Tuesday, March 31, 2020

An Open Letter to My Son, Jack

Thirty-nine years ago, I fell in love with reading. I was in first grade, and by October I had read all my assigned literature books for the entire year, and started in on my sister’s books that were several grades in advance of my own. Before I turned ten, I had begun collecting books, lining them up along the edge of the floor in my room as I had no bookshelf. By the time I was twelve, I had begun serious reading, including Edward Gibbon’s massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I had found haunting the stacks of the Girard Free Library. As a teenager, I discovered the classics of English, Russian, and American fiction, rummaging around in Dickens and Hugo and Scott. In high school, I discovered L’Amour and Asimov, and entirely out of step with those devoured John R. Rice’s academic tome on inspiration. College and the first five years of a bi-vocational pastorate left little time for reading, but when my church grew enough to support me on a full-time basis I happily rediscovered the joy of books. Now, for almost two decades, I have delighted again in study and, not surprisingly, become an author myself.
          Throughout these four decades, I have slowly gathered a library one book at a time. I hoarded books like other men hoard tools or collect baseball cards. For years they traveled with me from place to place in boxes. I would store them anywhere I could, and dream of the day I could unpack them all, and put them into a permanent home. Yet as the years passed, and my boxes of books multiplied, the spaces of my life proved too small to contain them. I crammed them into this spare corner and that one. I stowed them precariously along the stairs, banished others to the basement, and stacked still more double-deep on the shelves lining every square inch of my tiny church office.
         Last Fall I accepted the pastorate here in Dubuque. The first load that got moved was my books, this time housed in brand new plastic totes, an entire truckload of them. They got piled up on every available surface, including the floor, of my new office. One by one, my new church members would wander back to my office to see if the rumors were true. Did I really have that many books? Where was I going to put them all? Good question, I thought.
          Across the hall from my new office was another empty office. It would make a fine conference room, I thought, somewhere to hold deacon’s meetings and disciple new converts during the Sunday School hour. Then it dawned on me – why not line the walls with bookshelves and kill two or three birds with one stone? I could have space to breathe in my office, my books could finally have a permanent home, and the church could have a very usable mentoring/meeting space all at the same time.
          Eighteen years ago, God blessed our home with a fiery red-headed boy. He has challenged me and delighted me more than anything else in my life for the past almost twenty years. Three years ago, he began to develop an aptitude for working with his hands. At first, he built benches and boxes, carefully laboring over the tiny details. He spent hours on Youtube studying cabinet making and applying what he watched. Every bench he sold he plowed right back into buying more tools. Over time, he acquired machines and skill both unusual to find in a self-taught home-schooled high-school kid. He moved on from benches to tables and from tables to massive crosses and finely detailed pulpits. He was building a business right there in my garage. Then we moved.
          I stood in the empty room across the hall from my office that day and decided that I would risk my unproven capital at my new church. I did not understand how they functioned, financially, nor did they understand how I lead. But the father and the pastor in me both knew this was a good idea. Instead of just throwing up some shelving and calling it a day I would go to bat for the money necessary for the right materials. I would enlist Jack. And I would build a conference room and a permanent home for my books.
          The next day, I dragged Jack into the empty office. For two hours, we laid out a library. Oak. Built-in. More shelving space than I needed for once in my life since I have yet more books to acquire in future years. Different sizes of shelves. Decorative elements. Hand-made panels and pillars. Crown molding. The only thing I turned him down on was a coffered ceiling. We used every available inch of wall, including a closet that needed to be accessed but at the same time covered in shelves. Jack was delighted at the thought of building a secret door. Neither the father in me nor the pastor in me wanted to ask him to donate all of his time. His skills were beyond that. This was going to take hundreds of hours. He deserved to be compensated. But he would not be. He knew it, and I knew it. And he agreed to it without hesitation.
          For the last six months he has lived in that room, practically. Each day, after finishing his school work, he would head to the church. With his own money, he bought yet more equipment, the portable kind necessary for on location construction. All through the winter he worked. Everything but the finish work had to be done outside. He shoveled snow off of his work area, and learned to ignore the cold of an Iowa winter. He set up tents tied down with bricks and chairs to keep the rain off his equipment. He battled a room where every wall and the ceiling and the floor was out of square. He crafted each bookcase as a unit, and we carried them in together and set them in place. He moved outlets and heating vents. He fought the secret door tooth and nail for a couple of months. Along the way, he celebrated his eighteenth birthday. Last week, I helped him with the homestretch, and together we spent hour upon hour hand-rubbing Danish oil into the wood, watching the grain come alive.
          Many men are proud of their sons. They sit in the stands and watch them hunker down over the line of scrimmage. They schlep them from game to game, from tournament to tournament. At every chance, they brag to their friends of how smart or talented or dedicated or athletic or clever their sons are. That is natural. I am all for it. But – and forgive me for this – I do not know another father of my acquaintance whose teenage son has given him such a princely gift as Jack has given me. Because he loves me. Because he loves the Lord. And because he loves to do fine work. I do not know what he will do with his life but I have told him again and again that I cannot wait to see. Whatever he does, he will do it with excellence. The proof is right across the hall from my office.

