Friday, December 13, 2013

Those Who Sow in Tears Shall Reap with Shouts of Joy

Do you worry over your child's anger and behavioral failures, fearing he will be ruined by them, or that you are failing him as a parent?  What would it be like instead to rejoice in his failings as tools in God's hands to pave the way toward an infinitely brighter future?

Our 23-month-old son Ephraim has developed a recent fascination with blankets.  This evening he tried picking up the blanket my on which my wife was sitting.  When he was unable to do it, he protested vociferously.  Then he tried jumping off the coffee table onto the couch, but he couldn't bridge the gap, which sent him spiraling downward even further.  Exhausted and hungry, he proceeded into a bleary-eyed, wailing tantrum that would last about twenty minutes.

After I took him upstairs for "time out" in his crib, I prayed with him.  At first I asked God to be near to him and give him the ability to calm down because, as John Piper points out, anger "devours almost all other good emotions" and "numbs the heart to joy and gratitude and hope and tenderness and compassion and kindness."*

But then I thought, maybe I shouldn't pray for that.  So instead I began to pray, "God, in times like this when Ephraim can't control his own anger and emotions and tantrums, let him see his own desperate condition.  Let him see that he cannot restrain his feelings and the chaos that floods over him.  Let him see both your forgiveness for him in the cross and also how much he needs the power of the Holy Spirit inside him to give him peace and the ability to calm down."

This was really freeing.  As I thought about it over the evening, I gained a small bit of parenting freedom.  I've been reading through the book of Proverbs recently, which is mostly a book of how fathers should train their children in wise living in fear of the Lord.  Proverbs says that children who grow up to be unruly, disobedient, and unwise are "fools."  And of course I never want my son to be foolish or to be ruled by his desires (which is what anger reveals; see James 4:1-3).  But more than I want him to be "good," I want him to know and receive the goodness of Jesus Christ.  I want him to see how needy and sinful and evil his heart is, and that his outbursts reveal both how selfish his desires are and how he is mastered by his own desires--and that through this his only hope, and his sure hope, is the grace of God in Jesus.

I pray that God will keep this in my mind as the years go by.  Instead of fretting over every tantrum and display of self-will, I want them to become signposts confirming to him his need for Christ and the grace God offers to the humble.  I want to know that the more Ephraim sins--as atrocious as this is--the more cause there will be for him to crave the unfailing love of God.  "With weeping they shall come, and with pleas of mercy I will lead them back, ... for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn" (Jeremiah 31:9).
*John Piper, This Momentary Marriage (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2009) p. 150.

Monday, September 16, 2013

With Reverence and Awe

I drove past a church in Richmond last week that had a sign which read: "Worship just got better.  Casual.  Contemporary.  Comfortable."  Now when I read more on this church's website, I think their worship might still be pretty legitimate--that is, centered upon God's word to us in the gospel, led by the Holy Spirit, for the sake of exalting God's name through Christ our Lord.  But should we expect worship to be casual and comfortable?

Actually, if we stop and are honest, many of us might use words like mundane or boring.  How many of us can resonate with something so un-noteworthy as a group of ordinary folks sitting around as the preacher goes on and on about Melchizedek-this or Shechem-that ... and you start daydreaming ... and fall asleep. (This was even true when the Apostle Paul taught; see Acts 20:7-9.)

But Jesus reminds us that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them" (Matthew 18:20).  Now, in context he is saying this about the leaders of the church in exercising church discipline.  But in doing so, Jesus says that whatever they do on earth is also happening in heaven (see Matthew 18:15-20).  When the church gathers on earth, she is also meeting in heaven.

In Hebrews 12:22-24 we see an even more vivid portrait of what happens when the saints gather:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly [or church; Greek ekklesia] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
This is a present reality for the gathered church: you have come (v. 22).  Thus the author concludes with this exhortation: "See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.  For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. ... Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (vv. 25, 28-29; see also Psalm 50).

"There I am among them."  What should we expect when Jesus comes in the midst of his people?  What should worship look like?  Again, probably it will appear to our eyes very normal to us most of the time.  But we should never fail to remember that our Lord is active in our midst as one "from [whose] mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and [whose] face was like the sun shining in full strength" (see Revelation 1:12-20).

Source: Wintley Phipps, 
When we believe that Jesus is a living person present with us in our worship, we should expect more to be shaken than to be comfortable; we're encountering heaven.  Church gatherings like those we see in the New Testament begin to take on a new light:

Praying saints are shaken and filled with the Holy Spirit to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).

