessed man I am (not lucky, but blessed) and how much I owe to God for the life He has given me. It was also a reminder of how easily I could screw it up if I allowed myself to be deceived by my own sinful nature and proneness to isolationism and independence. Whenever I have preached, I have always prayed Martin Luther’s sacristy prayer which contains this phrase, “And do not leave me to myself lest I bring it all to destruction.” No man, pastor, husband, father, or grandfather is beyond the real possibility of bringing the church down on his people or the house down on his family! And the reality  doesn’t get any easier the older one gets.

I must daily admit to myself that I am basically flawed and broken and in desperate need of God’s forgiveness and transforming grace. I need to be constantly preaching the gospel to myself and feeding my soul on the presence and promises of God in Christ. I must not hitch the wagon of my identity to anything else (position, experience, self-confidence) other than to the certainty that Jesus Christ is my Savior. As the old hymn goes “I dare not trust the sweetest frame (merit or anything I bring to the table) but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

And I must, by God’s grace, not allow a disconnect to grow between my private life and who I am in public. May God continue to have mercy upon my old soul. Amen.

 

 

Trust Me: I Will Protect You!

Psalm 121 is a beautiful song of trust and confidence where the psalmist expresses that God is his Helper and his Keeper; that he is safe and secure under the ever-watchful eye of the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The Psalmist is confident that the One who keeps Israel secure is also the deliverer of the person who trusts in him.

The word “keep” is six times in the Psalm which you will not notice if you read the NIV or KJV:

“He who keeps you will not slumber” (Psa. 121:3).

“He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa. 121:4).

“The LORD is your keeper” (Psa.121:5).

“The LORD will keep you from all evil” (Psa. 121:7).

“He will keep your life” (Psa. 121:7).

“The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore” (Psa. 121:8)

It is why I call this the Keeper’s Psalm because the Hebrew word shāmar is repeated by the psalmist to emphasize God’s care and protection for the individual and for the nation.

There is one interpretive decision that we have to make immediately as we read v. 1. From where does the Psalmist initially look for help? I memorized this Psalm in the KJV many years ago and it begins “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?” The understanding is that since this is one of the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), the worshipper is coming to Jerusalem and lifts up his eyes to the holy Mount Zion where the Temple stood (2000 ft. above sea level). He makes a statement of trust and confidence that God, whose presence resides in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, is the only One who can help and keep him and his nation.

However, there is another way to read this verse where the conclusion is the same, but the starting point is different. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” (ESV) French theologian and disciple of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, underscored this translation with his own unique translation of Psalm 121:1, “Should I lift up my eyes unto these mountains? From where will my help come? Beza suggested that the psalmist asked two questions, not one. The first question is whether or not he should look toward the mountains; the second question is about the psalmist’s source of confidence.

In commenting on Beza’s translation, Professor Claude Mariottini of Northern Baptist Seminary says: Most commentators believe that the “mountains” in question refer to one mountain, Zion, the dwelling place of God…. But Beza’s interpretation may reflect another reality behind the psalmist’s faith. In Israel, the mountains were the places where pagan practices and illegitimate worship were conducted by the Israelites.

Thus, according to Beza’s translation, the psalmist refuses to look toward the mountains because he knew that his help would not come from there. Thus, using Beza’s translation of verse 1, “Should I lift up my eyes unto these mountains?”, the answer to the psalmist’s question is “no”, because his help will not come from the pagan gods worshiped on the mountains.

Again, the conclusion is the same but the starting point is different depending on how you interpret v.1. I like Beza’s translation. As we face an uncertain future as a nation, we have a choice of where we look to find the source of our confidence and security. Do we find it in the size of our military and of our weaponry? Do we look to our political leaders who argue as to who would make the best Commander-in-Chief and protect us the most? Or, do we look to the Creator of heaven and earth as our Helper and Keeper. We must make this choice almost daily as we watch the news, listen to the political rhetoric, and continue to raise our children and grandchildren in an evil and violent world. Whom do you trust?