          It is not enough, but this blog post is all I can offer by way of repayment.
          Thank you, Jack.
          I am proud of you.
          And I love you.  

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Faith and Love

Faith 12

          When God says something once it is worth noting. When God says something repeatedly it is worth emphasizing. One of the things God says repeatedly in Scripture is that faith and love are linked. For example:

Ephesians 6:23  Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1Thessalonians 3:6  But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you:
1Timothy 1:14  And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.

          This is because, in a very real sense, the point of our obedience to Him ought to be faith and love. Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned (I Timothy 1.5). There are two ditches on either side of the road of obedience. There is the ditch of pragmatism – I obey so I can do something or accomplish something. There is also the ditch of pharisaism – I obey so I can be proud of my obedience. Truth is almost always balanced, lying between extremes of error. Obedience ought to be so foundational that we do not obey in order to do/accomplish something, but it ought not be so foundational that the obedience itself it the point. There is a larger point, the end of the commandment i.e. the aim or point. What is it? Faith and love. If our Christian obedience does not result in greater faith and love than our obedience is faulty.
          The simple truth is where we find one healthy we ought so find the other. We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth (II Thessalonians 1.3). A great faith in God is not found without a great love for God and a great love for God is not found without a great faith in God. As of this writing, I have been married for twenty years. I love my wife more now than I did twenty years ago when we began this journey. Not coincidentally, I trust her with absolutely everything in my life. Those two elements – my love for her and my trust in her – have grown together.
          Faith that does not operate out of or in love is a lousy faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love (Galatians 5.6). In other words, love must be a prime motivating factor in that which causes us to believe God for something, to rest in Him for something, or to depend upon Him for something. If I am to exercise faith in God to provide us with a larger church facility that ought to be driven by love – a love for God and a love for people. Faith motivates God. It swings God into action, so to speak. He loves when we trust Him. But if my love for Him and for those around me is not motivation to put Him into action I have a deep spiritual problem.

          I am an independent, fundamental Baptist and not in the least ashamed of that. I do not apologize for my doctrinal positions. But I must hold those doctrinal positions in faith and love. Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus (II Timothy 1.13). If I do not trust in God as I hold my precious doctrinal positions I will end up in serious trouble. Because pride will get me. Leaning on my knowledge and understanding and/or trusting the strength of my own backbone develops my pride. I must lean on Him. Likewise, if I do not love God and love people as I hold my doctrinal positions I will end up in serious trouble. Because I will move past the balance of grace and truth into a downright bitter spirit. I will become harsh where I ought to become Christlike.
          Beloved, let us stand for what we believe in, but let us do so trusting in God and loving Him and those around us while we do so. Let us minister and serve out of both together. For in doing, we will find a great protection. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love (I Thessalonians 5.8).      

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Faith and Prayer and Doubt

Faith 11

          We have this idea that faith in prayer means we are not allowed to have any doubt at all. This concept of faith/prayer contains more belief for than belief in, so to speak. It says, “If I believe in God strongly enough He will do for me whatever it is that I ask.”
          There is some scriptural warrant for such a position in Mark 11.24. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. I do not deny this verse. I celebrate it. But I also state that internalizing and applying this verse can only be done from an incredibly spiritual position. Furthermore, I freely admit that even after decades of walking with God I have not yet arrived at that position. If you are there, I am happy for you. Pray for me, would you?
          Understanding this, it then follows that there must be some connection between faith and prayer that is more reachable, more obtainable for the typical Christian than a faith unmixed with doubt. As I wrote of earlier in this series, faith and doubt are often intermingled. Is there a way to bring prayer into that? I think the answer is a resounding yes. It is a prayer that does not require an unswerving belief that God will but rather that God can. Confident that He can, it asks Him if He will. It does not demand. Indeed, it trembles that He will not. But it asks because it knows He can.
          We find this exact scenario in the utterly human prayer meeting found in Acts 12. Herod, spurred on by a demonically motivated Sanhedrin frustrated that killing Jesus did not kill Christianity, went after the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, James. After assassinating James, Peter was next and the church knew it. Arrested and imprisoned, Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him (Acts 12.5). That prayer meeting was long and intense. Miraculously, while it was ongoing, Peter was released from his shackles by an angel and pointed toward the prayer meeting. Arriving, in one of the funniest stories in the Bible, he has trouble gaining admittance to the very prayer meeting beseeching God for his deliverance. Why? He was assumed to be a ghost. When she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate. And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel. But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished (Acts 12.14-16).
          We see here an undeniable fact. The church assembled had enough faith to
Liberation of St. Peter by Bartolome Esteban Murillo
c 1667
believe God could get Peter out of prison; they were asking Him that, after all. At the same time, they did not have enough faith to believe that God would get Peter out of prison; thus, the shock at his release. Which leads directly to this glorious thought – God answered their prayer even though they only had a limited faith. Unlimited faith in an unlimited God will get unlimited answers to prayer, but even limited faith in an unlimited God can get amazing answers to prayer.
          What has God brought to your heart in the few short moments it has taken you to read this? Ask Him for it, beloved. I know you think He might not, perhaps even probably will not. But if it is something that is right and good, ask Him anyway. You know He can. He is honored when we ask.
          Perhaps, just perhaps, He will.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Two Ways to Build Someone Else’s Faith