The power of the Lord Jesus is present (1 Corinthians 5:4).

Sinners are forgiven and the sick are healed (James 5:14-16).

The dead are raised to life (Acts 20:7-12).

Unbelievers are convicted of sin, the secrets of their hearts are exposed, and they fall on their face in worship because God truly is present (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).

Believers participate in the benefits of the crucified and exalted body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16).

Sin-sick and life-weary hearts are refreshed and given hope (John 7:37-39; Acts 3:19-20).

Here in September, in the time between Pentecost and Advent, the church calendar says we're in "ordinary time."  However, right worship is anything but ordinary.  Or casual.  Or comfortable.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

I'll Do Better Next Time

I recently finished reading Edward Welch's book Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave: Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel (P & R, 2001).  I found it to be a really helpful guide to the fact that addictions--whatever biological and sociological components may be at play--are ultimately a worship disorder: We worship our own desires and cravings so much that they become our masters and enslave us.  Which, of course, means that there is hope for addicts of all kinds--not in AA, nor rehab, nor medicine, nor counseling, but in Jesus Christ, who died for us to break the power of sin over us, so that we would no longer be its slaves (see Romans 6:1-23).  Jesus sets us free to know and worship the true God.

Anyway, on page 282 amid some practical tips for remembering and applying the work of Christ to our daily battles, Welch paraphrases Martin Luther in offering this tough admonition:
Is Christ always in view when you talk about sin?  Commenting on Galatians 5:4, Luther asks, "What do you do when you are caught in some sin?  If your answer is, 'I'll do better next time,' then you have no need of Christ."  Luther then offers this alternative: "that you despair of your own righteousness and you trust boldly in Christ."

Friday, July 19, 2013

Nothing Can Hinder the Lord

This week I was talking with some other dads at our church about how difficult it is to rear our children to understand both grace and law.  We all recognized this is a tough tightrope to walk!  After all, nearly every New Testament letter was occasioned by either too much reliance on the law (human behaviors and efforts) or a perversion of grace into a license to sin or to live a lax life.  Both errors fail to do justice to the cross of Jesus.

Of course, this concern is even broader than understanding the gospel.  Any honest parent, I'm sure, would be led to some worries about whether they're doing a good job raising their kids rightly in all aspects of wise living.

But thank God I was reminded of this simple truth that evening: The God who gave us children in the first place, the God who has put authority and responsibility into parents' hands, who is himself a loving Father--it is this God who cares more about our children than we do!  He cares more about their faith and salvation than we ever will.  He is the one who designed his great saving plan and sent his Son to die for sinners, at great cost to himself.  He is the one who sends his Spirit to open the eyes of the blind to see the light of Christ's glory (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6).  He is the one who finds immense joy in recovering his lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7).  He is the one who delights in wisdom (Proverbs 8:30; 3 John 4).  As the Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us*, God uses our best efforts to rear our children in the way of the Lord Jesus without exasperating them (Ephesians 6:4), but he is not confined by how well we do.  After all, he is the one who, in his wisdom, has entrusted the passing of his covenant to the next generation into the hands of finite, weak sinners, and so he too will provide amazing grace to see that his purposes for our children are fulfilled.  Why are we sitting there looking at ourselves?  No wonder we have fears about parenting.

"Come, let us go ... .  It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few" (1 Samuel 14:6).
* "God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure." (5:3)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Do Not Be Deceived

When I was preparing the walls of our new house for painting, I discovered the oddest thing: the new off-white paint and even the reddish paint beneath were added over the blue painter's tape around a light switch.  Who paints over painter's tape?  It seemed like no big deal, especially with the tape buried under two layers of paint and concealed by the switch cover plate.  That is, until I tried scraping the wall and taking off the paint. Now that tape is making it a lot harder, and its removal will probably do a lot more damage.

Have you ever done something wrong and tried to cover it up with a lie?  Of course you have.  We all have.  This leads to one of two almost inevitable additional steps--or both: You add to that lie by fabricating an entire deception-filled ruse so that your original lie won't become uncovered, or you repeat that original lie over and over again with greater force and confidence.  Either way, the original truth becomes so buried under a mountain of lies that we cannot even find it anymore.  Eventually we get to the point where we think it would require more work and damage to unravel our wicked web than to maintain the facade.  We come to the point where we've lied so much that our minds become reprogrammed, and the lie becomes our new functional truth.  We become no longer able to tell the truth from the lie; we believe the lie we keep telling is the truth.