Thoughts on the Book of Job

Quite honestly, the Book of Job is a disappointment! When we suffer, we go to Job to find answers for why and how to cope. However, all we get are a bunch of grumpy old men arguing, some young guy giving his two-cents, and God showing up and blasting everyone. Then we’re back to where we started, as if nothing happened in the first place.

Reading through the book again, as well as reading a recent book by John Walton and Tremper Longman III, “How to Read Job” (IVP, 2015), I have seen some themes often hidden by our expectations. The book is really about the Wisdom of God, which is why it is included as Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament. The Wisdom of God is compared with the wisdom of the world based upon experience and observation (revealed by Job and his “friends”). The challenge of the book is whether we will trust God’s Wisdom even though we do not understand what is happening to us or going on around us.

The book contains challenges to how God runs the world. If it is God’s standard operating procedure (SOP) to bring prosperity and blessing to people who are righteous, then isn’t he creating a world of “mercenaries” who worship and serve him just to get rewarded? What would happen if God took away those benefits (thus Job’s first trial)? Would people still love and serve him? One can see that this is not just a question about SOP, but an implication that God might not be worthy of worship just for who he is. Hmmm…good question. Is my love and service for God based upon a quid pro quo (this for that)? What about the times of drought and despair when I feel like there is nothing in it for me? Do I still trust in his Wisdom?

The second challenge to God’s SOP comes after Job has already begun to suffer. It questions why God is ganging up on a righteous man when, in fact, he is supposed to bless the righteous. This challenge is replicated over and over again in the Psalms as the writers struggle with why the righteous suffer while the wicked are the ones who seem to prosper.

“These two challenges set up the focus of the book (Job) as it pertains to God’s policies in the world: it is not a good policy for righteous people to prosper (for that undermines the development of true righteousness by providing an ulterior motive). In tension with that, it is not as good policy for righteous  people to suffer (they are good people, the one’s who are on God’s side). So what is God to do?” (Walton and Longman, p. 15).

Thus God is assailed both coming and going. To put it in a sanitized version of a colloquial expression: He is darned is he does (bless the righteous) and darned if he doesn’t (therefore, allowing the righteous to suffer). Will Job still maintain his righteousness (integrity) even though there is nothing in it for him and God’s ways seem so incomprehensible? Will we? That seems to be the biggest issue that needs to be resolved both in the book and in our lives.

“The entire debate between Job and his friends and then God’s showing up at the end and restoring Job’s fortunes, shows us that God does not run the world by justice (at least as we understand it), but by His Wisdom. ‘I am God, who is supremely wise and powerful, so I want you to trust me even when you do not understand.'” (Walton and Longman, p. 16)

As the world cries out for justice, we trust in a God of Wisdom who is working out his purposes behind the veil of our finite understanding. “Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will…Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His works in vain; God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.” (William Cowper) Someday…

July 4th: May God Have Mercy on America!

This is July 4th and I am re-reading the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution written eleven years later; amazing documents. While many consider them to be “inspired,” they are not inerrant; the 28 amendments to the Constitution are witness to that. Also the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments in particular prove that the Constitution has blind spots and must supported by something more if it going to provide the foundation for continuing freedom.

Os Guiness has written in A Free Peoples Suicide that there are many people in America today who scorn religious fundamentalism but are hard at work creating “a constitutional fundamentalism. It is being done through lawyers and judges rather than rabbis, priests, and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical.”  First amendment rights are being argued as the basis for opposing agendas and the interpretation of the Constitution itself is at the whim of political bias. Thus this incredible document alone cannot form the foundation for sustainable freedom. It needs to be supported by something else.

Guinness offers; “What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of liberty.” Tocqueville called this moral ecology the “habits of the heart.” Guinness calls it “the golden triangle of freedom…freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom.”

What resonates with me, most likely because we have been assaulted by months of political campaigning, is the diminishing importance of virtue (character) that we see in our nation. We stress a written Constitution over the moral constitution of our nation’s citizenry and leadership. Unfortunately, examples of this are not hard to find.

