Monday, August 31, 2015

On the Death of a Child

          Recently I was asked to conduct the funeral service for a baby girl. Mandy and I – having endured our own loss in this area – have made it a point to reach out to those in similar situations in their grief. The parents, a local pastor and and his wife, had contacted us as their still unborn daughter's situation deteriorated. We did our best to be a blessing and to point them in the direction of God's comfort. They are undergoing the worst of times right now but I am confident that with God's grace they will come through. As I sat down to prepare for the funeral I wanted to make the service personal and as sweet as possible. Taking the story of David and Bathsheba's loss as my text I unfolded it in the course of the message. To me, the great comfort of that passage is the certainty David expressed about joining his child in Heaven. Late at night, with only the ticking of my living room clock accompanying me, I penned these words to close the message.

The peaceful Pennsylvania hillside where my daughter Abigail is buried

"I shall go to him"
With heartbreak David said
He wiped the tears from off his face
And took a bite of bread

For seven days he'd prayed
He'd lain upon the ground
His heart inside was broken
His soul with sorrow crowned

The little boy lay lifeless
His breath stilled once for all
His tiny face unmoving
Where death had cast its pall

A week he'd graced this Earth
Short and none too sweet
His eyes now closed in death
His heart had ceased to beat

The awful news soon spread
Throughout the palace round
David's servants feared to tell him
Afraid to make a sound

His grief had been so sharp
He'd nearly come unhinged
Afraid to bear the message
Against the wall they cringed

Yet deep in David's grief
He noticed their discussion
He heard their conversation
And whispered them a question

"Is the child dead?
Is the boy departed?
Has his life now ended?
For Heaven has he started?"

In sadness servants answered
Their hearts all filled with woe
Yet face the truth they must
They gently dealt the blow

Long moments he lay quiet
The storm it howled and battered
Seeking to gain purchase
Within a heart now shattered

Then up he picked himself
Rising from the floor
Through a mist of tears
He stumbled toward the door

A week's long worth of grime
Swirled right down the drain
And with it all the hope
Replaced by piercing pain

Weeping for a night
Yea, seven in a row
His tears now mingled fresh
With water and with woe

In stillness loud he dressed
His motion heedless slow
His mind was in a fog
Numb misery did grow

He'd begged, O how he'd begged
He'd fasted, wept, and prayed
Screamed in desperation
Alone, unkempt, afraid

Yet God had paid no mind
Careless of David's pang
Heaven's door stayed close
No matter how he rang

Now cleansed and clothed he crawled
To worship he went crying
His body vertical
Inside his spirit dying

He slumped into his seat
Lifelong habit driven
Despair sat down beside him
Inside his heart was riven

Hark now the anthem chorus
Raised by Asaph's singers
Perhaps a psalm of David's
Harps played with skillful fingers

Unseen into his soul
Peace steals on quiet feet
Her twin of comfort too
Arrives and soon they meet

Inside of David's heart
They take up residence
Ushered in by faith
They bide and ne'er go hence

The tears still flow but now
No longer filled with torment
Instead hope rises winging
To heaven thoughts now bent

With pace anew and quickened
He turns to his abode
His servants note the difference
Puzzled how he rode

On sorrow's wings on leaving
On hope's when he returned
What caused this different feeling?
What in the Temple learned?

Summoning their courage
One of their number braced him
"David, why the change?
What caused your pain to dim?

Why have you forsaken
The grief that laid you low?
Why have you washed and eaten?
Why don't your tears still flow?"

In quiet calm he answered
With heart still hurt but hopeful
He looked into their faces
Spoke words serene and helpful

"I shall go to him"
With heartbreak David said
He wiped the tears from off his face
And took a bite of bread

Dear hearts who gather here
In mourning and in sorrow
I bid you lift your spirits
The Balm of Gilead borrow

Let peace and comfort enter
Bid faith and hope walk in
Remind yourself of Heaven
No night, no pain, no sin

No crepe upon the doorknob
Death's gone and won't return
Abundant life eternal
God's promise sure and firm

Charissa Lynn is waiting
Cross Jordan's far bright shore
She will not come to us
But we will go to her

Monday, August 24, 2015

Alcohol 12 - A Side Helping of Charity

note: a few years ago someone emailed me a question about what is perhaps the most difficult verse in the Bible in relation to alcohol; for my last blog post about alcohol in this series I offer you my answer to him

Dear _______________,

De 14:26 And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household,

Some time ago you asked me a question about this verse, and I told you I would get back to you about it. I have spent some time studying the subject of the Bible and alcohol, and in fact preached a series of six sermons about it on Wednesday nights a couple of years ago. (If you want them I will be glad to send them to you). In that series I come down on the side of abstention, though at the same time I can be charitable in my mind to those of my brethren who disagree with me. I have zero patience for some of their arguments i.e. Jesus made alcohol, 'wine' in the Bible is always alcohol, etc. but there are at least two verses that I freely (albeit painfully) acknowledge give me a bit of a pause. One is the verse above and the other is I Tim 3.8. I don't believe these two verses allow a restrained use of alcoholic beverages, but I can certainly see why some would believe they do, so I can be charitable in my mind to those who disagree with me.