Rather than deceiving others, you now have deceived yourself.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Father's Day Gospel

Father's Day provides an annual chance to awkwardly think about why you love your dad.  But what if you are the dad?  Do you start shifting in your chair, wondering if you're doing a good job?  What if you fall short?

Maybe you're a dad who worships the living God and reads the Bible.  What would you do if you came across these passages in the Old Testament?
"You shall have no other gods before me. ... You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Deuteronomy 5:7, 9-10) 
"And the LORD said to me, '... Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and keep my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!'" (Deuteronomy 5:29)
The Old Testament is rife with examples of poor fathers raising foolish children who don't fear the Lord, and of how indeed the sin of fathers consumes their whole families.  (Take, for example, the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Numbers 16, or the sons of Eli in 1 Samuel 2!)  God works in and through family relationships throughout the Bible, and for the most part, families rise and fall on the faith of the father who leads the home.

So when we as fathers read these passages about the God who is "the same yesterday and today and forever," how can we have good hope for our children after us?  How can we be sure we will raise a wise family who repent of their sins and embrace Jesus, who fear and trust God and call him Father?  How will we know we will see his blessing upon our households rather than curses?  After all, does not God threaten to return fathers' sins upon their children's heads?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Not in Temples Made by Man

This Sunday will be City Church of Richmond's last worship service at our current site before moving to another congregation's building (we rent the space).  This will be our second move.  (After our inception in 2006 we moved to our present location in February 2011.)  Honestly, this is bittersweet for me, just as the first move was.  And I'm really bummed because I left my camera at school and won't get any photos of our last worship service.
But as I was looking through the photos on our church website, it helped me remember that City Church is not a building; it is the "household of God" (Ephesians 2:19) and the "family of believers" (Galatians 6:10 NIV).  City Church is the Stacks, the Walkers, the Bourgeoises, the Bonkovskys, the Bryants, the Warshaws, the Blanchards, the Shays, the Crawfords.  It's Gabe and Ellen and Ruthie and Todd and Jessee--all the wonderful people who gather every week to hear the gospel of God's grace to us in Christ, respond in prayer and praise, and to gather around the table to eat dinner with Jesus.  The real church sits in the pews.
photo photo photo
"The God who made the world and everything in it ... does not live in temples made by man," the apostle Paul reminds us (Acts 17:24).  "In him [Christ] you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22).  It is the people of City Church that make the building special, not vice versa.  It is when we meet and because we meet in Jesus' name that the building becomes special, infused with the presence of Jesus by his Spirit.  "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them" (Matthew 18:20).  That fellowship with Jesus and one another in him is what brings us joy (see 1 John 1:1-4).  And this is not mere sentimentalism, but some kind of holy mystery that exists among those who belong to God.

Olivia and I are in the process of closing on a wonderful new house God has provided us in the Lakeside area of Richmond.  Just blocks away in "the white house" we rekindled our relationship in 2007 and began our married life in Richmond in 2009.  Yet as sad as it is to leave the white house or even our current apartment of 3-1/2 years, it's not the house that is important.  The address is simply the context for the memories--the questions and anxieties of our lives, the gladness of marital bliss, the challenges faced in our sin and the sweet joys of forgiveness, the birth of a child and watching him grow.  But we are that house, so that house will never die no matter where it moves.
Our new house!
P.S. - Daniel, Jennifer, and Caroline -- Our prayers are with you as you move to DC!  You'll be missed!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In the Flesh I Live by Faith

Ever since I became a follower of Jesus in college, Galatians 2:20-21 has been one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!  (NIV)
It's one thing to be excited about a Bible verse that captures the essence of the good news about Jesus when you're new in the faith.  But it's another thing to look back eleven years later and see more of this.  I guess that's one of the many things I love about the Word of God, too: it's so rich that it never ceases to be relevant.  As I learn more about life, it speaks deeper truths.

Paul wrote Galatians sometime between A.D. 48-52, at least 17 years after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus (see 1:18 and 2:1).  And what did he learn in those 17 years?  "It becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners" (2:17).  When I first began to love the gospel I think I had some idea I'd have grown a halo by now.  But instead I'm pretty sure the opposite has happened.

What I never saw before--and what I love now--is that Paul says that "the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith" (ESV).  For years I read "in the body" (NIV) and thought, Duh.  Of course he lives in the body.  He's a human.  He has a body.  I never understood why that was relevant for Paul.  But seeing "flesh" (Greek sarx) made sense of it: "flesh" is Paul's one-stop-shop for referring to the powers and postures of a fallen world and a sinful nature that tries to exercise every way of achieving hope and peace and life and joy except for submitting to God and trusting in him.  Our flesh represents our self-serving desires bent against God.