Look at the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 when he was the sitting president. He was not convicted by the Senate of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”(Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution), and the overall consensus to the whole “affair” was that the character of the president was irrelevant as a public issue. What really matters to our society is competence– not character.  Look at the unrestrained greed and unfettered capitalism  of the Wall Street crisis and the recession of 2008. Look at the present political scenario and the upcoming election that will boil down to which untrustworthy candidate America trusts more. Our nation has sown the wind by making faith and virtue a private matter; it is now reaping the whirlwind of having two presidential candidates with serious personality flaws.

George Reedy, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson looked back on his experience in the halls of power and said, “in the White House, character and personality are extremely important because there are no other limitations…. Restraint must come from within the presidential soul and prudence from the presidential mind. The adversary forces which temper the action of others do not come into play until it is too late to change course.”(The Twilight of the Presidency, 1970, p. 20)

In spite of their importance, experience and competence are not the most important ingredients to what we should look for in a leader. We need a person of character who has demonstrated trustworthiness in his/her private world as well as in the public square. It is not the rhetoric or the promises for the future, but it is what they have done about keeping their promises in the past, both privately and publicly.

I think Os Guinness borders on the profound when he says, “Externally character is the bridge that provides the point of trust that links leaders with their followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides a leader’s deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint when the dizzy heights of leadership mean there are no other limitations.”

Our Constitution is a magnificent document and we can be thankful for it. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our nation can be sustained by a document alone without the virtue of its leaders and citizenry. “A good government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual and slavery will ensue.” (John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.)

May God have mercy on America!

 

Does God Delight in You?

The writers of the Psalms certainly anticipated the gospel. However, I have grown increasingly aware that their perspectives on a relationship with God reveal distinct differences from ours.

In Psalm 17:15,the Psalmist declared that his contentment in life did not come from wealth but in knowing that all was well with his soul and God.  I agree; but how does one know that things are well; how do we evaluate this? By our feelings of contentment?

In Psalm 18:19, a buoyant David gave thanks to God for victory over his enemies by saying, “He led me to a place of safety, for he delights in me.” How did he know that God delighted in him? In the next verse he said, “The Lord rewarded me for doing right, and being pure. For I have followed his commands and have not sinned by turning back from following him.” Is our righteousness the basis of God’s delight?

I don’t know about you but I have a hard time thinking that God delights in me. I also struggle with evaluating my relationship to him on the basis of how I feel or how much he has seemed to bless me. I am not being cynical or wormy here; just being honest about my own sinful nature and the fickleness of my feelings.

I think that this is where our reading of the Psalms (the whole Old Testament) needs to be informed by the gospel. Contentment and confidence in my relationship with God comes only when I realize that Christ died for me and that I am joined to him by faith (in Christ). Because God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for me, I have the confidence of knowing that I belong to him and that he will care for me unsparingly (Romans 8:32). Again, any confidence that I have is centered on Christ’s work for me and that I am in him by faith.

Martin Luther’s quest for certainty in his relationship with God was not based upon his performance or his feelings. In fact, the more he “performed” the more he became aware of his own sinfulness and hypocrisy, and the more he was terrified of God’s righteous judgment. He kept vigils, prayed, fasted, beat himself with whips, nearly froze to death in the unheated chambers of the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits where he lived as a monk. His six-hour confessionals only convinced him that even being sorry could be self-centered. Through the reading of Scripture he became convinced that his only certainty of God’s love for him came through faith in Christ work for him on the cross.

In summary, the Psalmist’s confidence of being a delight to God seems to rest on his sincerity and obedience. My confidence and certainty of God’s love for me rests upon the work of Christ on the cross. Thus when I wonder how God views me, gospel-thinking goes: I am in Christ and since God delights in his Son, therefore, God delights in me. I will hang onto this even when my own heart condemns me for God’s promises are greater than  the opinions of my heart.