Faith 10

          One of the things that mature Christians must constantly guard against is spiritual selfishness. By this I mean our natural tendency to be so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of the needs of others. Our prayer life is often a sad illustration of this very fact. Too often we spend the bulk of our time praying for things that concern us, things we care about, rather than praying for someone else’s needs.
          Please do not misunderstand me. I ought always to be working on myself, seeking to grow in grace. Paul told Timothy, Take heed to thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee (I Timothy 4.16). If I am weak I cannot lift the fallen very well and I am great danger myself. Yet it is still true that I can get so inwardly focused, naval-gazing myself to death, that I neglect those around me to their hurt and mine. The hermits of the Middle Ages come to mind here. Thus it is that I must constantly be asking myself, “What I just learned – can I teach that to someone else? Can I help someone else with that? Can I pour into someone else’s life what God has just poured into mine?”
          Faith is, by definition, a very personal thing. Seeking to build someone else’s faith is a little bit like trying to change the weather – it is often not wise, and it is never easy. But I am not content to sit back, recuse myself from all responsibility, and allocate that to the Lord to manage. I want to build my children’s faith. I want to build my people’s faith. I want to build your faith. So how can I do that?
          The obvious answer is to give people the Word of God, to speak it, teach it, sing it, say it, preach it, emphasize it, thrust people into it. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. But is that the only way faith comes? Is there not something practical, something concrete I can do to help edify the faith of those around me that I love so much?
          Yes, there is. Two, actually.
          I can build the faith of those around me with my pain.
          Did you know Jesus did exactly that? No, I am not talking about His atoning death on the cross. I am talking about something slightly more approachable for us, a little closer to where we really live. He wept. Jesus wept (John 11.35). But what was the context of that weeping? The death of His dear friend, Lazarus, you reply, and the fact He had to recall Him from Heaven to Earth. Yet Jesus could have avoided all of that, as He tells us earlier in the story, if He had just chosen to go to Bethany as soon as He heard the news of Lazarus’ illness. So why did He tarry? Why wait? Why cause Lazarus to endure that pain? Why cause Himself to go through pain? But I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe (John 11.15). Jesus waited – and thus endured unnecessary pain – in order to strengthen the faith of His Apostles, and by extension of us. In other words, Jesus willingly embraced suffering and then was open about it in order that He might help the faith of others to grow.

          I have often found this to be the case in my life. As a teenager, I watched the movie “Twice Given” and was moved to a greater faith. As a college student, I watched Pastor Scott Willis of Chicago bury six of his children after a horrific vehicle accident and was moved to a greater faith. I could, of course, furnish numerous examples less well known in the years since. Their pain and their grace filled reaction to it strengthened my own faith.
          Some time ago, I made a conscious decision to be more public about various burdens in my life. I have blogged about the death of our daughter. [link]. In my newest book, Freed From Sin, I am open about how complicated my life has become due to Meniere’s disease. Just in this series I have written about some of my struggles as a young pastor. I do not want to whine. I do not want to get attention. But neither do I want to waste my pain. I do not want you to waste yours either. When you hurt, and you trust God in it, it helps to develop the faith of those around you.
          The second way you can build the faith of those around you is with your song. The psalmist said it excellently well: He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, And set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: Many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord (Psalm 40.1-3). Have you ever been in a miry pit? Did God deliver you from it? Then shout about it every once in a while. Open your mouth and sing praise to the Lord. As others around you see this their trust in the Lord grows.
          You say, “But God hasn’t delivered me yet. You don’t expect me to have a song on my lips in the middle of a trial, do you?” If you have ever read Psalms you know it is a book that beautifully combines a broken heart with lips overflowing in praise. God gave him a song in the night (Psalm 77.6) long before the burdens were ever lifted. When you and I, like Paul and Silas, can sing our praises at midnight, people are drawn to Christ.
          Life hurts. In that hurt, sing His praises. And you will strengthen the faith of those around you.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Work of Faith