So why do I love this?  Because Paul just spent 17 years becoming an even bigger sinner, growing daily in his debt to God.  He knows he still lives "in the flesh."  He still has a "body of death" that perplexes him with his conflicting desires that rear their head without warning (see Romans 7).  And yet he can say that even in the midst of that--in fact, precisely because of that--he lives by faith in Jesus, God's Son.*  He sees he can't earn God's favor and love by his moral rectitude and just gives up, casting his worn-out soul on Jesus who loves him.

And if Paul can do that, so can I, because Jesus is not dead but alive.  In the middle of my perplexing, senseless sin that just grows every day, I can and must live by faith in Jesus.  I can know that Jesus "loved me and gave himself for me."  His death has not only fully paid for all my sins but also served as the culmination of a life of obedient sonship that became a fragrant offering to God (see Ephesians 5:2 and 1 Samuel 15:22).  And now, somehow, mysteriously, by faith his very life replaces mine before God--his obedience, his sonship, his place in the Father's love.

So I can go on living in the flesh, a stinkin' mess of sin and brokenness, knowing and trusting in Jesus.  The gospel is good news indeed.

*Paul's argument in Galatians 2:17ff. goes something like this: Because Paul and his company are sinners, people are accusing them of using Jesus' grace as an excuse for sin: When people have Jesus, they don't need to be law-keepers to earn God's favor, so Jesus is a "servant of sin."  But Paul denies this, saying rather that they were "found to be sinners," people who by very nature cannot keep the law wholly and so cannot earn a right standing with God through it.  Rather, Paul sees how the law shows him his own sin and then how Jesus fufilled it for him, so that he can say "through the law I died to the law."  That is, the law itself showed him the law was useless but that Christ was faithful in every way Paul himself had failed.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Gladly Being Spent

[Wow.  Blogging again.  At least this once, anyway.]

Today as Olivia and I were planning out our daily schedule, taking advantage of a day off work due to some snow and late-night ice, I realized that her plans to get an allergy shot and go shopping with a friend from work would ax my plans to go running around the golf course.  (Getting pegged in the head by a stray golf ball is not something I generally like to risk, so I rejoiced to think that no one would be out on the links today.)  After all, I had to stay home and take care of our year-old son Ephraim.

I was in a sort of funk for a while after that, which I now attribute to the selfishness of my own heart.  While Olivia was getting ready to leave, I commented on how I really find it hard sometimes to see children from God the Creator's point of view: that they are an unqualified blessing.  "And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth'" (Genesis 9:1; cf. 1:28).  "Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. ... Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!" (Psalm 127:3, 5; see also Psalm 128).  Let's face it: we have it easy.  Neither of us is a single parent, and we only have one child, who sleeps probably 16 hours a day.  And yet how often all I think about is how having a child limits my freedoms and ease of living.  I might be anti-abortion, yet I still functionally imbibe the zeitgeist that unlimited convenience trumps the challenges of raising children.

Then, as usual, God's Word exposed the thoughts and intentions of my heart and found them wanting and selfish.  Yay, I love that.  In 2 Corinthians 12:14-15 Paul sets forth a different attitude for parenting to his "children" at Corinth:
And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you.  For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.  I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?
As a father, my chief aim should be to love my son the way God loves us in Christ, pursuing us to win our hearts: "What I seek is ... you."  Am I seeking Ephraim's love, trust, and respect so that I can point him to the Father above who loves him far more than I ever will?  Or is my desire and prize to go running, explore the woods, sleep more, have a clean apartment, or watch Parks and Recreation?

And in that pursuit am I joyfully giving up everything I have and expending myself, just like Jesus did for me? "Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).  Jesus gladly "emptied himself" of all his freedoms and lived each day in a death to comfort, self-will, and independence in order to win back the hearts of God's straying children (Philippians 2:5-11).  Will I too do this for my son by sacrificing my plans, my free time, my convenience, and my sleep and spending these to serve and care for him?

Thankfully, all of this came to me while Ephraim was taking a nap.  When he awoke, God gave me so much happiness as I picked him up, fed him, changed his stinky diaper, and danced with him to Caedmon's Call's 40 Acres album.  Thanks, Lord, for my little boy, and every moment with him.  He's growing up so quickly, and these days will soon be only photos and memories.