One of my guiding principles in hermeneutics is this: which side does the weight come down on? This is especially true when dealing with issues that are not particularly clear cut i.e. certain doctrinal aspects of soteriological terms, aspects of calvinism, dress standards, etc. In my six sermon series on alcohol I used literally hundreds of Bible verses to establish the danger and folly of drinking. On the other hand there are, at most, only two that seem to say the opposite, or that I cannot clearly reconcile in my own mind. So when I stack up several hundred verses on one side (don't drink) against the only two I can't explain completely on the other side, I come down on the side of don't drink with a side helping of grace/charity for those who disagree with me.

That is the big picture of my approach. Now let me give you something more specific to Deut 14.26. There are some conservative Christians who assert that 'strong drink' here doesn't mean alcohol. I disagree. I do agree that 'wine' doesn't always mean alcohol, but 'strong drink' is rather clear to me, and as a KJV man who doesn't believe in correcting the Bible I cannot hold that position only until it is convenient for me to correct the Bible. IOW, I do believe Moses is here stating that one is free to purchase alcoholic beverages and consume them during the consumption of the tithe feast at Jerusalem.

Having admitted that potentially damaging statement into evidence, let me add two other thoughts with direct bearing on this verse.

1) This is in the direct context of an OT Jewish feast observance, or at least of a Jewish ceremonial law observance. I strongly believe the NT Christian is still under the moral code of the OT Law (nine of the 10 commandments) but I am convinced that the NT Christian is not under the ceremonial or civil aspects of OT Law. Deuteronomy 14.26 is not a part of the moral code of the OT Law. As such, it is no longer applicable to the Christian in the NT. Do you take your tithe to the Tabernacle/Temple @ Shiloh or Jerusalem once a year and use it to throw your family and employees a party? Of course not, and for good reason. Then an intellectually honest argument cannot use this verse to defend a pro-drinking position for the NT Christian. One cannot rationally say, 'I have the right to apply one part of this verse and the right to reject the rest.' Either apply it all or reject it all.

2) You are familiar, I'm sure, with the doctrinal concept of progressive revelation. God, in the process of giving His Word over 1600 years, became progressively more specific about Who He is and what He expects of us. There are certainly aspects of OT practice that the NT, in essence, frowns on. Polygamy is a great example of this. Divorce is another. It was allowed under Mosaic Law but Jesus revealed to us more of God's mind in that incredibly revealing statement, 'Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives:' To me, though here good men too disagree, the NT is clear. Divorce is not allowed, for God doesn't want it, even if He will allow you to do it b/c you want it so strongly. The expanded/progressive revelation contained in the rest of Scripture reveal God's full mind on the subject, and show that even though divorce is allowed it shouldn't be done. I think that exact same thing applies to Deuteronomy 14.26. God allowed them to buy/consume alcohol b/c they strongly wanted to do so, but as the revelation of Himself progresses throughout the rest of Scripture we can see His mind quite clearly on the subject of alcohol - it is to be completely avoided.

I try to be intellectually honest with myself when studying/preaching/practicing the Scriptures. I'm sure I don't always do it correctly. But for these reasons, amongst others, I feel perfectly content getting up and preaching complete abstention rather than just controlled drinking. I think I'm quite clearly on the right side of the issue as it is explained in Scripture. I don't assert that blindly, either, for I have studied it a bit. On the other hand, there is just enough murkiness in Bible statements on this so as to prevent me from absolutely trashing another person who disagrees with me on this. I'm right, and they're wrong, and I don't hesitate to preach that, but I do think I should do so with humility in my position - just in case I'm wrong. ;)

Hope that helps you to answer this question, and, of course, I would welcome your feedback when you get around to it. Praying for you all, and especially your upcoming trip to Texas.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Alcohol 11 - Water Into Wine

note: this was originally published February 17, 2014 as Life of Christ 25; I repeat it here because any discussion of alcohol simply must involve this passage