Faith 9

          I once heard the Christian life likened to a man shoveling sand. It is not complicated but it is hard work. Growing in grace is hard work. Loving your wife like Christ loves the church is hard work. Loving your enemies is hard work. Overcoming bitterness is hard work. Prevailing prayer is hard work. Witnessing is hard work. Bible study is hard work. Bringing your children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is hard work. Faithful church attendance is hard work. In fact, after twenty-three years in the pastorate, I am convinced that one of the primary reasons many people are carnal is sheer laziness. They just are not willing to do the hard work necessary to become a transformational Christian.
          God intended for our Christianity to cost something. We are told to buy the truth (Proverbs 23.23). Being a deacon is a prime example of this. The good ones do not hold a position so much as serve a pastor and a flock. And that costs something. For they have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree (I Timothy 3.13). Like other spiritual graces, God structured faith the same way. If we are going to have it and use it, and grow in those it is going to take hard work.
          Before I continue, let me hasten to establish that my work/s has no part in the faith that brings me salvation. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness (Romans 4.5). I am not saying that because faith takes work that we are working our way to Heaven, not at all. Salvation is the gift of God, not of works. Saving faith still includes work but that work is all of God. Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent (John 6.29). He convicts us of sin, He gifts us the faith necessary to place in Himself, He gifts us salvation, and He gifts us eternal life. I just sit there and accept it all by faith.
          Having said that, it is also true that a faith that is going to grow beyond the infancy of being born again does take work on our part. Paul stated, Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (I Thessalonians 1.3). The writer of Hebrews likewise connects laboring and faith, calling on us to diligent work. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief (Hebrews 4.11).
          In my opinion, there are several ways to approach this. First, we ought to work at getting faith. How do you do that, you ask? Well, how does faith come? Through hearing the Word of God, of course. So as I read, meditate, study, sing the Scriptures my faith grows. As I sit under the teaching and preaching of the Word of God my faith grows. Making such things a routine priority in my life cannot be done without working at it.
          Next, I propose that we ought to work at exercising our faith. Exercise is the constant use of something, so much so that we become proficient at it. We see this fact spiritually applied in Hebrews 5.14. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. In the original language “exercise” here means to control oneself by thorough discipline, as in a gymnast training for the Olympics. Such exercise is nothing less than work, and a lot of it. Paul likewise tells us in the pastoral epistles to exercise ourselves unto godliness (I Timothy 4.7). Three times in the last seven days I purposely set aside time to work out. One was a long several hour hike. The other two were lifting sessions at the gym. All of that exercise was nothing short of work.
          How do I exercise my faith? I discipline myself to trust God. I welcome God’s working in my life, even the ways that force me to trust Him beyond my comfort zone. Is not that how I grow my muscular structure? I sit down at the machine regularly, set a weight level slightly above my comfort zone, and repeatedly lift that amount to the point of exhaustion. So I stretch my faith, pushing it beyond where I am comfortable, exercising it repeatedly. I am working at growing my faith.
          Third, we must fight the natural inclination of our flesh to trust ourselves. My natural inclination is to lay in bed when the alarm goes off. I have to fight myself to get up, put my togs on, and head for the gym. Likewise, my natural inclination is to trust my own ability, my own experience, my own talent, my own perspective and reason. I must fight that inclination, that instinctive reliance upon myself. I must fight to turn to God instead, and to do so faithfully and consistently.
          Lastly, we must live out with good works the faith we do claim. Is not this James’ entire point in that oh-so-difficult second chapter of his epistle?

18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

          There is a scriptural sense in which I rest in my faith. There is another scriptural sense in which even the work I do in relation to faith is still of faith, accomplished only by trusting God’s enabling help. But there is yet another scriptural sense in which my faith is not passive, is not stationary. It is an active thing, something I am cultivating, working on like I work on my tomato crop every year. And just as with those tomatoes, when that crop of faith comes in, that faith that was grown in the soil of hard work, what rejoicing there will be!
          Your faith is small, you say. Your faith is weak, you say. Your faith is a frail, cob-webby thing. Alright then. Be not content with such things. Go to work on it, hammer and tongs. Beloved, build up yourselves on your most holy faith.