 

A New Look at Esther

The Book of Esther is one of the most intriguing books in the Bible. It has all the makings of  a Father Brown mystery on PBS. The story takes place in Persia during the 5th century BC and gives a picture of the Israelites who were still in Captivity and did not choose to return to Jerusalem under Ezra or Nehemiah. Esther, a Jew, became queen of the empire and her cousin Mordecai the prime minister, and together they saved their people from the terrible Haman, a Persian official who wanted to eradicate the Jewish minority.

The book shows the Providence of God; his sovereign and faithful care over his covenant people. It is readily acknowledged that although the name of God is never mentioned, his fingerprints are all over this mystery, using human instruments to  accomplish his purpose. My new look at the book still holds to the main theme of God’s Providence, but it reveals a different take on why the name of God is never mentioned. I arrived at this because I am reading the Bible through again and just finished Ezra and Nehemiah.

The events in Esther occur roughly between those of Ezra and Nehemiah. If you compare them, you will soon notice that the Jews back in Jerusalem under the godly leadership of  Ezra and Nehemiah were always being led to pray, repent, and strive to make God’s Law the center of their lives. This God-centeredness was also demonstrated in the lives of Daniel and his three friends, who were Jewish captives under the Babylonians and who rose to prominence under pagan leadership. Yet, they remained faithful to God’s Law and never gave up the privilege of prayer.

In Esther, however, you see a Jewish people who were holding onto their Jewish cultural identity, but who no longer had God at the center of their lives. There was no apparent interest in God’s Law, no concern about the condition of Jerusalem or of the Temple, no response of repentance or prayer in the face of persecution. Mordecai’s counsel, Esther’s appearance before the king, and the plan that Esther and Mordecai hatched to do away with Haaman were all accomplished without any conscious reference to God or dependence upon his power or strength.

Esther certainly demonstrated courage, but her “If I perish, I perish “differs greatly from Nehemiah’s “But now, O God, strengthen my hands.”  Thus could it be that the name of God was never mentioned in the book because the people of God had forgotten God; lost sight of living for his glory, obeying him, and seeking his guidance and direction?  They had hunkered down in a pagan culture and instead of influencing the culture for God’s glory, they were more concerned with their own self-preservation and power.

I apply this in two ways: 1) God’s covenant faithfulness for his people, using political circumstances to work out his purposes for them, continues even though his people forget him and move him to the periphery of their lives; 2) Is God mentioned in my life? This last application is a convicting one to me. Do I make it through the day in my own wisdom or do I pray for God’s guidance and direction?

It came to me the other day that while I prayed for wisdom in the process of selecting a new car, I never asked the Lord whether I should have one in the first place. I know that it is not in a man (or woman) to determine the course of his life, so why do I live as if it is? It may surprise you how God led me in this.

I have a dear friend (Richard Burr) who has a ministry of prayer called PRAY THINK ACT. When he started the ministry I always mixed up the title and said THINK PRAY ACT. It was funny but unfortunately it said a lot about me. I have a tendency to think first, pray later, and then act, hoping that God would bless what I have done. I see growth in my life in this area, but more is needed.  I would like not only to demonstrate the courage of Esther, but also the God-centered prayer life of Daniel. I want to be a man who prays as a first response and not as a last resort.

 

 

 

 

 

Forty-Five Years!

Today is the 45th Anniversary of my ordination; when a 24 yr old inexperienced seminary grad was set aside for the gospel ministry by the laying on of hands by faithful men. 

Gloria and I were married 2 weeks later and then started as the Associate Pastor of the Bethlehem Community Church- 2 weeks later. I had the privilege of working under Pastor Art Gay and being mentored in ministry by this faithful man.   

Yesterday, I also had the special privilege of being a part of the 50th Anniversary celebration of Bethlehem Community Church, Delmar, NY and saw some very special friends. 

My life-ministry verse is and has been 1 Thess 5:20, “Faithful is he who has called you who will also do it.” Praise God for his faithfulness and I thank him for a faithful life-time partner in ministry, my wife Gloria. 

Please pray that we would continue to be faithful to our faithful God until he calls us home. 

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