            I'm a teetotaler. That is just an old-fashioned term for someone who doesn't drink alcohol. I do not mean by this that I only occasionally imbibe, but rather that I never do. In fact, I'm one of those rare people in existence who never have. I know that beer smells bad, but I have no idea what it tastes like, let alone wine or spirits. I do this out of the conviction that drinking alcoholic beverages is wrong for God's people. This doesn't make me better than those who do - though I would argue it makes me wiser (Proverbs 20.1) - but it does mean I'm going to have this story (John 2.1-11) thrown at me about a million times in my life. It usually goes something like this:
            'What? You don't believe in drinking? C'mon, man! Everybody knows that Jesus Himself turned water into wine. If it's good enough for Him it's good enough for me.'
            I realize that there are many good Christians who disagree with me on this issue. They take the position that the Bible condemns drinking in excess, but not drinking in moderation. They, like I, believe drunkenness is a sin, but they, unlike I, see nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional alcoholic beverage. They point to a long tradition of such behavior being accepted by the Church, and they point especially to passages such as this as evidence that moderate drinking is perfectly appropriate for the Christian.
            For these reasons, amongst others, some years ago I decided I needed to study out the issue in some depth. I compiled a number of different books, and spent a good amount of time looking at both those books and the hundreds of Bible references to wine and strong drink. I am confident I have come to a good understanding of what the Bible teaches on the issue, and while I will not take time to present everything I learned on this blog at this time, I do want to briefly address this story from this perspective for it is something that comes up so often.
           One of the mistakes we make in our generation is to take a twenty first century definition and put it to a first century biblical word or phrase. To us, 'wine' always means an alcoholic drink. In Jesus' day, this was not the case, as the word was used to mean grape juice preserved in both an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic manner. Christians who believe in moderate drinking take the position that it the secret to preserving grape juice over time in a non-alcoholic state was unknown prior to Thomas Bramwell Welch applying pasteurization to it in 1869. Those Christians are most assuredly wrong. There are literally dozens of extant quotes from historical sources that soundly establish a large variety of cultures, even back in Bible times, knew how to preserve grape juice in a non-alcoholic manner for a long period of time, and that people used the term 'wine' interchangeably to refer to both.
            The simple truth is that 'wine' in the Bible sometimes means alcoholic wine, and sometimes simply preserved, non-alcoholic grape juice, and it is my understanding that we generally figure out which is which by examining the context of the usage.
            This wine that Jesus made was not at the beginning of the feast, but later on, after they had already drunk what was there. Those who assert that 'wine' in the Bible is always alcoholic have to understand that the people at the feast in Cana were already well on their way to being soused when the wine ran out. A firkin is about nine gallons, so each stone water pot held between 18-27 gallons, and there were six of these, meaning these water pots held between 108 and 162 gallons. Let us take the middle number of 135 gallons. If what Jesus miraculously manufactured was alcoholic wine then we must understand that He just dumped into the laps of a border-line drunken crowd a staggering 135 more gallons of premium alcoholic wine. If that was the case, in light of all that the Bible has to say about the negative effects of alcohol, what kind of a wedding feast would have resulted? I propose to you it would be the kind of feast that Noah had in Genesis 9 and that Lot had in Genesis 19, a drunken, debauched, and sensual party.
            Is that how Jesus would have wanted the holy institution of the marriage of this couple to begin? Is that how Jesus would have wanted to begin His public ministry? Is that how Jesus would have wanted to enter into the initial training of His few disciples? Is that the kind of wedding feast He would have wanted His mother to attend? No, no, no, and again, no! The Word made flesh would never have so contradicted the written Word of the Old Testament prophets.
            For many years we have had small children in our home, and they drink a fair amount of juice. One of the cheapest places to buy it in our neighborhood is ALDI, and my wife will frequently bring home some apple or grape juice from there. Personally, and do not tell my children please, I refuse to drink it. I find the flavor to be completely unacceptable. The container says 100% juice, and I assume they are telling the truth, but I cannot bring myself to imbibe as the taste is so poor.
Bruiloft van Cana, Maerten de Vos, 1596
            On the other hand, I contrast this in my mind with an afternoon walk I took in an orchard some years back. We had gone together, as is our custom, in the Fall to pick some apples together as a family. This particular day was unseasonably warm for October in our region of the country, and the sun was shining brightly. On the way back to the section of trees to be picked that day we happened to walk by a grape arbor. Seeing the plump purple grapes hanging down in clusters, on impulse, I grabbed a bunch, and as I walked I began to eat them. Much to my delight, I found those perfectly ripened and sun warmed grapes, plucked fresh just moments ago from the vine, to be absolutely divine. As I walked I began to squeeze them, one by one, into my mouth, popping them out of the skin, and savoring the taste until the red juice began to dribble down my chin. I have never forgotten that taste, and although I've also never been able to replicate it, I have enjoyed it many times in my mind.
            Yes, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. I accept that, and indeed, even embrace it. It was the sweet beginning to our Saviour's public ministry. But, and if you will forgive the poverty of the illustration, what He did was replace the just run out of ALDI 100% juice reconstituted from concentrate with the just squeezed blood of perfectly ripened sun warmed grapes plucked moments ago from the vine.

            …and the governor's eyes lit up, just as mine did, on that October walk in the apple orchard, a few years ago.